Allow me to begin on a personal note. As a native speaker of Irish, I have created this text, first, and foremost, out of a conviction that this is a language that can be learned and mastered a lot more easily and in a lot less time than many current teaching methods would indicate. More than any other information that you may take away from Fealsún, it is my hope that, by the end of this book, you will have gained a greater appreciation for the distinctiveness of the Irish language-and how unprecedentedly malleable a language it can be when its mechanics are comprehended. Its unique mechanics, instantly and profoundly alien to a first-time learner, are clearly defined (in just a single chapter!) before acquisition of the language itself is confronted in subsequent chapters.
It is my opinion that so many of the Irish-language teaching guides available to date do not impart an appreciation of Irish while attempting to educate. It may sound overly simplistic, but the successful teaching of any language depends, at the end of the day, on a strong appreciation and like for the language. I hope this text will do its part in helping to achieve this goal.
Irish is a very old language in European terms. As there are a good number of well-researched and well-written texts detailing the history of Irish, 1 and as this text is, first and foremost, an Irish-language teaching guide, the following discussion will only touch on the most recent historical developments that pertain to the teaching of the language (see the appendix at the end of this text for a listing of these other resources).
Much excitement and hope for the future of Irish as a more accessible and outwardly relevant language has arisen in recent years with the legislative enactment of 2003's Official Languages Act, the first small step toward the rights of citizens and non-citizens alike to use Irish as a language of communication with the state. The Official Languages Act was passed eight years after the foundation of the first Irish-language television station, Teilifís na Gaeilge (renamed TG4), which in turn came many years after the birth of the national Irish-language radio station, Raidió na Gaeltachta, in 1972. The development of TG4 for the first time encouraged the growth of the language outside Irish-language "reservations" (called Gaeltachtaí). (Irish is widely spoken as a language of art and commerce in Gaeltacht areas, yet has historically had virtually no real rights outside of these demarcated regions; this is one of many reasons why native Irish speakers often liken Gaeltachtaí to Native American reservations.)
More recently, Irish became the European Union's 22nd official language, assigning certain usage rights within the federal European governmental structure. For a number of years, slogan-bearing t-shirts declared "Ní teanga oifigiúil í seo!" ("This is not an official language!") in defiant protest at Irish's non-recognition as an official European language. 2 Since 2007, when Irish's official recognition as a European Union (EU) language was realized, the same slogan has been inverted on new t-shirts, proudly declaring, "Is teanga oifigiúil í seo!" ("This is an official language!"). With this newly found recognition comes the responsibility to not only use Irish, but to also make it more accessible to citizens of the EU and beyond.
It is important to realize that Irish is (and continues to be) a minority language within Ireland itself; as we continue to make the language more accessible to non-Irish citizens, we can hope that Irish's growth and vitality will begin to advance significantly in Ireland itself now that the language is being allowed a more functional "breathing space."
It may seem difficult to believe, but the largely ignored issue in Irish teaching to date is the lack of acknowledgment of a very obvious reality-that Irish is a pre-European language, hence non-European in structure-and can therefore not be tackled from the outset like other languages (for example, French taught to an English speaker). As a pre-European 3 language, Irish has a conceptual and organizational structure that differs greatly from other European languages. Because of this, Irish often proves a very complex and difficult language to learn for those attempting to do so, especially foreigners and adult beginners with no previous contact with Irish. As many factors, including the Official Languages Act and formal EU status, continue to contribute to the creation of a heightened awareness of, and interest in, the Irish language, the need for further Irish-language teaching tools-especially those that address the differing conceptual and organizational structure of the language-becomes that much greater.
One widely favored method for learning (or teaching) a language is the construction of simple sentences and grammar, followed by situational role-plays (if the language being acquired is relatively similar to the language of fluency). If the learner has a good understanding of the structure of their own language (not just the ability to speak it fluently), language acquisition becomes simpler again. However, if the language being learned has a very different structure in every possible sense, as is the case with Irish, this type of teaching becomes increasingly insufficient.
