“English Only, Please!”

You’d think a docent at a place called “Gardens of the World” would be more receptive to world languages, but apparently to some a rós is not a rose.

Language discrimination. You hear about it all the time.

A young woman is standing in a supermarket line, talking on the phone to her mother in Spanish, and someone taps her on the shoulder and says “This is America. We speak English here.”

Two college students are chatting in Arabic on the underground in London, and a big guy gets in their faces and tells them to bugger off back to their “own country.”

A couple of women go on holiday in Wales and come back red-faced and angry because “They were speaking Welsh in the pub, and we know they were talking about us!”

You hear about it, and it makes you angry, but you never really, truly internalize it until it happens to you.

Welcome to the World

I  spent this past weekend thoroughly enjoying the annual Los Angeles-area Deireadh Seachtaine Gaeltachta (Irish language immersion weekend), which was held this year in Thousand Oaks, CA. This was my fifth year at this event, and I always look forward to it. Wonderful people, An Ghaeilge an t-am ar fad…what’s not to love?

I’ll write more about the L.A. DSG a little later this week (I have a lot of photos and memories to organize!). I had a wonderful time! But right now I want to write about something that happened to some of us on the last day of the weekend, because it was very upsetting to all of us, and not something I feel I can let slide.

On Sunday, the last day of the DSG, a group of us decided to visit the nearby Gardens of the Worlda botanical garden in the heart of Thousand Oaks.

Gardens of the World was established by Irish-American entrepreneurs Ed and Lynn Hogan as “a striking monument to commemorate the various cultures of the world.” It consists of five different gardens, each one dedicated to a particular world culture.

“Field trips” are a fun feature of the L.A. DSG…a chance to speak Irish in a different setting, with different conversational topics. As Gardens of the World is no more than a mile from where we were holding our classes, it seemed like a perfect place to spend some time on a Sunday afternoon, speaking Irish and enjoying the beautiful early summer weather.

Seeming is Not, Alas, Believing

I really wish I could say that the Gardens of the World was a good experience. I wanted it to be a good experience. I’d had a wonderful weekend, I love botanical gardens, and this seemed like a perfect cap to the occasion.

Sadly, things went pear-shaped rather quickly.

Three of us arrived shortly before the others and, noticing the very small parking lot, politely asked one of the docents if there were other places to park nearby. We were treated to an officious lecture about how limited space is in the gardens (it really isn’t all that limited, nor was it particularly crowded!). It was very clear that our little group presented a huge problem to this person, and she wanted to be sure we knew just how big a problem we were.*

Nothing like first impressions, eh?

Eventually the rest of our group found parking, and we set off to enjoy the gardens, chatting as Gaeilge.

A second confrontation

We hadn’t been in the gardens 15 minutes when we were confronted again, by the same docent.

We’d stopped at a display of the California missions and one of our number had begun to talk (in Irish, of course) about the missions and the role they played in the history of California,  for the sake of those among us who were from out of state.

Suddenly this woman confronted us again. She accused us of “conducting a private tour.” She accused the person who had been talking about the missions of “using an amplification device” (she wasn’t).  She complained again about the size of our group. Then she said the thing that turned our irritation into shock and outright anger:

“We can’t have you doing this in a foreign language, because we don’t know what you’re saying.”

To say that we were gobsmacked would be putting it mildly.

I have no idea what she thought we might have been saying that could possibly have been so bad that she felt threatened by the language we were speaking. Horrible things, such as “The Japanese garden is all about tranquility” or “The missions were established by the Spanish”? Or maybe “Roses are my favorite flower?” Or perhaps she thought we were talking about her, like the women in the Welsh pub?

You’d think a docent at a place called “Gardens of the World” would be more receptive to world languages, but apparently to some a rós is not a rose.

Well, we continued on our “tour,” and we didn’t stop speaking Irish, but that line continued to fester, and when we got back to the place where our classes were being held. we talked about it for a bit.

California is a state that people of many tongues call home, and that many more visit every year. There is no excuse for language discrimination in any place, but in a place as diverse as Southern California, it’s absolutely absurd.

