Happy St. Patrick’s day. Or, as they say in Ireland, Éirinn go Brách! – Ireland Forever!
I think it’s fitting that today, on St. Patrick’s Day, I continue with my wife’s idea and speak a little more about our trip to Ireland.
One of the things Dear Wife and I wanted to experience in our trip abroad was a land where a different language was spoken. At first we were a little disappointed that we’d miss that particular opportunity in Ireland; but wait! They do speak a different language in Ireland – or at least parts of it. While the majority of Irish people speak English as their native language, there’s a fair-sized community of native-Irish speakers. As we wandered around shops and through towns, we would often hear small groups of people – a mother and father and their kids, or a pair of close friends – conversing in Gaeilge, or Irish Gaelic.
I was far more excited about the prospect of learning bits of a new language than Dear Wife, I think. Dear Wife loves the cultural immersion of being in a place where another language is spoken. I love the language itself. Not Irish, I mean, but foreign languages (or even my own native language, for that matter). I love the sounds of spoken language, I love the way we infuse sounds and written characters with meaning and ideas. Dear Wife will attest that I was excited each time I learned a new phrase, or figured out a new bit of the Irish Language.
The first phrase I learned was Céad Mile Fáilte, which means “A Hundred Thousand Blessings”, and is a traditional Irish blessing. We were in Kilkenny, our first stop on our Ireland tour, and in their ancient cathedral, where there was a gift stand with a number of plaques and other items inscribed with this phrase. Naturally, I asked both what it meant and how it was pronounced. I was told it is pronounced “KEYD meeleh FALCH-uh”. The first word, with the “éa” is pronounced like “ey” as in the word grey (or gray) or as in shade or wade. Elsewhere, I heard that combination of letters pronounced like head or said (I could share the IPA, but I’m not sure that would mean anything to my readers). The “ái” was pronounced most like the “a” in fat, cat, or hat, but could also be pronounced like the “a” in fall. The “t” was pronounced as English “ch” (and “ch” in gaelic means something else; see below), though I think it was pronounced that way mainly because of where it appeared in the word; other dialects usually treat a “t” in the same way English does in the way we’d normally expect. [Note: I failed to point out in the original version published this morning that the letter “t” in English frequently takes on some very non-“t” like values as well, most typically the value of English “sh”, as in virtually any word ending in “-tion”. The original version seemed to imply that I thought English treated the letter “t” consistently in how it is pronounced, but obviously that is not the case. I’ve amended the original sentence so as not to be accidentally offensive.]
In writing up this entry, I’ve learned that the pronunciation the gift-shop proprietor gave me sounds most like the Ulster dialect, although since we were in Kilkenny, the Munster dialect would have been more common in that area. (However, the Gaeltacht, or Native-Irish speaking regions were all on the west coast, pretty far from Kilkenny. Dingle, which I wrote about on Monday, is one such Gaeltacht region, within the Munster Dialect area.)
Before our trip had ended, I learned a few other Irish words and phrases. We listened to traditional Irish music in a pub in Dingle (an Daingean) called An Droichead Beag (pronounced ahn DROE-hehd BEYG ; though the “ch” in “droichead” is actually pronounced more like the “ch” in the Scottish word “loch”, so it’s something between an “h” and a “k” sound) meaning “The Little Bridge”. When we visited the Dun Beag fort on our tour of Dingle Peninsula, I quickly connected the “beag” together. Dun Beag means “Little Fort” or “Little Castle”, and “Dun” is just one of about a half-dozen words in old Irish that meant fort or castle.
I also eventually learned to read the Irish Uncial alphabet (scroll down on that link). Particularly vexing for me, for a while, was the capital-G character in the Uncial alphabet. A lot of traditional shop signs used this alphabet so as part of learning bits and pieces of Irish, I wanted to be able to read this. Finally I saw a sign in English using the alphabet that allowed me to figure out this one letter.
The last major lesson I learned was on the consonants. I knew, from other studies, about the process of consonant lenition, and that this was often represented in Celtic languages by following a consonant with the letter “h”. But I wasn’t sure how this process had affected Irish pronunciation, or when it happens. In Ireland, they call this “Aspiration”, though in linguistics that word means something different. In the traditional celtic Uncial, this is noted by putting a dot over the consonant (take a close look at the photo of An Droichead Beag on the link to their site; you almost can’t see the dot above the “c”, but you can see there’s no “h”), but in the regular Roman alphabet used in English, this is replaced with the “h” after the consonant. By asking a few local Irish people how certain words were pronounced, and after talking to our friend in Ireland (who is a teacher, and has several teacher friends, one of whom let me keep a children’s text book on learning Irish), I learned how most of these lenited (or aspirated, if you prefer the Irish term) characters are pronounced.
For instance, I’d heard that “bh” was often pronounced as a “v”. And I knew that “ch” was pronounced like the “ch” in Scottish “loch” or German “ich”. I assumed that “dh” was pronounced as “th” as in English “the” or “them”, but it turns out that it’s actually pronounced as “gh” (I have no examples of how to pronounce “gh”, but it’s like “ch” except voiced like a “g”). “Mh” was one that stumped me until I asked our Irish friend. She said it was pronounced like a “w”, though I was certain I’d heard it pronounced as a “v” sometimes during our travels around Ireland. Turns out both are right. “Th” doesn’t make what you’d think of as a “th” sound at all: it’s pronounced only as an “h”. What’s more, some of these sounds change based on the sounds around the lenited letter. So a “bh” can sometimes be a “w” sound instead of a “v” sound. And a “dh” and “gh” can sometimes be a “y” sound.
I tried to learn all I could, though ultimately one week is not enough to learn a language. But I had lot of fun. And I’m happy to have shared a bit of our Ireland journey with you.
For me, learning bits and pieces of Irish was another bit of inspiration for writing. I equate my love of languages and my love of writing as coming from much the same source inside me. They tickle me the same way. And I hope you’ve been tickled by my little foray into linguistics here, today.