Irish language

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The Irish language (Irish: Gaeilge) is a Goidelic language of the Indo-European language family, originating in Ireland and historically spoken by the Irish people. Irish is now spoken as a first language only by a small minority of the Irish population but is also used as a second language by a larger and expanding minority. It also plays an important symbolic role in the life of the Irish state and is used across the country in a variety of media, personal contexts and social situations. It enjoys constitutional status as the national and first official language of the state Ireland and it is an official language of the European Union. Irish is also an officially recognised minority language in Northern Ireland.



Irish is the main community and household language of 3% of the Republic's population[1] (which was estimated at 4,422,100 in 2008).[2] Estimates of fully native speakers range from 40,000 up to 80,000 people.[3][4][5][6] Areas in which the language remains a vernacular are referred to as Gaeltacht areas.

Irish speakers may, in general, be divided into two groups: traditional native speakers in the Gaeltacht and urban speakers of varying fluency. The second group includes many second-language speakers, but also a certain number of urban native speakers — people raised and educated through Irish and using it outside the home. Recent research suggests that urban Irish is developing in a direction of its own, the result being that Irish speakers from urban and Gaeltacht areas may understand each other only with difficulty.[7] This is related to an urban tendency to simplify the phonetic and grammatical structure of the language.[7] The written standard remains the same for both groups, and urban Irish speakers have played a large part in the production of an extensive modern literature.[8]

The Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs estimated in 2007 that, outside the cities, about 17,000 people lived in strongly Irish-speaking communities, about 10,000 people lived in areas where there was substantial use of the language, and 17,000 people lived in "weak" Gaeltacht communities; Irish was no longer the main community language in the remaining parts of the official Gaeltacht.[9] Complete or functional monolingualism of Irish is now restricted to a handful of elderly within more isolated Gaeltacht regions as well as among many mother-tongue speakers of Irish under school age.

Gaeltacht families with school-age children may if they wish apply for a scheme which involves the payment of grants if the children demonstrate native-level competency in Irish. In the 2006-07 school year, 2,216 families received the full grant of €260 p.a., 937 families received a reduced grant and 225 families did not meet the criteria. This payment scheme is called Scéim Labhairt na Gaeilge, the first example in Europe where citizens are paid to speak their first official language.[10]

Since Irish is an obligatory subject in English-medium schools, it would be reasonable to expect that many people are reasonably fluent second-language speakers. There is, however, no objective evidence for this, though many regard themselves as competent in the language to some degree: 1,656,790 (41.9% of the total population aged three years and over) regard themselves as competent Irish speakers.[11] Of these, 538,283 (32.5%) speak Irish daily (including native speakers and those inside the education system), 97,089 (5.9%) weekly, 581,574 (35.1%) less often, and 412,846 (24.9%) never. 26,998 (1.6%) respondents did not state how often they spoke Irish. Any increase in the number of fluent speakers is likely to be due to the extraordinary growth in the number of Irish-medium schools at both primary and secondary level, chiefly in urban areas.

The number of inhabitants of the official-designated Gaeltacht regions of Ireland is 91,862, as of the 2006 census. Of these, 70.8% aged three and over speak Irish and approximately 60% speak Irish daily.[11] But even as the number of Irish speakers outside the Gaeltacht rises, the use of Irish within the Gaeltacht has decreased. A comprehensive 2007 study found that, despite their largely positive views of the language, Irish is less used among young people than among older generations: even in areas where the language was strongest only 60% of young people used Irish as the main language of communication with family and neighbours, and many preferred English when dealing with the wider world.[12] It concluded that, on current trends, the long-term survival of Irish as the main community language in those areas cannot be guaranteed[12] This suggests that future of the language lies in an urban environment.

Another study has suggested that urban Irish speakers tend to be more highly educated than monolingual English speakers and may enjoy the benefits of language-based networking, leading to better employment and higher social status.[13] Though this study has been criticised for certain unsupported assumptions,[14] the statistical evidence supports the view that urban Irish speakers may, in general, enjoy certain educational advantages.