Another widely favored method for teaching Irish is that of "immersion," in which students are fully immersed in an entirely Irish-speaking context (often with no English or other native languages allowed) and expected to learn orally by interaction and example. 4 This technique, not surprisingly, has a low success rate with non-Irish learners (because the structure of Irish is generally quite foreign to the non-Irish beginner 5). Frustration often sets in, and most students will give up before long or will have a learning experience far less than proportional to their level of effort. When there is no conceptual framework to make sense of information, learning-by-immersion is often only an experience of short-term, rote memorization.
Another problem with the current methods of teaching Irish stems from the methods used to teach Irish to Irish citizens. The main difficulty here has to do with the fact that the major emphasis of Irish-language education and teacher-training schools is necessarily aimed at a specifically child-oriented pedagogy, since the greatest demographic of learners within Ireland is comprised of children and young adults. Therefore, language attainment for (non-Irish) adult learners-a far more cerebral, objective, and mechanical process-is largelysidelined and underdeveloped. It is a well-known fact that adult learning is a very different process to that of children, and adult guides must therefore be structured differently. Again, this may seem to be an obvious point, but in the world of teaching Irish, this is not a widely accepted concept.
Due to Irish's unique structure, all beginners will be challenged, to varying degrees, by the fundamentals. Pronunciation, word order, mechanics, and tenses-although often uncomplicated-differ completely from what learners will have encountered in other languages. Resources available to date almost entirely ignore this need for a very basic outline, and as a result, application without understanding sometimes seems to be the only route through which Irish can be accessed.
This text (Fealsún, pron. "fahl-soon"), accompanied by its online, interactive e-companion, aims to serve a function that has been ignored by all learning devices to date: to provide a fundamental conceptual framework for the Irish language. The basic basics must be illustrated first, beginning with the sounds of Irish, followed by the construction of (very) simple sentences and an introductory explanation of grammar. If not structured in this manner, sentence building, grammar, and a dizzying number of apparently obsolete letters will often be an uphill battle, if not a complete waste of time.
The need to remove the "leap of understanding" required to begin learning Irish, therefore, underlies the very basis of Fealsún. If the letters, their groups, functionalities, and pronunciations all make sense, the learner can be basically conversant and literate within a surprisingly short period of time, as opposed to the rhetoric of "dedication" to learning Irish currently espoused (i.e. one must "dedicate" a certain amount of time to Irish because of its perceived difficulty level).
Having mentioned its distinctiveness from other major Western European languages, perhaps the reader may be daunted at this early stage by the perceived complexity of the language they are preparing to learn. To challenge this perception, let us consider a few very brief examples from three major European languages for comparison: Spanish, French, and English.
Many learners find basic Spanish to be straightforward; however, the more they learn, the greater the sophistications of grammar that arise. Spanish has compound grammar complications that are evident in all but the most rudimentary levels of the Spanish language. Outside its eleven irregular verbs, Irish verbs have a grammar that is regular all of the time.
French grammar is often said to be more complicated than Spanish grammar, and is generally said to have little way of consistently predicting whether a verb will be regular or not, and no way of predicting whether a noun will be masculine or feminine. As will become clear in Chapter 4, Irish nouns are categorized into "declensions" (a method of predicting gender, and therefore grammar), with relatively few exceptions. Once declensions are understood, one can easily determine the gender of nouns without confusion.
Learning English poses major problems as well, with the most difficult aspects usually said to be the numerous pronunciation ambiguities and emphasis irregularities. Pronouncing words such as "through," "thought," and "trough" illustrate this, as do "time," "entire," and "insomnia." Irish contains 40 vowels; though daunting at first, after these are mastered, pronouncing Irish is consistent and unambiguous. 6
It should be a little clearer, at this point, why emphasis must be placed on mechanical and structural components of Irish. In addition to unique mechanics, Fealsún is unique among Irish-language teaching aids in that it classifies the alphabet into phonemes, or letter groups, in addition to the standard single-letter alphabetic classification with which we are all familiar. The reason for doing so is two-fold:
The presentation of letter groups sets the spoken language on a regular footing (Irish is generally presented as a language that is full of pronunciation irregularities).
