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

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/

 

 

 

 

It’s A Long Life With A Bad Tattoo

Irish isn’t a “toy” or some kind of “cool” code. It’s the heart and soul of a culture.

I swear I don’t go out looking for bad Irish tattoos. I don’t take any particular delight in tearing apart peoples’ expensive ink.

It’s impossible to be involved with Irish on the internet for any length of time, however, without encountering bad translations — and way too often, those bad translations are written on someone’s skin.

It saddens and angers me that people misuse the language in this way. Irish is a living language. It’s not a toy, or some kind of “cool” code. It’s the heart and soul of a culture.

Just as important, the more bad Irish there is out there, the further the language is diminished, and the harder it becomes for people who truly care about the language to find good translations.

When things such as this come across my desk, therefore, I have to say something, if for no other reason than to make it clear to people that doing your own tattoo “translation” without the help of experts is both a recipe for disaster and a profound insult to the language.

Some Irish speakers really dislike the casual use of the language for such things as tattoos, and feel that this kind of use in and of itself degrades the language. There are people out there who flatly refuse to do tattoo translations for that reason.

I look at it from a different point of view. People are going to use Irish in tattoos whether we Irish speakers like it or not. Most of them have their hearts in the right place. They want to honor their Irish heritage, or the Irish heritage of a loved one. I’d rather help people get things right than make fun of people who get it wrong.

This is also, by the way, the reason I wrote “The Irish Gaelic Tattoo Handbook.”

That said, I do think it’s important to point it out when things DO go wrong. Incorrect Irish does nothing to help the language, or to help other tattoo seekers, who may emulate your mistakes.

So What’s Wrong With This One?

When I mention that a particular translation is incorrect, people inevitably ask me what’s wrong with it. In order to know that, the first thing is to ascertain what the “translator” intended to say.

Fortunately in this case, the tattooed one has told us what he was seeking: “Live a good life, not a long life.”

I guess I don’t NEED to tell you that he he messed it up big time. But, being me, I really do HAVE to tell you: He messed it up big time.

Parts of Speech

Let’s start with the first word: Beo.

It’s pretty clear that this tattoo seeker started out (at least) with an internet or dictionary search for a translation of the English word “live” in Irish.

As I mentioned in my post “Even Racists Got the Blues” (and which I’m certain is clear to you once you think about it), English has two words that are spelled “live”: One that rhymes with “hive” and one that rhymes with “give.” Unfortunately, this “translator” grabbed the wrong one.

Two words that are spelled in the same way, but that have different pronunciations and different meanings are called “homonyms.” English has a lot of them. That’s why it’s so very important to be aware of “parts of speech” (a term you may remember from grammar school).

When you look up a word in any dictionary, you’ll find that it’s marked as belonging to a particular “part of speech”: For example “nouns” (words that stand for people, places, or things), verbs (action words), adjectives (words that describe nouns), or adverbs (words that describe verbs).

When you’re translating, especially when dealing with words that are homonyms in the source language, it’s especially important that you pay attention to these parts of speech, because they almost certainly will be represented by different words in the target language.

In this case, what the “translator” was looking for was a verb: “live” as rhymes with “give.” What he found, though, was an adjective: “live” as rhymes with “hive.”

The Irish word beo can mean “live,” “alive,” or “lively,” depending on context:

Baoite beo: Live bait

Tá sé beo: He is alive

Mo bhuachaill beo: My lively lad (from the song Mo Ghile Mear)

The Irish for the verb “live” is mair. In a sentence such as this, though, it would probably be expressed as a wishGo maire tú… (“May you live”), if it were to be used at all. Even more likely would be a completely different construction, which I’ll get to in a bit.

But Wait…There’s Mór

Our tattoo seeker did get one word right in this phrase: Saol does indeed mean “life/a life” (It can also mean “world.” It’s a versatile word). The problem is with the adjective: mór.

Mór has a lot of potential meanings. Its primary meaning is big/large, but it can also mean “great” (as in size or age, not as in “wonderful”). It can also mean “grand/elder,” as in máthair mhór (a term for “grandmother”).

