Historical language dictionaries – you don't want to rush these things

Another fascinating Irish language (Gaeilge) story from the Irish Times: 34 years compiling an Irish dictionary – and not yet at ‘B.’


“Work on the Royal Irish Academy’s historical dictionary of the Irish language started in 1976 – and could take its 10 dedicated compilers a further 100 years to complete.”

However, to be fair, this issue of historical dictionaries being a somewhat drawn out affair is not an Irish peculiarity. Check out the story and see how long it took in Norway, Sweden and Wales took with their dictionaries.  Why the delay? It’s trying to hit a moving target:

“To help illustrate why the process is so precise and so time-consuming, Uí Bheirn (one of the researchers) shows … one word, “Abhaile”. In its most-used English translation, it means “home”. But there are many other entries for this word, as it has multiple meanings in Irish, both in dialect now defunct and newer additions to the canon, depending on the context. “Most people think ‘abhaile’ just means home, but it can also mean, if a woman is pregnant, she’s home, she’s coming to her time. That’s ‘teacht abhaile’,” she explains. “Tugann abhaile” is “take-home pay”; a modern use of the word.”

Computerization, it seems, just adds even more complexity into the mix for the researchers (perhaps this explains why the use of the word “Abhaile” for “Home Page” on Web sites in Irish wasn’t mentioned.)

The name of the Irish dictionary is Foclóir na Nua-Ghaeilge (“Nua” is “New” in Irish.) I wonder what the definition of “Nua” will be. I doubt I’ll be around when they get that far!

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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