Lá ‘le Pádraig Sona Daoibh!

There’s nothing at all normal about this St. Patrick’s Day.

A chairde,

It’s a crazy, different time in which we find ourselves! There’s nothing at all normal about this St. Patrick’s Day.

I don’t know how things are where you are, but I’m guessing not too different from where I am. Lock down. Pubs closed. Parades and masses canceled. Future events in doubt. Maybe you’re sitting home, as I am, wondering if you’ll even have a job a few weeks from now.

But you know what? It’s still St. Patrick’s Day! Lá ‘le Pádraig! It’s our day! I don’t know about you, but I’m going to celebrate in every way I can!

Green is definitely in my future tomorrow, even if I don’t have anywhere to wear it but in front of my computer. There’s a shot of Jameson’s waiting for a toast tomorrow evening. And, because it works out that I WILL be at home tomorrow, I will sing Óró ‘sé do bheatha abhaile tomorrow at noon with all the rest of you who will be doing so around the globe!

And, of course, there’s this song, without which St. Patrick’s Day never seems quite complete.

Dochas Linn Naomh Pádraig

Have a wonderful day tomorrow, a chairdeGo mbeirimid beo ag an am seo arís.

Le grá,

GG


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/

St. Patrick’s Day and being Irish in the time of COVID-19

Right now, I can’t focus on things that divide us.

So, a chairde, this is not the post I thought I would be sharing today.

For the past several weeks I’ve been working on a post on what it means to say “I’m Irish.” It’s something several friends on both sides of the question have asked me to address — why it is that Irish-Americans insist on referring to themselves as “Irish.”

It’s something that really bothers some people, and a culture clash that seemed ripe for the sharing near St. Patrick’s Day. I get it. I’ve been working on it with the goal of publishing today, and I have to say that, as of yesterday morning, I was no more than three paragraphs short of giving it a final proof and hitting “publish.”

But in the end I couldn’t do it. Because, while there are valid arguments on both sides (“My grandfather came from Ireland!” “You’re not Irish, you’re American! Deal with it!”), right now, I can’t make myself focus on things that divide us.

So much has changed

It’s hard to believe that it’s only been two weeks since the reality of the coronavirus exploded here in Northern California. Within 48 hours we went from “This is something we should maybe be worried about” to out-and-out panic. The reality of what was happening in China, Iran, and Italy suddenly became our reality (yeah…sometimes we’re a little slow on the uptake).

Now Italy is on lockdown. Ireland is on lockdown. Parts of the U.S. are “containment areas.” Our government tells us that our friends from Europe are no longer welcome here. Resorts here on the California Central Coast have turned into quarantine wards.

A little thing, but…

In the light of all this, it seems that the question of who is entitled to call themselves “Irish” is a pretty minor thing, as is the widespread cancellation of St. Patrick’s Day festivities. Parades, masses, sessions…those can be rescheduled, yes? Semantics and identity can be debated another day.

At the same time these minor things are the things that really hit us where we live, right? Somehow it’s a lot easier to accept the the Dow plummeting that it is to come to grips with the cancellation of seasonal festivities. That makes it personal.

And, while it’s undeniably an issue, let’s be honest: In the face of all this, does the question of who says “I’m Irish” really matter?

What has the Irish language ever done for you?

A few days ago, a friend asked me what value I’ve found in learning Irish. And I have to say, there’s been one heck of a lot.

There’s the satisfaction of learning a new language, which is pretty amazing, when you think of it. Another way to communicate. To a wordsmith, there is no greater joy.

There’s the connection to a culture that has drawn me from the time I was a teenager and first fell in love with Irish traditional music. I can’t begin to explain to you just how much that has meant to me. It’s a connection to my soul.

And yes…there’s the tremendous satisfaction of confounding telemarketers! (“I’m sorry ma’am. No one here speaks Chinese.” Somewhere in Connemara, Yu Ming is laughing!)

But, in the final analysis, the greatest gift Irish has given me is you.

The community I’ve found through Irish is easily the best thing that’s ever happened to me. Some of you are singers, some of you are poets or teachers, some of you are learners, some of you are fluent, or even native speakers. Some of you have no interest in learning the language at all, but have come into my life through Irish music. You come from the U.S. and Canada, from Germany and from England and from Brazil and from Japan, and, of course (where else?) from Ireland.

And in realizing this, I also realized that, in the face of this worldwide challenge, the last thing I wanted to focus on is something that divides us. It doesn’t matter what “Irish” means. What really matters is who we are, and what we have in common.

So what will you do on St. Patrick’s Day?

There’s no doubt that this year is going to be way different from other years. St. Patrick’s Day’s celebrations have been canceled from Dublin to New York!

