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Learning the Irish language - by Benny Lewis

di Aimee Charman
Lingua: EN

Gaeilge, Irish, or “Irish Gaelic” is the national and first official language of Ireland, as well as one of the official languages of the European Union.

Although everyone in Ireland speaks English, there are regions known as the Gaeltacht that use Irish as the main language of communication, both in businesses and in families.

When we say Irish (the language) we don’t mean our accent in English (i.e. Hiberno English – I’ve written a separate post about that here!) – we mean a language on a completely different branch of the European language family tree.

More distant than French and Spanish, stranger than Slavic languages and more exotic and beautiful than many languages, Irish is an interesting specimen and something I’d like to share with readers as part of a few posts for Seachtain na Gaeilge – the week celebrating the Irish language and culture leading up to St. Patrick’s day!

Níl sé deacair ar chor ar bith


While Irish is quite different, there are some things that make it pretty straightforward to learn.

It only has 11 irregular verbs (compared to 500 or so in English and thousands in Spanish/French/etc. depending on how you count them), there’s no indefinite article (so you can just say “Tá leabhar agam” – literally I have book etc. with no “a” to complicate things), and even though it has masculine and feminine nouns, the definite article “an” (the) is the same for both. It uses the same alphabet as other European languages (although it is the only language that still traditionally uses its own special font).

The phonetics (pronunciation based on spelling) are quite different, and this usually scares a lot of people. But you can learn the differences very quickly and after that they are consistent (unlike in English), so you can read any given text aloud pretty well after a small amount of study.

Most of the letters work pretty similarly to how they do in most European languages, but some changes include mb = m, gc = c, th = h, dt = d, bhf = silent, and some consonants change sound depending on if they are before i/e or a/o/u. This happens in Spanish/French/Italian and other languages too (with c/g for example) but is slightly different in Irish.

For example before i or e is an sh sound – this is why the well-known name Seán is pronounced (and spelled, in America) as Shawn. Most of the vowels work similarly to as they would in English, with the exception of “ao” pronounced as “ee”, so the name Aoife is pronounced Ee-fa. The subtle difference between how some consonants are pronounced takes some practice but can indeed be learned 

This is important for saying Irish people’s names correctly (even when just speaking English). Even some titles are not translated in Ireland, instead of a “prime minister” we have a Taoiseach (the word we use in English too) – based on what I said above (and ‘ch’ is pronounced gutturally as in loch), you will see better why this is pronounced Tee-sho[ch].

The language also interestingly has no word for yes or no (like in Thai for example). We simply repeat the verb of the question, e.g. Ar ith tú do lón? D’ith! Did you eat your lunch? I did! (literally, I ate)

Cad atá tú ag caint faoi?

There are a few tricky aspects of the language that merit a mention though.

You know the way in most languages you change the end of words in certain situations? (car/cars, I eat / he eats, drapeau / drapeaux etc.)… And even the middle of the words in other ones (man/men, mouse/mice)? Well in Irish we very merrily change the beginning. This is something common in other Celtic languages and adds to a nice flow between words.

So, for those of you who don’t know, my name is actually Brendan (Benny is my nickname). In Irish this is originally written Breandán and when followed by verbs and such it stays the same. Tá Breandán ag ithe – Brendan is eating.

However, thanks to the magic of initial mutations we can change the start of words in many situations! So if you want to get my attention some day, don’t shout Breandán!! but A Bhreandán!! – which is actually pronounced ah Vrendawn since bh=v! This would be the vocative case for the linguists out there. Another example: Mo = my & madra = dog, but my dog is mo mhadra (“mo wadra”) since mh=w.

This strange use of spelling and the other examples mentioned above may seem offputting, but it’s actually quite helpful believe it or not! You see, we keep the letter of the original base word (e.g. crann for tree) in a modified version of the word (e.g. i gcrann for in a tree – the ‘c’ is silent, but essential for recognising the original word when the modified one is written). This is way better than if the language was perfectly phonetic; even if you knew the word crann, if you saw “grann” in a dictionary, text, or spelled out for you, it would be much more confusing. I’m told that Welsh (in the same language family) operates more phonetically despite the same initial mutation situation and I’d personally miss my original letters for recognition!

The vocabulary of the language is of course quite different; it’s one of the few languages I’ve seen (the other being Esperanto) that has its own word for things like the Internet (Idirlíon), and even words you would hope would be slightly similar go way off; “vegetarian” is feoilséantóir (literally means, “meat shunner”).

