Irish, Gaelic, or Irish Gaelic: What’s in a Name?

If you’re at a social gathering here in the U.S. and you tell someone you speak, teach, or are learning Spanish (or German, or Icelandic, or whatever), nobody gives you a confused look, or asks you what you mean by “Spanish.”

This post originally appeared on my Tumblr blog in February, 2017

Sometimes I envy people who speak Spanish, or German, or Icelandic, or just about any other language I can think of. They have it so easy!.

If you’re at a social gathering here in the U.S. and you tell someone you speak, teach, or are learning Spanish (or German, or Icelandic, or whatever), nobody gives you a confused look, or asks you what you mean by “Spanish.”

Irish is different. If you say you speak/learn/teach Irish, after a moment of befuddled silence, you usually get one of the following:

  • “You mean they have their own language?”
  • “Do you mean you’re learning to speak with an Irish accent?”
  • “Oy can speak Oirish too! (this person is usually quite obnoxiously drunk)
  • “Do you mean Gaelic?” (The ones who want to appear especially in-the-know may pronounce this “GAA-lik,” as it is in Scotland. I blame Outlander).

Say Something Irish

Things get more interesting if you’re asked to “say something in Irish.”

I usually resist my impulse to respond with “‘Rud éigin’ as Gaeilge” (”’Something’ in Irish”) and rattle off something I can say by heart, such as the Lord’s Prayer:

Ár n-Athair atá ar neamh, go naofar d’ainm, go dtaga do ríocht, go ndéantar do thoil ar an talamh mar atá ar neamh…

To which the response often is:

“But that doesn’t sound much like English!”

Er….duh?*

Of course, there’s always the Carlsberg approach:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uI5_b-327Dw

* Yes, I know that’s a bit snarky. But it just goes to show what some of us have to deal with when speaking of the language outside of its home island.

A Language With an Identity Problem

At issue is the fact that, outside of its home region, and particularly in the U.S., Irish suffers from a real identity problem..

You would think that, with the huge number of people from Ireland who immigrated to the U.S. in the 18th and 19th centuries, when Irish was still the majority language in Ireland, some knowledge of the language would at least linger here. And perhaps it does in some Irish-American communities.

Most Americans, though, don’t seem to know that the Irish have ever spoken anything but English. And those who do don’t know what to call it, or even that it’s still a living (albeit endangered) language.

This puts those of us who work with a predominately American market in a somewhat difficult position. How do we let our target audience know that we’re speaking of a language that is native to Ireland (and that isn’t a form of English)?

The answer that many of us have arrived at is to use the term “Irish Gaelic.” Unfortunately that opens up a completely different can of worms.

Much Ado About Nothing

There are, I’m afraid, people out there who are hugely bothered by the term “Irish Gaelic.” I mean HUGELY bothered. Get-your-knickers-in-a-twist bothered. Major-freak-outage bothered.

In fact, from some of the more over-the-top responses to the term, you might be justified in thinking that calling the language “Irish Gaelic” is roughly equivalent to saying “You’re ugly, and your mother dresses you funny.”

But is it really? Are those of us who use “Irish Gaelic” in the titles of our books and learning programs really being disrespectful to the language? Let’s take a look at some of the objections raised.

“They Don’t Call it That in Ireland”

This is absolutely, indisputably true. You won’t hear people in Ireland referring to “Irish Gaelic.”

I feel the need to point out, though, that they don’t need to. If you were to announce in Ireland that you were learning Irish, they would know exactly what you were talking about (they might think you were crazy, but they wouldn’t be confused by the reference).

It’s their language, after all. Whether or not they speak it, they’re surrounded by it from birth to death…in school, on television and radio, on road signs. Irish may not be widely spoken in Ireland anymore, but it’s still very much present.

Much as I wish it were otherwise, that isn’t the case here in the U.S. If we want people to know what we’re talking about, we need to be more specific.

And yes…it sucks that we have to jump through these hoops to ensure that people know what we’re talking about. After all, if you tell someone you’re learning French, they don’t ask “Do you mean you’re learning French cooking?” But it is what it is.

