Live, Love, Huh?!

This language isn’t a toy for you to use to make yourself feel “special” or “unique.” Take the time to get it right.

Haigh, a chairde!

I’ve been racking my brains lately, trying to thing of something to write about after six months of COVID hiatus. Adjusting to working from home  (yes, I have a day job), and dealing with the stress, worry, and day-to-day concerns really took their toll on the creative process.

Then, two days ago, I opened up Facebook and there, right in front of me, was this gem of a bad Irish tattoo, shared to my page by a friend (Thanks, Máire Uí Brádaigh! Facebook friends rock!)

Woo hoo! Problem solved! Writer’s block broken!

A common (i.e., overdone) request

Ever since I began learning Irish, in  2004, “Live Laugh Love” or some variant thereof (some want “Live Love Laugh” or “Laugh Live Love”) has been the single most common tattoo translation request among women.

(Seriously, if you’re looking for something original, this ain’t it)

Why they want it in Irish I have no idea, but want it they do. If my experience is any indicator, there must be hundreds of women with some version of this permanently marked on their skin in Irish — the lucky/smart ones in good Irish. The others, not so much. Three guesses as to which this person is.

Suffice it to say that what she has on her back is NOT “Live Laugh Love” — in “Gaelic” or in any other language.

(By the way, if you’re curious, the single most common tattoo translation among men is some variation on “None but God may judge me/Only God can judge me.” Dudes can be unoriginal too.)

So what does it REALLY say? “Live…?”

So if it doesn’t say “Live Laugh Love,” what does it say? Let’s start with the first word: Beo.

English is full of words that are spelled the same way but that sound different and have different meanings (the technical name for these is “heteronyms”). “Live” is a prime example. If you pronounce it to rhyme with “give” it is a verb meaning, depending on context, “exist,” “survive,” “enjoy/experience life,” etc.

If you pronounce it to rhyme with “hive,” however, it is an adjective meaning “alive” or “living” (for example “live bait,” i.e., bait that is alive).

When people with a limited understanding of how languages work attempt to do their own translations (note: this is a very bad idea), they tend to forget this tiny detail. You can read more about this in another blog post I wrote a while back: “It’s a Long Life with a Bad Tattoo.

To put it simply, our tattooed friend grabbed the wrong one. “Beo” means “Alive.”

The laughing stud horse?

The second word (really a non-word) is causing a great deal of hilarity on the Irish-speaking internet because, at first glance, it looks like the “translator” intended to write “stud horse.”

Fortunately (I guess), she kind of missed the mark there, as the word for a stud horse is Graíre and what she has there is “Gráire.” The presence (or lack) and placement of an accent mark makes a huge difference in Irish. Put it in the wrong place, leave it out, or put it in when it isn’t called for, and you have a different word.

For more on this: Are You a Fada-less Child?

So the sort-of good news is that she doesn’t have “stud horse.” The bad news is she has nothing at all. “Gráire” isn’t a word in Irish.

It’s likely the person was aiming for “Gáire” — “Laughter/a Laugh.” What she has, though, is nonsense.

Of course, this hasn’t stopped people from making jokes about “Alive Shergar Love” (Americans feel free to substitute “Secretariat” for “Shergar”).

And then there’s grá

As the saying goes, even a broken clock is right twice a day (well, an analog one anyway!). Grá” does indeed mean “love,” but it’s a noun, not a verb.

There is a verb “love” in Irish — gráigh — but it’s rarely used. A more usual way of telling someone to love would be tabhair grá : “give love.”

How does this happen?

There are lots of different ways that this kind of mis-translation can happen. One of the most common is a misguided attempt to do a word-for-word translation using a dictionary.

It would be handy if languages worked that way (All you’d have to do is memorize a bunch of vocabulary and bingo! You’d have another language!). Unfortunately for would-be translators, they don’t.

Aside from such pitfalls as the aforementioned heteronyms, the fact is that different languages just work differently. Some examples:

English: Thank you

Irish: Go raibh maith agat (literally “may there be good to-you”)

English: I love you

Irish: Tá grá agam duit (literally “Is love at-me to-you”)

Here’s a pretty classic (and horrifying on many levels) example of what can happen when someone attempts a translation using a dictionary: Even Racists Got the Blues.