I don’t know what you will do on March 17, but here’s what I will do:

I will reach out to my friends around the world, and rejoice in this language we share.

I will sing and make music, because that’s what I do.

I will hold my loved ones close.

I will walk outside and revel in the beauty that surrounds me.

And I will pray that next year we will look back on this time as something we got through together.

Is sibhse mo mhuintir. Is sibhse mo chroí. Is sibhse amhrán m’anama.

Le meas is le grá,

GG

* The featured image in this post was taken in Glencolmcille, Co. Donegal, in July, 2008. Glen Head and a dramatic Donegal sunset.


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/

March Madness

St. Patrick’s Day is right around the corner, and ridiculously bad Irish T-shirts, memes, and posters are cropping up everywhere.

Ah, spring! Flowers are blooming, birds are singing, St. Patrick’s Day is right around the corner, and ridiculously bad Irish T-shirts, memes, and posters are cropping up everywhere.

I’m not talking about the offensive, racist stuff one sees at this time of year, though there’s certainly plenty of that (Repeating for those in the back of the class: Things that portray Irish people as drunks, as always spoiling for a fight, as country bumpkins, or as leprechauns are OFFENSIVE. Just don’t do it. Please.)

This is also the season when even people who don’t speak, or plan to learn, Irish seem to like to trot out the cúpla focal, even if it’s the painfully anglicized “Erin go Bragh”*

The shirt pictured came across my desk recently, shared by my friend and fellow Gaeilge geek Michael von Siegel, and it’s just so egregiously awful, I have to dissect it.

* This phrase is a corruption of “Éire go brách” or, as they say it in Munster, “Éirinn go brách.”

But what does it mean?

Short answer: It means absolutely nothing. It’s an ungrammatical mess. But what we really want to know is what the designer intended for it to say, right?

As nearly as I can tell, what was intended was “Kiss me I’m Irish and you are beautiful.” News flash: That’s not what it says.

If we want to get literal (and why not?), what it LITERALLY says is “Kiss ME I the Irish language and are you beautiful [?]” (I added the question mark because somehow it seemed even dumber without it).

So, what’s wrong with it?

Let’s start with the first phrase: Póg mise:

Póg does mean “kiss,” and can be used either as a noun or as a verb, so initially it doesn’t look like there’s too much wrong here. Technically you CAN say “póg mé” (we’ll deal with mise in a moment). It’s grammatically sound enough. There’s only one problem:

That’s not how an Irish speaker would normally say “kiss me.”

A very important facet of learning a language is understanding that, even if something is in the dictionary and/or is grammatically correct, it doesn’t necessarily follow that it’s actually something a speaker of that language would say.

Irish as a language leans more toward noun phrases for this kind of expression. To an Irish speaker, “póg mé,” while understandable, sounds rather rude and abrupt. It’s a command, not a friendly invitation, and it just doesn’t feel natural in this context.

So how would an Irish speaker say “kiss me”? The usual approach would be something along the lines of tabhair póg dom” — give me a kiss.

Another strange aspect of this phrase is the use of the emphatic form of  (“me/I”): mise.

When Irish speakers want to emphasize a word, instead saying it more loudly or forcefully, they use what’s called an “emphatic form,” which usually involves adding the suffix -se or -sa. Some words change more significantly, though, and mé is one of them. So, essentially what we have here is “ME” rather than “me” (Or, to sum the whole phrase up, “Kiss ME (dammit!) not that person over there!”)

Tarzan meets the Irish language

Moving on to the next phrase: Mé Gaeilge. 

This phrase has so much wrong with it, it’s hard to know where to start. It even took me a couple of moments to realize that the “designer” meant mé to go with the second line of text, it’s just that weird.

As I mentioned above, mé means “me/I,” so it’s clear, upon reflection, that the designer was going for “I’m Irish.” Aside from the Tarzan-esque nature of this phrase (note the lack of a verb: “Me/I Irish”), this is absolutely NOT the way you would say “I am [something].”

If you’re an Irish learner, or if you happened to read my most recent grammar post, I Am, or Copulating in Irish (yes, it’s a bit cheeky), you already know that the way you say “I am [something]” in Irish is with that little semi-verb known as “the copula”:

Is  _________ mé:  I am ___________

That’s bad enough, but the thing that has Irish speakers rolling in the aisles (or perhaps just rolling their eyes) is that Gaeilge doesn’t mean “Irish” as in “an Irish person.” It’s the name of the Irish language. And no…you can’t just swap them out for each other.

If you’re speaking of an Irish person, you would either use Éireannach or Gael (Éireannach would be understood more as someone actually FROM Ireland — an Irish citizen — whereas Gael can be used to denote Irish heritage).