I found it particularly ironic that this happened in a place that was established by a family with the surname “Hogan.” I don’t know if Ed and Lynn Hogan spoke Irish, but their ancestors certainly would have. And they would have faced terrible discrimination — a form of bigotry and cultural genocide that came very close to eradicating the language altogether.

I volunteered to write a letter, which I have done. If I hear back from them, I’ll update this post with their response.

Why the fear?

I’ve never understood the xenophobia that makes some people suspicious or resentful of those who speak another language.

Are some people actually so self-centered that they think that people speaking another language are talking about them? Really?

It’s a big world, full of people of divers tongues and cultures. To my mind, one of the best parts of living in the 21st century is the opportunity we have, thanks to the internet, to communicate with people all over the world…to learn about languages and customs that our ancestors never had the chance to experience.

It’s time to let go of the fear. To learn to appreciate and enjoy diversity, rather than to resent and shun it. It’s time to celebrate the human family in all its wonderful variations.

A garden full of flowers of all the same color, shape, and scent, after all, would be a very dull place indeed.

Le meas,

GG

* In the interest of full disclosure, there is a line, buried in the small print on Gardens of the World’s website, asking groups of six or more to contact the gardens before they come. We  hadn’t seen it. We weren’t a large group, but there were more than six of us, and had we seen it, we most certainly would have called. And, had this been explained to us politely when we showed up, we would have been happy to break into smaller groups, as the reason we were given for the problem with larger groups was that they’re concerned about big groups interfering with the “traffic flow” in the gardens. Unfortunately, we were shown no politeness whatsoever — in fact, we were lectured as if we were naughty, and not particularly bright, little children — which, by the way, are also apparently not welcome in the gardens!

 

A Song for St. Patrick

I get it. I really do. But could you please tone it down a little?

On March 17, people throughout the world, Irish or not, will celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. There will be green beer, green bagels, shamrocks everywhere (or sometimes, mistakenly, four-leafed clovers. Take note, folks…the shamrock only has three leaves!).

Some people will don t-shirts with stereotypical and offensive slogans and images on them, get pissing drunk, sing maudlin American music hall songs, scarf down corned beef and cabbage (an American tradition, by the way, not an Irish one), and somehow persuade themselves that they are celebrating Irish culture.

I get it

I get it. I really do. Cultural festivals are fun. One of the nice things about our multicultural society is that we can learn about and enjoy aspects of other cultures.

So if you want to wear green on March 17, lift a glass of Guinness or two, or even if you just have to slake your passionate craving for corned beef and cabbage, by all means, do so! Fun is fun, after all!

But please…do tone it down a bit! Stereotypes are never OK.

St. Patrick’s Day in Ireland

Except for in some of the big cities, Irish observance of St. Patrick’s Day is very different from what you’ll find here in the U.S. There may be a parade. Perhaps a few more people will drop into the pub. The religious folks will go to Mass. But green fountains? Nah. Green beer? Certainly not! (how can you even drink that?)

St. Patrick was, after all, a bishop. He is known as the apostle of Ireland. While bishops weren’t quite as rigid back in the day, I doubt he would have been terribly impressed by some of the celebrations that go on in his name today.

My favorite St. Patrick’s Day song

There’s a hymn to St. Patrick that is a particular favorite of mine. We sing it every year at the Irish Mass in Mountain View, California, on the Sunday before St. Patrick’s Day.

I’m not suggesting you go to Mass (well, unless you want to!), and you may not be terribly religious (If at all. You don’t have to be religious, or Christian, to enjoy St. Patrick’s Day), but I hope you enjoy this particular aspect of cultural appreciation. Never miss the opportunity to sing in Irish…that’s my motto!

I’ll leave you with the words, a translation, and a recording. And, of course, a happy St. Patrick’s Day! Lá ‘le Pádraig sona daoibh go léir!

Véarsa 1:

Dóchas linn Naomh Pádraig, aspal mór na hÉireann.

Ainm oirdhearc gléigeal, solas mór an tsaoil é.