The Irish government has adopted a twenty year strategy designed to strengthen the language in all areas and greatly increase the number of habitual speakers. This includes the encouragement of urban Irish-speaking districts.[15]

The 2001 census in Northern Ireland showed that 167,487 (10.4%) people "had some knowledge of Irish" (see Irish language in Northern Ireland). Combined, this means that at least one in three people (~1.8 million) on the island of Ireland can understand Irish to some extent. On 13 June 2005, EU foreign ministers unanimously decided to make Irish an official language of the European Union. The new arrangements came into effect on 1 January 2007, and Irish was first used at a meeting of the EU Council of Ministers, by Minister Noel Treacy, T.D., on 22 January 2007.


Here are some notes on Munster Irish, focusing on the Irish of the Muskerry barony in County Cork. This was the Irish of the early Gaelic Revival, and is closest to the literary tradition of earlier centuries. In the 1950s, the Irish government moved its partly artificial Official Standard towards the Irish of County Galway, which was seen immediately prior to that move as the least grammatically correct dialect. Munster Irish is the smallest of the three dialects of Irish Gaelic alive today, but is arguably the most conservative dialect that preserves the traditional grammar of the language largely intact.

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Irish is a VSO language: the verb comes first (followed by the subject and object). Also, Irish is highly inflected in the case of nouns and conjugated in the case of verbs. When conjugating verbs, some persons require the addition of a pronoun; for other persons (the first person singular and plural) the conjugated verb form suffices. Thus, in the table below, , sibh, , and siad mean "you singular", "you plural", "he", "she" and "they" respectively. The first person pronouns and sinn, meaning "I" and "we", are not required as the inflection of the verb shows the person.

The present tense of the verb táim, "to be".

Firstly, there are a number of ways of referring to Irish verbs in the absence of an infinitive in the Irish language. This verb could be called BÍ (the imperative), BHEITH (the verbal noun) or TÁIM (the first person singular). I am going to refer to it as TÁIM.

I am táim
you s. are tánn tú
he is tá sé
she is tá sí
we are táimíd
you pl. are tánn sibh
they are táid siad

This is one of the two Irish equivalents of the English verb "to be". Táim is used with adjectives and adverbs to say what something is like or where something is. There is another verb, the copula, that is used to show identity. In other words, do not use this verb to link two nouns ("John is a teacher"); that would require the copula.

Examples of usage:

To describe something

Tá Seán mór: Seán is big/tall.

To give the location

Tá an madra anso: the dog is here.

To indicate possession

Tá teach ag Máire: Mary has a house.

[Note: in one of the few cases where Cork dialect diverges from historically correct Irish, there are a number of words where the dative is used for the nominative. Teach is one of these: in Cork the dative tigh is more widely used--tá tigh ag Máire--but teach is preferred as the nominative in Standard Irish and is accepted as correct all over Ireland.]

Another thing to note is that this verb should not be used on its own. If you want to say "God exists", you will need to add the adverb ann: Tá Dia ann. Ann is an empty word (meaning "there"), used to complete the sentence. So a sentence starting with tá an madra ("the dog is...") could be completed with beag ("small") or ann ("there") or sa bhaile ("at home"), but not left unfinished.

Note: the standard Irish 3rd person plural is tá siad, but táid siad is a more conservative form attested to in historical writings, but preserved only in Cork. Standard Irish also has a short i in the 1st person plural: táimid. But this short i is not found in any living dialect of Irish.

The negative form of the present tense of the verb táim, "to be".

