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.

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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/

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/

Are You a Fada-less Child?

If you’re an English speaker who has never studied another language, chances are you’ve never had to deal with typing accented characters.

THE IMPORTANCE OF ACCENT MARKS

If you’re learning Irish, you probably already know just how important the long accent, or síneadh fada, is. Leave it out when it should be there (or put one in where it doesn’t belong), and you have a problem: A misspelled word that will be mispronounced by readers of Irish and that may even change meaning.

For example:

Seán (shawn) –  noun, a man’s name

Séan (shayn) – a verb meaning “to deny” or a noun meaning “sign/omen.”

Sean (shan) – an adjective meaning “old.”

I know, I know. I use these specific examples all the time. They’re handy, because just about everyone is familiar with the name “Seán.” But there are plenty of other examples.

If you’re curious, check out Rossa Ó Snodaigh and Mícheál Ó Domhnaill’s book “Our Fada: A Fada Homograph Dictionary.” The subject is serious, but the authors treat it with a great deal of humor. The cartoons alone are worth the price of the book!

BUT MY KEYBOARD WON’T TYPE THEM!

If you’re an English speaker who has never studied another language, chances are you’ve never had to deal with typing accented characters.

You may even have overlooked their importance up until now. After all, it’s standard practice in the U.S. to simply leave accents off imported words and names, which is why you’ve likely never met a Seán  in San José, visited México, or eaten a  jalapeño in a café.

In fact, most U.S. registries don’t allow diacritic marks, so if you want to name your wolfhound “Oisín” or your daughter “Caitlín,” (pronounced “KATCH-leen,” by the way, not “KATE-lynn”) or to put “Éire” on your car license plate, you’re out of luck.

But now you have a real problem. You’re learning a language that requires long (aka “acute”) accents and you have no idea how to type them. You may even think that your computer, phone, or tablet is incapable of producing them. Fortunately, you’re wrong.

EASIER THAN YOU MIGHT THINK

When I first started learning Irish I had no idea how to type fadas. It didn’t help that the advice I got (to use my “ALT GR” key) didn’t seem to apply to my keyboard.

People in Ireland, you see, can type a fada by simply holding down a special key on their keyboard while typing the desired vowel. When they let go of the “ALT GR” key, the accented vowel magically appears.

(Yes, I know it’s not really magic, but it seemed pretty magical at the time!)

U.S. keyboards, unfortunately, don’t come with an “ALT GR” key.. In fact, I spent that first year copying and pasting accented vowels from a Word document (after having cut them from various forum posts and then pasting them into the Word document), which, as you can imagine, was pretty awkward.

I did eventually learn how to type fadas, however, and now I’m going to pass that wisdom on to you (and, hopefully, spare you some frustration!).

HOW TO GET ACCENTED CHARACTERS ON PRETTY MUCH ANY DEVICE

On a Mac

If you have a Mac, you already have something very like an ALT GR key: your “option” key. To get a vowel with an acute accent, simply hold down your “option key” and then the “E” key. Release both keys and type the vowel you want. For example, to get “Á”:

Hold down the “option” key and “E”

Release both keys and type “A”

What you’ll get will be “Á”

Easy peasy! (Or, in Irish, “éasca péasca”!)

Here’s a complete tutorial on using the “option” key to get accented characters of all types:

http://sites.psu.edu/symbolcodes/mac/codemac/

On a PC

PCs don’t have “option” keys, but you still have options.

Option 1: Use ALT Codes.

If your keyboard has a number pad on the right, you can use it to type fadas. Be sure the “Num Lock” key is on, and then simply hold down the “alt” key while typing the numbers below. When you let go of the “alt” key, voila!:

ALT + 0225 = á

ALT + 0193 = Á

ALT + 0233 = é

ALT + 0201 = É

ALT + 0237 = í

ALT + 0205 = Í

ALT + 0243 = ó

ALT + 0211 = Ó

ALT + 0250 = ú

ALT + 0218 = Ú:

There are ALT codes for pretty much any diacritic mark or special symbol you may want to type on a PC. The site below gives a comprehensive list:

http://sites.psu.edu/symbolcodes/windows/codealt/

This may seem like a lot of keystrokes at first, but if you’re anything like me, you’ll be surprised at just how quickly you are able to touch-type the ALT codes for the letters you use most often.

Option 2: Alternative keyboard layouts

There’s little doubt that using an alternative keyboard layout is the most efficient way to type accented characters. If your keyboard doesn’t have a number pad, it’s the only way.

An alternative keyboard layout will allow you to type the accented characters you use most with much fewer keystrokes than typing ALT Codes.

