Sometimes Bad is Bad

What is it about us Irish learners that makes us willing to settle for shite?

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So here’s a legitimate question:

What is it about us as Irish learners that makes us willing to settle for shite? Or, worse, line up to defend it?

You see them everywhere you look on the internet: Free or low-cost posters, calendars, “translators,” and teaching materials and videos that are absolutely rife with mistakes. Misspellings, incorrect word usage, mispronunciations, grammatical issues, Béarlachas (Anglicized Irish)…you name it, you’ll find it.

Worse, you’ll find people who not only lap this stuff up, they bristle at anyone who criticizes it.

I’m not talking about the occasional typo, misstatement, or brain fart here. They happen to all of us (If you want to hear how many mistakes I can make in one hour, just follow me around at any Irish immersion weekend! As soon as I open my mouth, everything I know about Irish grammar seems to go out the window!)

I’m not even talking about the occasional mistake that gets past editors and proofreaders. Anyone who’s ever published knows just how often those happen! Heck, an entire school of literary criticism was caused by a typesetter’s error in Moby Dick!

It’s a matter of attitude

What I’m talking about is amateur-produced learning/teaching materials….specifically about learning materials published by people who are not only not qualified to be putting out such materials, they, frankly, don’t give a damn about the quality of what they produce .

Why is it that, when “learning” materials are published with tons of mistakes, by people who just shrug and say “I don’t have the time to worry about that” when those mistakes are pointed out to them, we say “well, at least they’re trying” instead of calling them out on it? What, exactly, are they “trying” to do? Teach people how to speak Irish incorrectly? Or maybe line their pockets? Or perhaps get their 15 minutes of fame?

Or maybe it’s all of the above.

Worse, why do we promote such materials? “They’re nice people” isn’t a good enough reason. There are good learning materials out there that we should be promoting, and maybe those “nice people” should be using those to learn a bit of Irish instead of trying to create materials of their own.

(Oh, and those reliable learning materials are also produced by nice people. Nice people who know what they’re doing).

Who’s attracting whom?

Another argument I’ve heard in favor of promoting these materials is “At least they’re attracting people to the language.” But is that really the case?

I submit that the people they’re “attracting” are people who are already drawn to the language. Those people may have been searching for a tattoo translation, for a name for a child, for a transcription of a memorial, or for a translation for a book or poem, but the interest in Irish was already there.

In nearly 14 years of learning Irish, I have yet to meet someone who was just surfing along, minding his or her business, when suddenly up pops a video or a poster and it’s “A ha! I think I’ll start learning Irish!”

I think that, if anything, these “resources” are distracting learners from looking for or finding good learning materials.

“Nothing” isn’t the only option

Why do we look at materials that are full of mistakes and say “well, they’re better than nothing,” when “nothing” isn’t the only choice? There are plenty of good, reliable Irish learning resources out there. Most of them don’t cost all that much, and some of them are even free of charge! You can check some of them out here: Beyond Duolingo.

The internet is your friend if you know how to use it, but when you’re a beginning language student, it’s best to use it with a bit of caution and guidance.

“The goodness of their hearts”?

And what’s all this I hear about “It’s OK because they’re doing this out of the goodness of their hearts”? First of all, that’s not always the case. Secondly, since when has that been a good reason to promote substandard learning materials?

Mistakes happen, but…

Mistakes happen…we all know that. At least we writers know that!! Typos, printer errors, and just plain old “what was I thinking?” When most of us make mistakes, as soon as we realize them, we’re sorry and we say so, and we try to put things right.

But when those mistakes happen and the response is “I don’t have the time to proof my work” or “oh well…the computer will figure it out eventually,” or “gee, she’s doing her best!” why the hell do we say that’s OK?

Worse, why do we suggest that new learners use these resources? Doesn’t this language, and its learners, deserve better than that?

Is “broken Irish” really better than “clever English”?

There’s a saying you’ll encounter if you spend much time around Irish language speakers and learnersIs fearr Gaeilge bhriste ná Béarla cliste — “Broken Irish is better than clever English.”

It’s meant to encourage people to use what Irish they have without fear of making mistakes, and in that way, it’s a good thing. Speaking and using a language is very different from simply learning to read or understand it, and you can’t learn to speak a language if you’re afraid to open your mouth.