D’fhill le soiscéal grá dúinn, ainneoin blianta ‘ngéibheann,

Grá mór Mhac na Páirte d’fuascail cách ón daorbhroid.

 

Véarsa 2:

Sléibhte, gleannta, maighe, ‘s bailte mór na hÉireann,

Ghlán sé iad go deo dúinn, míle glóir dár naomh dhil.

Iarr’mid ort, a Phádraig, guí orainn na Gaela,

Dia linn lá ‘gus oíche, ‘s Pádraig aspal Éireann.

 

Verse 1:

Our hope is St. Patrick, great apostle of Ireland.

A renowned and pure/bright name; a great light to the world.

He returned to us with the gospel of love, despite years of bondage.

The great love of God’s beloved son that freed all from slavery.

 

Verse 2:

Mountains, glens, plains, and great cities of Ireland,

He purified them for us forever; great glory to our dear saint.

We implore you, O Patrick, to pray for us, the Gael.

God with us day and night, and Patrick Ireland’s apostle.

(Note: Verse 1 repeats at the end in the recording above)

Éire go Brách!

O Say, Can You Say…?

Irish pronunciation: You can learn it. You CAN crack the code. And I’m going to tell you how.

In the 14+ years I’ve been learning Irish, I’ve noticed that, among learners (including myself), there’s a particular pattern of what I call “freakoutage” — i.e., things that make you clutch your hair and moan “Oh no! I’ll never learn this!”

It’s a very particular pattern, and it goes like this:

  • Freaking out about pronunciation
  • Freaking out about dialects
  • Freaking out about the use of tá vs. is.
  • Freaking out about how to answer “yes/no” questions
  • Freaking out about Irish verbs in general
  • Freaking out about certain verb forms

And it’s not just beginners! Far from it! In fact, I was once part of a class of advanced learners — people who can chat fairly comfortably on a wide variety of topics — who froze in wide-eyed, open-mouthed horror when the teacher cheerfully suggested “Let’s practice the modh coinníollach!

(The modh coinníolach is the conditional verb form — would, could, should, etc. — and for some reason that I really don’t understand it strikes terror into the hearts of Irish learners everywhere).

At some point I hope to talk about each of these in this blog, but for right now, let’s start with the most basic.

The elephant in the room: pronunciation

Once you’ve cracked the code, it can be hard to believe that you ever struggled with Irish pronunciation.

For an absolute beginner, however, the first time you look at an Irish word and then hear it pronounced (and realize that nothing that came out of the speaker’s mouth sounded remotely as you’d assumed it would), the prospect of actually learning to speak the language can seem pretty overwhelming.

The truth is that Irish spelling and pronunciation are surprisingly regular, particularly when compared with English (the language that gives us “through,” “though,” and “tough,” to name just a few of English’s inconsistencies!).

You can learn it. You CAN crack the code. And I’m going to tell you how.

First, forget all you think you know

Usually the first thing I hear when I pronounce an Irish word for someone is “How can that possibly make those sounds?” 

People tend to assume that letters have more or less absolute values, and that, perhaps with a few exceptions, they should sound more or less in one language as they do in another.

Language learners learn fairly quickly that that’s not always the case. Some letters and letter combinations in Irish sound like their counterparts in English, but many do not. Sometimes the difference is subtle and sometimes it’s quite marked.

Irish words also often seem to have more letters than they could possibly need.  One reason for this is an Irish spelling convention that dictates that a vowel on one side of a consonant or consonant combination must be matched with a vowel of the same type on the other side.

This rule is referred to as caol le caol agus leathan le leathan (“slender with slender and broad with broad”).  The “slender” vowels are i and e, and the broad vowels are a, o, and u. Often, when you find three vowels together in Irish, one of them is there simply to satisfy this spelling rule.

Add this to the fact that consonants and consonant combinations often make very different sounds to their counterparts in English, and you can find just about everything you know about spelling turned upside down.

If you go in without the expectation that things will “sound like they’re spelled” (a phrase I’ve come to hate, as they DO sound like they’re spelled…if you speak Irish! English is not the arbiter of the alphabet!), you’ll have an easier time right from the start.

