34 years compiling an Irish dictionary - and not yet at 'B'


Work on the Royal Irish Academy’s historical dictionary of the Irish language started in 1976 – and could take its 10 dedicated compilers a further 100 years to complete, writes ROSITA BOLAND

IT’S ALMOST impossible to predict what 2110 will be like, apart from the likelihood that few of us will be around to experience it. However, when you think of how things might be a century from now, it’s probable that the job you are currently doing is not something that presses first to your mind. But for Úna Uí Bheirn of the Royal Irish Academy (RIA), editor of Foclóir na Nua-Ghaeilge, this is something she does think about. That is because it may well take another century before Foclóir na Nua-Ghaeilge – a historical dictionary of Irish – will be published. The project started in 1976.

The hardest thing about this uniquely challenging job, she admits, is the perception the public have of it. “We were very late out of the traps starting on the dictionary compared to other countries,” Uí Bheirn explains. “This is why the project comes under criticism. People think we’ve been sitting on our hands all these years. There is a misunderstanding by the public about the size of the project.”

An historical dictionary is very different to a standard dictionary, which provides a definition of words. “Ours is a descriptive dictionary.” Putting it simply, this historical dictionary will trace the history of a word from now to its earliest written citation. “Our dictionary is unusual in that it covers dialect as well as standard language,” Uí Bheirn says, “which of course means there are very many more words to look at.”

To give some context to the Irish project, several other countries are also working on historical dictionaries, and all of which are lengthy projects. Sweden published the first part of its dictionary in 1893, but by 1996 – more than a century later – was still only at the letter “S”. The Welsh began work on their dictionary in 1921 and spent 27 years gathering material before starting the draft. In 2004, the dictionary was published.

In the past decade, Norway, which began its project in 1933, requested additional state funding. Its estimated finishing date at that point was 2050. It asked for more staff, which it got, and is now on target to deliver the dictionary by 2014.

In Ireland, the RIA went looking for a similar arrangement, but although a publication date of 2037 was agreed – the date of the centenary of the Irish Constitution – no extra staff were allocated to it. “There is a dearth of staff for the magnitude of the project,” Uí Bheirn points out. Which is why, when asked when the project might be completed, she hazards, “One hundred years from now?”

There are 10 people working full-time on the Irish dictionary, with seven of these in Carrick, Co Donegal, since 2005. The other three: Uí Bheirn, Eilís Ní Mhearraí and Déirdre D’Auria, are based in the offices of the RIA in Dublin.

For the first five years, from 1976 to 1981, the emphasis was on the collection of material on which the draft dictionary will eventually be based. The team had to read widely, selecting words as they read. Part of this involved handwriting those words on index cards, which detailed the word as it appeared in the original text, book or periodical, the word was taken from, together with a page reference number, and what’s called the “head word”, or base root of the word. This work is ongoing.

There are estimated to be 1 million of these cards. Uí Bheirn, who joined the project in 1981, figures she researched and wrote some 50,000 of the cards herself. Today, they are all stored in filing boxes in the dictionary’s offices in the basement of the RIA, each one meticulously filed by hand. “The slips came in a sheet, with four slips to a sheet,” she explains, “so they all had to be cut up once you had filled them in.” She still recalls the frustration of the bottom falling out of filing boxes, requiring the laborious task of refiling all the cards again, alphabetically. The information on the cards has since been computerised.

Along with the wall of index cards, there are very many hanging files, filled with old computer paper – the type that used to come with holes punched in the margins. These contain the draft of the entry A-Al, which runs to some 6,000 words to date, and which is as far as the dictionary – or rather, the draft of the dictionary – has progressed. Nothing has yet been published.

To help illustrate why the process is so precise and so time-consuming, Uí Bheirn shows me one word, “Abhaile”. In its most-used English translation, it means “home”. But there are many other entries for this word, as it has multiple meanings in Irish, both in dialect now defunct and newer additions to the canon, depending on the context. “Most people think ‘abhaile’ just means home, but it can also mean, if a woman is pregnant, she’s home, she’s coming to her time. That’s ‘teacht abhaile’,” she explains. “Tugann abhaile” is “take-home pay”; a modern use of the word. The detailed entries include reference to the province, or provinces, where the word or expression originates. “Each word can take a tremendous amount of time,” she says. “We trace the origin of it, and illustrate that by citation. Therefore, you prove what the meaning is.”

Everything has been computerised since the 1980s, but while this has made some parts of the project more efficient, in another, it has added to the workload. “Computers have changed the way we work, but they have given us more material. Previously, it was a method of selecting words, whereas now, via computers, you’re getting the whole shooting works; all the complete texts.”

So what audience is the dictionary ultimately there to serve? “Primarily academics, for reference. It will be raw material for specialised dictionaries. People can pull out references to science or architecture or medicine, for instance.” She points out that the dictionary may not be published at all in the traditional form of hard copy in book form; that it may be available online only, at a price. But at this stage of the project, that’s simply speculation.

Foclóir na Nua-Ghaeilge is a huge, challenging project of academic rigour, that devours time. Its immensity gives it an epic quality. The scale of the work is almost impossible to comprehend in a world used to short working contracts, short attention spans, fast turnovers, instant delivery, and immediacy. There is an almost monastic quality to .

Uí Bheirn will retire this May. What is it like, leaving a job you’ve done for 29 years, knowing that it may be decades more, possibly a century, before it comes to completion? “I have kind of accepted that you’re only a cog in this wheel,” she admits.