Clannad (Not the Anime) Abú!

I received the new Clannad CD today, and the word that keeps running through my head is “wow!”

Wow. Just wow.

I received the new Clannad CD set, Turas 1980, today, and the only word I can think of (the word that’s been running through my head since the first notes of the first track) is “wow!”

It’s exciting enough when a group of Clannad’s stature and longevity (almost 50 musical years!) releases a new album, but when it’s an album as good as this one, you want to shout it from the rooftops!

(I’m afraid of heights, though, so I figured I’d just blog about it instead)

Beyond all expectations

I do have to say that, when I first heard about this CD, after the initial excitement, I was a little disappointed. This is a release of songs and tunes Clannad performed on stage in Bremen, Germany in 1980, and live albums typically aren’t my thing. They rarely live up to expectations, and these are almost 40 year old recordings…I mean, seriously?

Seriously? Seriously! Go deimhin! These tracks are GOOD! Not just Clannad good (which is pretty damned amazing by any standard), but “where has this been all my life” good. So often a live show recording is poorly miked, overcome by background noise, unbalanced…you know how it is.

This collection, however, is about as perfect as it gets. It has all the freshness of a live performance with the richness and quality of a studio recording.

The old made new

If you think you’ve heard everything Clannad has to offer, think again. Several  of these songs/tunes are ones that Clannad hasn’t released on CD before, but even those that have been released on other albums  are fresh and new here because of the difference in harmonies and instrumentation. I’ve been driving around belting out Cuach Mo Londubh Buí with a big grin on my face, as if I’d never heard/sung it before!

That’s another thing I’m in love with about this album. There are  A LOT of songs in the mix — most of them in Irish. Many Irish trad CDs are more balanced toward instrumental tunes, but this one is balanced more toward singing, which pleases me, and more toward Irish than English, which pleases me greatly!

Those of you who have followed my blogs over the years know that I’m a huge advocate of learning by singing, and this is a great album to sing along with. Most of the songs are standards in the Irish trad repertoire, so if you’re a music lover who is also learning Irish, you’ll eventually hear these elsewhere, and it will be nice for you to have some familiarity with them.

Details, details

They say the devil is in the details. Well, there’s plenty of attention to detail here.

One of the reasons I’m not normally a fan of live albums is that there tends to be a lot of talking at the beginning of each track. Typically there’s no option to just listen to the song without going through the between-track patter first.

I listen to music while I’m driving to and from work. My time is limited. It can be annoying to have to listen to the same introduction over and over again just to hear the song I want.

The funny thing is, I’d never really thought about this until now. What they did here is so simple it took me a while to realize what it was, yet so effective that it completely changed the experience of listening to a live album for me. It’s a small detail, but an important one:

Instead of putting the patter at the beginning of a track, they put it at the end of the preceding track.

So, for example, the first track is Turas Ó Carolan and the second is An Cruiscín Lán. They put the spoken introduction to An Cruiscín Lán at the END of the Turas Ó Carolan track. So if I want to listen to it, I can, but if I just want to skip to the beginning of An Cruiscín Lán, I can do that.

Simple, right? Simple, but brilliant! I don’t know why this isn’t universal, but it totally should be! Let’s be honest here…while a bit of talking between songs in a concert is useful and expected, it’s not what most of us buy albums for.

Just one minor quibble

I do have one little issue with this album, and it’s one that I have with a lot of Irish collections. There’s no lyric sheet.

I’m not quite sure why this is. Perhaps the musicians think that people are unlikely to want to or be able to read the Irish lyrics, or perhaps it saves some money in production. I don’t know.

News flash, lads…the Irish learners among your listeners would madly, passionately LOVE the lyrics (and the non-Irish-learners would at least get a kick out of thinking “How do you make THIS sound like THAT?”).

Given that many people these days are more likely to download the music than to buy a CD set, even an official on-line site with the lyrics would suffice. There are lyrics out there from various sites, but they’re not always accurately transcribed.

And you know the old saying: There are two versions of every story, and 12 versions of every song!

A must-have

Minor quibble aside, this album is a must-have. If like Irish music, and/or you’re learning Irish, this album belongs in your collection.

About that anime

Maybe this won’t be a surprise to you, but it was to me: Apparently there’s quite a well-known (and, by all accounts, quite good) manga and anime out there by the name of “Clannad.”

It seems that the artist co-opted the name under the mistaken impression that “Clannad” means “family” in Irish.

Mini Irish lesson here: It doesn’t. (If nothing else, for you tattoo seekers out there, this underscores the fact that good research is your friend).

The word clann in Irish (which is the origin of the English word “clan”) typically is used to refer to the children of a family, or to a group of siblings. This isn’t universal, however, and in parts of Donegal, you’ll hear clann used simply to mean “family.”

But that’s clann. Where did “Clannad” come from?

As it happens, when the group first got its start, they had to come up with a name on the fly, and they went with Clann as Dobhar: “Family from Dore.” “Clann a. d” eventually was shortened to “Clannad.” And the rest, as they say, is history.

