Archive for the Irish Language Category

Tywysog and Taoiseach

Posted in History, Irish Language with tags , , , , on September 12, 2022 by telescoper

When I heard that King Charles III has conferred the title “Prince of Wales, Tywysog Cymru”, on his eldest son and heir William, I was intrigued by the appearance of the Welsh word Tywysog because of its similarity to the Irish word Taioseach. There aren’t that many words that sound so similar in Welsh and Irish because the two language groups to which they belong diverged in the distant past. Their similarity suggests to me a common etymology that pre-dates the development of the two distinct branches of the Celtic languages that we now refer to as Goidelic and Brythonic. There isn’t any literature to go on, as ancient Celtic languages were primarily oral, but the theory is that both words are derived from a Proto-Celtic form towissākos.

The Goidelic group comprises Irish, Manx and Scottish Gaelic; and the Brythonic group comprises Welsh, Cornish and Breton. These are sometimes referred to as q-Celtic and p-Celtic, respectively, although not everyone agrees that is a useful categorization. It stems from the fact that the “q” in Indo-European languages morphed into a “p” in the Brythonic languages. The number five in Irish is a cúig which has a q sound (though there is no letter q in the Irish alphabet); five in Welsh is pump. Contrast with the number two: a dó in Irish and dau in Welsh.

Incidentally, Scottish Gaelic is not the language spoken by the Picts, the Celtic people who lived in Scotland at the time of the Romans, which is lost. Scottish Gaelic is actually descended from Middle Irish due to migration and trading contacts. The Ulster dialect of Irish is in turn much influenced by reverse migration from Scotland. Languages do not evolve in isolation or in any simple linear trajectory.

Contrary to popular belief, Breton is not a Continental Celtic language but was taken to Brittany by a mass migration of people, which peaked in the 6th Century AD, from South-West Britain, fleeing the Anglo-Saxons. The Saxons won a great victory in battle at Dyrham (near Bath) in 577 after which they advanced through Somerset and Devon, splitting the Celts of Cornwall and Wales and leading to the formation of two distinct Brythonic language groups, Welsh and Cornish. Breton is much closer to Cornish than it is to Welsh.

The Continental Celtic languages are all extinct, except for fascinating remnants that linger here and there in local dialect words in French and Spanish.

Anyway, both modern words tywysog and taioseach originally meant “leader”. In Scots Gaelic, tòiseach was the name given to a clan chief; the Irish taioseach had a similar usage. The capitalized form “Taioseach” has only been used for the Head of the Irish Government since 1937 when the name was introduced in the Constitution. It was remarked at the time that An Taoiseach – the equivalent of Prime Minister – has the same literal meaning as “Il Duce” or “Die Führer“…

The last native Welsh Tywysog was Owain Glyndŵr after whose demise in c1415 the title was appropriated by the English monarchy no doubt as part of its rigorous suppression of Welsh identity. The term doesn’t actually mean “Prince” and the “Prince of Wales” is certainly not a leader. If anything the word should be applied to the First Minister of Wales, an office currently held by Mark Drakeford.

P.S. The presence of the “e” in taioseach indicates that the “s” is pronounced like “sh” (as in “Seán”) so the word should not be pronounced “tea sock”…


The Perfect Afters

Posted in Irish Language with tags , on June 18, 2022 by telescoper

When I first arrived in Ireland, one thing I noticed about the way Irish people use the English language is a construction using the word “after” and the present participle of a verb. I first heard it in the context of a football match on the television, actually, during which the commentator said “the ball is after going out for a corner” or words to that effect.

This construction is basically an alternative way of constructing what is called in Latin called (past) perfect tense of a verb, indicating an action which is now completed. In Latin this would be formed by a particular ending of the verb but when translated into English it would either be a simple past verb form (usually ending in -ed) or using the auxiliary verb “to have”. For instance, in the football example above you would interpret the meaning as “the ball has gone out for a corner” or the “the ball went out for a corner”.

(Now I’m regretting using the irregular verb “to go” in the football example but I hope you catch my drift…)

The “after” construction is not just an alternative way of writing the past tense, however, as it can (and usually does) specifically imply an action that has been completed in the very recent past, something you might express in English by inserting the word “just”. This is sometimes called the immediate perfective. It can also be used to form the pluperfect tense (expressing an action already completed at some time in the past) by using the past of the verb “to be”, though in modern Irish it seems to be more-or-less exclusively used for actions only recently completed.