Sometimes this happens because someone asks a friend or family member who misrepresents his or her level of Irish. Sadly, this happens way more often than it should. The reality is that true fluency in Irish is rare, even in Ireland, and people who are truly fluent are often reluctant to do this kind of translation for various reasons.

So how DO you say it?

As I mentioned above, this is an extremely common tattoo translation request, and various Irish forums have struggled with the best way to express it.

To express it using verbs is kind of awkward, and can be ambiguous. Irish isn’t English. “Simple” translations often aren’t all that simple.

What I usually suggest is to use nouns:

Beatha Gáire Grá — Life Laughter Love

Show some respect

It’s OK to want a tattoo in Irish. Just , whatever you do, please have enough respect for the language and the culture to get it right. Spend the time and, if necessary, spend the money to get a solid translation. This language isn’t a toy for you to use to make yourself feel “special” or “unique.”

If you need help, drop me a line in the comments below and I can give you some guidance.

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/

PLEASE NOTE THAT I AM UNABLE TO OFFER TRANSLATIONS VIA THIS WEBSITE OR VIA EMAIL. IF YOU’RE LOOKING FOR A TRANSLATION, PLEASE VISIT THE IRISH LANGUAGE FORUM, WWW.IRISHLANGUAGEFORUM.COM.

St. Patrick’s Day and being Irish in the time of COVID-19

Right now, I can’t focus on things that divide us.

So, a chairde, this is not the post I thought I would be sharing today.

For the past several weeks I’ve been working on a post on what it means to say “I’m Irish.” It’s something several friends on both sides of the question have asked me to address — why it is that Irish-Americans insist on referring to themselves as “Irish.”

It’s something that really bothers some people, and a culture clash that seemed ripe for the sharing near St. Patrick’s Day. I get it. I’ve been working on it with the goal of publishing today, and I have to say that, as of yesterday morning, I was no more than three paragraphs short of giving it a final proof and hitting “publish.”

But in the end I couldn’t do it. Because, while there are valid arguments on both sides (“My grandfather came from Ireland!” “You’re not Irish, you’re American! Deal with it!”), right now, I can’t make myself focus on things that divide us.

So much has changed

It’s hard to believe that it’s only been two weeks since the reality of the coronavirus exploded here in Northern California. Within 48 hours we went from “This is something we should maybe be worried about” to out-and-out panic. The reality of what was happening in China, Iran, and Italy suddenly became our reality (yeah…sometimes we’re a little slow on the uptake).

Now Italy is on lockdown. Ireland is on lockdown. Parts of the U.S. are “containment areas.” Our government tells us that our friends from Europe are no longer welcome here. Resorts here on the California Central Coast have turned into quarantine wards.

A little thing, but…

In the light of all this, it seems that the question of who is entitled to call themselves “Irish” is a pretty minor thing, as is the widespread cancellation of St. Patrick’s Day festivities. Parades, masses, sessions…those can be rescheduled, yes? Semantics and identity can be debated another day.

At the same time these minor things are the things that really hit us where we live, right? Somehow it’s a lot easier to accept the the Dow plummeting that it is to come to grips with the cancellation of seasonal festivities. That makes it personal.

And, while it’s undeniably an issue, let’s be honest: In the face of all this, does the question of who says “I’m Irish” really matter?

What has the Irish language ever done for you?

A few days ago, a friend asked me what value I’ve found in learning Irish. And I have to say, there’s been one heck of a lot.

There’s the satisfaction of learning a new language, which is pretty amazing, when you think of it. Another way to communicate. To a wordsmith, there is no greater joy.

There’s the connection to a culture that has drawn me from the time I was a teenager and first fell in love with Irish traditional music. I can’t begin to explain to you just how much that has meant to me. It’s a connection to my soul.

And yes…there’s the tremendous satisfaction of confounding telemarketers! (“I’m sorry ma’am. No one here speaks Chinese.” Somewhere in Connemara, Yu Ming is laughing!)

But, in the final analysis, the greatest gift Irish has given me is you.