So, if you want to say “I’m Irish” you have two choices:

Is Éireannach mé

Is Gael mé

Are you beautiful? (asking for a friend)

The third and final phrase on this shirt — agus an bhfuil tú go hálainn — actually gets two things right. Agus does mean “and,” and go hálainn does mean “beautiful.” Even a broken clock is right two times a day.

The problem is with the form of the verb used. An bhfuil is an interrogative, or “question,” form of the verb bí/tá (“to be”). Unlike English, which simply switches word order and uses a rising inflection to ask a question, Irish uses a specialized verb form.

English: Are you beautiful? You are beautiful!

Irish: An bhfuil tú go hálainn? Tá tú go hálainn!

Putting it all together

So, putting this all together, how would you say “Kiss me, I’m Irish, and You’re Beautiful” in Irish?

Tabhair póg dom, is Éireannach/Gael mé, agus tá tú go hálainn

As with any language, there can be many different ways to say a particular thing, but this is pretty straightforward, and will be widely understood.

So how did it get this way?

There are many, many roads to a bad translation, and it can often be difficult figuring out exactly which one led to any particular catastrophe.

Some methods would-be translators try include pulling words out of an Irish dictionary and plugging them into English syntax; asking a “friend” or relative who claims to know Irish (but really doesn’t); using something from a book, song, or piece of jewelry without verifying it first; or trying machine translation. All of these are recipes for disaster.

Often when we see something like this, the first impulse is to blame it on Google Translate (or, as we sometimes call it, “Google Trashlate”) or some other form of machine translation, and with some justification. Machine translation has an abysmal record with the Irish language, and it hasn’t improved much, if at all, since I wrote this post for Bitesize Irish back in 2012.

Given that, one of the first things I do when I’m trying to work out where a bad translation came from is try to replicate it in Google Translate.

This is actually easier said than done, as Google is both case- and punctuation-sensitive, and can deliver vastly different results based on how you capitalize or punctuate your request.

Google also is inconsistent in back-translating. You can enter, for example, a phrase in English and get one Irish “translation” (for better or for worse), but often, if you try to check your result by entering the Irish translation and seeking a translation back to English, you’ll get something very different.

Here are some of the attempts I made with this phrase:

Kiss me I’m Irish and you’re beautiful: Póg mise Tá mé Éireannach agus tá tú go hálainn

Kiss me, I’m Irish and you’re beautiful: Póg dom, is Gaelainn mé agus tá tú go hálainn

Kiss me, I’m Irish, and  you’re beautiful! Póg dom, is Éireannach me, agus tá tú go hálainn!

All of these have serious errors in them, but none of them replicates the errors on the T-shirt. When I enter the phrase exactly as it appears on the shirt, however — Póg Mise mé Gaeilge agus an bhfuil tú go hálainn, and ask Google to translate it to English, it does return “Kiss me I am Irish and you are beautiful.”

Given that, and given that the sites that manufacture such shirts and similar items often do use machine translation, I’m willing to bet that this is the culprit, even though I can’t reproduce the error going from English to Irish. Maybe you’ll have better luck!

Bonus mistake

If the bad translation weren’t enough, the symbol in the middle of the shirt is not a shamrock. Shamrocks have three leaves. Yes, always. Four-leafed clovers are thought of as lucky in many countries because of their rarity, but they have no particular association with Ireland, and are not an Irish symbol.

Summing it all up

I don’t want to discourage anyone from using Irish, on St. Patrick’s Day or any other day. It’s a great way to show your connection to the culture, IF you do it properly, and with respect for the language.

Some options for getting a good translation (or verifying one you’ve found) include:

  • Find a professional translator. A Google search can help with this (be sure to use the parameters “Irish language” or “Gaeilge,” not just “Irish”), but do your due diligence. Get references.
  • Visit an Irish Language forum. The one I usually recommend is the Irish Language Forum (ILF). Old school forums work better for this kind of thing, because it’s easier to keep track of the process, and to tell who the more expert people are. Remember the very important “Rule of Threes”: Wait to proceed with a translation until at least three people from that site agree.
  • Don’t use anything you’ve found in a book, in a song/poem, or on-line without verifying it first. A forum is a good place to do that as well. You don’t want to end up like this poor guy.
  • Do not, I repeat, DO NOT use Google Translate or any other machine translation app. Trust me, it will not go well.

Most important of all, approach the language with curiosity and respect. It’s a fascinating language, and learning even a little bit of it is a wonderful way to celebrate your Irish heritage.

Le meas,

GG

P.S.: Yes, the heading above the pictured shirt is wrong too, and by now you can probably figure out why!

 

 

“I am,” or Copulating in Irish

If you’re new to Irish, you may be wondering if The Geeky Gaeilgeoir has been hacked by a porn site (Don’t worry. It hasn’t)

Ha ha…made you look!

