Ever since I began learning Irish, in 2004, I’ve been amazed at just how many people want tattoos in the language. Between 60% and 80% of translation requests on Irish-themed internet forums are for tattoos!
What amazes me even more, though, is the number of people who don’t consult experts (preferably multiple experts) before getting inked.
Granted, some do ask (or say they ask) friends or relatives in Ireland for help, but judging by the sheer number of really bad tattoos there (many of which have mistakes that would be caught by relative beginners), it would seem that many of these “experts” are overestimating or even downright misrepresenting their grasp of the language.
Tattoos are permanent, folks (or, at the very least, expensive to remove). If you’re getting a tattoo in a language you don’t speak, don’t you think it’s worth a bit of time and effort to be sure you’re getting it right?
A New Record
I have no idea where the person sporting the tattoo above went for help (if, indeed, she did seek help), but this has to be some kind of a record. Four mistakes in a simple two-word phrase!
This person was clearly going for “Big Sister.” Unfortunately what she ended up with is a grammatical mess, with a couple of spelling mistakes thrown in for good measure.
Let’s Start With the Accents
The first thing that any Irish speaker or learner would notice here is the accent marks. In Irish, the accent mark ALWAYS slants to the right, like the one over the “u” above. This is called an “acute” or “long” accent…in Irish síneadh fada. Left-slanting (grave) accents simply don’t happen in contemporary Irish.
Scottish Gaelic is a little different in that respect. In the form of Scottish Gaelic currently spoken in Scotland, the accents all slant to the left…just the opposite of Irish. There’s also a form of Scottish Gaelic spoken in Nova Scotia, Canada, that has both left- and right-slanting accents. This raises the question: Was our hero going for Scottish Gaelic, Canadian-style?
Possibly, but it doesn’t seem likely. The Scottish Gaelic word for “sister” — piuthar — is very different from the Irish word — deirfiúr. There’s really no mistaking them. So she either got the accents wrong or she got the word for “sister” wrong (or perhaps thought that Irish and Scottish Gaelic words are interchangeable). I’m banking on the first option.
Accents matter, folks. They’re not just there to look pretty. If you have the wrong type of accent, or an accent where one shouldn’t be (or none where one is needed), the word is misspelled, and may even take on a different meaning.
There’s even a book written about the fada in Irish and why it matters: “Our Fada: A Fada Homograph Dictionary,” by Rossa Ó Snodaigh (of “Kila” fame) and Mícheál Ó Domhnaill. If you’re interested in doing anything at all with the Irish language, it’s worth checking out.
And I can’t emphasize this enough: While Scottish Gaelic and Irish are very closely related, and similar in many respects, they are different languages, and you can’t just swap words or features between them.
A Problem with Placement
An incorrect accent mark might be easily corrected, but unfortunately that’s not the only problem with this tattoo. In Irish, the adjective follows the noun it modifies. “Mór” (”big”) is the adjective here, and must come AFTER “deirfiúr.”
People with little or no language-learning experience tend to assume that word order in one language is the same as word order in another. It might be nice if it worked that way (Just think! All you’d have to do to learn a new language would be to memorize the dictionary!).
Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way. Languages aren’t codes for one another. You can’t simply plug Irish words into English syntax and hope to have something that makes sense. In English it may be “big sister,” but Irish needs a “sister big.”
And Then There’s Gender
As with many European languages, all Irish nouns have grammatical “gender,” which affects what happens to them, and to the words around them, in various grammatical constructions.
“Deirfiúr” is grammatically feminine and, in most cases, when feminine nouns are followed by an adjective beginning with a consonant, that consonant must be “softened” or “lenited,” which changes its pronunciation.
In contemporary Irish, lenition is indicated by putting an “h” after the consonant (in the older form of Irish writing known as “Seanchló” or “Cló Gaelach” it was represented by placing a dot over the consonant).
So what this person needed was “Deirfiúr Mhór.” Oops! Good thing it’s not perman…er…oh.
But Wait! There’s More!
There’s one more error in this tattoo, even after all the other errors are addressed. Did you spot it? Look closely.
To add spelling insult to grammatical injury, our unfortunate tattoo-ee has left out a letter. Instead of “deirfiúr,” she’s got “deifiúr” – the first “r” is missing.
It Was Almost Five
When I started writing this post, I almost called it “Five Mistakes in Two Words.” I thought that translating “big sister” literally to mean “older/eldest sister” might be incorrect (English idioms often don’t work well when translated directly into other languages). I would have said “deirfiúr is sine” (“eldest sister”).
A friend of mine, however, who is a native-speaker of Conamara Irish, has assured me that “deirfiúr mhór” is used, and would not be considered incorrect, so our mis-tatted friend gets a pass on this one!
It is another thing to keep in mind, though, when seeking a tattoo translation: English phrases can’t always be translated directly into Irish. Every culture and language has its own mode of expression.
Tattoos can be a beautiful form of self-expression. They can be a deeply personal way to honor your Irish heritage, or that of a loved one. They’re also, however, pricey, painful, and permanent. If you’re going to get one, isn’t it worth the time and research necessary to make sure it’s perfect?
I never have understood why anyone would get a tattoo in a language he or she didn’t speak…at least without doing A LOT of research. It’s often shocking to me to see how little time and effort people put into something so important to them that they want it permanently written on their skin.
Just don’t do it, folks. And don’t let your friends do it. Friends don’t let friends get bad tats. Put in the time before you lay down your money. Is that too much to ask?
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/