Archive for Irish Language

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.

The Tironian et…

Posted in History with tags , , , , , on May 30, 2021 by telescoper

Last week I had my last Irish language lesson at Level 1. Although I struggled to find the time to do anything outside the actual classes, and am consequently struggling generally with the language, I have enjoyed it a lot and do intend to go again next year to try to learn a bit more and get better at the basics.

One thing that came up in passing last week was the abbreviation “srl” which I’d seen a few times but although I didn’t understand it I didn’t ask – largely because there were so many other things I didn’t understand. Anyway, it turns out that “srl” is short for agus araile which means “and others”, so is the Irish equivalent of “etc” (et cetera in Latin).

In English “etc” can be abbreviated to &c, where the ampersand is a ligature of the e and t that make up “et” and so stands for “and”. After some googling and discussions on Twitter I learn that Old Irish had quite a lot of special symbols for abbreviations which are no longer used in modern Irish. In fact “srl” used to be “⁊rl” where the “⁊” is not a seven (7) but a Tironian et. It looks like 7 in modern typefaces but in older Irish script it looks more like the ligature “koto” found in Japanese (ヿ). Thys symbol is not entirely extinct – I’ve seen it a few times (e.g. above) and also on old post boxes. Here’s another example from a pub sign in Galway.

This is not a name, by the way. The sign means “bar” and “restaurant” (bialann = bia +-lann, the suffix “-lann” meaning place, usually an enclosed space, so it’s literally food place; the Irish word for “library” is leabharlann, srl.)

The Tironian et is one of the characters in a system of shorthand invented by Marcus Tullius Tiro, the slave (subsequently freed) who worked as private secretary to Cicero (aka Marcus Tullius Cicero). This system was used extensively in monasteries until the mediaeval period, which explains how its use came into Irish through Irish monks. It went out of fashion when printing presses became widely available and the Tironian et is one of the few still in use in the age of computers – it does have a unicode and is available in various fonts that come free with most operating systems in use today.

I think one of the reasons I am struggling to learn everyday Irish is that I keep going off at tangents like this, something I tend to do in all kinds of contexts.

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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Údarás na Gaeltachta

Posted in Biographical, Maynooth with tags , , on February 25, 2021 by telescoper

In today’s lunchtime Irish Language lesson we learned a bit about the Gaeltacht, i.e. Irish speaking areas in Ireland. Here is a little video:

You will see that most of the Gaeltacht is in the Western extremes of the country because these are the regions that largely escaped the English encroachment and suppression of the Irish language. One thing I wasn’t aware of before today however is that there is a part quite near Maynooth in the form of the town of Ráth Chairn (English: Rathcairn) about 40km away in County Meath. The people who live there were originally from Connemara so they speak the Gaeilge Chonnacht. This is where our teacher comes from, actually, so if I ever develop any ability to speak the language I’ll probably have do so with a Connacht accent!

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.

Language Lessons

Posted in History, Irish Language, Maynooth with tags , , , , , , , , , , on February 4, 2021 by telescoper

Thursday is Computational Physics Day this term so this morning I delivered the first Panopto lecture of that module and in the afternoon we had our first laboratory session. The students are all at home of course so we had to run the lab with them using their own laptops rather than the dedicated Linux cluster we have in the Department and interacting via Microsoft Teams.  The first lab is very introductory so it was really just me presenting and them following on their machines without too much interaction. The ability to share a screen is actually very useful though and I imagine using it quite a lot to share Spyder. It went fairly well, I think, with all the students getting started out on the business of learning Python.

In between lecturing the morning and running the laboratory session this afternoon I had the chance to study another kind of language. Soon after I first arrived in Maynooth I got an email from Maynooth University about Irish language classes. Feeling a bit ashamed about not having learned Welsh in all my time in Cardiff, I thought I’d sign up for the Beginners class and fill in a Doodle Poll to help the organizers schedule it. Unfortunately, when the result was announced  it was at a time that I couldn’t make owing to teaching, so I couldn’t do it. That  happened a couple of times, in fact. This year however I’ve managed to register at a time I can make, though obviously the sessions are online.

I’m not sure how wise it is for me to try learning a new language during a term as busy as this, but I have to say I enjoyed the first session enormously. It was all very introductory, but I’ve learnt a few things about pronunciation – unsurprisingly the Irish word for pronunciation fuaimniú is unsurprisingly quite difficult to pronounce – and the difference between slender and broad vowels. I also learnt that to construct a verbal noun, instead of putting -ing on the end as you would in English, in Irish you use the word ag in front of the verb.

That’s not to say I had no problems. I’m still not sure I can say  Dia duit (hello) properly. The second “d” is hardly pronounced. 

Irish isn’t much like Welsh, which I failed to learn previously.  Although Irish and Welsh are both Celtic languages they are from two distinct groups: the Goidelic group that comprises Irish, Manx and Scottish Gaelic; and the Brythonic group that 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. Incidentally, Scottish Gaelic is not the language spoken by the Celtic people who lived in Scotland at the time of the Romans, the Picts, which is lost. Scottish Gaelic is actually descended from Middle Irish. Also incidentally, Breton was taken to Brittany by a mass migration of people from South-West Britain fleeing the Anglo-Saxons which peaked somewhere around 500 AD. I guess that was the first Brexodus.