And Irish learners have more and more opportunities to do just that. Facebook sites such as “Gaeilge Amháin,” for intermediate and advanced speakers and “Irish for Beginners” for newer learners give people the chance to practice their Irish in a safe and supportive forum.

Increasingly more and more on-line opportunities are springing up for people who want to practice their spoken  and written Irish. Immersion weekends, week-long courses, and conversation groups are also becoming increasingly common throughout the world.

And, of course, there’s the “Pop-Up Gaeltacht” movement!

In spaces and groups such as these, of course “Broken Irish is better than clever English.” Speaking fearlessly is an important part of the learning process.

But learning and teaching materials are an entirely different story. What you learn as a beginner can be very hard to shake off later, so learning materials — especially those designed for self-teaching or for listening practice — need to be as correct as they possibly can be. In these cases, Is fearr Gaeilge bhriste ná Béarla cliste” definitely does NOT apply.

Just say “no”

It’s time, and more than time, that we stop giving poor quality learning materials a “pass.”  If people want to put stuff out there to help people learn, that’s wonderful. But we need to insist that these people do whatever they can to make sure that what they produce is correct, including FIXING problems when they’re pointed out.

More importantly, we need to stop referring people to incorrect resources, when really good, solid, self-teaching methods are already available.

We need to start taking pride in this language we love. It deserves no less.

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/

Sometimes Words Fail

Usually it isn’t too hard for me to figure out the intended meaning of a tattoo, no matter how mangled the Irish. This one, however, has me stumped.

Usually, when I come across a badly mistranslated Irish tattoo, it isn’t too hard for me to figure out what the intended meaning was, no matter how mangled the Irish.

This one, however, has me completely stumped. I’ve tried every way I know to work out what in the heck this guy meant to say, and I’m coming up blank.

A Good Catch

This tattoo was spotted on an episode of the television programPenn & Teller: Fool Us” by Jessica Quinn, a member of the Facebook group “Irish For Beginners.”  She was able to grab a shot of it and post it on the group page.

And that’s when the fun began.

Not Your Average Bad Translation

As I said, usually it isn’t too hard for me to figure out the meaning of a bad translation. That’s because people who don’t know what they’re doing usually follow predictable methods:

The “Let’s Pretend it’s English” Method

By far and away the most common error people make when attempting to translate from one language to another is to assume that all languages follow the same basic grammar and syntactic rules as English.

They’ll find an English-Irish dictionary, or perhaps do an internet search on the individual words they want to translate, and then put the results together as if they were English. That’s almost certainly what happened with the infamous “Gorm Chónaí Ábhar” debacle.

These are usually pretty easy to spot, though. All you have to do is take the primary Irish meaning for each word and read it as if it were English.

The “Ask Google” Method

Inevitably some people take their translation requests to Google “Translate.” Bad move. Really bad. Google is notoriously bad at handling Irish.

These can be a little harder to spot, as Google doesn’t always give the same output when translating Irish to English as it does when translating English to Irish. You can plug in the Irish and not get the English phrase or sentence that the searcher used. I wrote a little about that problem in this 2012 blog post for Bitesize Irish Gaelic: Irish Translators.

The “Ask a Friend/Family Member” Method

If I had a quarter for every time I’ve heard someone say “I got this translation from a friend/family member in Ireland,” I’d be able to afford an entire summer in Donegal.

Sometimes there’s no actual “friend or family member.” The person is just trying to cover up his or her own clumsy translation attempt.

When there is an actual “friend or family member” involved, though, if the translation is wrong it usually follows one of three patterns:

  1. The person has no Irish at all, or maybe just a tiny bit. In this case the “Pretend It’s English” and the “Ask Google” methods come into play again.
  2. The person has some Irish, but is out of practice. When this happens, the translation will generally be much closer to correct, but with some mistakes.
  3. The person is messing with the tattoo seeker. When this happens we usually see something silly and rather mean-spirited, such as An bhfuil cead agam dul go dtí an leithreas? (“May I go to the toilet?”).

When the Patterns Don’t Work

This “translation” doesn’t seem to have resulted from any of these methods. (Personally, I wish he’d followed the “Buy Audrey’s Book” method. But I digress…).

It’s possible the person’s primary language isn’t English, though usually when a person has more than one language, he or she knows better than to assume that all languages follow the same pattern.