Next: Forget Phonetics

It is so very tempting, when you hear an Irish word, to write it out using English phonics, or to ask the teacher to do so for you. So it may come as a surprise to you when I say that this is one of the WORST things you can do if you truly want to learn to read Irish as written.

There are a lot of reasons why writing things out “phonetically” is a bad idea. Here are just a few of them:

  • The sounds of Irish cannot be accurately represented by English phonics.* Consider the word gaoth (wind) for example. When people attempt to write it with English phonics, it usually gets set down as “gwee.” The problem is, while there is a sound in there that sounds a little like an English “w,” it’s not precisely equivalent. You can hear it pronounced in the three major dialects here:

    Gaoth
  • Phonetic renderings impose an extra step between your ear, your eye, your mind, and your mouth. When you use English phonics to describe Irish sounds, you’re not really learning to associate the sounds with the Irish spelling, which can make learning to read and pronounce Irish doubly difficult.
  • Phonetic renderings can quickly become a crutch. I’ve known several people who never have learned to pronounce Irish as written, even after years of study, because they haven’t been able wean themselves off their English phonetic renderings (and at least one guy who claims it’s “impossible” to learn how to pronounce Irish as written and is trying to promote a new, English-based Irish spelling system. How sad is that?).

* Someone here is bound to mention IPA. Yes, the International Phonetic Alphabet is capable of representing pretty much any sound. It also takes just about as much time to to learn as Irish phonics, and presents the same problem as using English phonetics when it comes to putting a barrier between you and the written language. Save the IPA for another day.

See it; hear it; say it

So how do you learn to pronounce written Irish? The answer is so simple you’re going to think I’m pulling your leg. So simple, and yet so vital:

  • You see the word or phrase
  • You listen to a recording of the word or phrase
  • You say the word or phrase

What you need to do is establish a link between the word as it appears, the word as it sounds, and the word as it’s said. There is absolutely no substitute for this kind of practice if you want to learn to read Irish as written.

Don’t sit there and think to yourself “How can this possibly be pronounced like that?” Just accept that it is and learn it. It really is just that simple, and you’ll be surprised at just how quickly it works.

Of course, there are details

They say the devil is in the details, and if you want this method to work well for you, you need to give that devil his due. If you go about this randomly, at best it will take much longer to learn and at worst you may find yourself so confused that you give up.

Here are a few words of advice:

  • If you don’t have a teacher, pick ONE self-teaching method that has both a written and an aural component and stick with that one until you’ve finished it. This is important advice for learning Irish in general, and especially important if you want to get a solid grasp on how to read it as written. Don’t worry about dialects at this point. You’re just trying to get the basics, without confusing yourself too much. Once you’ve got those down, you can adjust your pronunciation as needed. I list several good resources in my blog post “Beyond Duolingo.”
  • If you do have a teacher, ask him or her if you can make a recording of vocabulary words and phrases/sentences from the unit you’re working on.
  • For now, avoid YouTube “pronunciation” videos. Yes, all of them (unless, of course, they’re part of the self-teaching method you’re using or of the program your teacher is using). Some of them are good, some are “meh,” and some are outright horrible. You don’t want to confuse yourself, and you certainly don’t want to establish bad habits right from the start! Those videos can wait until you’re a little farther along.
  • Practice daily, or more frequently if possible. Spend at least a few minutes every day working with your recordings. Look at the word or phrase you’re learning while you play the recording and again while you try to emulate the recording. See it; hear it; say it. Some self-learning programs, such as “Enjoy Irish!,” even have apps available for your phone, so you can spend a few minutes practicing during your lunch break (or on the bus or train if you don’t mind people looking at you funny!).
  • Every so often, reverse the order: Look at the word or phrase first, try to say it, and then compare what you said to the recording. This will allow you to assess your progress. When you get to the point where you’re pronouncing things correctly most of the time, and it’s just a matter of refining pronunciation rather than trying to work out how all the letters sound, you’ll know you’ve cracked the code.

Practice makes perfect

It may be a cliché, but it’s true nevertheless. If you work like this a little each day, pronunciation of written Irish will come to you more quickly than you may have dreamed possible when you first began.