Letter groups can be used to very effectively "decode" spoken dialect, making dialect comprehension and use very accessible to beginners.
Secondary to comprehending structure, audio cognition should be concurrent with reading, as with listening comes a more communicative understanding. This, then, will be the basic structure of Fealsún. 7
Sentence order: verb-subject-object (VSO) or verb-object-subject (VOS). The defective, or the copula, and the regular verb (the two forms of "to be," similar to Spanish) are comprised of "Is" (is) and "Tá" (object/subject is). These come before other verbs in a sentence. Ex: Tá rothar agam (I have a bicycle).
Adjectives and nouns have two genders. Gender can be predicted from the structure of the word (see Table ). 8 Verbs are highly regular (only 11 irregulars).
Grammar is straightforward. Gender determines any structural additions, as does "slender/broad" vowel relationship. E and i are "slender vowels," while a, o, u are "broad."
A second distinction divides vowels into two further groups, accented and unaccented (one way of thinking about these is to liken them to musical "whole notes" and "half notes" on a piano). Accented vowels (á, é, í, ó, ú [pronounced exactly the same as Spanish vowels]) are pronounced as "whole notes," and unaccented (a, e, i, o, u) are pronounced as "half notes." "Slender" and "broad" vowels affect pronunciation of consonants and are the basic tools of grammar.
Table 1.1: Declensions: categorizing nouns and adjectives. All nouns and adjectives belong to one of five "declensions." A declension is simply a category (1-5) a word belongs to, based on its ending, that largely determines if it is masculine or feminine. Most importantly, it predicts how changing tense and mood alter the spelling of any given word.
|Declension||Sample number of nouns, by gender|
|These numbers were determined by a search of the online|
This book employs a framework of comprehension supported by auxiliary audio and audio/visual tools that will aid the learner at all levels. In addition to this, students will be directed toward the most accessible and useful resources available in Irish public media, to give the learning both up-to-date relevancy and social context. The audio component will enable learners to gain confidence in pronunciation and comprehension.
Of course, many language guides have associated audio components. Because the e-companion employed here is both online and interactive, however, users can access it from anywhere and at any time, as well as record and listen to their own performance as they progress. As well, the e-companion also features "clickable pronunciation," meaning that featured words have an accompanying audio pronunciation when selected. The e-companion eliminates much of the time that might otherwise be wasted in coming to grips with phonetics that do not appear intuitive (it would be nearly impossible, for example, to determine how to pronounce Irish from a written text if you had no background with the language). This project, then, combining both the book and the associated e-companion, aims to make these often-inaccessible aspects of the language accessible to anyone with an internet connection, since the e-companion is available online on an open-source basis.
What is this text not? It is very important to state from the outset that this is not a "direct translation" teaching method.
The concept of immersion learning is not a new one and is often viewed as the most superior path to language acquisition, especially in the Irish context. However, this text, as opposed to immersion, strives to impart a conceptual framework that will provide a strong foundation for learning Irish; as opposed to learning through memorization, Fealsún teaches through understanding.
One of the most important ways to dispel the myth of Irish as an "archaic" or "dying" language is to provide current and up-to-date examples from the world of IT and Irish public media. Fealsún's appendix and online e-companion provides a guide to a large number of Irish-language resources are available to potential users, from novices to proficient every day speakers. These range from language packages for word processing tools, Irish-enabled web-browsers and operating systems (Mac OS-X and MS-Windows and Office), comprehensive physical dictionaries and near-comprehensive online dictionaries, daily newspapers, and Irish radio and television with web-streaming. Fealsún also employs the usage of the online dictionary resource, http://www.focal.ie, and gives instructions on accessing and using other open-source Irish-language IT tools (including, for example, setting up an Irish-language spell-checker for your word processor). Used in conjunction with these and other learning devices, these tools-which are mostly free of charge-are an indispensable aid in learning the language.
