Irish (Gaeilge), also referred to as Gaelic or Irish Gaelic, is a Goidelic language of the Indo-European language family originating in Ireland and historically spoken by the Irish people. Hello! Anyone still with me on this! Irish is spoken as a first language by a small minority of Irish people, and as a second language by a larger group of non-native speakers. Irish enjoys constitutional status as the national and first official language of the Republic of Ireland, and is an officially recognised minority language in Northern Ireland. It is also among the official languages of the European Union. The public body Foras na Gaeilge is responsible for the promotion of the language throughout the island of Ireland.
The fate of the language was influenced by the increasing power of the English state in Ireland. Elizabethan officials viewed the use of Irish unfavourably, as being a threat to all things English in Ireland. Its decline began under English rule in the 17th century. In the latter part of the 19th century, there was a dramatic decrease in the number of speakers, beginning after the Great Famine of 1845–52 (when Ireland lost 20–25% of its population either to emigration or death). Irish-speaking areas were hit especially hard. By the end of British rule, the language was spoken by less than 15% of the national population. Since then, Irish speakers have been in the minority. Efforts have been made by the state, individuals and organisations to preserve, promote and revive the language, but with mixed results.
Around the turn of the 21st century, estimates of traditional native speakers (living in rural areas known as the Gaeltacht) ranged from 20,000 to 80,000 people. Since the Republic of Ireland official census of 2006, a more adequate estimate of the state of Irish as a language spoken in natural circumstances is the number of people reporting daily use of Irish outside the education system: In 2006 this number was 72,148 (out of 1.2 million reporting at least occasional use) rising to 77,185 (out of 1.3 million) in the census of 2011. However, the census of 2016 indicates that this number has decreased to 73,803.
There are several thousand Irish speakers in Northern Ireland. It has been estimated that the active Irish-language scene probably comprises 5 to 10 per cent of Ireland’s population.
You may hear an “Erin go bragh” and a “sláinte” or two this St. Patrick’s Day, but even on the most Irish of holidays, we don’t hear much of the Irish language—which is a shame! Irish is so different from English or any of the languages we usually study in school, and so much about it is rather interesting and cool. As we head towards St. Patrick’s Day, here are a few fun facts about Irish.
- The name of the language is “Irish.”
Gaeilge is the name of the language in Irish, and Irish is the name of the language in English. Sometimes people will call it Irish Gaelic in order to make sure they aren’t misunderstood to mean “Irish English” for Irish. They may also say Irish Gaelic to distinguish it from Gaelic, which means Scottish Gaelic, a related but different language.
- There’s no “yes” or “no” in Irish.
There are no words for “yes” or “no” in Irish, but that doesn’t mean there’s no way to answer a question. You communicate “yes” and “no” with a verb form. The answer to “did they sell the house?” would be “(they) sold ” or “(they) didn’t sell.” In Irish:
Ar dhíol sian an teach?
- Its word order is Verb Subject Object.
Sentences have Verb Subject Object order. So “I saw a bird” would be “Saw I a bird.” “I always speak Irish” would be “Speak I Irish always.” This word order is relatively rare—only 9 percent of the world’s languages use it.
- The words for numbers depend on whether you’re counting humans or non-humans.
In addition to one set of numbers for doing arithmetic or referring to dates and times, Irish has a second set for counting humans and a third set for counting non-humans. Five children is “cúigear páiste,” but five horses is “cúig chapall.”
- The beginning of the word changes depending on the grammatical environment.
What’s the word for “woman”? Either “bean” (byan), “bhean” (vyan), or “mbean” (myan), depending whether it comes after certain possessive pronouns (my, your, his), or certain prepositions (under, before, on), or certain numbers, or a whole range of other conditions that determine which form of the word is correct. Most languages people study require them to learn different word endings, not beginnings. Irish requires…both. It’s a bit of a challenge!
- It only has 11 irregular verbs, though.
English has a lot more. More than 80, and that’s just counting the commonly used ones…
- It’s left an imprint on the English spoken in Ireland.
English phrases in many parts of Ireland show a parallel structure with their counterparts in Irish. “I’m after eating my breakfast ” (I just ate my breakfast), “I gave out about the terrible service” (I complained/told them off about the terrible service), and in some places, “He does be working every day.”
- It’s possible (but not easy) to travel around Ireland only speaking Irish.
Filmmaker and native Irish speaker Manchán Magan made a documentary No Béarla (No English) in which he traveled through Ireland only speaking Irish, even when people demanded he switch to English. Shopkeepers told him to get lost, officials refused to help him, people on the street ignored him, but he kept at it and found willing speakers here and there. In any case, he survived the trip.