About the Irish Language

To visitors to Ireland, Irish comes to one's attention most often via seemingly indecipherable words on signs and maps.
ander or next to the word Dublin stands some Baile Átha Cliath (spoken blah cleea or bailyah cleea ). The former Kingston exists in the Republic of Ireland but now as Dún Laoghaire (spoken doon leera), Limerick called in Irish Luimneach (spoken leemrehkh). The entire country is called Éire (spoken eareh) or in the long form Poblacht na hÉireann (spoken poblekht ne hairen)
It is often, even in Dublin, substantially easier to reach the city centre when you know that the same is called an Lár in Irish.
It may also come to a few silly misanderstandings at the doors to public toilets: an "M" means mná = ladies (spoken mrah or menah), whereas an "F" stands for fir = men!
From these points, it already becomes clear that Irish is rather not an english dialect, but something completely different.

The Relationships Between the Languages

Irish is only distantly related to German or English.
All 3 belong to the indo-european languages. This is, mind you, a very large language family which spans from Iceland to Ceylon. Among those counted are the germanic, celtic, slavic, baltic, romance, northern indian, iranian, greek, armenian, albanian and many other languages.(nearly all european languages except Finnish, Estonian, Hungarian, Basque and Turkish)
German and English are- not surprisingly- part of the germanic branch , while Irish is a celtic language.

The Celtic Languages are roughly divided into 2 main groups, the Insular Celtic and the Mainland Celtic. The latter became extinct already in the time of the Roman Empire. It was to this group that languages such as Gaulish belonged.
Insular Celtic lived on due to a lack of extensive Roman influence.
A second division is made: the Goidelic ("q-celtic", modern Gaelic) and the Bretonic ("p-celtic" or Brythonic)[ 1 ].
To the Brythonic belong: modern Welsh [Cymraeg] in Wales, Breton [Brezhoneg] in Bretagne(Brittany) and the unfortunately extinct Cornish [Kernewek] in Cornwall (which is being revived with astonishing sucess).
Even Breton is, in a sense, an "insular celtic" language, because their people settled over from Britannia in the early Middle Ages to the Mainland.

Languages in Ireland

The majority of Irish people speak not Irish but English in everyday life. The Irish English (Hiberno-English) differs through the Irish accent and smaller further influences of Irish Gaelic. There is virtually no Irishman who isn't well versed in English, but inversely considerably many who can't speak Irish.
Aside from thses two most important languages there is also Shelta (Traveller Cant, Sheldru), the language of the Irish Travellers. It bases in the vocabulary of Irish, is technically also a celtic language and is used by approx. 6000 people in Ireland (outside of Ireland by 80000 emigrants).
In Ulster (Northern Ireland and Donegal) Scots (Lallans), thanks to the Scottish settlers of the 17th C, is also spoken, and the Irish variant is called Ullans (Ulster Lallans).
Scottish Gaelic is, however, not spoken in Ireland. Although, some constructs of Ulster Irish come close to the Scottish Gaelic through Scottish immigrants (e.g. in Antrim). On the Isle of Rathlin, after a resettling of the island, more Scottish Gaels than any other group, so that their dialect was Scottish Gaelic, though this is no longer active since the end of the 19th Century.


Gaelic (Goidelic) was originally only spoken in Ireland. It spread out over to the Isle of Man and Scotland, where once the Picts lives (a partly pre-celtic, partly celtic people about whose language(s) is not much known).
From this there are today three languages: Irish Gaelic [Gaeilge], Scottish Gaelic [Gàidhlig] and Manx Gaelic [Gaelg]. These 3 split first in the Middle Ages and have remained quite similar, and there is generally no need for additional translation for an understanding(it is comparable to the similarity between German and Dutch).
The Gaelic languages all shared ultimately the same fate, namely the gradual displacement by English, for the larger England attained the rule over the British Isles and kept this until well into the 20th Century. Gaelic had no place therein, and was banned out of public life, the schools, the courts etc.. Since the early 17th Cent., the flight of the last of the Gaelic Princes from Ulster, there had been no Irish speaking upper class. The following aristocrats were mostly immigrants from England with land claims. In the post-1830 instituted schools, it was all but explicitly forbidden to speak Gaelic, and it was certainly frowned upon. The famine from 1845-48 in Ireland and the following waves of emigration which most greatly impacted the poor, Gaelic-speaking rural population, led finally up to a virtual extinction of the language in the 19th Century, although in the beginning of the 19th Cent. there were still large parts of Ireland that remained Irish-speaking. Those who wanted to emigrate, had to be able to speak English and those who wanted to stay even moreso, so that Irish-speaking parents adopted the slogan "Keep Irish from the children" . Also not to be ignored is the role of the Catholic Church, which was rather more interested in English-speaking (and therewith better adaptable for missionary work) members. In addition, the Irish Nation defined itself less through its ethnic roots as through its Catholic confession, so there was no need for the Gaelic language in order to separate themselves from the English. It was first later, at the end of the 19th Century, that the interest in Celtic culture and language reawakened, and by then the majority of the population was already English-speaking.
Only in remote areas, in which "the Empire" had no great interest, remained untouched. It is for this reason that language-isolated areas developed. These lie far apart from one another, and are today called "Gaeltachts".
One cannot say that the Irish are to be held accountable for "all too willingly" giving up their language; it is rather remarkable, that Irish managed to survive.