One of the more important components of Fealsún is the provision of web-streaming examples-with subtitles and transcripts-comprised of current clips from TG4 and Raidió na Gaeltachta, as well as examples pulled from Lá Nua and Foinse (Irish-language newspapers). These examples will be renewed periodically in the online e-companion in order to keep the information both current and relevant.
We cannot responsibly end this introduction without a short discussion of standardization. Differences between Standard Irish and Irish dialects are relatively minimal, but they are nonetheless responsible for some confusion among students and educators alike. Standard Irish causes some confusion among Irish speakers as well. Native speakers of Irish are fluent at an early age, yet, as in the case of Swiss German speakers, for example, fluency is challenged from the first days of school when a unifying Standard for reading and writing is encountered.
By the nineteenth century, efforts were underway to standardize Irish (the current language has been officially standardized since 1945) so that-like many languages at the time-an established official communication mode could be adopted to better facilitate the transfer of information. (This was an absolute necessity with Italian and German, for example, languages that have so many dialects that are vastly different from each other. 9) Dialects in Ireland obviously vary slightly from region to region, so Standard Modern Irish-supposedly a tradeoff between the three major Irish dialects-came to be seen as a necessary tool. The most important point to take away from this discussion is the fact that dialect and Standard are not "either/or" methods of acquiring a language fluently-both are centrally important elements.
Readers of Fealsún will gain a practical insight into both the written Standard and regional spoken dialect. By understanding the rules as laid out here, and because Irish will be presented in this book for the first time in terms of letters as well as letter groups, it will be shown how simple the transition is from Standard spoken Irish to any given dialect. It simply involves pronunciation-unit modifications to relatively few ofthe letter groups presented in Fealsún, as well as emphasis/stress changes, such as:
Intonation stress changes from the end of words (Munster) to the start of the word (Connacht and Ulster).
Pronunciations of some letter groups modified from the originally presented format. For example ao (aol, caol, saol, aoire) makes the sound "ee-a" in Connacht/Ulster an "ay-o" in Munster.
The Irish taught in Feals\'un is based on the Standard. Ó Dónaill's Foclóir Gaeilge-Béarla (Ó Dónaill, 1997) is the current "standard bearer," and hence the reference for this work. It is worth also pointing out also that Leabhar Gramadaí Gaeilge (MacCongáil, 2002) (which is the most comprehensive interpretation of this Standard version), is written in the form of a teacher's guide and may therefore be helpful to those seeking this type of instruction. 10
A note about another Irish teaching text: one of the most comprehensive learners' guide for Irish to date, Learning Irish (Ó Siadhail, 2006), now in its 3rd edition, is not based on the Standard, but on the Conamara sub-dialect of Cois Farraige. Ironically, this is the native dialect of Fealsún's author, whereas Learning Irish is written by an author from Dublin. Learning a dialect directly has its obvious benefits, but in the case of Irish especially, a dialect can be learned most effectively by having a strong grasp of why the language functions as it does first. Beginning by using the Standard is arguably the most straightforward way to achieve this understanding.
There are three distinct major dialects of Irish within Ireland (see Table ). Accent intonation is the most important hangover of Irish that exists in Hiberno-English pronunciation and is a very good guide to dialect in the Irish language.
A Western dialect will be found in the province of Connacht and is sometimes confused/interchanged with the Conmara dialect; this is because Conamara is Ireland's single biggest contiguous Gaeltacht (Irish-speaking region) that lies within Connacht. 11 The other dialects are Ulster/Northern and Munster/Southern.
