From bóthar to mótarbhealach
Not being a native speaker, I am always a learner of Irish. New words for new situations. How many new words have I come across in the past years that never appeared in the Christian Brothers’ little primer, First Steps in Irish: teicneolaíocht; Idirlíon; bogearraí; tionscnamh. They all denote little moments when the contemporary world and its developments stepped into Irish and became part and parcel of the linguistic landscape.
Sometimes, though, it is the little words that remind you of the biggest changes. That wee word ‘bóthar’ has been a main stay of the language for aeons. The cow track. Who of us, stopped behind a herd of cattle at milking time or wandering sheep on the bóthar, has not heard the clatter of Queen Méabh’s chariot or the dull echo of Táin Bó Cuailgne in our imagination?
Now we have mótarbhealach, a motor way, a road that has never received the Celtic blessing of splattering cow dung or the drum-roll of sheep droppings. (Not surprising really given that no cow travels at 120 kph.) Still, this mótarbhealach marks a profound change in our lives; we are modern. No longer is the road primarily for the cow; it is for the motor and the machine. Old Ireland is dead and buried – though, happily, the Irish language continues to adapt itself to the linguistic demands of the 21st century.