So what are you waiting for? Get out there, get a good learning method (if you don’t have one already) and start practicing!

And while you’re at it, don’t forget to have a wonderful St. Patrick’s Day! Lá ‘le Pádraig sona daoibh!

Happy Learning!

GG

 

Irish Tattoos That Make Us Cringe

It’s March, and St. Patrick’s Day is in the air! To celebrate, my publisher and I have put up a “Bad Tattoo” post on Bored Panda.

It’s a promotion for the book, of course, but it’s also a great antidote for all the kitsch that comes our way at this time of year.

It may seem surprising, but reading and doing tattoo translations can actually be a good way to learn basic Irish-language concepts, including sentence structure, idiom, and the use of articles and the genitive case.

And if schadenfreude is your thing, looking at these particular tattoo “translations” will definitely scratch that itch!

Enjoy, and if you’re so inclined, please share! The world needs more exposure to Irish and fewer bad Irish tattoos!

Erin Go Wut?! Real-Life Irish Tattoos That Make Us Cringe

Happy March!

GG

Yu Ming’s Revenge

Irish pops up when you least expect it!

When you study a minority language, you’re always looking for evidence that it still exists out there, beyond the classroom or the immersion course.

With a language such as Irish, which suffers from an identity crisis here in the U.S. (“Don’t you mean Gaelic?”), and which many Americans seem to think is dead, if they know it ever existed at all (“You mean they have their own language?”), it sometimes surprises me when I encounter it at all.

And yet, there it is, popping up when I least expect it.

From Tattoos to T-Shirts

I’ll be the first to admit that most of this “pop-up Irish” is (usually) minimalist, to say the least. It’s things such as spotting the word “fáilte” among other world languages on a “welcome” poster on the door of an elementary school classroom, or the word “uisce” among other words meaning “water” on a decorative fountain.

And sometimes, alas, the Irish that crops up is horrifyingly bad. I mean, have a look at this guy’s T-shirt. And don’t even get me started on the bad Irish tattoos I’ve seen! (Actually, you don’t need to get me “started,” as I often blog about them, and even wrote an entire book dedicated to helping people avoid them!)

But every now and then I’ll get a real surprise, such as the time the person in the visitors’ booth in downtown Santa Cruz greeted me with Cén chaoi a bhfuil tú? (“How are you?” in Connacht Irish)* or the time the lady in San Francisco, spotting my An bhfuil Gaeilge agat? (“Do you speak Irish?”) T-shirt, said “Tá neart Gaeilge agam! Is múinteoir Gaeilge mé!” (“I have a lot of Irish! I’m an Irish teacher!”).

These are the encounters you live for, and one unexpected Irish encounter such as these can brighten my entire day! Unfortunately, for most of us, they’re too few and too seldom.

Well, I had one last week, and I’m going to tell you about it, but first…

Yu Ming is Ainm Dom

If you’re an Irish speaker or learner and haven’t seen the wonderful short film Yu Ming is Ainm Dom (“My Name is Yu Ming”), first, have you been living under a rock? And second, you need to see it. Here’s a link: Yu Ming is Ainm Dom.

It’s only about 10 minutes long. Go ahead…I’ll wait. It’s relevant.

Synopsis

Just in case you’re in a hurry (Or you can’t listen to a video because you’re at work. Do have a listen later, though), here’s the basic plot:

Yu Ming is a young Chinese man who becomes bored with his life as a shop worker and decides to relocate. A spin of the globe lands him in Ireland, and a glance at an atlas tells him that the country’s official language is “Gaelic.”

For the next six months he works hard at learning Irish, becoming increasingly more comfortable with the language. Finally the big day comes, and he hops on a plane bound for Dublin.

At first he’s pleased and excited to see the signs in Irish all around the airport, on the busses, etc. Things come crashing down, however, when he realizes that no one understands him when he tries to speak it.

After days of looking for work and trying to get by, poor Yu Ming decides that he doesn’t have very good Irish after all…until a chance meeting with a man in a bar (played by the wonderful Frank Kelly) reveals that he actually has MORE Irish than most people in Ireland, where English, alas, is the majority language.