The community I’ve found through Irish is easily the best thing that’s ever happened to me. Some of you are singers, some of you are poets or teachers, some of you are learners, some of you are fluent, or even native speakers. Some of you have no interest in learning the language at all, but have come into my life through Irish music. You come from the U.S. and Canada, from Germany and from England and from Brazil and from Japan, and, of course (where else?) from Ireland.

And in realizing this, I also realized that, in the face of this worldwide challenge, the last thing I wanted to focus on is something that divides us. It doesn’t matter what “Irish” means. What really matters is who we are, and what we have in common.

So what will you do on St. Patrick’s Day?

There’s no doubt that this year is going to be way different from other years. St. Patrick’s Day’s celebrations have been canceled from Dublin to New York!

I don’t know what you will do on March 17, but here’s what I will do:

I will reach out to my friends around the world, and rejoice in this language we share.

I will sing and make music, because that’s what I do.

I will hold my loved ones close.

I will walk outside and revel in the beauty that surrounds me.

And I will pray that next year we will look back on this time as something we got through together.

Is sibhse mo mhuintir. Is sibhse mo chroí. Is sibhse amhrán m’anama.

Le meas is le grá,

GG

* The featured image in this post was taken in Glencolmcille, Co. Donegal, in July, 2008. Glen Head and a dramatic Donegal sunset.


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/

PLEASE NOTE THAT I AM UNABLE TO OFFER TRANSLATIONS VIA THIS WEBSITE OR VIA EMAIL. IF YOU’RE LOOKING FOR A TRANSLATION, PLEASE VISIT THE IRISH LANGUAGE FORUM, WWW.IRISHLANGUAGEFORUM.COM.

“I am,” or Copulating in Irish

If you’re new to Irish, you may be wondering if The Geeky Gaeilgeoir has been hacked by a porn site (Don’t worry. It hasn’t)

Ha ha…made you look! If you’re new to Irish, you may be wondering if The Geeky Gaeilgeoir has been hacked by a porn site (Don’t worry. It hasn’t). If you’ve been studying Irish for a while, you’re most likely either giggling or rolling your eyes (it’s an old, old joke). This post is not X-rated, or even R-rated (though some of the language I’ve heard from people trying to sort out this subject would definitely earn an R rating!). It has to do with one of the most fundamental aspects of Irish (or pretty much any language) — the correct use of what is, in English, the verb “To Be.”

Two “To Be’s” (and They Aren’t Synonyms)

Irish has two verbs that correspond to the English “to be” — bí (the present tense, tá, is more commonly encountered by beginners, so I’ll use that to refer to this verb from here on out) and “the copula” —  is (pronounced to rhyme with “kiss,’ not as “iz” or “ish”). The thing is, they aren’t interchangeable. Each has its own function, and using one when the other is called for is a serious grammar mistake (often referred to by learners as a “tá sé fear” error — TSF for short — for reasons that will, hopefully, become clear further on). Figuring out when to use the copula and when to use can drive beginners a little bit crazy, and the way it’s usually taught doesn’t often help. We’ll talk about that in a second, but first…

What’s a copula?

“Copula” may sound a little like some kind of disease, but it’s actually just a grammatical term for what is sometimes called a “linking verb.” Here’s what Webster has to say about it:

Definition of linking verb

a word or expression (such as a form of be, become, feel, or seem) that links a subject with its predicate
It is related to the words “couple” and — yes — “copulate.” In Irish, “is” is the only copula, and it has a very specialized function, as we’ll see here in a bit. It’s really not as scary as it seems at first. (But if you want to refer to it as “that copulating copula,” be my guest. It’s been called worse.)

Permanent vs. Impermanent

Typically, when new learners are first introduced to this concept, they are told to use is when talking about things that are permanent and tá when talking about things that are impermanent. Unfortunately, this explanation breaks down pretty quickly. I was chatting with an advanced beginner at the San Francisco Deireadh Seachtaine Gaeltachta (Irish immersion weekend) some years back, when the subject of vegetarianism came up. I gave her the word for vegetarian (feoilséantóir — literally “meat denier”) and asked if she could use it in a sentence (always teaching!). She hesitated for a second and then said “I guess it would be “Tá mé feoilséantóir,” because I haven’t always been a vegetarian and I might not be one forever, so it’s not a permanent state.” Unfortunately, the practice of teaching the copula as something used to indicate a permanent state is a set-up for exactly this kind of mistake. You can’t say “Tá mé feoilséantóir.” It’s a TSF error. You say “Is feoilséantóir mé.” (I do have to say, for the record, that there ARE times when you would use “ta” to describe a new, transitory, or future state, but that requires a special construction using “i” — “in” — that I won’t go into here. Maybe in a later post.) When you think about it, there is very little about people, animals, or things that is truly permanent. “The tree is tall” — until it’s been topped. “John is alive” — until he’s dead. In addition there are things that are, more or less, permanent — for example “She is smart” or “Donegal is beautiful” (it is!) — for which we wouldn’t use the copula, at least not in this kind of simple construction. So clearly this isn’t a very useful distinction.