I do have to say that I don’t personally use an alternative layout because I have a hard time remembering where some of my most frequently used keys, such as @, have migrated to.

Also, by the time I discovered alternative keyboard layouts I was already touch-typing ALT Codes and didn’t figure it was worth changing up at that point.

But that’s just me.I’m lazy that way. If you’re not, an alternative keyboard layout is probably the best way to go. The link below will take you to a tutorial for choosing an alternative keyboard layout in Windows 10:

How to change your keyboard layout on Windows 10 PC

For other versions of Windows, or for other operating systems, a quick net search should uncover plenty of tutorials.

On a touch screen

If you’re using a smart phone, or a tablet with a touch screen, getting accented characters couldn’t be easier.

Simply hold down the letter you want accented, and a menu will appear. Slide your finger up to the one you want, give it a tap, and Bob’s your uncle!

DON’T BE A FADA-LESS CHILD!

Now that you know how to type fadas, you have no excuse not to use them properly! Regardless of the kind of device you have or the method you choose, it really is pretty simple. And it is important.

For more on the importance of the fada in Irish, as well as basic pronunciation for accented and unaccented vowels, have a look at the blog post I wrote on this subject for Bitesize Irish Gaelic in 2013:

http://www.bitesize.irish/blog/our-fada/

Happy Typing!

GG

Update: 9/10/17 — Microsoft Word

A commenter, Bruce Burrill, has turned me on to a nifty feature of Microsoft Word of which I had been unaware.

When using Word, if you simultaneously press the “ctrl” and the apostrophe keys, release them, and then type a vowel, you’ll get that vowel with the fada.

For example, when working in a Word document, press “ctrl” and your apostrophe key at the same time. Release both keys and type “a.” What you should get is á. No special set-up required.

Thanks Bruce!

Featured image © 2008 by Audrey Nickel. Taken along a roadside in Glencolmkill, Co. Donegal. “Baaaaa! Have you seen my fada?”


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/

A Rocky Mountain “Haigh”: Irish Immersion in Montana

July 22 found me flying eastward on I-90 toward a new experience in the western foothills of the Montana Rockies.

It was pure serendipity.

I was in the midst of planning our annual two-week road trip to visit family in the Pacific Northwest when a friend of mine on Facebook posted information about the week-long immersion course hosted by Friends of Irish Studies in Butte, Montana.

I have been peripherally aware of the Butte course for years, but had never thought about attending it because of the distance. Also normally when I’m in the Northwest I’m with my husband and daughter, neither of whom has any interest in Irish.

This year, however, I was going to be doing the greater part of the trip alone, as my husband had recently started a new job and my daughter had plans to visit her girlfriend in Seattle. It suddenly occurred to me that Butte isn’t all that far from my father’s home in Spokane, Washington — just a four-and-a-half-hour drive (which, when you’re doing a 2,000-mile road trip, isn’t much of a distance at all) — and that there was nothing preventing me from taking an extra week to immerse myself in some Irish (That’s an advantage of being a writer. You can do your work pretty much anywhere.)

That’s why July 22 found me flying eastward on I-90 (And I do mean flying! Montana has an 80 mph speed limit!) toward a new experience in the western foothills of the Montana Rockies.

A Stunning Location

If you’ve never been to Butte, you owe yourself a visit. This small city (population approx. 34,200) is situated in a beautiful bowl-shaped valley, with mountains on every side, and a constantly changing view of Montana’s trademark big sky.

A magnificent thunderhead, seen from just outside Centennial Hall on the Montana Tech campus in Butte.
A magnificent thunderhead, seen from just outside Centennial Hall on the Montana Tech campus. Centennial Hall is the dorm in which most of the Irish students were housed.

It’s a mecca for those who enjoy outdoor sports, such as hiking or camping, as well as for people with an interest in western U.S. history (it is still very much a mining town, and evidence of that is visible everywhere, from the ubiquitous mining head frames and the strangely beautiful Berkeley Pit to the World Museum of Mining, which gives visitors an opportunity to experience mining from a miner’s point of view).

The people who live there are fiercely proud of their city (the name of which, by the way, is pronounced “byoot,” NOT “butt” — a mistake the guide on the city tour told us is relatively common), and with good reason. In addition to its stunning location, interesting history, and unique architecture, Butte also boasts Montana Tech, which, according to the Princeton Review, ranks among best colleges in the country.

What many visitors don’t realize, however, is that Butte is also a major center for Irish culture. In fact, during its heyday, Butte had the largest concentration of Irish immigrants and their descendants west of the Mississippi!