(It’s a sad commentary on the state of Irish in much of Ireland, but don’t worry…the film has a happy ending!)

Yu Ming’s Revenge

This story is important, not only because it’s a great short film, but also because it made my most recent Irish encounter all the sweeter.

When I’m not speaking in Irish, writing about Irish, dissecting Irish tattoos, or making music, I work as an editor for a market research firm. The people who take part in our survey panels earn points, which they can exchange for PayPal payouts or Amazon gift cards, and one of my jobs is to redeem their points for them.

We have panelists from all over the world, but last week was my first time encountering one from China. This person wanted an Amazon gift card. Unfortunately, the Amazon China website is in…well…Chinese.

Because of the French and Latin I took in high school and college, I can generally manage navigating Amazon in French, Italian, or Spanish, but Chinese is an entirely different story. I didn’t even know where to start!

I opened it in Chrome and tried to use the translate utility to render the page in English, but kept getting the message “Unable to translate this page.”

The layout was also quite different from the Amazon sites I’m more accustomed to, so I couldn’t use that for a guide. I copied blocks of text into Google Translate (see how desperate I was?), but without the page layout, the fragments I got weren’t of much help to me.

Out of frustration, I tried again to use Chrome to translate the page. I got the same message. Then I realized there was a drop-down menu for other languages. I said “I wonder…”. Nah…never happen! But I wonder…”.

Famous last words! Sure enough, I chose “Irish” and the page translated with no problem!

Was it perfect Irish? No. Far from it (you can see an example in the picture above). But it was readable Irish (and, for me, one heck of a lot more readable than the Chinese), and it was such a surprise, I swear they could hear me laughing in China!

Never let anyone tell you that Irish is a “dead” or “useless” language. It’s out there, and we should treasure every opportunity we have to speak or read it.

And somewhere in Connemara, I think, someone named Yu Ming is smiling.

* Venus, the lovely person who runs the information booth in downtown Santa Cruz, has tried to learn basic greetings in as many languages as possible. She saw my harp necklace and guessed that I was Irish. Sure took me by surprise, and she had good pronunciation to boot!


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/

Welcome Springtime!

So you think “the first day of spring” is on the vernal equinox? Think again!

Lá fhéile Bríde sona daoibh! Happy St. Brighid’s Day to you all!

I had hoped to write a completely new post for this special day, but time got away from me. Maybe next year!

So in celebration of the REAL first day of spring (Think the “first day of spring” is on the vernal equinox? Think again!), here’s a link to a post I wrote for Lá Fhéile Bríde  for Bitesize Irish Gaelic in 2013.

It includes some background on the woman (or women?) whom Christians know as a saint and Pagans know as a goddess, as well as some things you can do to celebrate her feast day.

St. Brighid’s Day: Comes the Irish Springtime

And, thanks to the wonderful Irish singer Pádraigín Ní Uallacháin, here is a beautiful hymn to Brighid to brighten your day:

Gabhaim Molta Bríde

Wherever you are in this beautiful world, have a wonderful day! Bainigí sult as, agus Brat Bríde oraibh go léir! (Enjoy, and may Bríd’s cloak shelter you!)

GG.

 

The Great Soulmate Debate

This tattoo doesn’t say “My Soulmate.” It says “I was grossly misled.”

I must admit, before I started learning Irish, I didn’t think much about the word “soulmate.”

Other than the occasional romantic reference, the only time I ever gave the concept much thought was in my junior-year college philosophy class (thank you, Whitworth University!), when I encountered it during a unit on Plato.

In “Symposium,” Plato’s Aristophanes envisions human beings as originally having four arms, four legs, two faces, etc. They were extremely powerful, and posed a threat to the gods, so  Zeus, (who, in addition to being a god, was also a bit of a jerk), decided to divide them in half.

Even after their bleeding halves were patched up by a sympathetic Apollo, humans continued to mourn for, and ever search for, their missing halves: their “soulmates.”

(I always knew that philosophy class would come in handy some day, just like my high school algebra! Oh, wait…).

