Weird sentence, isn’t it? But that’s how you say ‘knowing the Irish language’ in said language. Tá Gaeilge agam: “Irish is at me.”
Very many years ago, I studied Irish with a druid group led by my longtime friend Domi O’Brien. She has been studying and teaching Irish for what appears to be most of her adult life. While I never attained much proficiency, I wasn’t her worst student in a very challenging language.
More often than you might suppose, people ask me why Irish is so difficult. Since I’m up to my ears in brush-up, so that Irish may be at me when I visit the country itself (in which only about 25% of the population speaks any, and in which first-language immersion exists only in enclaves out west), let me go ahead and run with it. Here’s why Arabic and Russian, which use different alphabets, never rattled me as much as does Irish.
Before we go further, let’s talk ‘Irish’ vs. ‘Gaelic’ as the proper term. While Gaelic sounds really, really cool and I myself would rather it were the right term, it isn’t. The Celtic language family numbers six, neatly split into the three each of the Brythonic and Goidelic branches. The Brythonic languages are Welsh, Breton, and Cornish. The Goidelic family comprises Irish, Scots, and Manx. Yes, ‘Goidelic’ relates to ‘Gaelic.’ Thus, ‘Gaelic’ could describe any of those three, and that might be ideal: Irish Gaelic, Scots Gaelic, Manx Gaelic. But the owners of a language rightly retain the sovereign power to confer its name, and the Irish people refer to Irish just so. I’m supposing that, to them, that it is a Gaelic language is perhaps so obvious it need not be repeated on each mention. Thus if you really, really, really would love to call it ‘Gaelic,’ great–see if you can get the actual native speakers to go along with you. Let me know how it went.
In my not terribly educated opinion, the Latin characters are an odd fit for the Irish language. It would make the most sense for Irish to have its own indigenous alphabet, in my view, but it does not (at least not now). Takeaway: you can not trust a letter in an Irish word to have the expected phonetic value based on English-speaking assumptions. One must learn a whole new set of sometimes counter-intuitive phonics. Fh is silent. A leading Gc is G. Mh is a V or W, depending. Ch is what I call a ‘chutzpah H,’ the throaty hock version in a somewhat lighter Irish way. Bhf is usually W, sometimes V. That is a minority sampling. So, welcome aboard: here’s not a brand new alphabet, but much more challenging–a redefinition of your existing alphabet.
Irish does not have the words ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ Ever hear an Irish person answer something like ‘Were you visiting’ with ‘I was’? One answers in the affirmative or negative with a sentence. Are you home? I am not. Was the trip difficult? It was. Would you like some tea? I would. Does the car run? It runs. One cannot just learn to get by with ‘yes’ and ‘no’ in Irish, because the words do not exist.
Irish has what I believe is called a vocative particle, which you might think of as an ‘O…’ word. You might render it as ‘oh,’ ‘hey,’ or even ‘yo,’ but it is not optional in Irish. Cara is friend. My emails to Domi begin with A chara, literally ‘O friend.’ If she addressed me by name (Seán, in Irish), she would render the greeting as A Sheáin. And it would be pronounced ‘ah HYAWN.’ I am not making this up.
Why the extra h? asks the observant reader. Because of aspiration, also called lenition (I’m told the latter is the more precise term). All those Hs you see littering Irish? Most are the equivalent of diacritical marks that modify the sound of the preceding letter. They matter, but they are not pronounced as English Hs in most cases. The vocative mentioned above is only one situation in which aspiration is obligatory–but only for those dozen-odd letters which experience aspiration. Thus, A Nóra (O Nora), but A Mháire (O Mary). To say ‘good morning’ to our B&B lady in Tralee, Mrs. O’Neill, I said: “Dia duit, a Bhean ui Niall.” (“God to you, Woman O’Neill.” This gave her evident delight, as it delights so many Irish speakers to hear a foreigner say a single intelligible sentence in the language. That I’m not Christian is of no consequence to the propriety of the greeting.)