Unfortunately, because of this, none of my usual methods for working out what was meant are helping. The best I can do is point out the problems and make a guess.

I THINK this person meant to say “Maybe death won’t stop/hinder/restrain me.”

Piece by Piece

Let’s take a look at the elements that make up this tattoo and see what they mean (and what the problems are with them).

Féidir

Féidir is a word that, in the right context, can mean “possible,” “can/may,” or “maybe/possibly.” The problem is, it can’t stand on its own.

Féidir is ALWAYS paired with the copula — a semi-verb that performs some of the functions of the verb “to be.” The forms of the copula are Is (positive), Ní (negative), and Ba/B’ (conditional).

It’s also often paired with the preposition le (“with”).

Is féidir liom: “I can”

Ní féidir leat: “You can’t”

B’fhéidir: “Maybe/perhaps”

It doesn’t make sense by itself, but in context, I think the most likely intended meaning is “maybe/perhaps.”

Bás

This is pretty straightforward. It means “death,” and is clearly intended to be the subject of the sentence (such as it may be).

Typically in Irish the definite article is used with words that are presented as general concepts, so we’d expect to see an básbut in the context of this total mess of a translation, it’s a reasonably minor issue.

Nábac

Well, the elephant in the room here is that this is two words jammed together as one. There is no Irish word “Nábac.” (No, not even in some obscure dialect in your great-great-great grandfather’s village in County Nowhere). This should be written as two words: Ná bac.

Ná is the negative imperative particle. It means “don’t.”

Bac is the singular imperative of a verb that can mean, among other things, “balk/hinder/restrain.” Paired with , it can also mean “mind” or “bother”:

Ná bac leis: “Don’t worry about it.”

(By the way, this phrase is the basis for my favorite Irish tongue twisterNá bac le mac an bhacaigh is ní bhacaidh mac a bhacaigh leat (pronounced, roughly, “nah bock leh mock uh wock-ee is nee wock-ee mock uh wock-ee lat”): “Don’t bother the beggar’s son, and the beggar’s son won’t bother you.”)

My guess here is that this person took the meaning “hinder/restrain” and mistook “don’t” for “won’t.”

Mise

Mise is the emphatic form of : “me/I.” In Irish, when we want to put emphasis on a word, we don’t stress it in speaking…we put it in an emphatic form. So, basically, what this says is ME!!!!!!!

So, Put It All Together…

Well, put it all together, and you still have a weird mess. But here’s my thinking:

The potential meanings for féidir, depending on the words that should have accompanied it, are “can/may” and “maybe.”

Bás is pretty straightforward as “death.”

Our hero may have misread “don’t hinder” as “won’t hinder.”

And mise is, while emphatic, is definitely “me.”

So I’m thinking he intended “Maybe death won’t hinder (“restrain/stop”) me.”

That’s the best I can do…maybe you can do better! Really, the only thing I can guarantee about this is that the Irish is shite.

Feel free to post your suggestions, guesses, etc., in the comments.

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/

Get Your Irish on in San Francisco!

Every September, when our hazy summer light begins to change to the clear, golden brightness of autumn, my mind turns toward my favorite event of the year: The San Francisco Deireadh Seachtaine Gaeltachta.

Every September, when our hazy summer light begins to change to the clear, golden brightness of autumn (Yes, we have seasons here on the California Central Coast, though sometimes you have to have lived here for a while to notice them!), my mind turns toward my favorite event of the year: The San Francisco Deireadh Seachtaine Gaeltachta.

This year’s Deireadh Seachtaine will be held from September 22 – 24 (6:00 p.m. Friday to 4:30 p.m. Sunday), at the United Irish Cultural Center (UICC), 2700 45th Avenue, in San Francisco’s Outer Sunset District. The cost is $420 per person, which includes tuition and meals. Lodging is not included, so folks coming from out of town will have to make their own arrangements, but the organizers (of which I am one this year) can help you find lodging and transit information if you’re not familiar with the city.

You can register and pay on-line here, or contact Seán Séamus Larkin at larkinmaps@gmail.com or at 415-299-0850 for information on how to pay by check.

 So What’s a Deireadh Seachtaine Gaeltachta?

Deireadh Seachtaine Gaeltachta (often affectionately shortened to “DSG”) means “Gaeltacht Weekend.” If you’re not familiar with the term, the word “gaeltacht” refers to the areas of Ireland where Irish is still spoken as a day-to-day language.

