Oíche Shamhna, or Halloween, Old Irish Style

This is the time of year when an ancient Irish celebration turns our world black and orange.

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This post originally appeared on my Tumblr blog in October, 2016.

‘Tis the season! This is the time of year when an ancient Irish celebration turns our world black and orange and fills our streets with little (and sometimes not so little) ghosts, goblins, and superheroes.

Happy New Year!

In ancient Ireland, Oíche Shamna, or “Samhain Eve” (“Samhain,” pronounced “SOW-un” (first syllable rhymes with “cow”) is the Irish name for the month of November, and also the name of the Old Irish new year celebration) was a time when the veil between the world of the living and that of the dead was believed to grow thin.

People believed that the dead, both good and bad, could walk among the living on that night. They prepared offerings of food and drink to welcome their beloved dead, as well as to appease spirits who might mean to do them ill.

People also believed that the fairy folk were better able to “cross over” on such a night. Fairies in Irish mythology are not elegant elves or glittery pixies. They are supernatural creatures that are, at best, mischievous, and, at worst, truly terrifying.

For this reason, treats would also be left out to propitiate any visiting fairies in the hope that they would leave the household alone. This eventually evolved into young people dressing up as such creatures (or as deceased ancestors) and going from house to house collecting goodies. ‘

Sound familiar?

A Tradition that Spans Cultures

My recent travels took me to México, where I had the opportunity to view examples of Mexican art, both ancient and modern, with the guidance of local experts. It was quite an eye-opening experience!

I was struck by the similarities between the carvings in the ruins at Huatulco and Puerto Chiapas and some of the carvings on ancient Irish artifacts – particularly the use of the spiral and the “tree of life.”

The real eye-opener, however, was our visit to an art gallery in San José del Cabo that featured artwork based on the upcoming Méxican holiday Dia de los Muertos – The Day of the Dead.

Seeing a familiar holiday in a new light

Of course I was already familiar with Dia de los Muertos. I live in a place where it is widely celebrated. I’d never really given any thought, though, to how similar it is to the ancient Irish observance of Oíche Shamhna, whichover the span of centuries, eventually morphed into our modern Halloween.

The concept of honoring ancestors with their favorite foods and music; the sense of the veil between the world of the living and the world of the dead growing thin, allowing the dead to visit the living; the acceptance of mortality as part of the cycle of life rather than something to be dreaded and shunned…all are significant aspects of both celebrations.

Even though I’ve celebrated Halloween all my life (and have known about its Irish roots since high school), and have lived among people who observe Dia de los Muertos for much of my adult life, just how closely the two celebrations are related never really clicked for me until that day in San José del Cabo.

Fascinating, isn’t it? Two completely different pre-Christian cultures, on two continents, evolving what is, essentially, the same celebration.

It gets even more fascinating when you look a little deeper and realize that similar celebrations have evolved on virtually every continent. Really makes you wonder if there might be something to it, doesn’t it?

In any case, I knew that I had to write something about Halloween and its Irish connections when I got home. The problem was (and is) that my travels have left me very short of time, and I wasn’t sure I could give the topic the justice it deserves.

Then I realized that I didn’t have to reinvent the wheel.

From the Archives

When I worked as a blog writer for Bitesize Irish Gaelic in 2012 and 2013, I wrote extensively about Halloween, so I dug through my archives and found three posts that I think my followers will find interesting:

Oíche Shamhna (Halloween) Part 1 Happy New Year!: This post describes how the ancient Irish celebration evolved into the holiday we celebrate today.

Halloween Old Irish Style How the ancient Irish observed Oíche Shamhna, with suggestions incorporating some of these traditions into your own Halloween celebration.

Irish Language Phrases for Oíche Shamhna Irish words and phrases appropriate to the season, with phonetic pronunciation.

I hope you enjoy these posts. Please feel free to share the links, but please DON’T copy large blocks of text from them without the approval of the owners of Bitesize Irish Gaelic*

Oíche Shamhna shona daoibh go léir! (Happy Halloween to you all!)

GG

* Full Disclosure and a Plug

Or maybe it’s a plug and full disclosure. In any case, if you’re looking for an on-line program for learning Irish, Bitesize Irish Gaelic is one I highly recommend (And not just because I used to work there.That’s the disclosure part. Don’t worry…I left on good terms, and still pop in from time to time in a supporting capacity)

The program is designed as a series of very short, “bite-sized” lessons, each of which can be completed relatively quickly. Lessons are categorized s “Grammar,” “Vocabulary,” and “Conversation,” and feature audio recorded by a native speaker.

Pricing is on a sliding scale depending on how much of the program you want to access. It’s a month-to-month set-up, so you can always leave (or upgrade!)

Bitesize offers extensive support, and additional resources, including frequent podcasts and a private Facebook group.

Anyway, if you’re looking for an affordable way to get started learning Irish, give it a look!

www.bitesizeirishgaelic.com

Slán go fóill, and Happy Trick or Treating!

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/

It’s A Long Life With A Bad Tattoo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So What’s Wrong With This One?

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

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

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

Parts of Speech

Let’s start with the first word: Beo.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Baoite beo: Live bait

Tá sé beo: He is alive

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

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

But Wait…There’s Mór

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

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

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

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

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

Even A Broken Clock is Right Twice a Day

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

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

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

“Alive a big life without a long life”

Ouch.

So How Should You Say It?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Surely that’s not too much to ask?

It’s Not Just Irish

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

Gaelic Tattoos That Make Me Cringe

Happy Schadenfreude!

GG


In addition to being “The Geeky Gaeilgeoir,” Audrey Nickel is the author of  The Irish Gaelic Tattoo Handbook,” published by Bradan Press, Nova Scotia, Canada.  For information about the book, including where to buy it, please visit http://www.bradanpress.com/irish-tattoo-handbook/

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

Fadó, fadó, ar an idirlíon…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You write relidious instead of religious  

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

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

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

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

You want to “correct” ceapairí ham to ceapairí haim

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

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

You name your new catCat Eile.”

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

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

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

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

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

Your dog responds to “goitse.”

Your Turn!

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

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


In addition to being “The Geeky Gaeilgeoir,” Audrey Nickel is the author of  The Irish Gaelic Tattoo Handbook,” published by Bradan Press, Nova Scotia, Canada.  For information about the book, including where to buy it, please visit http://www.bradanpress.com/irish-tattoo-handbook/

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/

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/