Examples include:

  • He is after writing a letter – He has (just) written a letter
  • I’m only after getting here – I’ve just got here
  • He was after walking the dog – He had walked the dog
  • I’m after reading James Joyce’s Ulysses for the second time – I have just read James Joyce’s Ulysses for the second time…

In the book English As We Speak It In Ireland, the author P.W. Joyce writes that no such form ‘would be understood by an Englishman, although they are universal in Ireland, even among the higher and educated classes’.

It’s certainly the case that I didn’t really understand it when I first heard it, but I have heard it used on countless occasions by friends and neighbours since then. I think I was initially confused because “he is after..” can appear in English. phrases such “he is after a new job” expressing something like “looking for” (i.e. with intent) but that is not suggested in the examples above.

I think poll my readers on this, which will probably demonstrate how few Irish readers I have. If someone were to say “I’m after getting a cup of tea” would this mean:

It’s reasonable to wonder how this construction came about. The answer is that in Irish the verb “to be” is very peculiar, existing in two distinct forms, and there is no direct equivalent of the verb “to have” as it is used in the formation of verb tenses in English. There is a simple past in Irish that basically works like the English equivalent but tenses involving “have” or “had” as an auxiliary verb are impossible to render word for word. For example, translating I have just done it into Irish could give you  Tá mé tar éis é a dhéanamh or Tá mé i ndiaidh é a dhéanamh, both of which literally mean I am after doing it. (Tá mé means “I am” and the underlined phrases essentially mean after).

I suppose you can think of this interesting construction as being a relic of the Irish language surviving after the imposition of English on the population. Whatever its origins, though, I’m after concluding that this construction, although not standard in British English, is perfectly sound from a grammatical point of view.

Finally, and incidentally, the lack of an appropriate verb “to have” causes some other interesting expressions in Irish. One of my favourites is exemplified by the phrase “I have a cold” which, translated into Irish is “Tá slaghdán orm” which means, literally, “A cold is on me”…

Anyway, I’m after finishing.

Lá Saoire i mí Mheitheamh

Posted in Biographical, Irish Language, Maynooth on June 6, 2022 by telescoper

Today has been (and indeed continues to be) the June Bank Holiday (Lá Saoire i mí Mheitheamh) in Ireland. It is the equivalent of the usual May Bank Holiday in the UK in that both have their origin in the old festival of Whitsuntide (or Pentecost) which falls on the 7th Sunday after Easter. Because the date of Easter moves around in the calendar so does Whit Sunday, but it is usually in late May or early June. Here in Ireland the Bank Holiday is always on the first Monday in June whereas on the other side of the Irish Sea it is on the last Monday in May (except for this year when it was moved at the behest of some old Queen).

Although I’m only at beginners’ level in Irish, the phrase Lá Saoire i mí Mheitheamh gives me a chance to bore you about it. It’s actually quite a straightforward phrase until you reach the last word: “Lá” means “day” and “Saoire” means “leave” or “vacation” so “Lá Saoire” means “holiday”; “i” is a prepositional pronoun meaning “in” and “mí” means “month”. So far so good.

The word for June however is Meitheamh (at least when it is in the nominative singular case). As an Indo-European language, Irish is distantly related to Latin which has six grammatical cases for nouns (actually seven if you count the rarely used locative case). Irish has only four cases – there’s no ablative and, curiously, no real distinction between nominative and accusative (though there is for some pronouns). That leaves nominative, dative, genitive, and vocative. The dative case– used after simple prepositions – is only rarely distinct from the nominative so basically the ones you have to learn are the genitive and the vocative.

Whereas in Latin cases are indicated by changes to the end of noun, in Irish they involve initial mutations. In the example of “mí Mheitheamh” meaning “month of June”, requiring the genitive form of “June”, the initial consonant “M” undergoes lenition (softening) to sound more like a “v”. In old Irish texts this would be indicated by a dot over the M but in modern orthography it is indicated by writing an “h” after the consonant. This is called a séimhiú (pronounced “shay-voo” ). Note the softened m in the middle of that word too but it’s not a mutation – it’s just part of the regular spelling of the word, as is the -mh at the end of Meitheamh. There’s also a softened “t” in the middle of Meitheamh which makes it vrtually disappear in pronunciation. Meitheamh is thus pronounced something like “Meh-hiv” whereas “Mheitheamh” is something like “Veh-hiv”.