Love is in the Air

Over the years, the term “soulmate” has taken on something of a romantic connotation, particularly in the U.S.  — A sense of “fated lover” that is quite different from the way Europeans tend to interpret it (usually, in Europe, it has more of a “really-close-friends-separated-at-birth” connotation).

With Valentine’s Day fast approaching then, and with romance in the air, this seems to be a good time to wrestle with this most vexing of Irish translation requests.

The Infamous “A” Word

When I first started learning Irish, I used to hang out on an internet Irish translation forum, and it wasn’t long before I realized that translation requests for “soulmate/soulmates” were a huge source of unease and indecision.

Part of the problem was that Irish simply doesn’t have a native term for the concept of “soulmate” (Which seems to surprise a lot of people, but really shouldn’t. The concept is Greek, after all…why would Irish have evolved a native term for a foreign concept?). So we had to work a bit to come up with an appropriate term for whatever the translation seeker meant by “soulmate.”

(The idea that there is a one-for-one equivalent in any given language for a term or concept from another is a fallacy, by the way. Language is an expression of a culture, not simply a code. For example, what is the English term for “Nirvana”?)

The bigger issue, though, was that some people vociferously promoted (and continue to promote) an Irish term whose meaning couldn’t possibly be further from a romantic context (or even a good buddy context)anamchara.

Anamchara means “confessor” (as in the person who hears your confession before mass) or “spiritual advisor” (as in the person who guides the spiritual formation of a young monk or priest).

Even though it’s a compound of the Irish words anam (soul) and cara (friend), which might seem to make it a reasonable candidate for “soulmate,” it’s a word with a very specific meaning in Irish that has absolutely nothing to do lovers, or even with close friends (unless your best buddy is also the priest who hears your confession!).

Its proponents were so adamant, however, that many of us cringed as soon as we saw the term “soulmate,” knowing that an argument about anamchara lay ahead. We called it “The ‘A’ Word,” and dreaded dealing with the people (few of them fluent Irish speakers, and none of them native speakers) who insisted they had the right to fundamentally change the meaning of an Irish word to suit their own interpretation.

The “A” Word was such a point of contention that one of the forum regulars, a fluent Irish speaker, had as his signature line “You and me babe! Spiritual advisors forever!” (Yes, he was being sarcastic. He was NOT in the anamchara camp!)

It Gets Worse

Irritating as the anamchara debate was (and continues to be), at least anamchara is a legitimate, grammatically sound, Irish word. It doesn’t mean what its proponents would like it to mean, alas, but at least it’s not utter nonsense.

It wasn’t long, though, before we actually began to see utter nonsense produced in the (seemingly) eternal search for an Irish term for “soulmate.” A prime example is the three words tattooed on the neck of the unfortunate person in our featured photo:

Mo Anam Cara

This is just a grammatical nightmare. There’s no other term for it. This construction simply can’t exist in the Irish language.

What makes matters even worse is the fact that this “phrase” (can you actually call three words jammed together in no logical order a phrase?) is  frequently seen on jewelry that is actually PRODUCED in Ireland (where, frankly, they should know better) and sold in Irish/Celtic shops all over the world.

So What’s Wrong With It?

What’s wrong with it? Well, where to start?

What’s happened here is someone’s taken three Irish words:  Mo (“My”), Anam (“Soul”), and Cara (“Friend”), and put them together using English syntax. I’ve said it before, but repeat after me: Languages are not codes for one another. 

You absolutely cannot take words from one language and put them together in the form of another and hope to make any sense whatsoever. Seriously.  Languages just don’t work that way. Sorry, but it’s true.

In Irish, when you use one noun (such as “soul”) to describe another (such as “mate” or “friend”), the describing noun comes AFTER the noun it describes and is in the genitive case.

For example, in English we have “traffic light,” in which the word “traffic” describes the kind of “light” we’re talking about. “Traffic” comes first, because that’s how we do things in English.”