“It’s Incorrect”

Well, really, it isn’t. It’s not official, and it’s certainly not the standard in Ireland, but it’s not incorrect.

Irish is a Gaelic (Goidelic) language…a language of the Celtic people known as the Gaels. It shares this distinction with its sister languages, Scottish Gaelic and Manx. And, in fact, many older Irish speakers in Ireland do refer to the language as “Gaelic.”

“Gaelic” is also a word that just about anyone will recognize as referring to a language. And if you want proof that it is, in fact, used in Ireland, I can only point to the fact that the English name of Conradh na Gaeilge is “The Gaelic League.”

The problem is that, by convention, the word “Gaelic” by itself is taken to mean the language of Scotland. This is an important distinction if you’re looking for learning or teaching resources, as anything that is simply called “Gaelic” will be for Scottish Gaelic. Hence the need to specify “Irish Gaelic,” if we’re going to use the term “Gaelic” at all.

Yes, “Irish” is the official name of the language, and all of us who speak or teach the language use it (Well, when we’re speaking English. When we’re speaking Irish, we use “Gaeilge,” or one of the regional iterations). But it’s really a stretch to say that “Irish Gaelic” is “incorrect.”

“You Should ‘Educate’ People by Using the ‘Correct’ Term”

I must say, I’m all for education. And, in fact, whenever I teach or write about the language, I make it clear that the accepted name for it in English is “Irish.”

And, well…see the section above.

But I can’t “educate” people I can’t reach. And I can’t reach people if I’m using a term they don’t understand.

In all my years learning and teaching Irish, I’ve seen many a person who was drawn to the language by what some might consider a “trivial” interest fall in love with it for its own sake. And often what has drawn them in has been the term “Irish Gaelic.” It that’s not education, I don’t know what the word means.

“It’s Disrespectful to the Language/Culture”

Oh, come on! Seriously? Do you honestly think that anyone would dedicate more than a decade to learning a language for which he or she had no respect? Or that such a person could do so without a deep regard for the country and culture to which that language belongs?

A more “polite” version of this one is “It displays an ignorance of Irish culture.” Of course, in addition to being wrong in almost every case,this presumes that no actual Irish person would ever use such a term.

I hate to burst anyone’s bubble, but the reality is that most of the people who use the term “Irish Gaelic” in the titles of their learning or teaching materials are Irish. And I don’t mean “Irish-American.”

Of the people I know personally who have developed such materials for a predominately American market, one is a native speaker and the other grew up spending summers in the Donegal Gaeltacht.  Both were born, raised in, and currently reside in Ireland.

It’s quite simply a pragmatic decision to reach (and thus to educate) the widest possible audience by using the clearest possible terms. Nothing sinister, disrespectful, or ignorant about it.

A World Language or an Exclusive Club?

I’m certainly not suggesting that everyone start using the term “Irish Gaelic” (If you think that’s what I’m saying, you need to re-read this post. Go ahead. I’ll wait).

I do, however, think that the sometimes extreme reactions to the use of that term are, at best, misguided, and at worst, potentially harmful.

While I can’t speak for everyone who learns, teaches, or promotes the Irish language, here’s how I see the situation:

Irish is not, and should not be, an exclusive club. People shouldn’t have to know the passwords and secret handshake to access it. If a little thing like being more explicit about what we call it when addressing certain audiences helps more people to come to know and love the Irish language, I’m all for it.

Irish is a threatened minority language. It needs all our help, and the more exposure we can give it, the better.

In the face of a shrinking Gaeltacht (or, if you prefer, an encroaching Galltacht), the gradual erosion of native Irish idioms and pronunciation in favor of “Béarlachas” and Anglicized pronunciation, reduction in funding, and an often indifferent (sometimes downright hostile) governmental attitude toward the language, the matter of putting the word “Gaelic” after the word “Irish” in the title of a book or a computer program is (or should be) a relatively minor concern.

There are plenty of things to be bothered, outraged, or concerned about. This isn’t one of them.