Mór can mean “intense” (pian mhór — “intense pain”). It can mean “serious” or “grave” (earráid mhór — a grave error). It can mean lots of things, but one thing it DOESN’T mean is “good.”

In fact, the phrase saol mór has the specific meaning of “the whole world/everybody,” which doesn’t make any sense at all here. If you want to say “a good life,” in Irish, you’d say saol maith (there are almost certainly other ways to say it, but that’s a direct translation).

I’ve been wracking my brain trying to figure out where he got “saol mór” for “a good life.” I suspect he saw the word “great” as one of mór‘s possible definitions and assumed it meant “great” as in “wonderful” or “terrific,” but that’s just a guess.

Even A Broken Clock is Right Twice a Day

Our “translator” got part of the second phrase correct as well. Saol fada does, indeed, mean “a long life. As the proverb says, even a broken clock is right twice a day (well, assuming it’s an analog clock, anyway).

The problem is with the preposition ganI’m not sure where he got the idea that gan means “not,” but it doesn’t. It means “without.”

So, to sum things up, our hero may have been trying to say “Live a good life, not a long life,” but what he got was something quite different:

“Alive a big life without a long life”

Ouch.

So How Should You Say It?

There are probably several ways to express this concept in Irish, but the simplest to my mind (and what I probably would have suggested had this fellow asked me for advice) is:

Is fearr saol maith ná saol fada: A good life is better than a long life

This has the advantage of being a standard construction in Irish, familiar to most speakers and learners from traditional proverbs:

Is fearr Gaeilge bhriste ná Béarla cliste (“Broken Irish is better than clever English”)

Is fearr rith maith ná droch-sheasamh (“A good run is better than a bad stand” — i.e., discretion is the better part of valor).

I would also, however, suggest that he seek out a professional translator (if it’s worth having it on your skin forever, it’s worth paying a little for a good translation, am I right?).

If a professional is out of the question, I’d strongly encourage him to visit The Irish Language Forum, where there are lots of people with good Irish who can weigh in on the best way to express what he wants to say.

In fact, I think I’d encourage him to visit the forum even if he does get a professional translation, for a little peace of mind, if nothing else.

Surely that’s not too much to ask?

It’s Not Just Irish

If it’s any consolation, Scottish Gaelic speakers have to deal with this kind of thing too. Here’s a Bored Panda post that my friend and editor Emily McEwan wrote about bad tattoo translations in that language:

Gaelic Tattoos That Make Me Cringe

Happy Schadenfreude!

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/

You Know You’ve Been Studying Irish Too Long When…

Fadó, fadó, ar an idirlíon…

Once upon a time, there was a lovely little Irish discussion and translation forum on the internet.

The members of the forum were good friends and, when they weren’t busy doing tattoo translations, discussing the tuiseal ginideach and the modh coinníolach, or dissing the Caighdeán Oifigiúil, they enjoyed playing word games.

Favorite games included Fiche Ceist (“Twenty Questions”) and Raight Inglís Iúsuinn Aighrís Fáinics (“Write English Using Irish Phonics”). These games were educational as well as a lot of fun.

Fiche Ceist, for example, was a great way to sort out the difference between Tá and Is, and Raight Inglís Iúsuinn Aighrís Fáinics really helped new learners get a handle on the Irish spelling system (which is a lot easier than you might think).

One day a member of the forum, having just had an amusing (if a little embarrassing) experience at a Mexican restaurant, invented a new game: “You Know You’ve Been Studying Irish Too Long When…”.

The goal, of course, was to finish the above sentence.

The game was an immediate hit, and the responses ranged from the rueful to the hilarious. Unlike the other games, it wasn’t particular educational, but it was definitely a bonding experience for people learning a minority language.

Just for fun, then (and because we can all use a little bonding), play along! Come on…we’ve all been there! Finish the sentence! Here are some of the best from the archives of The Irish Language Forum:

You Know You’ve Been Studying Irish Too Long When…

You find you have an incredible urge to lenite words following “the,” “my,” and “your,”regardless of what language they’re in.

You run across an English word starting with “ch,” “th” etc., and you find yourself automatically converting it to “root” form.

You realize that “ng” seems like a perfectly logical and normal way to start a word.