If you’re new to Irish, you may be wondering if The Geeky Gaeilgeoir has been hacked by a porn site (Don’t worry. It hasn’t). If you’ve been studying Irish for a while, you’re most likely either giggling or rolling your eyes (it’s an old, old joke).

This post is not X-rated, or even R-rated (though some of the language I’ve heard from people trying to sort out this subject would definitely earn an R rating!). It has to do with one of the most fundamental aspects of Irish (or pretty much any language) — the correct use of what is, in English, the verb “To Be.”

Two “To Be’s” (and They Aren’t Synonyms)

Irish has two verbs that correspond to the English “to be” — bí (the present tense, tá, is more commonly encountered by beginners, so I’ll use that to refer to this verb from here on out) and “the copula” —  is (pronounced to rhyme with “kiss,’ not as “iz” or “ish”).

The thing is, they aren’t interchangeable. Each has its own function, and using one when the other is called for is a serious grammar mistake (often referred to by learners as a “tá sé fear” error — TSF for short — for reasons that will, hopefully, become clear further on).

Figuring out when to use the copula and when to use can drive beginners a little bit crazy, and the way it’s usually taught doesn’t often help. We’ll talk about that in a second, but first…

What’s a copula?

“Copula” may sound a little like some kind of disease, but it’s actually just a grammatical term for what is sometimes called a “linking verb.” Here’s what Webster has to say about it:

Definition of linking verb

a word or expression (such as a form of be, become, feel, or seem) that links a subject with its predicate

It is related to the words “couple” and — yes — “copulate.” In Irish, “is” is the only copula, and it has a very specialized function, as we’ll see here in a bit. It’s really not as scary as it seems at first.

(But if you want to refer to it as “that copulating copula,” be my guest. It’s been called worse.)

Permanent vs. Impermanent

Typically, when new learners are first introduced to this concept, they are told to use is when talking about things that are permanent and tá when talking about things that are impermanent. Unfortunately, this explanation breaks down pretty quickly.

I was chatting with an advanced beginner at the San Francisco Deireadh Seachtaine Gaeltachta (Irish immersion weekend) some years back, when the subject of vegetarianism came up. I gave her the word for vegetarian (feoilséantóir — literally “meat denier”) and asked if she could use it in a sentence (always teaching!).

She hesitated for a second and then said “I guess it would be “Tá mé feoilséantóir,” because I haven’t always been a vegetarian and I might not be one forever, so it’s not a permanent state.”

Unfortunately, the practice of teaching the copula as something used to indicate a permanent state is a set-up for exactly this kind of mistake. You can’t say “Tá mé feoilséantóir.” It’s a TSF error. You say “Is feoilséantóir mé.

(I do have to say, for the record, that there ARE times when you would use “ta” to describe a new, transitory, or future state, but that requires a special construction using “i” — “in” — that I won’t go into here. Maybe in a later post.)

When you think about it, there is very little about people, animals, or things that is truly permanent. “The tree is tall” — until it’s been topped. “John is alive” — until he’s dead.

In addition there are things that are, more or less, permanent — for example “She is smart” or “Donegal is beautiful” (it is!) — for which we wouldn’t use the copula, at least not in this kind of simple construction. So clearly this isn’t a very useful distinction.

Nouns vs. Adjectives

At one point, when I was an intermediate learner, I overheard a teacher working with beginners offering this distinction:

“Use is when describing something using a noun. Use  when describing something using an adjective.”

This distinction actually worked pretty well for me for quite a while, because it’s more or less true: If  you want to say “X is [noun]” you use the copula and if you want to say “X is [adjective]” you use . Easy peasy, right?

It broke down in practice, however, when I started teaching beginners myself.

Aside from the fact that I often had to explain the grammatical terms, there are too many instances for which this distinction is just too broad.

For example, what if you have a sentence that includes both a noun AND an adjective (“He is a tall man,” for example)?

What about tá sentences that don’t include an adjective (“Tá an madadh ag ithe”: The dog is eating.  “Tá an pláta ar an tábla“: the plate is on the table”)? Maybe they even include an adverb (“Tá an madadh ag ithe go mall”: The dog is eating slowly)!

And what about those “is” idioms indicating likes and preferences that are often among the first phrases we learn (“Is maith liom tae”: I like tea. “Is breá liom fíon dearg”: I love red wine)? In this case, there are adjectives (“maith”: “good” and “breá“: “fine”) directly following the copula.

Tell it Like it is (or Tell Us What it is)

Here’s the method I finally settled on for teaching about the difference, and it holds up pretty well:

  • If you want to say something ABOUT something or someone, use tá.
  • If you want to say WHAT something or someone IS, use the copula.