Today there are 3 main dialects (canúintí) of Irish [ 2 ], namely that of Munster [Gaolainn/Gaeilge na Mumhan], Connacht [Gaeilge Connacht] and Ulster [Gaeilig/Gaeilge Uladh], which are again then split into their respective sub-divisions. The differences are much smaller than, say, those between Plattdeutsch and Bavarian. Ulster-Gaelic (only spoken now in Donegal, Dún na nGall or Tír Chonnail) is, in fact, quite similar to Scottish Gaelic.
Due to a lack of native speakers, Leinster (Cúige Laighean) has no own dialect anymore. Most Irish speakers found there today are that of the Lárchanúint ("central dialect"), an artificially created dialect, especially in Dublin (Baile Átha Cliath).The Lárchanúint and its pronunciation is based heavily on the modern spellings and in the standardised grammar. In some areas of County Meath (Contae na Mí) live some immigrant native speakers from Connacht, carrying on the specialities of that particular dialect. Because of these dialectical differences, a so-called official standard grammar[an Caighdeán Oifigiúil] has been developed, especially for official matters. It is also being attempted to push this standard up against the dialects in order to unify the language.
There is not a great difference (e.g. in Welsh) between oral and written Irish, in view of the grammar or vocabulary.

History of Irish

The Celts came to Ireland around 500 BC and mingled with the native (pre-indoeuropean) people. Due to a lack of written history, not much is able to be said about Goidelic, the language of those early Celts. From the time period from around 500 - 700 AD there are a few inscriptions in Ogham-Script, these are however not very numerous and contain mainly names. The language recorded in this form is known as Archaic Irish (an Ghaeilge Ársa).
First with the Christianisation, are the earliest manuscripts to be found (in latin script). This form of speech, Old Irish (an tSean-Ghaeilge) was used from approx. 700-900. This was the "golden age" of Ireland, the time of closters and high culture, while outside of Ireland a rather culturally dark epoch after the period migration reigned. Irish was one of the first european languages, in which, next to Latin and Greek, a noteworthy amount of literature was created.
This cultural blossoming ended with the invasion of the Vikings; also the Irish language was hit hard by this downfall, what also led to a simplification in the(beforehand very komplicated) rules governing inflexion. Only a few Scandinavian words were incorporated (e.g.: fuinneog = "windeye" = window). This epoch is called the Middle Irish (an Mheán-Ghaeilge)and took place between 900-1200.
Following the Norman invasion it came to yet another 1200-1600 blossoming of Gaelic culture, so that the immigrant Normans were actually assimilated and even took on the Irish language (as one used to say: "Hiberniores Hibernicis ipsis = Irisher as the Irish themseves"). Many words of the Norman French were taken up (e.g.: garsún = boy). The Early Modern Irish or Classical Irish (an Ghaeilge Chlasaiceach) used at this time was the unified literary norm in all of Ireland and Scotland.
We speak of Mornem Irish or Modern Irish (an Nua-Ghaeilge) from 1600 on, as the Classical Irish faded out of use. It split itself off from Scottish Gaelic completely and reduced its previous higher status to assume that of a strictly rural language.
With the victories of Cromwell and and the following importation of Protestants, and the revoking of the power of the last of the Gaelic aristocracy in the 17th Century. also the unity of Classical Irish disappeared. The dialectical differences that had existed beforehand now greatened and dominated the language and the literary tradition crumbled completely. First again in the 19th Century awoke interest in the language anew, and with it a new literature. The defenders of the Irish vernacular triumphed against Traditionalists, who intended to revive the Classical Irish. Despite this, traditional and antiquated forms remained in both grammar and spelling. A spelling reform was first to be a success in 1945.