Nouns vs. Adjectives

At one point, when I was an intermediate learner, I overheard a teacher working with beginners offering this distinction:

“Use is when describing something using a noun. Use  when describing something using an adjective.”

This distinction actually worked pretty well for me for quite a while, because it’s more or less true: If  you want to say “X is [noun]” you use the copula and if you want to say “X is [adjective]” you use . Easy peasy, right? It broke down in practice, however, when I started teaching beginners myself. Aside from the fact that I often had to explain the grammatical terms, there are too many instances for which this distinction is just too broad. For example, what if you have a sentence that includes both a noun AND an adjective (“He is a tall man,” for example)? What about tá sentences that don’t include an adjective (“Tá an madadh ag ithe”: The dog is eating.  “Tá an pláta ar an tábla“: the plate is on the table”)? Maybe they even include an adverb (“Tá an madadh ag ithe go mall”: The dog is eating slowly)! And what about those “is” idioms indicating likes and preferences that are often among the first phrases we learn (“Is maith liom tae”: I like tea. “Is breá liom fíon dearg”: I love red wine)? In this case, there are adjectives (“maith”: “good” and “breá“: “fine”) directly following the copula.

Tell it Like it is (or Tell Us What it is)

Here’s the method I finally settled on for teaching about the difference, and it holds up pretty well:
  • If you want to say something ABOUT something or someone, use tá.
  • If you want to say WHAT something or someone IS, use the copula.
You use tá say what something or someone is like: its appearance, its state or condition, its location, what it’s doing, etc. Some examples: Tá an madadh dubh: The dog is black. Tá an múinteoir ard dáthúil: The teacher is tall and handsome. Tá Máire sa chistin: Maire is in the kitchen. Tá na daoine ag rith: The people are running. You use is to say what someone or something IS. Some examples: Is madadh dubh é sin: That IS a black dog. Is cócaire í Máire: Máire IS a cook. Is é Seán an múinteoir: Seán IS the teacher. Is iad na daoine atá ag rith: They ARE the people who are running. (If you like grammatical terminology, these are called “identification” and “classification” sentences). You also use the copula in certain basic set phrases, mostly having to do with likes, dislikes, and preferences (there are a few others as well, but you’ll pick those up as you go along): Is maith liom: I like Is breá liom: I love (as in “I love New York,” not as in “I love you, my darling”) Is fearr liom: I prefer Is fuath liom: I hate Is cuma liom: I don’t care There are more of these set expressions, but these are the ones you’re most likely to encounter early on. It’s not really all that hard at all now, is it?

Is that all there is to it?

Of course, this isn’t the entire story. For instance, both verbs have negative forms, interrogative forms, a past tense, and a conditional mode. Tá also has a continuous mode and a future tense (Is doesn’t need a conditional mode, and doesn’t have a future tense, which is when that special construction using “in” that I mentioned above will come in handy). But this WILL help you sort out the basic nuts and bolts of when to use tá and when to use the copula, and will help you build the foundation upon which everything else having to do with the verb “to be” in Irish will be built. With enough practice, you’ll soon be copulating with the best of them! (Oh, stop rolling your eyes!)

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/

PLEASE NOTE THAT I AM UNABLE TO OFFER TRANSLATIONS VIA THIS WEBSITE OR VIA EMAIL. IF YOU’RE LOOKING FOR A TRANSLATION, PLEASE VISIT THE IRISH LANGUAGE FORUM, WWW.IRISHLANGUAGEFORUM.COM.