A DSG simulates a gaeltacht experience by immersing attendees in Irish language and culture. These events have been popping up all over the U.S. in the past 10 – 20 years, and are an absolute boon to Irish learners (not to mention a lot of fun!)

The San Francisco DSG is one of the granddaddies of the movement. We’re celebrating our 19th year in 2017!

Activities include fun, conversationally based classes interspersed with social-conversation opportunities over meals, drinks, and music (Lots of music! There is a wealth of Irish musicians in the greater San Francisco area, and a lot of them come out for this event).

But…But…I’m Just a BEGINNER!

I have to say, I hear this a lot. “I’m a beginner! I’m not ready for immersion yet!”

Here’s the thing: When you’re beginning is the IDEAL time to do an immersion course! There’s really no better way to get your learning off to a flying start!

The other cool thing is that these events are the best way I know of to connect with other Irish speakers and learners (you may be surprised at just how many there are in the Bay Area!). If you’ve been struggling to learn on your own (as many of us are at first), these events are how you make those connections that will support your learning for years to come.

And you won’t feel out of place because…

We’ve Got Your Level…

The San Francisco DSG offers four levels of classes (well, actually, four and a half. We’ll get to the “half” in a moment). No matter where you are with your Irish studies, we’ve got a level for you:

Level One: If you’re just beginning your Irish journey, or if you feel you need to review beginner basics, this is your level.

Level Two: This level is for lower intermediates. If you have a grasp of the basics and can participate in a simple conversation (“Haigh! Is mise Audrey! Cé thusa? Is scríbhneoir mé. Cén post atá agatsa?”), you’ll probable be happy growing your conversational skills here.

Level Three: If you understand and read Irish reasonably well and are seeking the confidence to make that wild leap into more conversation, this is the level for you. This is really an exciting point for most learners…right on the cusp of fluency! This group tends to have the widest range of students, from people just venturing out of level two to people about to make the move to level four.

Level Four: This level is for fluent or near-fluent speakers who want to polish up their spoken Irish, and/or explore the depths of the language, including modern terminology, folklore, and literature.

Level Four-and-a-Half*: The Children’s Class: One stand-out aspect of the San Francisco DSG is the special class for children. This level is geared toward youngsters who are fluent Irish speakers (typically the children of adults who are attending the course, most of whom use Irish at home). They join the adults for some of the activities, and go off with their teacher for others. It’s a great opportunity for Irish-speaking kids in The Bay Area, who might otherwise not have much opportunity to speak Irish with their peers.

* OK, I made this term up. We usually just call it “The Kids’ Class,” or “Rang na bPáistí.

…And Some First-Class Teachers

All our teachers are experienced at helping adult students have fun while learning. Each year’s teaching staff is organized with the help of Oideas Gael, the renowned Irish language and culture school in Donegal.

Our roster of outstanding teachers for 2017 includes:

Catríona Weafer, Level One

Bairbre Ní Chiardha, Level Two

Anna Ní Choirbín, Level Three

Aisling Ní Churraighín, Level Four

Orla Mc Garry, Children’s Class

And Then There’s the Location

I’ve attended immersion courses in all kinds of locations — including a college campus, an office building, and even a monastery —but the UICC is my favorite (and not only because this is my “home” DSG).

For one thing, the building itself has a lot of character.  From the outside it looks very secretive, due to the lack of windows. The first time I saw it, way back when I lived in the city in the 1980s, I thought it was some kind of Irish Masonic lodge! 

Step inside, though, and it’s a little like being transported to Ireland in the 1950s or 60s, especially in the restaurant and bar (which are the first things you see when you enter the building). There’s a warmth to it that I find very appealing.

The UICC also has wonderful facilities for hosting events such as this, from a kitchen that keeps us very well fed to a private dining room where we can get together for a sit-down lunch and dinner on Saturday. It also has a small Irish-themed library (which often holds a book sale on the Sunday of the DSG), plenty of rooms for class and gathering spaces and, of course, the bar (who doesn’t want a pint after a long day of learning?)

Its location is absolutely ideal. The Sunset is one of my favorite districts in the city. It’s a mostly quiet, mostly residential neighborhood that’s easy to get to by car or by transit and where it’s relatively easy to find free parking (a plus in San Francisco!).