If you wandered in here seeking information about the anime, however,  fáilte! (welcome!). Stick around! We love to share our language, and you’re welcome to join us! It’s a small world, and the Irish-speaking world is even smaller. Bígí linn! (Join us!).

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/

 

An Modh Coinníollach, or The Monster of What May (or May Not) Be

Don’t be afraid of the dark…or of the modh coinníollach!

Dá mbeinn chomh saibhir is a bhí mé anuraidh
Thógfainn tigh mór ar an chnoc údai thall,
Fíon agus ór ‘siad a bhéarfainn do mo stór,
Is bheinn ag gabháil ceoil le mo chailín rua.

The Monster in the Living Room

I just have to say it. Ever since I started learning Irish, I’ve heard people speak with dread and loathing of the modh coinníollach (pronounced, roughly “mohg kun-EE-lukh”).

“It’s too difficult!” “I’ll NEVER get it!” “Why do we have to have this in the language?” “Can’t we just get rid of it?” (this latter group usually wants to do away with the tuiseal ginideach — the genitive case — as well).

As I’m sure you can imagine, by the time I was an advanced student, I’d built the modh coinníollach up into a terrible monster in my mind!

And I wasn’t alone! I’ve even seen an entire class of advanced students turn white as sheets when the teacher suggested doing a drill on the modh coinníollach. I swear, you’d have thought he’d asked us to rappel down Sliabh Liag using dental floss!

Irish-American comedian Des Bishop had a similar experience:

Des Bishop on An Modh Coinníollach

Meet the Monster

So what is this terrible thing that has been terrorizing Irish students for generations? Well, if you listened to the above video (And you should. Des Bishop is hilarious!), you already know: It’s simply the conditional mode of a verb. 

Furthermore, if you’re a student of Irish, it’s likely that you’ve been using the modh coinníollach from some of your earliest lessons.  Does any of this sound familiar?

Cad é ba mhaith leat?: What would you like?

Ar mhaith leat cupán tae?: Would you like a cup of tea?

Ba mhaith.:  Yes (“I would”)

Níor mhaith: No (“I wouldn’t”) 

Ba, ar, and níor are, in this case, conditional forms of the copula is.

In my case, I’d unknowingly encountered the modh coinníollach even before I started seriously studying Irish, in one of my favorite songs: An Cailín Rua (“The Red-Haired Girl”), the last verse of which is at the beginning of this post:

If I were (dá mbeinn) as wealthy as I was last year,

I would build (thógfainn) a big house on the hill over yonder,

Wine and gold I would give (bhéarfainn) to my love,

And I would be (bheinn) making music with my red-haired girl.

Are you seeing a pattern here?

A Matter of Condition

I suspect one reason the modh coinníollach worries people is that they’re not sure how or when to use it.

Formal grammar terminology can be intimidating if you’re not familiar with it (and sometimes even if you are!). And modh coinníollach” certainly is a mouthful, even in English (“conditional mode/mood”).

But it’s really not all that bad. Let’s break it down:

Modh = “Mode” or “Mood”:  A distinctive form, or set of forms, of a verb.

Coinníollach = “Conditional”: Something that is dependent on certain conditions.

So, put reasonably simply (or hilariously, if you listen to Des Bishop’s monologue), the modh coinníollach is a verb form you use when you’re talking about something that might or might not happen, depending on other factors (“conditions”):

“If I were rich, I would buy a Ferrari.”

“If I had the time, I would write more blog posts.”

“If it weren’t raining, I would go for a walk.”

The first part of the sentences above tells you what would need to happen (more money, more time, no rain) to make the second part happen (buying a Ferrari, writing more blog posts, going for a walk).

Of course, you can also flip such conditional sentences around:

“I would buy a Ferrari, if I were rich.”

“I would write more blog posts, if I had the time.”

“I would go for a walk, if it weren’t raining.”

Shoulda, Woulda, Coulda

Another way to keep track of when to use the modh coinníollach, at least if English is your first language, is to link it in your mind with certain English words:

Should

Would

Could

Were (Not as in the past tense — “the boys were playing” — but in the subjunctive — “If I were rich.”).

Don’t be intimidated!

But perhaps the issue isn’t so much knowing when to use the modh coinníollach as knowing how to form it.

The thing is, it really isn’t difficult. It’s certainly no more difficult than other Irish verb forms (which, because of the relative lack of irregular verbs in Irish – there are only 11 – aren’t all that difficult at all).

If you can learn the future and past tenses, you can learn the modh coinníollach, and I’m going to give you some basics to get you started.

Days of future past

With a nod to The Moody Blues*, then, let’s get started.

(*And yes…I know the name of the CD is actually “Days of Future Passed.” But this always pops into my head when I think about the modh coinníollach – you’ll see why in a moment – so I think the band will allow me a little leeway).

If you know how to form the past tense and the future tense of regular Irish verbs, you’re more than halfway to knowing how to form verbs in the conditional mode.