Anyway, here’s a picture of Maynooth University Library Cat.

A Chara

Posted in Irish Language, Uncategorized on May 11, 2022 by telescoper

Having spent a great deal of time recently writing reference letters I thought about how at least to start a letter in the Irish language (though I’m nowhere near fluent enough to continue).

It turns out the correct formal way to begin a letter in Irish to someone you don’t know is “A chara” which means literally “O friend” to be compared with the opening you might write in English “Dear Sir/Madam”. The plural version is A chairde.

The Irish form is interesting for a number of reasons. For one thing it is ungendered so there’s no need for the clumsy “Sir/Madam”. For another it presupposes that the person you are writing to is a friend, which is far less frosty than the English alternative.

The Irish word cara is related to many similar words in other European languages, especially the Italian caro and the French cher and like them can be used as an adjective meaning “dear”. If you want to address a letter to someone you know you can write, for example, A Phádraig, a chara which would mean “Dear Patrick”.

A chara is also interesting from a grammatical point of view because the nominative case of the word for friend is cara but in the vocative case (introduced by the particle “a”) it is modified in a manner called a séimhiú which involves lenition of the initial consonant, hence a chara. The plural form of cara is cairde, which also attracts a séimhiú in the same way as the singular form, becoming chairde. In older forms of written Irish this would have been denoted by a dot over the consonant, but in modern script the modification is indicated by inserting an h.

One of the pronunciational things I struggled with when I was attempting to learn Irish last year was the difference between the c in cara and the ch in chara. The c in Irish is usually pronounced like a k in English but in its weakened form ch it only changes slightly: it’s not like the c in census nor the ch in cheese.

If you try saying the letter k out loud as a child would – “kuh” – you will find it involves contact between your tongue and the roof of your mouth. Move the point of contact back to the rear of your mouth and it becomes deeper and thicker; move it towards your front teeth and it becomes narrower and slightly higher in pitch. That’s the difference between the broad and narrow “c”. It’s very hard to spot in spoken Irish, particularly for a beginner!

There is a vocative case in other European languages ancient and modern, e.g. Latin, but that involves changes at the end of a noun rather than the beginning. The particle “a” which introduces it in Irish plays the same role as “o” in archaic and/or poetic English usage but is part of everyday usage in Irish. It is not a preposition because it doesn’t have any particular meaning other than to introduce the vocative case.

Carúl Inis Córthaidh

Posted in Irish Language, Music on December 20, 2021 by telescoper

The Wexford Carol is a traditional Christmas song whose origin is obscure. It is often said to date from the 12th Century, or even earlier, but music historians consider it more likely to be from the 15th or 16th Century. Whatever its provenance, it’s a fascinating folk melody with a haunting, timeless quality to it.

The song is associated with Enniscorthy in County Wexford so is called in the Irish Language Carúl Inis Córthaidh or Carúl Loch Garman, Wexford being one of those towns in Ireland with an Irish name (Loch Garman) that bears no phonetic relationship whatsoever to its English name. Anyway the song is very well known and there are a lots of versions floating around, but is usually sung in English so I thought I’d post a version in Irish. Altogether now “Ó, tagaigí uile is adhraigí …”

On Lúnasa

Posted in Biographical, Education, History, Irish Language, Maynooth on August 1, 2021 by telescoper

It’s the first of August which means it is the ancient Celtic festival of Lughnasadh (which, in modern Irish, is Lúnasa). This coincides with the English Lammas Day one of many Christian festivals which have pagan origins. Traditionally 1st August marks the start of the harvest season and is celebrated accordingly, with rites involving the first fruit and bread baked from flour obtained from the first corn.

Tomorrow being the first Monday in August it is a Bank Holiday in Ireland called Lá Saoire i mí Lúnasa. This holiday was created by the Bank Holiday Act of 1871 when Ireland was under British rule. While the holiday was subsequently moved to the end of August in England and Wales it has remained at the start of August in Ireland, which is a far better place for it in my opinion.

In the Northern hemisphere, from an astronomical point of view, the solar year is defined by the two solstices (summer, around June 21st and winter, around December 21st) and the equinoxes (spring, around March 21st, and Autumn, around September 21st). These four events divide the year into four roughly equal parts of about 13 weeks each.