The forms given above are the absolute forms. After certain particles, however, the dependent form of this verb is required. The stem of the dependent form of the verb táim is fuil-, ie, fuilim, fuilir, etc. However, further changes are also caused by many of the particles that require the use of the dependent form of the verb. Let us take the negative particle . This requires use of the dependent form, but also causes a consonant change known as lenition. Lenition will be discussed elsewhere in this document, but in the case of a verb beginning in f-, lenition softens this to fh-, a consonant combination that is unpronounced in Irish. So,

ní + fuil- becomes ní fhuil-, which is further contracted to níl-. The negative forms of the verb táim are therefore as follows:

I am not nílim
you s. are not nílir
he is not níl sé
she is not níl sí
we are not nílimíd
you pl. are not níleann sibh
they are not nílid siad

It can be noted that the second person singular form nílir is not an exact parallel to the positive form, tánn tú. In fact, the forms níleann tú and táir do exist too, but monosyllabic verbs tend to avoid the -ir endings in the second person singular. Let us see some of these forms in real sentences:

Nílid siad anso: they are not here. Níl sé mór: it is not big.

The interrogative form of the present tense of the verb táim, "to be".

The use of the interrogative particle an, by contrast, causes a consonant mutation that will be discussed elsewhere called eclipsis. In this case, a dependent verb form beginning in f- is altered to bhf-. The idea behind eclipsis is that the original consonant is eclipsed, ie the f is eclipsed by the bh, which alone is pronounced, and the bh is pronounced similar to a v or a w in English. The interrogative form of the verb táim is therefore as follows:

am I? an bhfuilim?
are you s.? an bhfuilir?
is he? an bhfuil sé?
is she? an bhfuil sí?
are we? an bhfuilimíd?
are you pl.? an bhfuileann sibh?
are they? an bhfuilid siad?

An bhfuil sí anso? Tá. An bhfuileann sibh sásta? Nílimíd. (sásta means "happy, satisfied")

The negative interrogative form of the present tense of the verb táim, "to be".

A further particle is , the negative interrogative particle, which requires the dependent form of the verb, but does not cause any consonant mutations. See the following table.

am I not? aren't I? ná fuilim?
aren't you s.? ná fuilir?
isn't he? ná fuil sé?
isn't she? ná fuil sí?
aren't we? ná fuilimíd?
aren't you pl.? ná fuileann sibh?
aren't they? ná fuilid siad?

Ná fuilir compordach? (aren't you comfortable?) Ná fuilid siad ansan? (aren't they there?)

To recap, the verb táim has a dependent form fuilim, producing a number of forms in conjunction with particles including: táim, I am; nílim, I am not; an bhfuilim?, am I?; and ná fuilim?, aren't I?


  1. Government of Ireland, Statement on the Irish Language 2006PDF (919 KB). Retrieved on 21 January 2008
  2. CSO Ireland - April 2008 Population Estimates
  3. [1]
  4. Christina Bratt Paulston. Linguistic Minorities in Multilingual Settings: Implications for Language Policies. J. Benjamins Pub. Co, 81. 
  5. Pierce, David (2000). Irish Writing in the Twentieth Century. Cork University Press, 1140. 
  6. Ó hÉallaithe, Donncha (1999). "". Cuisle.
  7. 7.0 7.1 Brian Ó Broin, ‘Schism fears for Gaeilgeoirí,’
  8. A comprehensive catalogue of books published in Irish can be found at
  9. Welcome to Ocean fm
  10. Irish Independent, 20 November 2007, page 11
  11. 11.0 11.1 Census 2006 – Principal Demographic Results (PDF). Central Statistics Office. Retrieved on 2007-06-19.
  12. 12.0 12.1 .Staidéar Cuimsitheach Teangalaíoch ar Úsáid na Gaeilge sa Ghaeltacht: Piomhthátal agus Moltaí, 2007.,8677,ie.pdf
  13. ‘Language and Occupational Status: Linguistic Elitism in the Irish Labour Market,’ The Economic and Social Review, Vol. 40, No. 4, Winter, 2009, pp. 435–460:
  14. Breandán Delap, ‘Mar Ná Beidh Ár Élite Arís Ann,’ Beo, Eagrán 206, Feabhra 2010:
  15. 20 Year Strategy for the Irish Language

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