A trinity knot: One of several Irish symbols near the entrance to The Berkeley Pit.
A Trinity knot: One of several Irish symbols near the entrance to The Berkeley Pit.

 

It’s home to multiple Irish festivals throughout the year, as well as to one of the best Irish-themed shops I’ve encountered: Cavanaugh’s County Celtic.

 

http://www.mtgaelic.org/
Entrance to Cavanaugh’s County Celtic, on Park Street in Butte.

If Irish history and culture is of interest to you (and, if you’re reading this, I imagine it is), Butte is definitely a must-visit!

A Week of Firsts

I’ve attended many Irish immersion courses over the years, both in the U.S. and in Ireland, but the Butte course was a first for me in many ways.

To begin with, it’s the only week-long course I’ve attended outside of Ireland (full-week courses are not as common in the western U.S. as they are on the East Coast). Weekend courses are wonderful, but often it seems that they’re over too quickly. It was nice to have the time to get to know people, and to explore the area, as well as more time to practice speaking Irish!

It’s also the first immersion event I’ve attended on a university campus which, among other things, meant that we had the option to save a lot of money by staying in the dorms ($25 a night, and wi-fi included…heck of a deal!). The dorm we were housed in — Centennial Hall — was less than a block from the Student Union Building, where we had our classes (and almost as important…just a few steps farther along to a Starbucks!)

The most interesting thing to me, though, was the fact that it’s the only immersion course I’ve attended at which most of the students, as well as the teachers, spoke the same dialect — Munster Irish.

Munster is the dialect with which I am the least familiar (though I can understand it, thanks in large part to TG4!), and it was interesting and useful to hear it all around me for an entire week.

Class Structure

I have to admit I was a bit concerned at first, when I realized there were only two levels: bunleibhéal for beginners and lower intermediates and ardleibhéal for upper intermediates and advanced speakers. I wasn’t certain that it could be made to work for people of markedly different levels.

Fortunately, it worked out very well indeed! In our class (ardleibhéal), we broke into groups during the morning session, with the more advanced students working among ourselves on conversational exercises. During the afternoon the class came back together to work on reading and listening comprehension and and on translation.

The daily pattern was similar to what you find with other immersion courses: A morning session with a 15-minute break in the middle, about an hour and a half free time for lunch, then back for an afternoon session (also with a brief break) that continued until about 4:00.

After Class

One thing that did differ from what I’m used to is there were no scheduled afternoon/evening workshops or activities (sessions, dancing, etc.), and I found that I missed that a bit.

That’s not to say that we didn’t do things together after class. We went out to dinner together on two occasions. One afternoon we went together on a guided trolley tour of Butte, which was really interesting, and a lot of fun (should you find yourself in Butte, I highly recommend it)!

Students waiting for the trolley tour of Butte.
Waiting for the trolley tour
Picture of the Butte Trolley.
The Butte Trolley. Highly recommended should you find yourself visiting Butte!

On another afternoon, some of the more athletic among us went for a hike up near The Continental Divide (given my bad knee and back, not to mention my tendency for altitude sickness, I had to regretfully decline, but I heard that it was a lot of fun!)

And, of course, we couldn’t resist the opportunity to stuff ourselves with street food, listen to music, and ogle the motorcycles and classic cars at Evel Knieval Days!

I often found myself taking advantage of the long summer evenings and the nearby walking/cycling trail (which ran right past the dorm), to enjoy the historical markers and the ever-changing sky.

Sunset on clouds in Butte, Montana
No, it’s not a volcano. It’s a dramatically beautiful sunset!
Beautiful sunset from the walking trail near Montana Tech.
You never get tired of sky watching in this Rocky Mountain town! This was taken from the pedestrian/cycling trail near Montana Tech.

Still, as a musician (and as someone who was drawn to Irish by a love for traditional music), I found I missed having some kind of musical gathering. Next time I’ll just have to pack my small harp!

I’ll Be Back

I have no doubt that there will be a next time, when circumstances allow. I had a good time in a beautiful place with some wonderful people, and as always, I learned a lot. Agus bíonn sé go deas i gcónaí bheith ag caint as Gaeilge, in Montana nó in Éirinn! 

I’ll leave you with a few more pictures of beautiful Butte.