Now, if you divide each of these intervals in two you divide the year into eight pieces of six and a bit weeks each. The dates midway between the astronomical events mentioned above are (roughly) :

  • 1st February: Imbolc (Candlemas)
  • 1st May: Beltane (Mayday)
  • 1st August: Lughnasadh (Lammas)
  • 1st November: Samhain (All Saints Day)

The names I’ve added are taken from the Celtic/neo-Pagan (and Christian terms) for these cross-quarter days. These timings are rough because the dates of the equinoxes and solstices vary from year to year. Imbolc is often taken to be the 2nd of February (Groundhog Day) and Samhain is sometimes taken to be October 31st, Halloween. But hopefully you get the point.

Incidentally, the last three of these also coincide closely with Bank Holidays in Ireland, though these are always on Mondays so often happen a few days away. I find it intriguing that the academic year for universities here in Ireland is largely defined by the above dates dates.

The first semester of the academic year 2021/22 starts on September 20th 2021 (the Autumnal Equinox is on September 22nd) and finishes on 17th December (the Winter Solstice is on December 21st ).  Halloween (31st October) is actually a Sunday this year so the related bank holiday is on Monday 25th October; half term (study week) always includes the Halloween Bank Holiday. The term is pushed forward a bit because it finishes on a Friday and it would not be acceptable to end it on Christmas Eve!

After a break for Christmas and a three-week mid-year exam period Semester Two starts 31st January 2022. Half-term is then from 14th to 18th March (the Vernal Equinox; is on March 20th) and teaching ends on May 6th.  More exams and end of year business take us to the Summer Solstice and the (hypothetical) vacation.

So we’re basically operating on a pagan calendar.

Another tradition seems to be that examinations come straight after bank holidays, both in May and August. The repeat examination period begins on August 4th this year. You can interpret that in two ways: one is that students have a guaranteed day off to do revision; the other is that the bank holidays in May and August are ruined by the need to prepare for exams…

Cá bhfuil tú i do chónaí?

Posted in Biographical, Irish Language, Maynooth with tags , , , on April 3, 2021 by telescoper

I had another Irish language class on Thursday, in between various other things. I’m finding it a struggle since I don’t get much time in between the classes to revise or practice and also because there is quite a lot to learn that is very different from languages with which I am familiar. I spent a lot of time at school learning Latin and tend to filter new languages through that experience, which works reasonably well for French, Spanish and Italian but isn’t very good for Irish.

Some things in Irish are simpler than Latin: there are effectively only four cases for nouns in Irish as there is no real distinction between nominative and accusative. I mean the two cases are grammatically distinct but there is no difference in the word depending on whether it is subject or object of a verb. The other three cases are vocative (preceded by the particle a), genitive and dative. There is no ablative case; the dative is used instead.

Other things are more complicated. Last week we discovered that there are two versions of the verb “to be”. One is bí (which, as in most other European languages, is irregular in declination); the other is called the copula (“an chopail”)  which is used in limited (but quite common) circumstances such as linking a noun with a predicate clause. Confusingly, the form of the copula used in the present tense is “is” but it’s not part of the verb “to be”.

We learnt about these things when talking discussing the question

Cá bhfuil tú i do chónaí?

which is “where do you live?”, literally “Where are you in your habitation?”.  The way to answer this is something like

Tá mé i mo chónaí i Maigh Nuad. 

these sentences both involve the verb to be in the second person and first person respectively. Instead of Tá mé you could use Táim which is the equivalent of using “I’m” for “I am” in English.

It’s more complicated than that though because some place names have to be modified in this construction using an urú (eclipsis):

Maigh Nuad (Maynooth) begins with an M which is not modified but Doire (Derry) becomes nDoire, etc. The mutation from c to g after the preposition i also happens in Welsh, e.g. in the phrase Croeso i Gymru but in Irish you add the changed letter in front of the original rather than replacing it. For example, if I were living in Cork I would say

Tá mé i mo chónaí i gChorchai. 

The g is understood to replace the C for pronunciation purposes.

That brings us on to Irish place names, which are often very different from their anglicized versions. Here are a few examples:

  • Maigh Nuad (Maynooth)
  • Corcaigh (Cork)
  • Port Láirge (Waterford)
  • Doire (Derry)
  • Tir Eoghain (Tyrone)
  • Aontroim (Antrim)
  • Fear Manach (Fermanagh)
  • Béal Feirste (Belfast)
  • Gaillimh (Galway)
  • Thiobraid Árann (Tipperary)

The last one is not actually a long way from where I am. You can guess most of them but it’s a little confusing that the English versions are often conflations of two Irish words.