The Gaeltachts (na Gaeltachtaí)

These are the areas of Ireland, in which (more or less) in everyday life, Irish is spoken.

Cúige Connacht (Connacht)
Contae na Gaillimhe (County Galway)
1. Cois Fharraige in eastern Conamara (Connemara) with Bearna, Na Forbacha (Furbo), An Spidéal (Spiddal), Indreabhán (Inverin),
2. Ceantar na nOileáin (Islands District) in western Conamara with Carna, Glinsce (Glinsk), Cill Chiaráin (Kilkieran), Camas (Camus), Rós Muc (Rosmuck), Leitir Mór (Lettermore), Tír an Fhia (Teeranea), Leitir Mealláin (Lettermullin), An Cheathrú Rua (Carraroe), Rós an Mhíl (Rossaveel)
3. Dúiche Sheoigheach (Joyce Country) in northern Conamara along with Sraith Salach (Recess), An Teach Dóite (Maam Cross), An Mám (Maam), Corr na Móna (Cornamona), An Fhairche (Clonbur)
4. Oileáin Árann (Aran Inseln) with the islands Inis Mór (Inishmore), Inis Meáin (Inishmaan), Inis Oírr (Inisheer)
5. Eastern Galway with Eanach Dhúín (Annaghdown), Mionlach (Menlo), Baile an Chláir (Claregalway)
Contae Mhaigh Eo (County Mayo)
1. Tuar Mhic Éadaigh (Tourmakeady) bordering on northern Conamara including An tSráth (Srah), Mám Trasna (Maamtrasna), Fionnaithe (Finny)
2. Oileán Acla (Achill Island) with Domha Éige (Dooega), Gob an Choire (Achill Soand) as well as the bordering mainland, Leithinis an Chorráin (the Corraun-Peninsula) with An Corrán, An Mhála Raithní (Mulrany)
3. West Iorras (Erris) with Leithinis an Mhuirthid (der Mullet-Peninsula) with Eachléim (Aughleam), An Fod Dubh (Blacksod), Béal an Mhuirthead (Belmullet) as well as the bordering mainland with Gaoth Sáile (Geesala), Dumha Thuama (Doohoma), Dún Chaocháin, Ceathrú Thaidhg (Carrowteige), Barr na Trá (Barnatra), Gleann na Muigh (Glenamoy), Béal Derrig (Beldeirg)
Cúige Uladh (Ulster)
Contae Dhún na nGall, Tír Chonnaill (County Donegal)
1. Southern Donegal with Gleann Cholm Cille (Glencolumbkille), Téilinn (Teelin), Cill Charthaigh (Kilcar)
2. Mid Donegal with An Dúchoraidh (Doochary), Baile na Finne Fintown), An Clochán Liath (Dunglow), Anagaire (Annagary) and the Island Árainn Mhór (Aranmore),
further north with Gaoth Dobhair (Gweedore), Gort na Choirce (Gortnahork), An Fál Carrach (Falcarragh) and Toraigh (Tory Island)
3. Northern Donegal with Ros Goill (Rosguill), Fánaid (Fanad)
Cúige Mumhan (Munster)
Contae Chiarrai (County Kerry)
1. Corca Dhuibhne (Halbinsel Dingle) with An Daingean (dem Ort Dingle), Dún Chaoin (Dunquin), Ceann Trá (Ventry), Baile an Fheirtéaraigh (Ballyferriter), Abhainn an Scáil (Annascaul), Lios Póil (Lispole), Baile na nGall (Ballydavid), An Fheothanach (Feohanagh), An Clochán (Cloghane), Cé Bréanainn (Brandon).
2. Uibh Ráthach (Iveragh) with Cillín Liath, Máistir Gaoithe, Baile an Sceilig, Gleann Mór/An Lóthar, An Dromod, An Gleann
Contae Chorcaí (County Cork)
1. Muscraí (Muskerry) with Carraig an Droichid, Béal Átha an Ghaorthaidh (Ballyingeary), Gugán Barra, Baile Bhuirne (Ballyvourney), Baile Mhic Íre (Ballymakeera), Baile Uí Bhuaigh, Cill na Martra, Cúil Aodha (Coolea), west of Maigh Chromtha (Macroom)
2. Oileán Chléire (Cape Clear Island)
Contae Phort Láirge (County Waterford)
1. An Rinn (Ring) south of Dún Garbhán (Dungarvan) with Rinn Ó gCuarach (Ring), An Sean-Phobal (Old Parish)
Cúige Laighean (Leinster)
Contae na Mí (County Meath)
1. Rath Cairn (Rathcarran)
2. Baile Ghib (Gibbstown)