However, despite the huge differences, like in some other languages, words are formed logically using prefixes, suffixes and combinations of roots. A lot of Irish words do this so after you have some basic vocabulary it isn’t that bad to recognise more complicated words and very quickly build up your base of vocabulary.

For example, astronomy is réalteolaíocht [réalta=star, eolas=knowledge/information, íocht=y/ity etc. suffix, or more generally the second part, eolaíocht = science, so “star science”]. And then sometimes we just separate the words in an easy way. Exit is simply bealach amach (way out).

Word order changes a bit from English, and we have preposition conjugation (same way in Spanish/Portuguese con + tu = contigo, except that it is applied to all persons for most prepositions). Also, because of the initial mutations mentioned above, capital letters (upper case) can occur as the second or third letter in a word! So Donegal (county in the northwest) is spelled Dún na nGall. These things do take some getting used to, but it really isn’t that bad 

Tá an teanga i ngach áit!

The best part of all, is that Irish speakers are generally always happy to help! We are a long cry from arrogant perfectionists (something that holds too many people back from speaking a language), so if you can form some sentences we’ll be very happy to hear them even if there are some grammatical mistakes  Whenever I hear a cúpla focal from someone I always encourage them to keep going!

Whether in Ireland or abroad, there are usually some books in major libraries on learning Irish. You can also order them online – one of my favourites for beginners or those already with a wee bit is the multimedia Turas Teanga course (you can get it on Amazon US/UK) from Irish language RTE newsreader Sharon Ní Bheolain, who teaches the language while going around the country showing it used by natives. Teach yourself also do a great book about Irish for complete beginners (Amazon US/UK), and the more adventurous of you can even read Harry Potter in Irish! (Amazon US/UK)

But even if you aren’t in Ireland, the possibilities of being exposed to Irish are endless! As I’ve mentioned before you can use or other social networking sites to see if there are other interested Irish learners in your city, and you can practice it through twitter as you learn it. I do this with all of my maintained languages so you can follow me @ilteangach as Gaeilge, and make sure to check out the hashtag #snag (Irish language and culture week) or #gaeilge to see tweets in and about Irish.

You can also change the language of your computer and software to be entirely in Irish! Chrome, Firefox, Open Office, Ubuntu and many more interfaces are available as Gaeilge.

Then of course there are lots of sites online to help you practice your Irish. Here is a small sample:

Liam Ó Maonlai has a free online course with PDFs and MP3s for download. The audio has some typical phrases that you can repeat.

Gramadach na Gaeilge – An extremely in-depth look at Irish grammar. Perhaps more interesting to linguists due to how extremely detailed it gets!

Irish Gaelic Translator forum – Get an almost instantaneous answer from a native or fluent speaker of the language on simple questions and short translations. This forum is very active and will be a great help! There is also the Daltaí forum. – An amazing voice synthesiser for Irish text. It uses the beautiful Tír Conaill accent (Ireland’s 3 main dialects are quite different!!) and can help train you in your pronunciation.

RnaG – Ireland’s main Irish language radio station that you can listen to live. This is the best way to hear what the language actually sounds like! The entire page is in Irish, but click on “RnaG beo” (beo=live) link beside the radio image in the top-right to open up the stream.

Tg4 – Ireland’s Irish language TV station. What’s better than listening to the radio in Irish? Watching TV shows originally in Irish! Check out the Ros na Rún page (and click “Féach ar” [watch]) to watch a soap opera entirely in Irish! There are many more categories, but the site is navigated entirely in Irish of course.

Irish dictionary – free online dictionary. – A free technical dictionary. Not good for basic words, but gives declensions and plurals for a lot of words; for intermediate and higher level learners.

You can also check out a video I made about my experience in the Gaeltacht. The course I took was given by Oideas Gael in Donegal and takes place regularly every year for all levels. My Irish is far from perfect (my accent is definitely not as lovely as so many others that you would hear), but you can see some videos I’ve made entirely in Irish (most with subtitles) on my Irish videoblog. I don’t update it regularly, and you can see a somewhat silly video about the Irish language. You can watch it in both English and Irish here]

I hope this post gives those of you out there curious about the Irish language a little hint into how to learn and use it! Let me know in the comments about your own Irish learning experiences! Don’t forget to share this post with your other Irish-at-heart friends through twitter and facebook 

Go n-eirí an bóthar libh!

 - Benny Lewis, Founder of

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