The UICC is just steps from the beach and from the zoo, and there are a few good eating places nearby if you want something beyond what is on offer at the DSG (I’m especially fond of Java Beach, right around the corner from the UICC).

Also, with several bus lines operating in the area, as well as MUNI Metro’s L-Taraval street car line, it’s relatively easy to get just about anywhere in the city if you feel like adding a little sightseeing to your visit.

What’s not to love?

For More Information

For more information about the San Francisco Deireadh Seachtaine Gaeltachta, or to register, visit the official DSG web page, or contact Seán Séamus Larkin at 415-299-0850 or larkinmaps@gmail.com.

Hope to see you there!

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/

Even Racists Got the Blues

Most of the time, I feel a little bit sorry for people who make horrendous translation mistakes. This is not one of those times.

OK…I have to say that, most of the time, I feel a little bit sorry for people who make horrendous translation mistakes. This is not one of those times.

This pic came across my desk about nine months ago, and it may just be the worst example of a self-translation disaster I’ve ever seen. 

In fact, it’s so bad, and so out of context, that most of my Irish-speaking friends had no idea what this person was trying to say with those three Irish words: “Gorm Chónaí Ábhar.” It’s beyond gibberish. It even took me a few minutes.

The sad thing is, in order to “get it,” you need to be familiar not only with the ways in which people make translation mistakes (which are legion), but also with a particularly unpleasant segment of U.S. politics.

What this person was trying to say, with this mess of a translation on his t-shirt, is “Blue Lives Matter.”

A Little Background

For the sake of those who don’t live in the U.S. (and without delving too deeply into the dark underbelly of American politics), suffice it to say that the slogan “Blue Lives Matter” arose in opposition to the “Black Lives Matter” movement.

The “Black Lives Matter” movement arose in response to the disproportionate degree of police brutality directed at people of color in the U.S., particularly toward African Americans.  I’ll leave it to you to decide what would motivate someone to oppose such a movement. The term I prefer can be found in your Irish dictionary under “C.”

So no…I’m not very sorry for this person (I am, however, very sorry at the assault upon the Irish language!).

Beyond philosophy, then, what exactly is wrong with this translation? Well, let’s start with how the “translator” went about it:

Sometimes the Dictionary is NOT Your Friend

I’m often baffled by the number of people who seem to think that you can translate from one language to another simply by pulling the words of one language from a dictionary and plugging them into the syntax of the other. It just doesn’t work that way, friends. Repeat after me: “Languages are not codes for one another.”

That’s exactly what happened here, though. Someone either found a dictionary or searched the internet for the three words “blue,” “lives,” and “matter,” and stuck them together as if they were English. Oy. Dia sábháil (that’s Ulster Irish for “oy”).

Irish syntax is very, very (very!) different from English. For one thing, the verb comes first in the sentence. For another, adjectives follow the nouns they modify. So even if you COULD render this phrase with these three simple words, you’d need “Matter Lives Blue.”

Unfortunately, however, you can’t fix this phrase simply by reordering the words, because, among other things…

Idiom Also Matters

An idiom is an expression particular to a particular language or region. For example, in English, when we say that something “matters,” we mean that it has worth and/or that it makes a difference.

It doesn’t necessarily work that way in other languages. In Irish, we’d have to get more specific. We might say something like Tá fiúntas i _____ (“There is worth/value in _____”) or Tá ________ tábhachtach (“______ is/are important”).

To make matters worse, though (there’s another idiom for you!), whoever made this “translation” apparently forgot that the word “matter” in English can have several meanings. In this case, the word he or she chose — ábhar — means “matter” as in “subject matter.” It’s a noun. Oops!

So Does Pronunciation

Another thing this poor “translator” apparently forgot is that the word “lives” in English can be pronounced to rhyme with “gives” or with “hives,” and that the meaning changes accordingly.

What was wanted here, of course, is “lives” as rhymes with “hives.” Three guesses as to which one the “translator” chose. Yep. Wrong one.

The word cónaí in Irish (which in certain grammatical circumstances inflects to chónaí) means “dwelling.” When we want to say that we live somewhere, we literally say “Am I in my dwelling in _________.”

Tá mé i mo chónaí i nDún na nGall: “I live in Donegal.”

Tá Seán ina chónaí i nGaillimh: “Seán lives in Galway.”