English words start to look wrong if they don’t follow the “caol le caol” rule.

You want to look up “lenition” in an English dictionary, and realize after about 10 minutes that the reason you can’t find it is because “lenition” doesn’t begin with an “s” in English.

After spending time looking at a site with songs in Welsh, Manx, Scottish Gaelic or Cornish, you find it a relief to run across a song with “normal looking” (i.e., Irish) words.

You find yourself swearing at other drivers on the freeway and realize the reason they’re giving you baffled looks is they have no idea what you’re saying.

You say “hello” to your neighbor and she gives you a funny look because, in her world, “hello” starts with an “h”…and just who are you calling a “witch,” anyway???

Your idea of a dream vacation changes from a week at Club Med to a week at Oideas Gael.

Your husband wakes you in the middle of the night and says “if you’re going to sing in your sleep, please sing in a language I understand.”

As you’re reading in church, you run across an unfamiliar Hebrew word and, without missing a beat, pronounce it as if it were Irish (I’m fairly certain that “Beth-peor” isn’t supposed to be pronounced the way I said it that morning!)

You read this on Facebook — “I’ve had a very productive day today agus ceapaim go bhfuil beoir nó trí tuillte agam!” and don’t even notice it switches language in the middle of the sentence. (Wait…it switches languages?)

You want to say “thank you” to the nice man who brought you water in the local Mexican restaurant, but when you try to say “gracias!” what comes out of your mouth is “go raibh maith agat!”

A French-speaking friend types a sentence including the phrase “un chat” on her Facebook page and your first, knee-jerk, thought is “Why did she lenite it? ‘Cat’ is masculine!”

You see ‘teach more’ and you think it should be ‘teach mór‘ and then you realize it’s an article on education!  

You’re thinking in Irish, writing in English, and inadvertently post on Facebook in some hybrid form (must be where Hiberno-English came from!). 

You find yourself thinking “‘Wanker?’ I thought it was just the vocative of “‘banker'”.

You mix up languages mid-word! I showed up a bit early for a sean-nós lesson the other day, and the teacher asked me if I’d like a cup of tea. I started to say “No thanks…I’ve got water.” But just as I started to say “water,” my eye fell on my water bottle, and my brain helpfully supplied “uisce.” As my poor brain teetered helplessly between languages, what actually came out of my mouth was “no thanks…I’ve got whiskey!” (I knew I wanted an English word, but grabbed the wrong one out of the air!) I’m sure my poor teacher wondered what I was doing drinking whiskey at 11 a.m.!

You hear someone say, ‘Feck him, hey?’ and wonder what they are looking at.

Dhiú raoid d’fhios ait nórmal spaoi d’ain d’iondair stain duit.

You write relidious instead of religious  

After consuming a delicious Thai meal, you find yourself wondering if you’ve just eaten curaí rua or curaí dearg…or maybe curaí flannbhuí. (You also know you’ve been studying Irish too long when such distinctions keep you up at night!)

You stroll down the beer aisle and decide to pick up a nice bottle of “Stella ar-TISH.”

The people around you, who have never studied the language, know what you’re saying! I was at choir rehearsal the other day and the director said “get out the Batten” (as in “O sing joyfully,” by Adrian Batten). I was having trouble finding it in my folder, and muttered “Ca bhfuil sé…sin í an cheist!” and the person next to me helpfully answered “Orange book, page 70.” (She was texting at the time, so it wasn’t like she was watching me paw through my folder or anything like that).

Later on, my husband and I were at a local Mexican restaurant and a group of young people at the next table were being overly loud and…er…rather inappropriately demonstrative. I nudged hubby and said “Sílim go bhfuil siad ar meisce” and he said “I think you’re right.”

You want to “correct” ceapairí ham to ceapairí haim

You hear a TV ad for the antidepressant “Latuda” and think you’ve just heard “Fá dtaobh de” (and you wonder “Fá dtaobh de céard?”)

You realize you have absently labeled the chainsaw files “beag” and “mór” and your son can’t figure out which is which.

You name your new catCat Eile.”

You want to greet a visitor from France using your high school and college French, but can’t think of a sentence that doesn’t begin with “,” “is,” “an bhfuil” or “an.”