Le meas, GG

The author standing in the viewing stand at The Berkeley Pit.
Me at the viewing stand at The Berkeley Pit. You can see the pit from just about anywhere in Butte, and it’s strangely beautiful, with its varying colors.
The butte from which the city of Butte draws its name.
This is the butte from which the city of Butte draws its name, taken from the walking trail near the Montana Tech campus.
Rainbow over Butte, taken from in front of Centennial Hall on the Montana Tech campus
Rainbow over Butte, taken from in front of Centennial Hall on the Montana Tech campus.
Mining head frame, Butte, Montana
A mine head frame. You’ll see these all over Butte. The colors of the open pit behind it are astounding.
The entrance to Montana Tech illuminated at dusk
The entrance to Montana Tech illuminated at dusk
People eating dinner together at a restaurant in Butte.
Dinner together. I was truly impressed at the quality of the restaurants available in this small city!

 


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/

Irish, Gaelic, or Irish Gaelic: What’s in a Name?

If you’re at a social gathering here in the U.S. and you tell someone you speak, teach, or are learning Spanish (or German, or Icelandic, or whatever), nobody gives you a confused look, or asks you what you mean by “Spanish.”

This post originally appeared on my Tumblr blog in February, 2017

Sometimes I envy people who speak Spanish, or German, or Icelandic, or just about any other language I can think of. They have it so easy!.

If you’re at a social gathering here in the U.S. and you tell someone you speak, teach, or are learning Spanish (or German, or Icelandic, or whatever), nobody gives you a confused look, or asks you what you mean by “Spanish.”

Irish is different. If you say you speak/learn/teach Irish, after a moment of befuddled silence, you usually get one of the following:

  • “You mean they have their own language?”
  • “Do you mean you’re learning to speak with an Irish accent?”
  • “Oy can speak Oirish too! (this person is usually quite obnoxiously drunk)
  • “Do you mean Gaelic?” (The ones who want to appear especially in-the-know may pronounce this “GAA-lik,” as it is in Scotland. I blame Outlander).

Say Something Irish

Things get more interesting if you’re asked to “say something in Irish.”

I usually resist my impulse to respond with “’Rud éigin’ as Gaeilge” (”’Something’ in Irish”) and rattle off something I can say by heart, such as the Lord’s Prayer:

Ár n-Athair atá ar neamh, go naofar d’ainm, go dtaga do ríocht ar an talamh mar atá ar neamh…

To which the response often is:

“But that doesn’t sound much like English!”

Er….duh?*

Of course, there’s always the Carlsberg approach:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uI5_b-327Dw

* Yes, I know that’s a bit snarky. But it just goes to show what some of us have to deal with when speaking of the language outside of its home island.

A Language With an Identity Problem

At issue is the fact that, outside of its home region, and particularly in the U.S., Irish suffers from a real identity problem..

You would think that, with the huge number of people from Ireland who immigrated to the U.S. in the 18th and 19th centuries, when Irish was still the majority language in Ireland, some knowledge of the language would at least linger here. And perhaps it does in some Irish-American communities.

Most Americans, though, don’t seem to know that the Irish have ever spoken anything but English. And those who do don’t know what to call it, or even that it’s still a living (albeit endangered) language.

This puts those of us who work with a predominately American market in a somewhat difficult position. How do we let our target audience know that we’re speaking of a language that is native to Ireland (and that isn’t a form of English)?

The answer that many of us have arrived at is to use the term “Irish Gaelic.” Unfortunately that opens up a completely different can of worms.

Much Ado About Nothing

There are, I’m afraid, people out there who are hugely bothered by the term “Irish Gaelic.” I mean HUGELY bothered. Get-your-knickers-in-a-twist bothered. Major-freak-outage bothered.

In fact, from some of the more over-the-top responses to the term, you might be justified in thinking that calling the language “Irish Gaelic” is roughly equivalent to saying “You’re ugly, and your mother dresses you funny.”

But is it really? Are those of us who use “Irish Gaelic” in the titles of our books and learning programs really being disrespectful to the language? Let’s take a look at some of the objections raised.

“They Don’t Call it That in Ireland”

This is absolutely, indisputably true. You won’t hear people in Ireland referring to “Irish Gaelic.”

I feel the need to point out, though, that they don’t need to. If you were to announce in Ireland that you were learning Irish, they would know exactly what you were talking about (they might think you were crazy, but they wouldn’t be confused by the reference).

It’s their language, after all. Whether or not they speak it, they’re surrounded by it from birth to death…in school, on television and radio, on road signs. Irish may not be widely spoken in Ireland anymore, but it’s still very much present.

Much as I wish it were otherwise, that isn’t the case here in the U.S. If we want people to know what we’re talking about, we need to be more specific.

And yes…it sucks that we have to jump through these hoops to ensure that people know what we’re talking about. After all, if you tell someone you’re learning French, they don’t ask “Do you mean you’re learning French cooking?” But it is what it is.

