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Is Irish a Language?

Is Irish a language? In short, yes, yes it is!

By
Samantha Enslen, read by Mignon Fogarty,
irish map on a keyboard

Differences Between Irish and English

Sentences are ordered differently

One big difference between Irish and English is word order. In English, the standard word order for most sentences is subject–verb–object, as in “I love pancakes.” In Irish, the standard word order is verb–subject–object, as in “Love I pancakes.” 

“She washed the dog” would be “Washed she the dog” in Irish. To an English-speaker, that sounds just as odd as Yoda-speak, which would be “The dog she washed.” That’s object–subject–verb order, if you’re keeping track.

Another variation in word order is that in Irish, nouns come before adjectives, just as they do in Spanish and French.

So instead of saying, “I love fluffy pancakes,” you’d say, “Love I pancakes fluffy.” Instead of “She washed the filthy dog,” you’d say, “Washed she the dog filthy.” 

Word beginnings can change

In English, we’re used to the ends of the words changing; just think of “walk,” “walking,” and “walked.” We understand that the end changes depending on the sentence’s grammar. 

But in Irish, the beginning of words can also change. They change depending on a number of variables: whether the word is preceded by a definite or indefinite article, whether it follows certain prepositions, whether it follows certain numbers … and many more conditions too, too complex to explain here. 

Suffice it to say that an Irish word might have an H, N, M’, or D’ added to its beginning. Or an H inserted right after its first letter. Linguists call this “initial mutation.”

You Can’t Say “Yes” or “No” in Irish

Finally, the most striking difference between Irish and English is that Irish doesn’t use the words “yes” and “no.” You heard that right. If someone asks you a question in Irish, you can’t “give a simple yes-or-no answer” because those words don’t exist. One option is to respond with the verb in a positive or negative way.

For example, if you were asked, “Did you sing today?” in Irish, you could say, “I sang,” or “I didn’t sing,” or you could also say, “I did,” or “I didn’t,” but you couldn’t just answer “Yes,” or “No.”

So many languages spoken today—from Hindi and Kurdish to Greek, Italian, German, and Russian—all stem from a single mother tongue—what we call “Proto-Indo European.” We can trace many words in all these languages back to common root words—basic words like “mother,” “father,” and “brother.” It’s fascinating to imagine how one branch of our common language dropped the two most basic words of all: “yes” and “no."

[An Irish listener sent the following about "yes" and "no": "We do have the words 'Sea' and 'Ní Hea' as gaeilge. Sea is an abbreviated version of Is Ea (meaning, 'it is') which can be used as 'Yes' and then Ní hea (it's not) as 'No', albeit they're informal and only applicable in certain circumstances."]

Samantha Enslen runs Dragonfly Editorial. You can find her at dragonflyeditorial.com or on Twitter as @DragonflyEdit.

Sources

Bitesize Irish. Irish vs. Gaelic (accessed March 11, 2019). 

Discovering Ireland. Irish Language (accessed March 11, 2019).

Encyclopedia Britannica. Celt, Irish language (accessed March 11, 2019). 

Greene, David. Celtic Languages. Encyclopedia Britannica, Oct 19, 1998 (subscription required, accessed March 11, 2019).

History.com. Irish Potato Famine, published October 17, 2017 (accessed March 11, 2019). 

Keating, Fiona. The ancient Celts: Bloodthirsty naked warriors or lovers of fine arts? International Business Times, October 3, 2015 (accessed March 11, 2019). 

Murphy, Katie. A Very Brief History of the Manx Language. History Today, August 6, 2018 (accessed March 11, 2019). 

Neilsen, Robert. Why don’t the Irish speak Irish? Whistling in the Wind, August 20, 2015 (accessed March 11, 2019). 

Nickel, Audrey. Irish Gaelic Grammar. Bitesize Irish (accessed March 11, 2019). 

Okrent, Arika. 8 Fun Facts About the Irish Language. Mental Floss, March 11, 2015 (accessed March 11, 2019). 

Taratuta, Corey. Q&A: Where Can I Hear Irish Spoken? Irish Fireside Podcast and Blog, May 22, 2011 (accessed March 11, 2019).

Watkins, Calvert. The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots, Third Edition. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011. 

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