Can Irish Language Speakers Understand Each Other?

It shouldn’t surprise anyone, really, that a language isn’t spoken the same way by everyone in the same country.  Irish (Gaeilge) is no exception, as explained by Brian Ó Broin (no relation) in his excellent article in the Irish Times: Schism fears for Gaeilgeoirí. The idea of an Irish schism reminds me of the joke that goes around Ireland every time a new political party is formed here: the only agenda item at the first meeting is “The Split.” This is a superb article that should be read by everyone interested in the Irish language.

Brian’s research shows that Irish speakers in Ireland’s Gaeltacht (recognized Irish language-speaking regions) and those in urban areas are finding each other increasingly more difficult to understand. From my own experience, I totally agree. We really do have an urban Irish language that, at times, seens far removed from what I hear broadcast on TG4 or Raidió na Gaeltachta (RnaG.) The article explains some of the differences (while alluding to the obvious fact that perfect Irish isn’t that common anyway):

Irish has a fairly sophisticated morphological system. That is to say, words can change form in several ways. The noun cainteoir, for instance, can mutate to gcainteoir, cainteora, chainteora, cainteoirí, and gcainteoirí, depending on its grammatical function… if the pronunciation of these mutations alters or fails, the entire grammatical system of the language becomes endangered.

When I analysed the expected morphological changes in the nouns of newsreaders, I found that newsreaders on RnaG, reading the news and speaking off the cuff, missed a fairly unremarkable 2 to 6 per cent. Newsreaders on urban stations, however, missed 40 per cent of expected changes.

In terms of expected pronunciation, the relaxed urban speakers missed almost every opportunity to lenite or eclipse – the séimhiú and urú – usually failing, for example, to mark any masculine nouns that were in the plural or genitive. This is an extraordinary development, and the urban dialect of Irish seems to have not yet developed any strategies to deal with it.

So, us Irish urban dwellers, who speak Irish without formalized grammar, but with a wide ranging vocabularly, appear to be in the vanguard of a Pidgin, possibly emerging Creole variant of the language.

Funny, but I feel almost proud to be part of this development. Especially when it counteracts any notion that the Irish language is actually losing popularity.

Ultan Ó Broin
Ultan Ó Broin (@localization), is an independent UX consultant. With three decades of UX and L10n experience and outreach, he specializes in helping people ensure their global digital transformation makes sense culturally and also reflects how users behave locally. Any views expressed are his own. Especially the ones you agree with.


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