Table 1.2: Provinces of Ireland and associated dialects
|f Cúige = Province|
|§ Tíreolas = Geography|
A dialect can be referred to by its province or geography; Canúint
Uladh is the same as Ulster Irish or Northern Irish
The Munster dialect is the most "consonant-pronounced" (perhaps understood by some as "harshly" pronounced) and is the most emphatic speech of the three. Because it is also the most guttural in quality, it is often the most easily understood by beginners. Some people contend that Ulster Irish, at the other extreme, is the most difficult dialect to understand. Because it appears to be the most "under-pronounced," it follows logically that it would be the most difficult to comprehend. (It is also the least guttural of the three.) Connacht (dialectally encompassing the eastern province of Leinster) is geographically situated between Munster and Ulster, and is therefore unsurprisingly a hybrid of both in linguistic terms, where some pronunciations are emphatic and others are under-pronounced.
Moving geographically south from Ulster, vowels start to take on more and more of a semi-vowel and consonant quality. By the time we reach Munster, many vowel sounds are overtly pronounced as consonants, which make vowel groups seem redundant. For the sake of communicating the least obvious facets of Irish, both written and spoken, Ulster Irish is arguably the most useful. This is simply because it retains most of its vowel sounds as vowels. And so, if a learner listens to an Ulster accent (not necessarily spoken in dialect) with the intention of concentrating on vowel rather than consonant sounds, the 40 vowels presented in Fealsún will be absorbed quickly. Besides vowels, consonant sounds are particularly easy to hear and distinguish.
This certainly does not mean that Ulster Irish is the dialect of preference that a learner should most strongly consider adopting. However, it is arguably the best dialect to employ as a model for explaining the philosophy of Irish in this text because of its adherence to vowel sounds. Once a framework of comprehension has been attained, the learner should "fall into" the mode of speech that is most suited to their natural way of speaking. This is because natural tones lend themselves to personal choice, depending on how a learner is used to speaking already. A learner can and might even develop a hybrid of all three!
The reason for having stated that Ulster Irish is the most "useful" might begin to make sense already in the context of its vowel centrality. 12 If we examine the language in terms of philosophy, Ulster Irish is the most dutifully adherent to vowel groups in speech: the vowels are emphatically spoken as vowels. Munster (and Conamara, to a lesser extent) pronounce many vowel groups as consonants and are therefore under-pronouncing the vowels (this is explained further in Table ).
Some speakers of indigenous languages view literacy as a colonial/imperialist attempt to quantify, classify, and standardize language in a manner that subverts that language's viability. This sentiment is yet another extension of the Standardization versus Dialect debate.
It is centrally important to the process of learning Irish to understand that a great number of aspects of the Irish language-including structural mechanics that apply to the written language-are strongly oral in their objectives (lenition and eclipsis, discussed below, are perfect examples of this fact). In writing, the reasons for these oral devices often appear less than obvious; perhaps because of our bias toward literacy, this fact is rarely explained to beginners. Without an understanding of the importance of orality in Irish, many students often find themselves bewildered, wondering why on earth, for example, Irish inexplicably adds an "h" to words! Here is a brief summary that should help:
"Lenition," an important facet of Irish, simply means adding an h after the first letter of a word that begins with one of the consonants b, c, d, f, g, m, p s, or t. In other words, all native consonants except h, l, n, and r can be lenited. The reason for lenition is not complex: it is simply to allow words to be more easily spoken (Ex: cat (cat) [pron. kat] becomes chait [pron. khatz], which also indicates the grammatical case).
"Eclipsis" is a similar linguistic device in which both vowels and consonants can be put in conjunction with another letter make speech more easily spoken and free flowing.The letters b, c, d, f, g, p, t, a, e, i, o, and u can take an eclipse (be eclipsed). (Ex: Gaillimh (the place name Galway) [pron. gahlyeh] becomes nGaillimh [pron. ngahlyeh]).More about these two important facets of Irish will be expanded upon in Chapter 1.)