The Modest Preposition

The humble preposition plays a vital role in the Irish language

A while back, I wrote a Facebook post lamenting the loss of the preposition “from” in the phrase “to graduate from college.” Apparently, in increasingly common usage, one no longer graduates from college, one “graduates college.” (There are lots of reasons why this oddly truncated phrase doesn’t work, which I’ll let Grammar Girl describe in detail. To me it’s like fingernails on a chalkboard.).

This led to a discussion about prepositions in general, with predictable side trips into regionalisms/colloquialisms, prescriptivism vs. descriptivism, language evolution (or devolution), etc., but what it all boiled down to was that prepositions are little words and, in English at least, are sometimes easily tossed aside.

(That said, I’ll challenge anyone who defends “graduate college” to explain why he doesn’t also “go school” or “sleep night”).

Me being me (yes, the geek is back!), this got me thinking about the vital role the humble preposition plays in the Irish language.

Little Word, Big Job

First let’s talk about the basic function of a preposition. Here’s what Merriam-Webster has to say about it:

Prepositions show direction, location, or time, or introduce an object. They are usually followed by an object—a noun, noun phrase, or pronoun. The most common prepositions are little and very common:

at, by, for, from, in, of, on, to, with

Further…

Prepositions typically show how the noun, noun phrase, or pronoun is related to another word in the sentence.

a friend of mine

the dress with the stripes

hit by a ball

no one except me

That’s a lot of work for a bunch of small words!

And how they work can vary greatly from country to country and from region to region, as this article demonstrates:

Prepositions: The super-handy and horribly confusing widgets of language, by James Harbeck.

Still, useful and perplexing as they are in English, prepositions take on a whole new job when it comes to Irish. They can take the place of verbs.

Let me explain

Perhaps the above needs a little explanation. It’s not that Irish doesn’t have verbs. Irish has plenty of verbs, and conjugating them drives new learners crazy (Though I’m not sure why. Irish verb construction is really very simple. More on that in another post).

English, however, is much more reliant on verbs to convey meaning. We have a dedicated verb for just about every conceivable action. Give us a concept and we can verb it (see what I did there?).

Irish, on the other hand, often favors a preposition, supported by some form of the verb “to be” to convey the same concepts. For example, in English we have (verbs in bold):

  • Seán has a new car
  • Máire is sick
  • Gráinne loves chocolate
  • Síle loves Sinéad
  • Éamonn hates tomatoes

The same sentences in Irish (verbs underlined; prepositions in bold):

  • carr nua ag Seán. (Literally “Is car new at Seán”)
  • tinneas ar Mháire (Literally “Is sickness on Máire”)
  • Is maith le Gráinne seacláid (Literally “Is good with Gráinne chocolate”)
  • grá ag Síle do Shinéad (Literally “Is love at Síle for Sinéad”)
  • Is fuath le Éamonn trátaí (Literally “Is hatred with Éamonn tomatoes”)

“Tá” and “Is” are both words that correspond to the verb “to be” in English (they’re not used interchangeably, but that also is a subject for another post…or maybe a book…or perhaps a small library).

But wait…there’s more!

An interesting thing about Irish prepositions (and a feature of Celtic languages in general) is that they have a special affinity with another class of small words that begins with “P” — pronouns. Irish conjugates prepositions by joining them with pronouns, in a form that is formally called a “prepositional pronoun.”

Knowing how prepositional pronouns work is integral to learning and speaking Irish (unless you want to sound like Tarzan).

Meet the pronouns

You probably remember from school that a pronoun is a word that takes the place of a noun (which saves us from having to say such things as “Audrey drives Audrey’s car to Audrey’s office every morning. Audrey gets out of Audrey’s car and unlocks the door to Audrey’s office and then goes to Audrey’s desk and checks Audrey’s email” which would be a pretty tedious and cumbersome way to talk, you have to admit).

These are the pronouns in English:

I/me
You
He/him
She/her
We/us
They/them
It

These are the pronouns in Irish:


Tú/thú
Sé/é
Sí/í
Muid or sinn (“sinn” is primarily used in Munster)
Sibh
Siad/iad

Because all nouns in Irish, animate or inanimate, have grammatical gender, Irish doesn’t have an equivalent of the neuter inanimate pronoun “it.” Also, unlike contemporary English, Irish has singular and plural forms of “you”: tú/thú for singular and sibh for plural.