You use tá say what something or someone is like: its appearance, its state or condition, its location, what it’s doing, etc. Some examples:

Tá an madadh dubh: The dog is black.

Tá an múinteoir ard dáthúil: The teacher is tall and handsome.

Tá Máire sa chistin: Maire is in the kitchen.

Tá na daoine ag rith: The people are running.

You use is to say what someone or something IS. Some examples:

Is madadh dubh é sin: That IS a black dog.

Is cócaire í Máire: Máire IS a cook.

Is é Seán an múinteoir: Seán IS the teacher.

Is iad na daoine atá ag rith: They ARE the people who are running.

(If you like grammatical terminology, these are called “identification” and “classification” sentences).

You also use the copula in certain basic set phrases, mostly having to do with likes, dislikes, and preferences (there are a few others as well, but you’ll pick those up as you go along):

Is maith liom: I like

Is breá liom: I love (as in “I love New York,” not as in “I love you, my darling”)

Is fearr liom: I prefer

Is fuath liom: I hate

Is cuma liom: I don’t care

There are more of these set expressions, but these are the ones you’re most likely to encounter early on.

It’s not really all that hard at all now, is it?

Is that all there is to it?

Of course, this isn’t the entire story. For instance, both verbs have negative forms, interrogative forms, a past tense, and a conditional mode. Tá also has a continuous mode and a future tense (Is doesn’t need a conditional mode, and doesn’t have a future tense, which is when that special construction using “in” that I mentioned above will come in handy).

But this WILL help you sort out the basic nuts and bolts of when to use tá and when to use the copula, and will help you build the foundation upon which everything else having to do with the verb “to be” in Irish will be built.

With enough practice, you’ll soon be copulating with the best of them!

(Oh, stop rolling your eyes!)


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/

 

The Modest Preposition

The humble preposition plays a vital role in the Irish language

A while back, I wrote a Facebook post lamenting the loss of the preposition “from” in the phrase “to graduate from college.” Apparently, in increasingly common usage, one no longer graduates from college, one “graduates college.” (There are lots of reasons why this oddly truncated phrase doesn’t work, which I’ll let Grammar Girl describe in detail. To me it’s like fingernails on a chalkboard.).

This led to a discussion about prepositions in general, with predictable side trips into regionalisms/colloquialisms, prescriptivism vs. descriptivism, language evolution (or devolution), etc., but what it all boiled down to was that prepositions are little words and, in English at least, are sometimes easily tossed aside.

(That said, I’ll challenge anyone who defends “graduate college” to explain why he doesn’t also “go school” or “sleep night”).

Me being me (yes, the geek is back!), this got me thinking about the vital role the humble preposition plays in the Irish language.

Little Word, Big Job

First let’s talk about the basic function of a preposition. Here’s what Merriam-Webster has to say about it:

Prepositions show direction, location, or time, or introduce an object. They are usually followed by an object—a noun, noun phrase, or pronoun. The most common prepositions are little and very common:

at, by, for, from, in, of, on, to, with

Further…

Prepositions typically show how the noun, noun phrase, or pronoun is related to another word in the sentence.

a friend of mine

the dress with the stripes

hit by a ball

no one except me

That’s a lot of work for a bunch of small words!

And how they work can vary greatly from country to country and from region to region, as this article demonstrates:

Prepositions: The super-handy and horribly confusing widgets of language, by James Harbeck.

Still, useful and perplexing as they are in English, prepositions take on a whole new job when it comes to Irish. They can take the place of verbs.

Let me explain

Perhaps the above needs a little explanation. It’s not that Irish doesn’t have verbs. Irish has plenty of verbs, and conjugating them drives new learners crazy (Though I’m not sure why. Irish verb construction is really very simple. More on that in another post).

English, however, is much more reliant on verbs to convey meaning. We have a dedicated verb for just about every conceivable action. Give us a concept and we can verb it (see what I did there?).

Irish, on the other hand, often favors a preposition, supported by some form of the verb “to be” to convey the same concepts. For example, in English we have (verbs in bold):

  • Seán has a new car
  • Máire is sick
  • Gráinne loves chocolate
  • Síle loves Sinéad
  • Éamonn hates tomatoes

The same sentences in Irish (verbs underlined; prepositions in bold):

  • carr nua ag Seán. (Literally “Is car new at Seán”)
  • tinneas ar Mháire (Literally “Is sickness on Máire”)
  • Is maith le Gráinne seacláid (Literally “Is good with Gráinne chocolate”)
  • grá ag Síle do Shinéad (Literally “Is love at Síle for Sinéad”)
  • Is fuath le Éamonn trátaí (Literally “Is hatred with Éamonn tomatoes”)

“Tá” and “Is” are both words that correspond to the verb “to be” in English (they’re not used interchangeably, but that also is a subject for another post…or maybe a book…or perhaps a small library).