Welsh and Irish don’t sound at all similar to me, which is not surprising really. It is thought that the Brythonic languages evolved from a language  brought to Britain by people from somewhere in Gaul (probably Northern France), whereas the people whose language led to the Goidelic tongues were probably from somewhere in the Iberia (modern-day Spain or Portugal). The modern versions of Irish and Welsh do contain words borrowed from Latin, French and English so there are similarities there too.

Only a diacritic mark appears in Irish, the síneadh fada (`long accent’), sometimes called the fada for short, which looks the same as the acute accent in, e.g., French. There’s actually one in síneadh if you look hard enough. It just means the vowel is pronounced long (i.e. the first syllable of síneadh is pronounced SHEEN). The word sean (meaning old) is pronounced like “shan” whereas Seán the name is pronounced “Shawn”.

One does find quite a few texts (especially online) where the fada is carelessly omitted, but it really is quite important. For example Cáca is the Irish word for `cake’, while the unaccented Caca means `excrement’…

I took the above text in Irish and English from the front cover of an old examination paper. You can see the accents as well as another feature of Irish which is slightly similar to Welsh, the mysterious lower-case h in front of Éireann. This is a consequence of an initial mutation, in which the initial character of word changes in various situations according to syntax or morphology (i.e. following certain words changing the case of a noun or following certain sounds). This specific case is an an example of h-prothesis (of an initial vowel).

In Welsh, mutations involve the substitution of one character for another. For example, `Wales’ is Cymru but if you cross the border into Wales you may see a sign saying Croeso i Gymru, the `C’ having mutated. The Irish language is a bit friendlier to the learner than Welsh, however, as the mutated character (h in the example above) is inserted in front of the unmutated character. Seeing both the mutated and unmutated character helps a person with limited vocabulary (such as myself) figure out what’s going on.

Mutations of consonants also occur in Irish. These can involve lenition (literally `weakening’, also known as aspiration) or eclipsis (nasalisation). In the case of eclipsis the unmutated consonant is preceded by another denoting the actual sound, e.g. b becomes m in terms of pronunciation, but what is written is mb. On the other hand, lenition is denoted by an following the unmutated consonant. In older forms of Irish the overdot (ponc séimhithe) -another diacritic – was used to denote lenition.

Anyway, I’ve seen Dia duit written Dia dhuit which might explain why the d sounds so weak. We live and learn. If I keep at it long enough I might eventually be able to understand the TG4 commentary on the hurling..

Institutes, Acronyms and the Letter H

Posted in Education, Maynooth with tags , , , , , on June 25, 2019 by telescoper

Here’s a rambling and inconsequential post emanating from a coffee-room discussion yesterday.

The latest round of guff about University Rankings, in which Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) came top and Irish universities didn’t  prompted a strange letter to the Irish Times about the status of the Irish Institutes of Technology some of which have merged, or are planning to merge, to form Technological Universities.

Among the list of Irish Institutes of Technology, I found that sadly there isn’t an MIT in Ireland (Mullingar would be a good place for it!) but there are, for example:

Cork Institute of Technology (CIT)

Waterford Institute of Technology (WIT)

Limerick Institute of Technology (LIT)

Athlone Institute of Technology (AIT)

and so on, as well as..

Institute of Technology Tralee….(:-)

I wondered whether there might be some other potentially unfortunate acronyms  to be had, I hoped for example for a South Howth Institute of Technology but sadly there isn’t one; nor is there a Sligo Higher Institute of Technology. There’s no Galway Institute of Technology either.

In the course of that exercise in silliness I discovered how few towns and villages there are in Ireland whose names begin with the letter H. Moreover all of those listed on the Wikipedia page are in the Sacs-Bhéarla (English language) rather than genuinely Irish names.

I’m sure Irish speakers will correct me on this, but I guess this lack of Irish proper names beginning with H may be connected with the use of h in denoting lenition. When used in this way the `h’ always appears after the consonant being modified and so never forms the initial letter. There are plenty of words in Irish beginning with H, though, so this is either a red herring or something specific to place names.

Comments and corrections are welcome through the box below!


UPDATE: I’m reliably informed (via Twitter) that all words in modern Irish beginning with H are borrowings from other languages, and the h was only introduced into Irish words for the reason mentioned above,

A Sign of Ireland

Posted in Maynooth with tags , , on December 15, 2018 by telescoper

Following my post earlier this week about Irish orthography and related matters, I thought I’d share a couple of random thoughts inspired by the above road sign.

First, notice the font used for the Irish names, which is a variant of the UK Transport typeface, but is notable for the absence of any tittles (a ‘tittle’ being one of those little dots above the i and j in standard type).

The other thing, which I only found out a few days ago, is that`Leixlip’ is a name of Norse origin – it means ‘Salmon’s Leap’. Apparently there was a viking settlement there, positioned because of the abundance salmon in the River Liffey which flows through on the way to Dublin. `Leix’ is similar to, e.g., the Danish `Laks’, meaning salmon, and ‘leap’ is similar to many words in modern European languages derived from proto-Germanic sources.

There is a Salmon Leap Inn in Leixlip. I have heard very good things about the food but not yet dined there. Nowadays however Leixlip is best known for the presence of a huge Intel ‘campus’, which is home to a large semiconductor fabrication facility, among other things.