“It’s Incorrect”

Well, really, it isn’t. It’s not official, and it’s certainly not the standard in Ireland, but it’s not incorrect.

Irish is a Gaelic (Goidelic) language…a language of the Celtic people known as the Gaels. It shares this distinction with its sister languages, Scottish Gaelic and Manx. And, in fact, many older Irish speakers in Ireland do refer to the language as “Gaelic.”

“Gaelic” is also a word that just about anyone will recognize as referring to a language. And if you want proof that it is, in fact, used in Ireland, I can only point to the fact that the English name of Conradh na Gaeilge is “The Gaelic League.”

The problem is that, by convention, the word “Gaelic” by itself is taken to mean the language of Scotland. This is an important distinction if you’re looking for learning or teaching resources, as anything that is simply called “Gaelic” will be for Scottish Gaelic. Hence the need to specify “Irish Gaelic,” if we’re going to use the term “Gaelic” at all.

Yes, “Irish” is the official name of the language, and all of us who speak or teach the language use it (Well, when we’re speaking English. When we’re speaking Irish, we use “Gaeilge,” or one of the regional iterations). But it’s really a stretch to say that “Irish Gaelic” is “incorrect.”

“You Should ‘Educate’ People by Using the ‘Correct’ Term”

I must say, I’m all for education. And, in fact, whenever I teach or write about the language, I make it clear that the accepted name for it in English is “Irish.”

And, well…see the section above.

But I can’t “educate” people I can’t reach. And I can’t reach people if I’m using a term they don’t understand.

In all my years learning and teaching Irish, I’ve seen many a person who was drawn to the language by what some might consider a “trivial” interest fall in love with it for its own sake. And often what has drawn them in has been the term “Irish Gaelic.” It that’s not education, I don’t know what the word means.

“It’s Disrespectful to the Language/Culture”

Oh, come on! Seriously? Do you honestly think that anyone would dedicate more than a decade to learning a language for which he or she had no respect? Or that such a person could do so without a deep regard for the country and culture to which that language belongs?

A more “polite” version of this one is “It displays an ignorance of Irish culture.” Of course, in addition to being wrong in almost every case,this presumes that no actual Irish person would ever use such a term.

I hate to burst anyone’s bubble, but the reality is that most of the people who use the term “Irish Gaelic” in the titles of their learning or teaching materials are Irish. And I don’t mean “Irish-American.”

Of the people I know personally who have developed such materials for a predominately American market, one is a native speaker and the other grew up spending summers in the Donegal Gaeltacht.  Both were born, raised in, and currently reside in Ireland.

It’s quite simply a pragmatic decision to reach (and thus to educate) the widest possible audience by using the clearest possible terms. Nothing sinister, disrespectful, or ignorant about it.

A World Language or an Exclusive Club?

I’m certainly not suggesting that everyone start using the term “Irish Gaelic” (If you think that’s what I’m saying, you need to re-read this post. Go ahead. I’ll wait).

I do, however, think that the sometimes extreme reactions to the use of that term are, at best, misguided, and at worst, potentially harmful.

While I can’t speak for everyone who learns, teaches, or promotes the Irish language, here’s how I see the situation:

Irish is not, and should not be, an exclusive club. People shouldn’t have to know the passwords and secret handshake to access it. If a little thing like being more explicit about what we call it when addressing certain audiences helps more people to come to know and love the Irish language, I’m all for it.

Irish is a threatened minority language. It needs all our help, and the more exposure we can give it, the better.

In the face of a shrinking Gaeltacht (or, if you prefer, an encroaching Galltacht), the gradual erosion of native Irish idioms and pronunciation in favor of “Béarlachas” and Anglicized pronunciation, reduction in funding, and an often indifferent (sometimes downright hostile) governmental attitude toward the language, the matter of putting the word “Gaelic” after the word “Irish” in the title of a book or a computer program is (or should be) a relatively minor concern.

There are plenty of things to be bothered, outraged, or concerned about. This isn’t one of them.

Discussion Welcome

I recognize that, for some, this is a still contentious issue, and I welcome CIVIL discussion, both here on my blog and in other places where this post may appear. Emphasis on “civil.” Don’t adopt a hostile stance, or assume that a person who holds a different view is ignorant or disrespectful toward the language and the culture.

We’re all in this together.

Le meas, GG

The featured image is a sign outside a playground in Glencolmcille. It says “Notice: Welcome to our playground (‘play park’). The equipment in this playground is suitable for children aged three to twelve. Neither bicycling nor playing football is allowed in the park. No dogs. Help us keep our park safe and clean, please. Thank you. Glencolmcille Parish Council.”


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/