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Irish Gaelic as a Living Language

written by: allychevalier • edited by: Rebecca Scudder • updated: 8/2/2012

Irish Gaelic holds an awkward position within Ireland. It's the official language of Ireland, mandatory in schools, required for many jobs; and yet walking around the country, you're not likely to hear a word of it. Is Irish Gaelic dying out? Who still speaks it? What's in store? Here's an overview.

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    What Is Irish Gaelic?

    Irish Street signs, Cork If you've ever visited the Emerald Isle, you've probably seen it referred to by yet another name—Éire. This name comes from Ireland's

    first official language, Irish Gaelic or simply Irish. Irish is native to both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. However, the remainder of the article will refer primarily to Irish as it is spoken in the Republic of Ireland unless otherwise noted.

    As the full name Irish Gaelic suggests, Irish is a dialect of Gaelic, along with Scottish Gaelic and a few other flavors. They are sometimes also referred to as the Celtic languages. They form an entirely different branch of the Indo-European language family, and so differ drastically from English, French, Spanish and other mainstream European languages. Irish uses the same Latin alphabet as English, plus the odd accent.

    There are three main flavors of Irish, following from the three historical regions of Ireland: Ulster, Connacht and Munster. They are notably different from each other in accent, and also somewhat in grammar, slang and vocabulary. There is also an “official" Irish that is taught in schools and used by the government for formal Irish documents.

    Irish has evolved much over the years, from the times of primitive tribes through multiple invasions and occupations, all the way up to the present day, where this article picks up.

    Even liberal estimates of how many people speak Irish as their native language present a bleak pictures: That's three percent of Ireland's total population, somewhere between 40,000 and 80,000. There's more to this story than a few numbers, however.

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    Irish In Schools: Encouraged--Or Not?

    How does one encourage use of a language? This is done from the very beginning: by teaching it at school, of course. Or so the Irish government thought. Every Irish schoolchild is to begin learning Irish from a young age, continuing throughout their primary and secondary education. So why don't more Irish people actually speak Irish?

    Most students—and their schools—don't take the language seriously, resulting in poor teachers, poor teaching—and poor learning. There are often few, if any repercussions for students who get bad marks in their Irish classes, either from their parents or from the school. Fluency in Irish is not a major issue with colleges either, so those students seeking higher education feel little pressure to bother with the traditional language of their country. Only jobs that are directly related to Irish require actual fluency, though many state jobs require a primitive knowledge of Irish—for instance, members of the police force, the Garda, need to know how to arrest someone in Irish.

    Nor could merely learning a language in school ever make you fluent. Schools tend to teach formal Irish grammar and deemphasize practical conversational skills, which could encourage more use of the language on a day-to-day basis. Furthermore, students learn an official version of Irish that is vastly different from the Irish that was ever spoken as a true everyday language.

    There are also many loopholes to avoid learning Irish as a child. Many parents still send their children to boarding schools in nearby England, or will bring their whole family there for the duration of childhood. Even if a child only missed a year or two of the language, it's easy to get out of the entire requirement. Any type of learning disability, even in the mildest forms, can get you out of learning Irish as well. As a result, many Irish citizens never even learn Irish, let alone fluently.

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    Still Spoken: The Gaeltacht

    There are places where Irish is still spoken as a truly living, breathing language by a majority of the people. These are collectively known as the Gaeltacht. They are officially defined by the government to be places where Irish is the majority language, though there have been critics of the official list who argue that many of the areas are added and subtracted for political, not linguistic, reasons. A recent 2002 government study has suggested creating a more complex system for identifying Gaeltacht regions, mostly by zones depending on the percentage of the population who actually use Irish, though little has been done since.

    The majority of the Gaeltacht areas are on the various peninsulas on the west coast of Ireland, which are historically more isolated from the rest of Ireland, and so the gradual Anglicization was less present. However, there are a few pockets within the mainland of Ireland as well. Gaeltacht areas also tend to have poorer soil for farming and their ruggedness makes them difficult to develop, stunting the development of the areas while ironically protecting the area's linguistic purity.

    The three flavors of Irish, Ulster, Connacht and Munster are all still represented by native speakers to this day.

    The Gaeltacht areas have been dwindling, however, over time. Influxes of everything from tourists to holiday homes to broadband Internet are making Irish less important in daily life—resulting in less and less day-to-day use of the language even among native speakers. Many Irishmen move to the cities for jobs, which means using English—not Irish—on a daily basis for their work and with their friends.

    A growing movement within the largest cities of the island of Ireland, Belfast and Ireland is the “Urban Gaeltacht," where Irish-speaking communities are constructed within the city center for those who wish to speak Irish on a daily basis.

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    Still Alive: Signs, Symbols And Places

    Irish street signs 1 Irish Gaelic is by no means dead, however. It finds its way into the everyday life of everyday Irishmen through a variety of mediums.

    The most visible of these are the signs. Most government signs make an effort to be at least bilingual, displaying mixed English and Irish, but it's not uncommon to find all-Irish (or all English) signs throughout the country.

    The names you know from Ireland, cities such as Cork, Galway, and Limerick, are all just slightly Anglicized versions of the original Irish names, Corcaigh, Gaillimh and Luimneach respectively--altered, but the Irish roots still show.

    Many Irishmen, even if they themselves can't speak Irish, will still use many Irish words in everyday conversation. For example, the Irish police force, the Garda, retains its Irish name, and people will still use the proper Gaelic pluralization for the word, Gardaí. Another example: the Irish senate is usually referred to by its proper Irish name, the Dáil. Irishmen will ask each other, “What's the craic?" often misunderstood by other English speakers as crack, to see what's up.

    Many Irishmen will also passively listen to Irish Gaelic radio stations and television shows, most popularly the RTÉ Raidió na Gaeltachta but also the government-run Irish television station Teilifís na Gaeilge or TG4 . It's estimated that anywhere between three and eight percent of Ireland's population use such Irish language media on a daily basis—which isn't enough for many newspapers and radio stations, as more have shut down in recent years than have started up. Many software applications are also available in Irish, from Firefox to certain distros of Linux.

    The people themselves still remain proudly Irish, from names like Killian to dancing all night at the Róisín Dubh nightclub to tattooing Éire across the chest to buying a Claddagh heart ring. No, they don't all speak the language; no, they don't all know how to decline for the genitive case or conjugate in the conditional tense—but the spirit of the language is still there.