You look up “rithim” in your Irish dictionary because you never can remember how to spell “rhythm” in English.

You try to recall the Our Father or Hail Mary in Latin or French (both of which you’ve studied), but it somehow turns into Irish by the second or third line.

You find yourself taking a close look at people’s tattoos in the hopes of finding one of your translations.

Your daughter says she wants to go to Oakland Kraken Con and your first thought is “they have porn cons now?” 

Your dog responds to “goitse.”

Your Turn!

All of the above (and many more) were supplied by various members of The Irish Language Forum and by erstwhile members of the now-defunct Irish Gaelic Translation Forum (many of whom are one and the same).

Maybe you can think of more! Let me know your thoughts in the comments below!


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/

Making Sense of Irish Gender

People who have never studied a language other than English seem to find the concept of grammatical gender confusing.

This post first appeared on my Tumblr blog in September, 2016.

People who have never studied a language other than English seem to find the concept of grammatical gender confusing.

We frequently get requests on the Irish Language Forum from translation seekers who want the “female” [sic] form of “musician” or “poet” or some similar noun, and who are very confused when we tell them that the same noun would be used to describe anyone, regardless of sex.

I’ve wanted for some time to write something addressing the concept of grammatical gender in Irish, and I’m feeling “explainy” today (thank you for that term, mhwombat!), so here goes!

Not All That Surprising

As English lacks the concept of grammatical gender (we’ll get to learning more about this in a second), it’s not too surprising that English speakers should be confused when they encounter this concept in other languages.

And there certainly are languages in which different terms are used when speaking of or to males as opposed to females (and the reverse is also true, of course).

Even Irish has a few terms that are applied only to one sex or the other, for example:

Seanduine: This literally means “old person,” but is only used when speaking of men, and is translated as “old man.”

Amadán: “Fool” when speaking of or to a man.

Óinseach: “Fool” when speaking of or to a woman.

For the most part, however, “gender” in language has nothing to do with biological sex. In fact, some Irish words that you’d assume would be masculine (stail , for example: “stallion”) are actually grammatically feminine, and vice versa.

What is “Grammatical Gender”?

In grammar, we use the concept of gender to describe how a word will behave in certain grammatical circumstances, as well as the effect(s) it might have on the words around it, particularly adjectives.

Some languages have multiple grammatical genders. Irish only has two: masculine and feminine.

You need to know the gender of a noun in Irish to know what will happen with it after the definite article* (the equivalent of “the” in English, such as “the man” or “the car”).

You also have to know a noun’s gender know how it will affect any adjectives used to describe it, as well as to determine what pronouns to use to take its place (Irish has no neuter gender, so everything, from the bicycle in the garage to the shop down the road is either “he” or “she”).

Getting it Right From the Start

The nominative singular definite article an (”the”) is a useful tool for determining gender because masculine and feminine nouns behave differently with the article. When I give vocabulary words to my students, I always pair them with the definite article, and I encourage them to do the same with any words they learn on their own.

It’s really good practice, whenever you encounter a new noun, to look it up in the dictionary to determine its gender and then memorize it with the article.

Here’s how pairing nouns with the definite article is useful (Note: This is for nouns in the nominative case only. As this is the basic form of a noun as it’s listed in the dictionary, it’s the most useful for this kind of memorization):

IF THE NOUN IS MASCULINE and begins with a consonant, the consonant is unaffected by the article:

An seanduine – The old man

An carr – The car

IF THE NOUN IS MASCULINE and begins with a vowel, “t-” is prefixed to the beginning of the word:

An t-amadán – The foolish man

An t-asal – The donkey

IF THE NOUN IS FEMININE and begins with a lenitable consonant other than “s,” it is lenited:

An bhean – The woman

An chláirseach – The harp

IF THE NOUN IS FEMININE and begins with a vowel, the vowel is unaffected by the article:

An óinseach – The foolish woman

An oíche – The night

IF THE NOUN IS FEMININE and begins with an “s,” “t” (without a hyphen) is prefixed to the beginning of the word:

An tsráid – The street

An tSeisreach – The Plow (aka “The Big Dipper” or “Ursa Major”)

Basic Guidelines

The above works well enough to begin with, but as you advance you’re going to encounter new words without the article, and you’re not going to have time to look them up in a dictionary to find out their gender.