But wait…there’s more!

An interesting thing about Irish prepositions (and a feature of Celtic languages in general) is that they have a special affinity with another class of small words that begins with “P” — pronouns. Irish conjugates prepositions by joining them with pronouns, in a form that is formally called a “prepositional pronoun.”

Knowing how prepositional pronouns work is integral to learning and speaking Irish (unless you want to sound like Tarzan).

Meet the pronouns

You probably remember from school that a pronoun is a word that takes the place of a noun (which saves us from having to say such things as “Audrey drives Audrey’s car to Audrey’s office every morning. Audrey gets out of Audrey’s car and unlocks the door to Audrey’s office and then goes to Audrey’s desk and checks Audrey’s email” which would be a pretty tedious and cumbersome way to talk, you have to admit).

These are the pronouns in English:

I/me
You
He/him
She/her
We/us
They/them
It

These are the pronouns in Irish:


Tú/thú
Sé/é
Sí/í
Muid or sinn (“sinn” is primarily used in Munster)
Sibh
Siad/iad

Because all nouns in Irish, animate or inanimate, have grammatical gender, Irish doesn’t have an equivalent of the neuter inanimate pronoun “it.” Also, unlike contemporary English, Irish has singular and plural forms of “you”: tú/thú for singular and sibh for plural.

Putting it all together

In Irish, you can’t just put a pronoun next to a preposition. You must combine the two into a “prepositional pronoun.” For example, you can’t say:

Ag mé

You have to say:

Agam

Here’s the full conjugation of “ag” (“at):

Agam (“at me”)
Agat (“at you” – singular)
Aige (“at him”)
Aici (“at her”)
Againn (“at us”)
Agaibh (“at you” – plural)
Acu (“at them”)

Here are the sentences I used earlier, each with one noun replaced with a prepositional pronoun:

  • carr nua aige(Literally “Is car new at him,” i.e., “He has a new car”)
  • tinneas uirthi (Literally “Is sickness on her,” i.e., “She is sick”)
  • Is maith léi seacláid (Literally “Is good with her chocolate,” i.e., “She likes chocolate”)
  • grá ag Síle di (Literally “Is love at Síle for her,”i.e., “Síle loves her”)
  • Is fuath leis trátaí (Literally “Is hatred with him tomatoes,” i.e., “He hates tomatoes”)

What this all comes down to is that, when translating many common phrases from English to Irish, you need to know at least three things:

1) Is this an instance that requires a preposition rather than a dedicated verb?
2) If so, which preposition is required?
3) If I want to use a pronoun, how does that pronoun combine with the preposition?

(There are actually a few more things you have to know, such as “how does the preposition affect a word that follows it?” but we’ll deal with that somewhere/time down the road).

Bad news for wannabe translators

There are myriad reasons why a person who isn’t reasonably fluent in Irish (or in any other language not their own) shouldn’t attempt translations for anything permanent or public. This is one of the biggies. Idioms involving prepositions and prepositional pronouns are integral to the language. There’s just no getting around that. And if you don’t know how to use them, you’re going to get it wrong — guaranteed.

And if I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a hundred times YOU CANNOT RELY ON GOOGLE TRANSLATE. Seriously. Just don’t. If you need an example or two of how just how badly Google handles Irish, check out this post I wrote for Bitesize Irish a few years back:

Bitesize Irish – Irish Translators

I’m sorry to say it hasn’t improved much in the intervening seven-plus years.

Translator’s bane, learner’s boon

If you’re learning Irish, or contemplating doing so (maybe as a New Year’s resolution!), this may seem a bit daunting. Don’t let it worry you.

The fact that these idioms are so integral to Irish means that you will begin encountering them from your earliest lessons, and the more common ones will become familiar very, very quickly. These include the kinds of sentences you will use over and over again, such as:

  • Those involving possessions
  • Those involving physical attributes
  • Those involving desires, likes, and dislikes
  • Those involving health/physical condition

It won’t take you long to begin to get a feel for the patterns. And when you need help, this is one case in which your favorite dictionary can be really useful.

Most dictionaries, whether print or on-line, have extensive entries on prepositions, which will not only give you the prepositional pronoun forms, but lots of examples of usage. Here’s an example from Teanglann.ie:

Ag (at) in Foclóir Gaeilge-Béarla

You’ll get it — I promise! And faster than you might think.

The Geek is back!

You may have noticed that I haven’t been around for a while (You have noticed, haven’t you? Please tell me you noticed! Actually, if you haven’t, don’t tell me!). Adjusting to working full time after 20+ years of working from home, as well as dealing with some health issues, put a cramp in my style for a bit.