Putting it all together

In Irish, you can’t just put a pronoun next to a preposition. You must combine the two into a “prepositional pronoun.” For example, you can’t say:

Ag mé

You have to say:

Agam

Here’s the full conjugation of “ag” (“at):

Agam (“at me”)
Agat (“at you” – singular)
Aige (“at him”)
Aici (“at her”)
Againn (“at us”)
Agaibh (“at you” – plural)
Acu (“at them”)

Here are the sentences I used earlier, each with one noun replaced with a prepositional pronoun:

  • carr nua aige(Literally “Is car new at him,” i.e., “He has a new car”)
  • tinneas uirthi (Literally “Is sickness on her,” i.e., “She is sick”)
  • Is maith léi seacláid (Literally “Is good with her chocolate,” i.e., “She likes chocolate”)
  • grá ag Síle di (Literally “Is love at Síle for her,”i.e., “Síle loves her”). Or, if you want to replace both nouns: Tá grá aici di (Literally “Is love at her for her”).
  • Is fuath leis trátaí (Literally “Is hatred with him tomatoes,” i.e., “He hates tomatoes”)

What this all comes down to is that, when translating many common phrases from English to Irish, you need to know at least three things:

1) Is this an instance that requires a preposition rather than a dedicated verb?
2) If so, which preposition is required?
3) If I want to use a pronoun, how does that pronoun combine with the preposition?

(There are actually a few more things you have to know, such as “how does the preposition affect a word that follows it?” but we’ll deal with that somewhere/time down the road).

Bad news for wannabe translators

There are myriad reasons why a person who isn’t reasonably fluent in Irish (or in any other language not their own) shouldn’t attempt translations for anything permanent or public. This is one of the biggies. Idioms involving prepositions and prepositional pronouns are integral to the language. There’s just no getting around that. And if you don’t know how to use them, you’re going to get it wrong — guaranteed.

And if I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a hundred times YOU CANNOT RELY ON GOOGLE TRANSLATE. Seriously. Just don’t. If you need an example or two of how just how badly Google handles Irish, check out this post I wrote for Bitesize Irish a few years back:

Bitesize Irish – Irish Translators

I’m sorry to say it hasn’t improved much in the intervening seven-plus years.

Translator’s bane, learner’s boon

If you’re learning Irish, or contemplating doing so (maybe as a New Year’s resolution!), this may seem a bit daunting. Don’t let it worry you.

The fact that these idioms are so integral to Irish means that you will begin encountering them from your earliest lessons, and the more common ones will become familiar very, very quickly. These include the kinds of sentences you will use over and over again, such as:

  • Those involving possessions
  • Those involving physical attributes
  • Those involving desires, likes, and dislikes
  • Those involving health/physical condition

It won’t take you long to begin to get a feel for the patterns. And when you need help, this is one case in which your favorite dictionary can be really useful.

Most dictionaries, whether print or on-line, have extensive entries on prepositions, which will not only give you the prepositional pronoun forms, but lots of examples of usage. Here’s an example from Teanglann.ie:

Ag (at) in Foclóir Gaeilge-Béarla

You’ll get it — I promise! And faster than you might think.

The Geek is back!

You may have noticed that I haven’t been around for a while (You have noticed, haven’t you? Please tell me you noticed! Actually, if you haven’t, don’t tell me!). Adjusting to working full time after 20+ years of working from home, as well as dealing with some health issues, put a cramp in my style for a bit.

I’m back now, though, and I made two resolutions for 2020:

  1. To get this post finished and posted by the end of New Year’s Day (nailed it!)
  2. To write more frequently in 2020 (I’m aiming for publishing fortnightly, if possible. Hold me to it!)

If you think of something you’d like me to write about regarding Irish and/or translation, please let me know! You can say it in the comments below or message me via WordPress.

Athbhliain faoi rath is faoi mhaise daoibh! (A lovely and prosperous New Year to you all!)

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/

PLEASE NOTE THAT I AM UNABLE TO OFFER TRANSLATIONS VIA THIS WEBSITE OR VIA EMAIL. IF YOU’RE LOOKING FOR A TRANSLATION, PLEASE VISIT THE IRISH LANGUAGE FORUM, WWW.IRISHLANGUAGEFORUM.COM.