This all may seem very strange until you stop to consider that we do the same in English. For example, we do not say "a apple"; instead, we say "an apple." This rule makes perfect sense orally, though it is not obvious why English would have this rule when dealing only with written examples. The reason we say "an apple" is because "a apple" is simply difficult to say. Through a better understanding of examples such as these, by the end of this text, even those previously unfamiliar with these issues of orality and literacy should gain insight into their coexistence and importance in Irish.
Appreciating the central orality of Irish is the first step to understanding the language. We must therefore emphasize the importance of Irish as an oral medium, an issue that should not be displaced by over-quantification, simplification, and homogenization for the sake of the written tradition. 13 To avoid any confusion, however, we must note that Irish also has a long and distinguished history of literacy, dating at least to the 5th century CE. To state that Irish is strongly oral does not, of course, in any way imply that it is only oral. Both oral and literate aspects of Irish can fully exert themselves and interact without detriment to the other; orality and literacy, as always, exist on a continuum, rather than as polar opposites. 14
Now that some of the very basic features and functions of Irish and the purposes of this teaching course have been introduced, we are ready to move onto the first chapter, which begins to explore the sounds of Irish. This will give the reader the first opportunity to listen to and repeat the sounds that comprise the Irish language. At the end of the chapter, you should make a reasonable attempt at reading a paragraph, regardless of whether you understand a single word or not!
Chapter 1, then, will concentrate entirely on letters, letter groups, and letter functionalities (that is, letters added to nouns and adjectives that affect pronunciation and indicate tense). It is of great importance to employ the online teaching e-companion that accompanies this publication in conjunction with the book. I have included only a few tables that contain English equivalent pronunciations of letters and letter groups; it is far more effective, after that point, to listen to and then repeat using the embedded listening and recording devices, in order to evaluate your ability to reproduce the sounds. Without necessarily understanding the words on the page, you should be able to reproduce a transcribed audio segment, on completion of Chapter 1, to the degree that an Irish speaker will clearly understand you. Again, Irish is pronounced in a manner that it is non-intuitive to most letter designations, so, pronunciation must necessarily be our major introductory emphasis. The following is a listing of the major components included in Fealsún:
Fundamental philosophy, based on dialect and language evolution
Comprehensive pronunciation guide (based on user interpretation of dialect), with corresponding e-companion
Letter groups, "vowel density" of Irish
Regularity of language (verbs)
Verbs: tenses and conjugation
Declensions: classification of nouns and adjectives
e-companion with interactive and clickable pronunciation
Basic vocabulary: time, numbers, people, things, places
Vocabulary compilation: useful terms for specific situations
Audio and audio/visual segments (at several comprehension levels) with transcript/subtitles in both Irish and in English. Many of these are real streaming-excerpts from the archives of TG4 and Raidió na Gaeltachta
This book aims to do what no other teaching aid has done for Irish to date: to teach the "sub-fundamentals," so that the reader has a solid foundation, not just of basic Irish, but of a philosophy of the language, so that no concepts within a written or spoken framework will be impossible to comprehend. 15 It must be stated-in the event that the case for Fealsún appears to be critical of other teaching/learning resources-that Fealsún is simply another way of conceptualizing the language. Fealsún is, in essence, a tool that is novel in its approach in that it seeks to explain, rather than to immerse. In doing so, Fealsún makes the language suddenly accessible to a far wider demographic of people wishing to learn Irish than before: non-Irish adults (or simply objective learners) with no previous contact with Irish, who may have tried but (unfortunately in their own minds) failed because they could not make sense of the basic operations of Irish (and as a result, had only an experience of memorization rather than of understanding). Even native speakers of Irish might find useful insights into aspects of the language that they may not have previously considered. It is my hope that Fealsún will be a useful and enjoyable experience for all.