There’s also the issue of initial consonants that can’t be lenited. “L,” “M,” “N,” “R,” and (when it occurs) “V” can’t be lenited. Neither can the combinations “Sc,” Sm,” Sp,” and “St.”** Pairing these with the definite article won’t help you remember if they’re masculine or feminine.

When you run into such words, these basic guidelines are helpful:

Words are typically masculine if…

  • They end with a broad consonant (béal – mouth, féar – grass/hay)
  • They are occupational words ending in  – óir/-oir, – éir/-eir or -úir/-uir (ceoltóir – musician, báicéir – baker, dochtúir – doctor).
  • They are single-syllable words ending in -eacht or -acht (ceacht – lesson, fuacht – cold (temperature)).
  • They end with the diminutive suffixes -ín or -án (cailín – girl/young woman.Yes, this word is actually masculine)
  • They end with -ste (páiste – child, coiste – committee)

In addition, words are typically masculine if they are loan words from another language (vóta – vote), and they’re always treated as masculine if they’re foreign words that haven’t been “Gaelisized” (”bicycle,” for example).

An added bonus: There are more masculine words in Irish than feminine ones, so if you really do have to make a wild-ass guess, guess masculine. You have a fair chance of being right!

Words are typically feminine if…

  • They end with a slender consonant (barúil – opinion, uirlis – instrument)
  • They are multi-syllable words ending in -eacht, -acht, or -íocht (gluaiseacht – movement, beannacht – blessing, filíocht – poetry)
  • They are place/location names that end with -lann (leabharlann– library, otharlann –  hospital/infirmary).
  • They end with -eog or -óg (brídeog – bride, feadóg – whistle).
  • They end with -chan (athbheochan – revival).

An added bonus: The names of most countries, languages, and rivers are feminine.

Compound Nouns

Compound nouns are words that are made by combining two nouns (for example, in English we take the nouns “light” and “house” and put them together as “lighthouse”).

In Irish, compound nouns always take the gender of the SECOND noun:

Sráid – street (feminine)

Combines with…

Baile – town (masculine)

To become…

Sráidbhaile – village (masculine)

Exceptions Exceptions!

There are exceptions to grammar rules in most languages, and Irish is no exception (see what I did there?).

There are some words in Irish that, given the guidelines above, you’d assume to be feminine, but that are actually masculine (and vice versa).

For example, even though most country and language names are feminine,  Sasana (England), Ceanada (Canada), Meiriceá (America), Meicsiceo (México), and Béarla (the English language) are all masculine. The two-syllable word bunreacht (constitution) is also masculine.

On the flipside, the words méar (finger), and timpiste (accident), which you might assume to be masculine, are actually feminine.

These aren’t the only ones, of course.There are a few exceptions in most of the categories above, and you’ll just have to memorize them.

And About Those Pronouns

Generally speaking, you use the pronoun appropriate to a word’s grammatical gender. For example, if I’m speaking about my harp (cláirseach) I use feminine pronouns because “cláirseach” is feminine:

Cá bhfuil do chláirseach? Where is your harp?

Tá sí sa charr. It (literally “she”) is in the car

But if I’m speaking of my car (carr), which is masculine, I use masculine pronouns:

Cá bhfuil do charr? Where is your car?

Tá sé sa gharáiste. It (literally “he”) is in the garage.

Common sense prevails, though, when you’re speaking of living creatures:

Is í mo chailín. She is my girl (even though “cailín” is masculine)

Don’t Worry! You’ll Get Used to It!

The good thing is, the more speaking and listening you do, the more comfortable you’ll be navigating the gender minefield. You may make the occasional mistake, but that’s OK. We all do (even some native speakers!).

Hope this helps! Happy gendering!

Beirigí bua!

GG

* Irish does not have an indefinite article, i.e., the equivalent of “a/an” in English.

** An easy mnemonic for remembering which “s” words can’t be lenited is “Scallions Smell Spicy in Stew.”


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/