Regarding the number of speakers

Irish Gaelic is today spoken by a few ten-thousands of people in the gaeltachts as their mother tongue, and we'll say a few handred-thousand, who master it to the degree of fluency. According to the Census, 1.4 Million Irish citizens of the Republic would consider themselves (40%) as Irish-speaking, as well as 143 000 (10%) in Northern Ireland (Tuaisceart Éireann).
It is the first official language in the Republic of Ireland (Poblacht na hÉireann) and therewith also an official language of the European Union (An Comhphobal Eorpach), where one can be convinced by glimpse in a passport (Pas) and a driver's license (Ceadúnas Tiomána).
Scottish Gaelic is spoken by just under 70 000 and mainly on the westward lying islands (Hebriden) and in the Highlands. Of course there are also those in Glaschu (Glasgow) and Dùn Eideann (Edinburgh) and other cities in Scotland (Alba), who keep up the ancestral tongue of their forefathers (and mothers). Not to be confused with Gaelic is Scots (or Lallans), a germanic language related to English language of the scottish Lowlands.
Nova Scotia (Alba Nua) in Canada isn't just a name, there are also those there who speak Gaelic (on Cape Breton Island).
Manx Gaelic, since the death of the 93 year-old Ned Madrell in the year 1974, has amongst the 80 000 inhabitants of the Isle of Man (Ellan Vannin) not a single native speaker. It is, by a few hundred people, increasingly being maintained, or better, revived. According to the 1991 census there were 634 Manx speakers, and in the last census in 2001 already 1689 (2.2% der Bevölkerung).

the Script

Irish is written in the latin alphabet, or so it seems. Older documents and decorative inscriptions use also an older calligraphic style (Cló Gaelach) , which has hardly changed in over 1000 years, here is the alphabet:
An Aibitír
Here a sample text (The Lord's Prayer)
Before the introduction of the latin script, one wrote in Ogham script (those are slanted lines engraved in stone edges).
The orthography demonstrates even in modern script some unique qualities.
So, the letters j, k, q, v, w, x, y, z are missing completely (except in foreign words). All other consonants exist practically twofold, because one differentiates between a "broad" and "slender" consonant. These exist as phonemes in German as well, but there is makes no difference in the meaning, as to which one is taken (if one speaks "ich" correct or with a "ch" as in "Bach" it doesn't matter, everyone knows that my humble self is intended. Furthermore, the"ch" is already the only sound, where any difference is noticed in German).
In Irish, the differences are much more important. If one book or many, it's only discernable by listening to the final consonant: a slender r means "books" (leabhair) a broad one denotes "a book" (leabhar).
Unfortunately, the latin alphabet only contains one of each "b", "c", "d", "f", etc.
To make the difference clear between "broad" and "slender" in writing, one takes the aid of vowels.
Preceding and following a slender one writes a slender vowel (e, i), next to a broad consonant, broad vowels (a, o, u). This means that a portion of the vowels aren't intended to be spoken,  e.g. das "i" in "leabhair".
Should a broad vowel be framed by 2 slender phonemes, one must, for better or for worse, write 3 vowels, namely: 2 slender (before and after the broad vowel), that is spoken in the end as one (which partially explains the abundance of vowels in Irish words).

Those wishing to acquaint themselves with the difference between a, let's say, broad B and a slender B , should start by forming their lips as if they were produce a B and try at the same time to say "bó" (Irish for "cow"), then try the same, this time with "bí" (bí = Irish "be!"), then compare the positioning of the lips used.
As one can see, we automatically take a slender b before e, i and a broad before a, o, u.
In Irish it is only allowed to speak before a broad vowel a slender consonant and vice versa!
So, form your lips again to a "bi" but then say "bo", without changing your lip formation. What comes out now is the Irish word "beo" = "lively". If you do it exactly the other way around (lips pouted for "bo" and then saying "bi"), you get the word "buí" = "yellow". In the process you're making little glides, a bit like a "y" in the case of beo, and a little like "u" in the case of buí. Keep in mind that these are never strong, clear y and u, and heaven forbid you go saying "byo" or "buoy"!
The words "bo" and "beo" as well as "bí" and "buí" differ only in their "broad" consonant B, the "e" in beo and the "u" in buí are technically unvoiced, they serve only the purpose of denoting the B as "broad" or "slender".