In Irish, however, things are reversed:

Trácht = traffic

Solas = light

But…

Solas Tráchta = traffic light (literally “light of traffic”)

If we’re speaking of a soulmate (or, more literally, a “soul friend”), the word “soul” describes the kind of “mate” or “friend” you’re talking about. So it must come AFTER the word for “friend,” and it must be in the genitive case:

Cara Anama = Friend of (a) Soul/Soul Friend/Soul Mate

Another problem is with the possessive adjective mo (“my”). When it comes before a vowel, it elides (i.e., the “o” disappears and is replaced with an apostrophe):

Anam = “Soul”

Mo = “My”

M’anam = “My soul”

In order to say “My Soul Friend/My Soul Mate” literally then, we’d have to say:

Cara m’anama

It’s Just Not Fair

I do have to have some sympathy for the tattoo seeker here.

Normally there’s a little of the “Why didn’t you do your research?” sense going through my head when looking at a tattoo disaster. I feel sorry for the person with the wrong thing tattooed on him or her, but at the end of the day, it’s up to the tattoo seeker to check sources to be sure that the translation is correct.

Given the source(s), though, I really do feel sorry for this person.

Things Aren’t Always as They Seem

A point I make frequently in my book is the importance of finding trustworthy resources for translations, especially if those translations are for something permanent such as a tattoo.

I also advise my readers not to take any Irish words or phrases they may encounter in a book, in a song, or on a piece of jewelry or artwork, as a given…even if that book, song, or jewelry comes directly from someone in Ireland.

Although Irish is a required subject in school there, very few Irish people not brought up in a Gaeltacht leave secondary school with any sort of fluency in the language. And most stop using Irish much, if at all, after graduating (kind of like me and that high school algebra!).

Of course there are both native speakers and fluent second-language speakers of the language in Ireland, as well as professional translators, but it seems that few writers, artists, or jewelry makers (or even sign makers!) bother to consult them.

I can’t really blame anyone, though, for seeing something on a piece of jewelry from Ireland, being sold in an Irish-themed shop or on an Irish-themed website, and assuming it must be correct. Knowing what I know, after so many years with the language, I would always take such a translation to people I know to have excellent Irish for verification.

But not everyone has had that kind of exposure to other languages (especially here in the U.S., where language learning lags significantly behind most other countries). It breaks my heart to see people fall victim to this kind of thing.

So What CAN I Call My Soulmate?

As I said earlier, Irish doesn’t have a native term for “soulmate.” It does, however, have many words and phrases with similar meanings that can be used as legitimate stand-ins.  Which you use depends partially on what you mean by “soulmate” and partially on your own particular tastes.

If your “soulmate” is a lover, partner, or spouse, using one of the many lovely Irish endearments would suit. For example:

Grá Mo Chroí (The Love of my Heart)

Mo Ghrá Geal (My Bright/Shining Love)

Mo Chéadsearc (My First (aka “primary”) Love)

If you want something that’s a little closer to the actual meaning of “soulmate,” a couple of options are:

Mo Bhuanghrá (My Eternal Love)

Mo Shíorghrá (also My Eternal Love)

Cara m’anama (Friend of my Soul)

If you’re speaking of a dear friend, a couple of native Irish phrases that can work include:

Cara Mo Chléibh (My Bosom Friend)

Mo Dhlúthchara (My Close/Compact Friend)

It’s Just Not That Easy

Translating from one language to another is never as easy as many people think. There are so many things to be taken into consideration: Not only word choice, spelling,  and grammar, but culture and history as well.

The take-away from this is always, ALWAYS get solid confirmation before using a word or phrase from another language. A professional translator is best, of course (and often much more reasonably priced than you might expect), but failing that, get at least three truly fluent speaker in agreement on a translation before proceeding.

Whichever You Choose…

No matter what term you use for the people you love, in English or in Irish, I wish you all a happy Valentine’s Day! Lá Fhéile Vailintín Sona Daoibh! 

P.S.: A bonus cultural note: Those leafy things on the tattooed one’s back aren’t shamrocks. The Irish shamrock has only three leaves. Four-leafed clovers are considered lucky in many cultures because of their rarity, but they don’t have any particular relevance to Ireland. 


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/