Discussion Welcome

I recognize that, for some, this is a still contentious issue, and I welcome CIVIL discussion, both here on my blog and in other places where this post may appear. Emphasis on “civil.” Don’t adopt a hostile stance, or assume that a person who holds a different view is ignorant or disrespectful toward the language and the culture.

We’re all in this together.

Le meas, GG

The featured image is a sign outside a playground in Glencolmcille. It says “Notice: Welcome to our playground (‘play park’). The equipment in this playground is suitable for children aged three to twelve. Neither bicycling nor playing football is allowed in the park. No dogs. Help us keep our park safe and clean, please. Thank you. Glencolmcille Parish Council.”


In addition to being “The Geeky Gaeilgeoir,” Audrey Nickel is the author of  The Irish Gaelic Tattoo Handbook,” published by Bradan Press, Nova Scotia, Canada.  For information about the book, including where to buy it, please visit http://www.bradanpress.com/irish-tattoo-handbook/

10 thoughts on “Irish, Gaelic, or Irish Gaelic: What’s in a Name?”

  1. Agree entirely. The objective is effective communication. Fortunately the days of the lá breá Gaeilgóirí are long gone.

    I don’t know if you have spent much time recently listening to Irish on Irish (otherwise English speaking) radio, but, believe me, it’s a wrench. I don’t mind bockety Irish from respondents in vox pops, but the presenters themselves! If you ever get the chance, listen to Gaeilge Gasta (sic) on NewstalkFM and a guy who thinks that the more séimhiús you sprinkle in the better the Irish.

    Finally, it is interesting to see Homer nod. No, not you. Comhairle Paróiste Ghleann Cholm Cille, who have dropped a number of fadas in the above notice.

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  2. Mighty post! For what its worth – and as I am a Gaillgeoir, it might not be worth much! – I used the term Gaeilge as often as possible. Do you think perhaps it would be safer to say “Celtic-speaking peoples” rather than “Celtic peoples”, as there seems to be not the slightest evidence the Irish ever identified as Celts? Delighted to find you blog, I’ll be back!

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    1. Glad you liked it!

      Re “Celtic-speaking peoples,” my concern with that is I already encounter people who think “Celtic” is a language rather than a language family (many of whom also seem to think that the term ONLY applies to Ireland), and I have a feeling using “Celtic” in that way would reinforce that belief.

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      1. I get the same thing! Getting people to explain what they think ‘Celtic’ actually means – they are NEVER right! – jaded me a long time ago. Why not just say Gaelic if that’s what they really mean? After all, if words don’t accord to their actual definitions, they are meaningless.

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  3. Wow. I didn’t realize Irish was such a threatened language. When I went to Ireland in 1998, prior to the euro, one of the notes (a fiver IIRC) depicted schoolchildren writing it on a chalkboard. The sense I got was that there was a concerted effort to keep it alive. Maybe we got a biased view because we spent so much time in the Gaeltacht. Or maybe it’s changed since then.

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  4. Huh. Where I live in the US, if someone says “Gaelic”, everyone assumes it’s Irish. You have to explain it with the term “Scottish Gaelic” if you mean what they speak in the Highlands and Western Isles. Most Americans have no idea there even IS Scottish Gaelic, and will do an imitation of Groundskeeper Willie or Fat Bastard. If they’re slightly more clued-in, they think it’s exactly the same as Irish. And of course there’s “Oh, you mean Garrrrrlic.” Ha ha. Not being an official language supported by a whole country, it’s even more endangered.

    Sassenachs…

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      1. Left Coast.

        Harder to find people and classes, too — you can imagine my delight at being able to actually speak it with natives when I got to an t-Eilean Sgitheanach.

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  5. I have an idea; have a literary contest. There would be at least two prizes given out every year, one for books written in Irish, and the other for books written in English in a way that introduced Irish to English speakers (by including Irish words and evocation of Irish rhythm and idiom, like what Ernest Hemingway did with Spanish in “For Whom the Bell Tolls”).

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