It is principally impossible, that a consonant preceded by "i" and then directly followed by an "a". For example, "icha": this would lead to confusion (is that "ch" broad as in ach (kh) or slender as in ich (xh))
In this aspect, the Irish lexicography is quite clear: is can only be written ichea, or iacha (whatever those may mean).

Another difficult part is presented by lenition (seimhiú): following some consonants appears an h, which alters the consonant quite considerably in the pronunciation. To many, this is a help: c to ch, p to ph, b to bh ("w"). Others are a bit odd: m to mh (like "v"), g to gh (broad gh: a bit like g in berlinerisch "sagen", slender gh: like y), d to dh (like gh), s to sh ("h"), t to th (also"h"), an fh disappears in the pronunciation completely.
In older texts one finds, in place of the h, a dot above the lenited consonant (it looks then much clearer then).

Often one finds at the beginning of a word combinations like gc, bp, nd, dt, bhf, but have no fear, one only needs here to pronounce the first consonant, also g, b, n, d, bh (a lenited b). The second is left out ("eclipsed" as the latin speakers say, and from this comes the name of this phenomenon: eclipsis (urú).
To simply not write the second consonant, is not something to wish for, for it helps immensely in the recogniseability of the word. (otherwise one wouldn't know if "bhear" was an eclipsed "fear" or a lenited "bear". When you see bhfear it's clearer, and one can open the dictionary under "fear" and find "man", if you looked up "bear" you would only find "béar = bear" or "beár = Bar" )
Just to be thorough: an eclipsed g is ng, but is still spoken like "ng".

Lenition and eclipsis are grammar rules that govern the mutations of words depending on the case, number, with or without article etc. and only the initial ones! Irish alters words not only at the beginning but also at the end. This is a bit frightening, for one must finally recognize a word from the spoken language by its stem. Changes to this make the task of the learner all the more difficult. He who starts swearing here, can recall learning German. Stuff like that doesn't happen there (or only orally) but for that we switch around the vowels or pull umlauts out of the middle of nowhere, which certainly causes the temporal arteries of learners of German sicher oft to swell in exasperation. (here's a good example: schwölle, schwellt, schwillt, geschwollen, der Schwall:-) )

As with "béar/beár" one finds over many a vowel and accent mark, síneadh fada or short, fada. This does not apply to the accentuation, but to the length of the vowels, without such marks, the vowels are mostly spoken as short. This has a very good reason. "fear" differs from "féar" only in this little "tick", but the one is spoken [fär] and the other [fe:r], the first meaning "man" the second "grass". If one had seen a bear (béar) or a bar (beár) is also no moot point (also when the former implies that you have seen the latter, in such a bearless but bar-rich place like Ireland :-)

As one can see, the wads of letters that appear in Irish words do follow a rhyme and reason after all. Although one can't exactly say that Irish is "written as spoken"! As a consolation it should be said that before the spelling reform in the 50s the written word was much more complicated and significantly different from the spoken. English or French orthography isn't exactly easy either.

To whomever, despite all the conflicting interests and the not exactly impressive number of possible conversational partners, wants to learn Irish, may they be getting a "Go n-éirí an bóthar leat" with them on their way.

Slán go fóill, Lars

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[ 1 ]
The main difference is the change from q-sounds  to p-sounds in the p-celtic languages.
In Gaelic the q remained (later c or g). (vgl. "five" Irish cúig with welsh pump or "children" Irish clann, Welsh plant).
This q is the indoeuropean qw, from which the Germans made a w (e.g. dt. was, Irish cad) or an f (dt. fünf, Irish cúig). In Latin qw remained (vgl. quod = what, quinque = five).

Interesingly it was known to the early Irish, and so they modified those foreign words from Wales to replace p with a c. This was also done with words from the latin, where the p never was q.
So it came to be e.g. that the latin planta (Pflanze) via the welsh plant (kin) as clann into Irish.
or also (hebrew-) latin pascha to Irish cáisc ( = Easter)

[ 2 ]
Originally there were 2 dialects, a Northern Irish (in Ulster, Connacht and Meath, and North Leinster) and a Southern Irish (Munster and southwards, most of Leinster), which followed the ancient division of the Island in Conn's Half (Leath Chuinn) and Mogh's Half (Leath Mhogha).It is from this that the still noticible similarities between Ulster- and Connacht-Irish, as opposed to the Munster-dialect, resulted