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/

PLEASE NOTE THAT I AM UNABLE TO OFFER TRANSLATIONS VIA THIS WEBSITE OR VIA EMAIL. IF YOU’RE LOOKING FOR A TRANSLATION, PLEASE VISIT THE IRISH LANGUAGE FORUM, WWW.IRISHLANGUAGEFORUM.COM.

Get Your Irish on in San Francisco!

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

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

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

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

 So What’s a Deireadh Seachtaine Gaeltachta?

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

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

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

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

But…But…I’m Just a BEGINNER!

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

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

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

And you won’t feel out of place because…

We’ve Got Your Level…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

…And Some First-Class Teachers

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

Our roster of outstanding teachers for 2017 includes:

Catríona Weafer, Level One

Bairbre Ní Chiardha, Level Two

Anna Ní Choirbín, Level Three

Aisling Ní Churraighín, Level Four

Orla Mc Garry, Children’s Class

And Then There’s the Location

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s not to love?

For More Information

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

Hope to see you there!

GG


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

PLEASE NOTE THAT I AM UNABLE TO OFFER TRANSLATIONS VIA THIS WEBSITE OR VIA EMAIL. IF YOU’RE LOOKING FOR A TRANSLATION, PLEASE VISIT THE IRISH LANGUAGE FORUM, WWW.IRISHLANGUAGEFORUM.COM.

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.

REQUEST FROM THE GEEK IN CHIEF: June 1, 2020

Dear friends,

Since this post was published, three years ago, so many more lives have been lost to racism in this country, most recently that of George Floyd. I’m asking you, if you’ve found anything of value in this post, to please consider making a donation to Black Lives Matter. If you’re not able to donate, please do what you can. March. Speak up. Speak out. Be a witness. Be the change.

Le meas,
GG
Black Lives Matter


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.

Update 9/24/2020: I just came across this excellent article by Clare Healy on Black Lives Matter and the Irish language. Highly recommended!

The Irish for Black Lives Matter

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/

PLEASE NOTE THAT I AM UNABLE TO OFFER TRANSLATIONS VIA THIS WEBSITE OR VIA EMAIL. IF YOU’RE LOOKING FOR A TRANSLATION, PLEASE VISIT THE IRISH LANGUAGE FORUM, WWW.IRISHLANGUAGEFORUM.COM.

Making Sense of Irish Gender

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

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

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

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

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

Not All That Surprising

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is “Grammatical Gender”?

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

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

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

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

Getting it Right From the Start

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

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

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

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

An seanduine – The old man

An carr – The car

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

An t-amadán – The foolish man

An t-asal – The donkey

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

An bhean – The woman

An chláirseach – The harp

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

An óinseach – The foolish woman

An oíche – The night

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

An tsráid – The street

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

Basic Guidelines

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

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

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

Words are typically masculine if…

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

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

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

Words are typically feminine if…

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

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

Compound Nouns

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

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

Sráid – street (feminine)

Combines with…

Baile – town (masculine)

To become…

Sráidbhaile – village (masculine)

Exceptions Exceptions!

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

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

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

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

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

And About Those Pronouns

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

Cá bhfuil do chláirseach? Where is your harp?

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

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

Cá bhfuil do charr? Where is your car?

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

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

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

Don’t Worry! You’ll Get Used to It!

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

Hope this helps! Happy gendering!

Beirigí bua!

GG

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

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


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

PLEASE NOTE THAT I AM UNABLE TO OFFER TRANSLATIONS VIA THIS WEBSITE OR VIA EMAIL. IF YOU’RE LOOKING FOR A TRANSLATION, PLEASE VISIT THE IRISH LANGUAGE FORUM, WWW.IRISHLANGUAGEFORUM.COM.

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, voilà!:

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/

PLEASE NOTE THAT I AM UNABLE TO OFFER TRANSLATIONS VIA THIS WEBSITE OR VIA EMAIL. IF YOU’RE LOOKING FOR A TRANSLATION, PLEASE VISIT THE IRISH LANGUAGE FORUM, WWW.IRISHLANGUAGEFORUM.COM.