To toss another problem onto the pile, in Irish, we probably wouldn’t use the equivalent of the English “life/lives (rhymes with ‘hives’)” to mean “people”. We’d most likely just use daoine: “people.” There’s that “idiom” problem again.

And Then There’s Gorm

The funny thing here is, the Irish word gorm actually does mean “blue” in most contexts. Just not in this manner, and definitely not in this context.

When color is used to describe a person in Irish, it typically refers to hair color. For example An bhean rua: The red-haired woman.

There are exceptions, of course: For example, Na fir bhuí (“The orange/yellow men”) is used to refer to members of the Orange Order because of the color of their sashes. But “blue/gorm” would not be used to refer to police officers as a group. That’s an American thing.

All that having been said, though, here’s the lovely, delicious irony: When the word gorm is used in reference to people, guess what it means?

It means “Black.”

People of African descent, or with similarly dark skin, are described as “blue” in Irish (most likely because dubh (“black”) and dorcha (“dark”) have negative connotations in the language and donn (“brown”) would be understood to refer to hair color).

That’s right. At the end of the day, allowing for grammatical travesties (of which there are many) and horrendous word choices, what this person’s shirt says is “Black Lives Matter.”

Somehow that makes me strangely happy.

Featured image © 2016 by Karen Reshkin. Used with permission. Karen took this picture at the 2016 Milwaukee Irish Fest. Please visit her Irish-learning website A Clever Sheep (www.acleversheep.net)


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/

The Sad Saga of a Bad Tattoo

People love getting tattoos in Irish, but apparently they don’t always appreciate the challenges involved with getting a good, accurate translation.

This unfortunate tattoo has been making the rounds at Facebook recently. If you want to know what’s wrong with it, read on!

Hang around Irish speakers and learners long enough and you’ll know it – badly translated Irish tattoos are a real problem. People love getting tattoos in Irish, but apparently they don’t always appreciate the challenges involved with getting a good, accurate translation.

Every so often a new tattoo fail makes the rounds of social media, and the response is predictable. We palm our faces and groan “why?” We tear our hair, shake our heads, rend our garments (well, figuratively anyway!), and perhaps even enjoy a little schadenfreude.

If you’re new to Irish, though, or if you’re not learning the language but hang out with people who are, you may find yourself saying “What exactly is wrong with it? Somebody let me in on the angst!”

Happy to do it! Dissecting bad translations is actually a really good teaching and learning tool (I learned more about Irish grammar from watching people discuss the rights and wrongs of tattoo translations than I did from any grammar book). But first, the big question…

What Is It Supposed to Mean?

You can’t really dissect a bad translation without knowing what the person intended to say. Sometimes that can be challenging to figure out, but, as it happens, this one is easy. What was intended was the famous line from the poem “Invictus” by English poet  William Ernest Henley: “I am the master of my fate; I am the captain of my soul.”

If you’re not familiar with the poem, you can read it here:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Invictus

(You should read it. It’s really good!)

This is a fairly common translation request, especially among men. Unfortunately, what this man ended up with is absolute nonsense.

As for where it came from, in this case I think we can be pretty sure that Google Translate or some other automatic machine translator is to blame.In fact, if you go to Google Translate and enter the words “I am the master of my fate; I am the captain of my soul,” guess what you get? Yep:

Tá mé an maistir mo chinniúint; tá mé an captaen m’anam

I’ve said it over and over again, but it bears repeating – never use a machine translator for anything important or permanent! I guess yer man above didn’t get the memo.

So now that we know what the poor man meant to say and where he found what he did, let’s take this “translation” apart bit-by-bit, starting with the first word in the “translation”: Tá.

The Wrong Verb

One thing you learn early on when you’re studying Irish is that the language has two verbs that correspond to the verb “to be”, (root form: ) and the copula Is (pronounced as in “hiss,” not as in “his”).

These verbs have specific functions, and they are NOT interchangeable. Unfortunately, this “translation” has the wrong one.

Tá is used when you’re talking about what a person or thing looks like, its state or condition, what it’s doing, what it possesses, etc. For example:

Tá mé tuirseach: I am tired 

Tá gruaig liath orm: I have gray hair

Tá mé ag scríobh: I am writing

With certain limited exceptions, Tá cannot be used to say what someone or something IS. For that you need (you guessed it!) – Is:

Is bean tuirseach mé: I am a tired woman

Is bean liath mé: I am a gray-haired woman

Is scríbhneoir mé: I am a writer

Using Tá in place of Is is so wrong, we even have a term for that kind of error: We call it a Tá sé fear (or TSF) error. Tá sé fear is the incorrect way to say “He is a man” (correct would be Is fear é).

