In my last post, I talked about the reasons that motivated me to start learning Irish. In the second instalment of my blog post, I would like to highlight some interesting aspects that reflect the current situation in Ireland, with relation to how the locals feel about their national language and their reactions to foreigners learning it.
The idiosyncrasies of English in Ireland
As a foreigner in Ireland and a language enthusiast, I am continuously amazed by the variegated and pictorial character of Hiberno-English (i.e., the set of English dialects used in Ireland), and I enjoy finding connections (in vocabulary, pronunciation and use of the language) with Gaeilge.
Since I started studying the language, I have been finding numerous examples of how Irish influenced the way English is used and spoken on the Emerald Isle. Typical Hiberno-English words such as ‘brogue’ or ‘gob’ derive directly from Irish. Other aspects, such as those related to particular grammatical structures, are less evident.
For instance, I have often wondered why many Irish people would hardly answer “yes” or “no” to polar questions. They would instead repeat the verb in the question (or negate it in case of negative answer), following which is a basic rule of Irish. For example, a common response to “Did you go to the cinema yesterday?” would be, “I did.”
Again, any foreigner who lives in Ireland (especially in the west) would probably at some point come across the construction ‘do be‘: “I do be having dinner at 7pm every night.” This is something that may make language purists curl their lips, but that, once again, finds its root in the Irish language. It is in fact a well-established construct described by experts as consuetudinal tense.
Irish pronunciation is another element that influenced the way locals speak nowadays. Curiously, the ⟨th⟩ sound (which in the International Phonetic Alphabet is denoted as /θ/ or /ð/) is almost non-existent in Hiberno-English, where it is simply replaced by a sort of ⟨t⟩ or ⟨d⟩ sound – with the result that words like ‘three’ or ‘then’ almost sound like ‘tree’ and ‘den’, respectively. The reason is that in Irish there’s no such sound as the English ⟨th⟩ (the spelling ⟨th⟩ in Irish words such as ‘thart’ is instead pronounced as an aspirated ⟨h⟩).
The Gaeilge Pride or…?
Interestingly, putting aside the linguistic connections, the relationship between Irish people and Gaeilge is not as straightforward as one might think. I believe that many locals have a sort of love/hate dichotomous relationship with the language. On one hand, people acknowledge Irish as an important part of their own culture. For instance, many of them take pride in retaining their first and last name in the original spelling rather than using the corresponding anglicised version. So, Rory Murphy and Mary O’Donoghue would identify as Ruairí Ó Murchú and Máire Ní Dhonnchú, respectively. But on the other hand, in my opinion, they do not seem to be too keen to learn or use the language on a regular basis. As it is a compulsory subject in school, kids obviously have to study it, but many of them almost completely stop using the language after the Leaving Cert examination. In a similar way, in Italy, some of us must learn Latin as part of our school curriculum. But soon after school, the language completely falls out of us. However, the big difference is that Latin is a dead language, while Irish is definitely still alive.
What’s the story?*
But then, why are so many Irish people so reluctant to learn the native language? When I ask my Irish friends and colleagues, the most popular answer seems to be “The reason why a lot of people don’t enjoy learning Irish is because it is not taught well.” Of course, this might sound like too general and subjective a statement, and I absolutely don’t have enough knowledge of the topic to confirm or deny that.
So, if on one hand people tend to blame the education system, on the other it seems that teachers feel the weight of responsibility greatly, as they understand the importance and the difficulty of learning Irish. An interesting article by Méabh Ní Choileáin focuses on the differences between teaching Irish to locals and to foreigners. The main argument of the article is that, outside Ireland, Irish has the same status as any other language, as opposed to the attitude towards the language in Ireland. Apart from some cases, foreign students would usually be unaware of any cultural positive or negative preconception concerning the Irish language. As a consequence, there is less pressure on the language itself, and learning it turns into a pleasant experience for both students and teachers.
Go ‘way outta that!
Being an unconventional language to study, Irish folks tend to display a wide variety of reactions when they hear about some foreigner who has voluntarily taken up the task – from amusement and astonishment to incredulity and bemusement. Replies such as “Wow, fair play to ya!” or “Go ‘way outta that! You must be mad!” are very common to hear.
Every now and then, however, someone says things like “I bet your Irish is already better than mine.” This particular statement actually makes me a little uncomfortable, as I think it hides some deeper meaning. To me, it almost sounds like they would rather say, “I wish I hadn’t forgotten my Irish” or “I wish I were still able to speak Irish.” All kids in Ireland have the rare chance to grow up bilingual, but most people unfortunately seem to realise it too late. As adults, they feel they don’t really have another chance to learn Irish properly.
But is it really too late? From what I have experienced in my class, it is not. Partly through subconscious osmosis, everyone who grew up in Ireland has already absorbed the basic rules and pronunciation of the language. All in all, I agree with Méabh’s point of view: the best way to respect Gaeilge is by treating it as just any other language – no need to love it or hate it, but accept it and take pride in its uniqueness.
*Used in the Irish way, “What’s the story?” is just a greeting. They aren’t really concerned with an actual story or even a long update about your personal health. Just answer with a non-committal ‘grand’ and you should be…err…grand.
Meet Riccardo Superbo:
Riccardo Superbo is Client Solutions Engineer in the KantanMT Professional Services team. He holds a B.Sc. and an M.Sc. degree in Materials Science from University of Milano-Bicocca and another M.Sc. degree in Translation Technology from Dublin City University. He has extensive experience in translation technology.