First, change the beginning

For independent verb forms* in the modh coinníollach, the beginning of the word is the same as it is in the past tense. Let’s review those:

1. If it begins with a lenitable consonant, lenite it. Shín sí: “She stretched.”

2. If it begins with an unlenitable consonant, leave it alone: Lean sé: “He followed.

3. If it begins with a vowel, put “d’” in front of it. D’éirigh siad: “They arose/got up.”

4. If it begins with “f,” first you lenite it and then, because “fh” is silent, you also put “d’” in front of it. D’fhan sé: “He stayed.”

* Independent verb forms are those that don’t “depend” on a particle: “an,” “ar,” “nach,” etc. 

Next, broaden your future

The future tense of the verbs above are as follows:

Sínfidh

Leanfaidh

Éireoidh

Fanfaidh

To form the conditional mode, after you change the beginning, if necessary, you make those slender endings (i.e., “i” or “e”) broad:

Shínfeadh sí: She would stretch

Leanfadh sé: He would follow

D’éireodh siad: They would arise/get up

D’fhanfadh sé: He would stay.

Not too bad, is it?

Exceptions, Exceptions

One way in which the conditional mode differs from other verb forms is that the first- and second-person singular  are formed a little differently.

The first- and second-person singular forms in the modh coinníollach always incorporate the pronoun into the verb itself (if you speak a dialect that uses táim and táimid instead of tá mé and tá muid, you’re already familiar with this concept). Technically, these are referred to as “synthetic” verb forms.

For first-person singular, that means that the verb ends in “-inn” (Yeah, I know that seems a little odd.  If it helps you to remember, just pretend that “nn” is an “m.” It kind of looks like an “m” in sans serif fonts anyway.)

For second-person singular, that means the verb ends in “-fá.” I have no mnemonic for you for this one. It’s just one you’ll have to learn. But it’s unusual enough that it’s actually pretty easy to remember.

So, for the verbs we’ve been talking about:

Shínfinn: I would stretch.
Shínfeá: You would stretch.

Leanfainn: I would follow
Leanfá: You would follow

D’eireoinn: I would rise/get up
D’éireofá: You would rise/get up

D’fhanainn: I would stay
D’fhanfá

See how easy it is? Just follow the pattern!

It’s a bit of a struggle at first to remember not to add a pronoun after the word (for example, it’s just shínfinn, not shínfinn mé, because the pronoun is already incorporated into the ending), but it’s just a bit of practice…nothing insurmountable.

First- and third-person plural

First- and third-person plurals are also different, and require a little bit of memorization. The ending for first-person plural is “-mis.” For third-person plural, it’s “-dís.

Shínfimis: We would stretch
Shínfidís: They would stretch

Leanfaimis: We would follow
Leanfaidís: They would follow

D’éireoimis: We would arise/get up
D’éireoidís: They would arise/get up

D’fhanfaimis: We would stay
D’fhanfaidís: They  would stay

Again, these are synthetic verb forms, so don’t stick a pronoun on the end…it’s already there.

Is that all? Of course not!

Next week we’ll explore the negative and dependent forms of the conditional mode. In the meantime, spend some time practicing what I’ve given you here.

Really, the point of this post is not to make you an overnight expert, but to minimize the angst that seems to surround what really is a very basic and simple verb form.

Don’t shy away from it! It really is no more difficult than any other verb form. Why it’s developed its fearsome reputation I have no idea, but you’re doing yourself a disservice if you avoid it.

You would be much happier, and you could find yourself much more comfortable with conversational Irish, if only you would let go of your fear!

An modh coinníollach abú!

The featured picture at the top of this post was taken on midsummer eve in Ballyvaughan, Co. Clare. The cottage is in a little holiday village where I and some friends stayed for a week, making music and seeing the sights. © 2008, by Audrey Nickel.


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/

 

“English Only, Please!”

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

Language discrimination. You hear about it all the time.

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

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

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

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

Welcome to the World

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

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

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

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

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

Seeming is Not, Alas, Believing

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

Sadly, things went pear-shaped rather quickly.

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

Nothing like first impressions, eh?

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

A second confrontation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why the fear?

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

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

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

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

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

Le meas,

GG

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


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 Song for St. Patrick

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

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

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

I get it

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

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

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

St. Patrick’s Day in Ireland

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

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

My favorite St. Patrick’s Day song

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

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

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

Véarsa 1:

Dóchas linn Naomh Pádraig, aspal mór na hÉireann.

Ainm oirdhearc gléigeal, solas mór an tsaoil é.

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

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

 

Véarsa 2:

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

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

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

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

 

Verse 1:

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

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

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

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

 

Verse 2:

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

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

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

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

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

Éire go Brách!


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/

O Say, Can You Say…?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The elephant in the room: pronunciation

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

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

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

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

First, forget all you think you know

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next: Forget Phonetics

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

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

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

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

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

See it; hear it; say it

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

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

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

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

Of course, there are details

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

Here are a few words of advice:

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

Practice makes perfect

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

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

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

Happy Learning!

GG


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 Tattoos That Make Us Cringe

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy March!

GG


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/

Yu Ming’s Revenge

Irish pops up when you least expect it!

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

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

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

From Tattoos to T-Shirts

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

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

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

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

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

Yu Ming is Ainm Dom

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

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

Synopsis

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yu Ming’s Revenge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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