Pronoun Choice and Placement

If you look at the examples above, you’ll see that sentences with Tá and sentences with Is place the pronoun  (me/I) differently. In Tá sentences, the pronoun comes right after the verb (and is often combined with it in the first person to make “Táim”).

In sentences with the copula, however, the pronoun is generally placed after the noun. So if this fellow had wanted to say that he was a master or a captain in a general sense, he would have needed:

Is maistir mé: I am a master

Is captaen mé: I am a captain

With definite clauses, however, (i.e., clauses that refer to a specific master or captain), the pronoun moves back to immediately after the verb and takes the emphatic form: In this case, Mise:*

Is mise an maistir: I am the master

Is mise an captaen: I am the captain

And Speaking of Definite Clauses…

Unlike English, Irish doesn’t allow a “double definite.” Where an English speaker might say “I am the ______ of the _______,” Irish requires us to remove the first “the”: “I am __________ (of) the__________.”

(Irish doesn’t  actually use the word for “of” in this kind of sentence either. More on that in a bit.)

The possessive adjective Mo (”My”) is definite, because you’re talking about a specific thing. So our friend needed to remove An (”The”) from his tattoo:

Is mise maistir mo ________

Is mise captaen m’ ________

Case Matters

As I mentioned above, in these constructions, Irish doesn’t use the word for “of.” Instead it puts the word in the “genitive” or “possessive” case.

The genitive singular for Cinniúint (Fate) is CinniúnaAfter the possessive adjective “mo” it is “lenited” or “softened” by placing an “H” after the “C”: Mo chinniúna: “Of my fate.” The genitive singular for Anam (Soul) is Anama and because Mo elides before vowels, it becomes M’anama: Of my soul.

To sum up, what our friend had was:

Tá mé an maistir mo chinniuint; Tá mé an captaen m’anam

But what he NEEDED was:

Is mise maistir mo chinniúna; is mise captaen m’anama

One More Thing

To add insult to injury, do you notice something else different between how I’ve spelled Cinniúint/Cinniúna and the way our hero spelled it? Look closely.

See that little accent mark above the “U” in mine? That’s called the síneadh fada (or just fada) or “long accent.” If the word needs one and doesn’t have it (or has one and doesn’t need it) the word is misspelled, and may even have a different meaning.

Trust me, these words need that fada! Even Google got that one right! Fortunately that’s one thing that’s easily corrected with a quick visit to the tattoo parlor (the rest of the tattoo not so much).

Does it Really Matter?

In a word, yes. It matters. Irish is a living language, just like English.

I often hear people saying “What does it matter? Not many people speak Irish, and what matters is what this guy WANTED to say, right?”

Well what would you think if you saw someone sporting something like this on his back?:

“Is me the master my of fete**; is me the captain my of soul”

You’d probably roll your eyes, palm your face, and wonder why in the heck he didn’t go somewhere to get an accurate translation. Don’t say you wouldn’t…I’ve seen it happen again and again.

We don’t expect people who don’t speak English to be able to do accurate translations on their own, and we don’t expect learners of English to speak perfectly either.  But it is reasonable to expect that, if they plan to get a tattoo in English, they would consult a fluent speaker first, and perhaps get a few opinions before proceeding.

We Irish speakers expect no less.

And That’s Why I Wrote the Book

I love the Irish language, and it saddens and angers me to see it treated so carelessly. I recognize that not everyone knows where to go to get accurate Irish translations or how to be certain that what they’ve found is correct.

That’s why I wrote The Irish Gaelic Tattoo Handbook. If people seeking Irish tattoos will only take the time to do a bit of reading, there will be fewer instances of bad Irish in the world. And that’s a good thing.

* In constructions using “mo,” some dialects allow for the pronoun “mé” to follow the noun, but in this case the emphatic form really is called for, as the man is making an emphatic declaration.

** I used “fete” in place of “fate” here because the Irish word for “fate” is misspelled in the tattoo translation. It demonstrates just how problematic ignoring fadas is.


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/