I’m back now, though, and I made two resolutions for 2020:

  1. To get this post finished and posted by the end of New Year’s Day (nailed it!)
  2. To write more frequently in 2020 (I’m aiming for publishing fortnightly, if possible. Hold me to it!)

If you think of something you’d like me to write about regarding Irish and/or translation, please let me know! You can say it in the comments below or message me via WordPress.

Athbhliain faoi rath is faoi mhaise daoibh! (A lovely and prosperous New Year to you all!)

Le meas, GG


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/

Oh, What an Idiom!

Translation is both an art and a science, and it takes more than you might realize to get a correct translation.

dul gorm censored (1)

Definition of idiom (Thank you, Webster!)

1an expression in the usage of a language that is peculiar to itself, either grammatically (such as no, it wasn’t me) or in having a meaning that cannot be derived from the conjoined meanings of its elements (such as ride herd on for “supervise”).

2athe language peculiar to a people or to a district, community, or class :DIALECT

bthe syntacticalgrammatical, or structural form peculiar to a language.

It’s not a bug, it’s a feature

Idioms are so much a part of our language — of ANY language — that it can be hard for learners or translation seekers to understand that they may not make sense when translated directly into another language.

We deal with idioms day after day, though we may not be aware of them. Consider these:

  • You take a bath
  • You make money
  • It’s raining cats and dogs

You don’t think about these phrases…they’re just part of how you speak. To you they sound perfectly logical. But imagine how they sound to a learner of your language:

  • You’re removing a bathtub from one place to another
  • You’re printing your own money
  • Dogs and cats are literally falling from the sky

A challenge for would-be translators

Many pitfalls await for people who try to do their own translations without actually knowing the language into which they’re translating. Assuming that idioms can translate literally across languages is one of the most common.

While this can be true for any language, the further you get from familiar English structures and culture, the less likely it is that your idiom will make any sense at all once “translated.”

This is what happened with the shirt on the poor fellow in the photo above (His face and his Twitter handle are obscured to save him from embarrassment, as I doubt he’s the originator of this mistake. It’s been going around the internet for quite a while. He looks sad because he’s just learned that his shirt is wrong).

Whoever “translated” the words on his shirt assumed that the common American English slogan “Go [sports team]” could be expressed literally in Irish.

By now, I probably don’t have to tell you that this is not the case.

Just go

There are two problems here, and the first (and most fundamental) issue is one of idiom.

What the shirt is intended to say is “Go Blue” — a slogan you’ll hear shouted enthusiastically at games by students and alumni of the University of Michigan (whose color is, of course, blue).

Irish has a couple of words that mean “go,” depending on context. The one used here is the verb téigh (Yes, I know that nothing on that shirt looks like “téigh.” More on that in a moment). Another common one is imigh.

Between the two of them, they encompass most of the usual uses of “go” (téigh is more of a general-use “go,” while imigh is more “go” as in “leave/depart”): “Go home,” “Go away,” “Let’s go to grandma’s,” “The road goes ever on,” “Does this bus go to Dublin?” “I go to work every day,” etc., etc.

And, of course, there’s always this one:

an bhfuil cead agam 2

Neither of them, however, is used as a rallying cry.

When you want to express something like this in Irish, you use the word abú, which means, roughly, “onward.” And it comes AFTER whatever you’re cheering for.

GORM ABÚ!!!! GO BLUE!!!!

A matter of grammar

The other issue with this “translation” is that, even if “Go Blue” could have been rendered using the verb téigh, the “translator” chose the wrong form of the verb.

Dul is a form known as the “verbal noun,” which, depending on context, corresponds to the infinitive (“to go”) or the present participle (“going”).

Ba mhaith liom dul abhaile: I would like to go home.

Tá mé ag dul abhaile: I am going home.

What was wanted is the imperative — the form of the verb that is used for giving an order or direction.

In Irish, the root form of the verb is the singular imperative, so to tell one person or entity to “go,” you’d simply use téigh.  For multiple people or entities, you’d use téigí. A sports team is a singular entity, so even if this could have been translated literally, the verb form should have been téigh, not dul.

Téigh abhaile: Go home.

The point of all of this

The point of this (and of other similar posts in this blog) isn’t to ridicule the University of Michigan or other groups/individuals who make these very public mistakes. It’s to emphasize the fact that, if you don’t speak a language, you can’t translate into it. You can’t even verify a translation given to you by someone else.

That’s why you absolutely must verify your sources. Check, re-check, and then check again. Even if you get a translation from a close friend or family member, get it verified. Get a minimum of three RELIABLE sources in agreement before proceeding.