That sensation in your brain is your head beginning to explode. This is normal. This is the point at which most of you will say ‘hell with this, I’m out.’ I understand, but if you do, you’ll miss out on the parts where we really wallow in pain. We haven’t even conjugated any verbs yet! (Let’s don’t and say we did, as my father used to say. The fact that the positive and negative forms can conjugate differently might be a grammar too far.)
The other form of initial mutation in Irish is called eclipsis. About a dozen letters may be eclipsed in certain circumstances, mostly the same dozen as may be aspirated (in different circumstances, naturally). One eclipses a starting letter by prefacing it with a consonant and pronouncing that letter rather than the eclipsed one. For example, C is eclipsed by G. Thus: A chara, ‘O friend;’ this is also how you say ‘his friend.’ But: a gcara, ‘their friend.’ The first is said ‘ah HAH-rah;’ the second, ‘ah GAH-rah.’ Ever seen the Irish version of Donegal, Dun na nGall? ‘DOON na NALL.’ G is eclipsed by N, and in this case eclipsis is obligatory.
Now imagine looking words up in a dictionary. Unless you know about the initial mutations, you won’t even know where to go. You’ll go to look up mbord and it would not be under M. You can’t even progress much in Irish without understanding these, you see.
Oh, it gets more fun. Irish is hyperdependent upon prepositions, some of which do not have direct, precise English correspondences. If you have ever studied a single foreign language, you know that the translation of prepositions rarely breaks along the same lines from tongue to tongue. In Irish, this is true but more so: Irish doesn’t use a verb ‘to have.’ Everything is on one, at one, with one, etc. Now you understand why I titled this post so. To know Irish, in Irish, is for Irish to be ‘at’ one. As earlier, ‘I know Irish’ is Tá Gaeilge agam, ‘there is Irish at me.’ Ag is mostly ‘at’ and here you see its declension (declension is like conjugation, but for non-verbs) to mean ‘at me.’ When I want to say I am joyful, I say Tá áthas orm–‘joy is on me.’ A similar construction is used to tell you if I am cold, ill, and so on–but the proper prepositions vary a bit.
Since ‘to be’ is handled so differently from tongue to tongue, you would expect Irish to handle it in some weird way unlike anything else you had ever seen. Irish, like many languages, has two verbs ‘to be.’ Except that–this being Irish–the second is, strictly speaking, not a verb but rather what we call a copula. It has nothing to do with sex, except perhaps to help one realize that one is truly screwed. In some situations calling for a form of ‘to be’ (for starters but not exhaustively, those conveying identification or definition, such as ‘I am an editor’) one must use the copula form rather than the existing functional conjugable verb ‘to be.’ So there’s that. This isn’t quite the same as the Spanish method of having two different ‘to be’ verbs, but the concept is not far away.
It doesn’t have as many tenses as, say, Spanish, but Irish does have the usual load including moods: present, past, future, and imperfect (‘was doing X’) in the indicative; the conditional (‘would do’), and the usual imperative (command; “Do!”), past participle (‘had done’), and verbal noun (‘doing’ as in “it’s in the doing”). A dozen or so of the commonest, most necessary verbs are irregular and require memorization in all forms; true of very many languages. To make verbs even more fun, some forms change depending on whether the question or statement is positive or negative. “Was it…?” is asked differently than “Was it not…?” To make this much more entertaining, often the difference is that one form requires eclipsis or aspiration; the other either does not require any mutation at all, or requires the other form of mutation. Just have to learn them.
Anyway, that’s what I’m up to lately, twice daily, twenty minutes at a pop. Anchoring important words to the active vocabulary surface of the vocabulary log pond lest they sink back to the inactive bottom, usually through repetition aloud: “I dtaobh; ‘about.'” If you can enforce the association on your mind, you will at least begin to recognize the word when you see it, giving context a fighting chance to prompt you.
This would be the point at which those who kept reading might think, “This would drive one insane, and I’m not joking.”
The labyrinthine fen that is Irish grammar would be enough to drive one to madness, to drink, to write like James Joyce.
If you not only understand that, but think it’s kind of neat, you should definitely take up the study of Irish. The few, the proud.