In the Name of the Fada

Posted in Biographical, Irish Language, Television with tags , , on March 13, 2021 by telescoper

As we head into next week’s study break in the middle of which is the St Patrick Day Bank Holiday, I thought I’d share this video. It’s the first episode of a series in which comedian Des Bishop, who missed out on Irish language lessons at school, moves to Conamara for 9 months to learn Irish. In the Name of the Fada is not to be confused with famous film, the “Fada” of the title referrring to the síneadh fada, the only diacritic mark in modern Irish. I wrote about it here.

This programme actually covers quite a lot of the vocabulary I’ve learned in the last six weeks or so. The rest of the episodes can easily be found on Youtube too.

Bíodh deireadh seachtaine agus sos deas agaibh!

Seachtain na Gaeilge

Posted in Biographical, Irish Language with tags , on March 4, 2021 by telescoper

Thursdays are very busy days for me this Semester not least because I have to squeeze in my Irish language class at lunchtime in between lectures meetings and an afternoon computational physics lab.

Although learning a new language is challenging I am enjoying it very much and slowly getting the hang of it. I find the pronunciation rather difficult. Today we encountered the difference between the broad “c” and the slender “c” which I found indistinguishable at first hearing, but figured it out well enough to get all the questions correct on the listening test. It’s basically a slight difference in the position of the back of your tongue against the palate.

Another thing in Irish that takes some getting used to is that many words contain a string of vowels, not all of which are pronounced. At least part of the reason for that is that vowels next to consonants are often only there in order to tell you how to pronounce the consonant rather than being voiced themselves.

In today’s class we also learned how to ask such questions as Cé as tú? (which means “where are you from?”) and during the course of that we learned the Irish form of some names of countries. Interestingly some countries, such as France (An Fhrainc), have an article in front whereas others, such as England (Sasana) do not. I also learned that the Irish word for Wales is An Bhreatain Bheag which translates literally as “Little Britain”. I’m not sure the Welsh will be best pleased to learn that…

Anyway, from now until St Patrick’s Day is Seachtain na Gaeilge an annual festival of the Irish language and culture during which we are all encouraged to use our Irish language skills, however limited.

Here is the President of Ireland Michael D. Higgins introducing this year’s Seachtain na Gaeilge.

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Irish Bingo Lingo

Posted in Education, Irish Language with tags , on February 20, 2021 by telescoper

This week I had my third lunchtime Irish language class during which, among a few other things, we learned about numbers (just 1-10 so far). After some practice in pronunciation, we then had some practice in comprehension by playing Bingo in Irish. Out of interest I’ve put up the Irish numbers along with their counterparts in Welsh for reasons which will become clear:

The first thing to note is the presence of the particle “a” in front of the number in Irish. This is a consequence of something I didn’t know about before taking this course. In Irish there are different ways of using numbers depending on whether you’re using them just as numbers (in which case you put the “a” in front) or if you’re using them to denote a quantity of things or people (in which cases you don’t put the “a” in front but have to use a particular grammatical construction involving the thing being counted). Numbers in Irish are not used simply as adjectives, as in for example English. That’s not how it works in any other language I know. So far we haven’t been taught about these other counting systems so I can’t say any more.

The second thing concerns the similarity of these numbers to those in many other European languages, which is not surprising since they share an Indo-European origin. Integers are such basic things that they are embedded at a very deep level in languages. The Irish numbers resemble those in French particularly strongly. This may be a consequence of modern Irish being influenced by Norman French or may just be evidence of the common root.

Notice the comparison with Welsh, however, which gives very clear evidence of the ancient mutation that led to the distinct language branches of p-Celtic and q-Celtic. Look at the number 4. In Irish, this is a ceathair (which is pronounced “a ka-hir”; the t is weakened by the following h) which resembles the French quatre. There is no q in the standard Irish alphabet but the sound is similar. In Welsh we have pedwar which, apart from the initial letter being a “p”, is structurally similar to the Irish version. A similar change in initial consonant happens with the number five.

Anyway I’m enjoying learning Irish. It’s a very interesting challenge. In the rest of the class we learned how to answer questions like What is your name (Cad is ainm duit?) followed by an exercise in giving names to celebrities shown in photographs. I firmly established my status as the Old Fogey of the class in this part, by being unable to identify a person called Shakira who, I’m told, is a popular vocal artiste of some sort.