Translation is both an art and a science, and it takes more than you might realize to get a correct translation.

New year, new price

Inflation affects the best of us…even translators. The price for both The Irish Gaelic Tattoo Handbook and The Scottish Gaelic Tattoo Handbook will be going up sometime this month. If you’ve been thinking about buying a copy of one or both of them, act now! Both books are available from Amazon and from Barnes & Noble, or from your local bookstore via special order.


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/

 

A Cautionary Tale, or What to Buy Your Celtic-Loving Loved Ones for Christmas

Or for Hanukkah. Or for Yule. Or just because. Because friends don’t let friends get bad tattoos!

Once Upon a Time…

Once upon a time, a young man decided to honor his heritage by getting a tattoo in the language of his people…

Alas, he put his faith in the internet and the results were, shall we say, less than optimal.

I really wish this were a fairy tale!

Truth in Advertising

The video above may be an advertisement (in fact, it’s a promotional video by my publisher, Bradan Press, filmed in a real tattoo studio and at a Nova Scotia kitchen party) but the situation it portrays is all too real.

There is a significant interest in tattoos, engravings, cards, and other such things in the languages of the Celtic lands. In the nearly 15 years that I’ve been learning Irish, I’ve seen literally thousands of requests for tattoo translations, and almost as many requests for translations for artwork, cards, T-shirts, etc.

And that’s just in Irish. Heaven knows how may translation requests go out every day for Scottish Gaelic, Welsh, Cornish, or Breton.

What’s really frightening, though, is that for every person who has requested a translation, whether from a forum, from a professional translator, or from an individual, there are many more who just do an internet search, or make the mistake of relying on Google “Translate.” And many of those translations, though hideously bad, end up permanently inked on someone’s skin.

(Not to mention in my blog. Here are just a few tattoo travesties I’ve written about in recent years: It’s A Long Life With A Bad TattooThe Great Soulmate DebateBig Sister’s Big Mistake: Four Mistakes in Two Words).

It doesn’t have to be this way.

The Celtic Tattoo Handbook Series

Two years ago I was approached by Celtic-themed Canadian publisher Bradan Press about writing The Irish Gaelic Tattoo Handbook as a companion to The Scottish Gaelic Tattoo Handbook, which had been published the previous year.

It was exciting, working with friends who are native speakers, as well as two professional Irish-language editors, to come up with the best, most authentic, translations for the most commonly requested tattoo words and phrases.

It was even more exciting to have the opportunity to educate people a bit about the language and about the translation process, which is much less simple than you might imagine! Sometimes I look at the book, open it and read the first chapters, and hope that it’s encouraged people to learn more about this language that I love.

Not Just for Tattoos

Although both books target tattoo seekers, both are also valuable for people who use, or would like to use, these languages in their artwork, as well as for such things as family reunion T-shirts, grave markers, and other such purposes (Fun Fact: After tattoos, inscriptions for grave markers/tombstones are the most commonly sought after Irish translations!).

Beyond these, both books are great for people who have an interest in or are learning these languages, as they supply not only common phrases, but also basic facts about the languages and the people who speak them (yes, both are living languages).

If you have friends or family members who are interested in the Celtic languages, or in tattoos, or in both, these books make great stocking stuffers!

Act Now!

I’ve always wanted to say that! (I think I was a infomercial narrator in a previous life!)

But seriously…don’t delay. Both books will increase in price in 2019, so if you want them, or know someone who would like to (or should) have them, now’s the time to buy!

And There’s More! Here’s to a Happy New Year!

I did mention that this is a series, right? Well, it takes more than two to make a series, and I’m happy to announce that the next two books in the series will be available in spring, 2019!

The Welsh Tattoo Handbook is one of the books that will be coming out next year. Welsh, a Celtic language that is spoken in Wales and in parts of Argentina, is a member of a different branch of the Celtic language family: The Brythonic Branch.

The Scots Tattoo Handbook is the first of the series to address a language that is spoken in a Celtic country, but is not itself a Celtic language. Scots is a Germanic language spoken in the Scottish lowlands and in Northern Ireland (If you’ve ever sung “Auld Lang Syne,” or read any poem by Robert Burns, you’re familiar with it). While some may argue whether Scots is a language distinct from English or a dialect of English, it is distinctive enough to merit its own book, and should interest anyone who has a love for Scotland!

Nollaig Mhaith, agus Athbhliain Faoi Mhaise Daoibh!

Whatever holiday you celebrate, and whatever language you speak (or want to speak), I wish all my readers and your families and friends happy holidays and a lovely and blessed New Year! See you in 2019! (My New Year’s resolution is to write more!)

Is mise, le meas,

The Geeky Gaeilgeoir


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/