Schism fears for Gaeilgeoirí

A new survey indicates that Gaeltacht and urban Irish speakers are finding each other increasingly more difficult to understand…

A new survey indicates that Gaeltacht and urban Irish speakers are finding each other increasingly more difficult to understand. Could this rift further weaken the language?

RECENTLY, I’VE been meeting a lot of urban speakers of Irish, and was thinking about the Government’s plan to boost the number of daily speakers of Irish from the current 83,000 to 250,000 within 20 years. A threefold increase in daily speakers is a bold proposal, and there’s little doubt that these speakers are going to have to come from the towns and cities, rather than from the Gaeltacht, whose entire population (including several solidly anglophone suburbs of Galway city) is currently 91,000.

This got me thinking. Is there a city version of the Irish language? And if there is, how different is it from Gaeltacht Irish? A conversation I recently had with a speaker from Limerick, who is raising her daughter in Irish, revealed a fascinating fact. She never listened to Raidió na Gaeltachta. Was it that it was a Gaeltacht station and irrelevant to her, I asked? Only partly, she admitted. It was actually because she found the presenters very difficult to understand.

Yet this woman spoke fluent Irish. How could a fluent speaker of Irish have such difficulty with the national Irish-language radio station? What did she listen to?


“Oh, the usual. RTÉ, Today FM, Live95.” Surely she listened to some Irish-language media. Maybe she watched TG4?

“No. Not TG4, sometimes Hector and the sports.” And she let her young daughter watch the kids’ programmes.

My conversations with Gaeltacht people met with a similar bias, but in the other direction. When presenters with so-called “school Irish” came on the radio, my Gaeltacht friends say they tend to tune out, finding the Irish unpleasant, or difficult to understand. They tolerate much of TG4’s output, but grimace or change channels when city speakers come on. As for the hordes of Irish-speaking teenagers and parents who descend on the Gaeltacht during the summer months, they absolutely prefer to speak English with them. They say that the city folks’ Irish is simply too strange.

As a linguist, I find this fascinating. The two groups, while nominally speaking the same language, have almost no points of contact. They prefer to tune each other out or speak English with each other, rather than use Irish together. This seems to have all the hallmarks of a separation.

Linguists tend to examine languages according to several criteria, and I decided to do a comparative analysis of the two types of Irish (Gaeltacht and non-Gaeltacht) using the most common of these criteria: pronunciation, word-order, word-formation, and vocabulary. To do this, I transcribed recordings of news reports compiled and read by Gaeltacht speakers on Raidió na Gaeltachta, and then by urban speakers on the two urban Irish-language stations, Raidió Fáilte in Belfast and Raidió na Life in Dublin.

Next I transcribed segments of chat shows from the different radio stations, in which the speakers were speaking freely. To avoid complicating matters, I chose the speakers at random, electing to ignore whether they were speakers who had learned Irish in the Gaeltacht or not. A comparison of the recordings unearthed significant differences in all areas of analysis.

Phonetics, or pronunciation, is a major feature of any language, and particularly so for Irish, which uses pronunciation to mark things such as the case of a noun or the tense of a verb. Since Irish has very many distinct phonetic features, I chose only three for comparative analysis: slender dentals (the initial consonants of “teas” and “tí”, for example), velar fricatives (the initial consonants of “chaisleán” and “Chonnacht”, for example), and palatal fricatives (the initial consonants of “cheann” and “chiseach”, for example).

NEWSREADERS ON RnaG missed these features between 0 and 7 per cent of the time (that is to say, not much), while newsreaders on the urban stations missed them between 21 and 66 per cent of the time, a fairly significant number.

This demonstrates differences in pronunciation between Gaeltacht and city, and suggests a significant difference in the grammar used by Irish speakers in urban areas.

Most linguists agree that syntactic sophistication can be partially marked by the presence of subclauses in sentences. So, one might argue that “Peter died because he was sick” is more sophisticated than “Peter was sick and (then) he died”. A count of subclauses in the texts shows that newsreaders on RnaG produce eight subclauses for every 10 sentences, while their counterparts in urban stations produce five.

Gaeltacht speakers produce 15 subclauses for every 10 sentences, while their urban counterparts produce between six and eight. This is a considerable difference. Furthermore, urban speakers rarely nested subclauses within subclauses, while Gaeltacht speakers did so very frequently. The implications of this are quite serious, suggesting that the sentences of urban speakers are notably less sophisticated than those of their Gaeltacht counterparts.

Given all this, one might expect a lexical analysis of the texts to show that urban speakers have smaller vocabularies, but they actually seem to have much the same vocabulary as their Gaeltacht counterparts. For every 100 words used by a Gaeltacht newsreader, 66 are discrete (that is to say, not repeated). For the urban newsreader, the number is 68. The Gaeltacht speaker has 46 discrete words per 100, while his urban counterpart has 42. The conclusion is that speakers within and without the Gaeltacht have a similar range of vocabulary.

Interestingly, although language activists often decry the presence of English in the utterances of all Irish speakers, the highest level of English for any of the speakers was 4 per cent, from a speaker who used interjections such as “níl aon, really, excitement” and “you know, sin grand”.

This suggests, perhaps, that some (but not all) urban speakers are occasionally thinking partially in English, and translating what comes to mind on an ad-hoc basis.

Irish has a fairly sophisticated morphological system. That is to say, words can change form in several ways. The noun cainteoir, for instance, can mutate to gcainteoir, cainteora, chainteora, cainteoirí, and gcainteoirí, depending on its grammatical function. As we saw earlier, if the pronunciation of these mutations alters or fails, the entire grammatical system of the language becomes endangered.

When I analysed the expected morphological changes in the nouns of newsreaders, I found that newsreaders on RnaG, reading the news and speaking off the cuff, missed a fairly unremarkable 2 to 6 per cent. Newsreaders on urban stations, however, missed 40 per cent of expected changes.

In terms of expected pronunciation, the relaxed urban speakers missed almost every opportunity to lenite or eclipse (“séimhiú” and “urú”), usually failing, for example, to mark any masculine nouns that were in the plural or genitive. This is an extraordinary development, and the urban dialect of Irish seems to have not yet developed any strategies to deal with it.

Urban Irish doesn’t seem to be actually Anglicising, but it is different, particularly in the area of grammar. Some experts might be tempted to call this new entity a Pidgin. Although the term has negative connotations, there is some justification for it. A Pidgin is a relatively unstable language with simplified pronunciation and grammar, created on the fly for purposes of practical communication. By definition, it has no native speakers. Should the Pidgin persist into another generation and further, it gains native speakers, becomes known as a Creole, and develops the hallmarks of an independent language, including a stable grammar.

The number of Irish speakers in Ireland is increasing, according to all census and survey data, and yet the number of Gaeltacht speakers is falling. However, the city dialect of Irish seems not yet to have progressed beyond the level of a second language spoken mostly outside the home by activists, while Gaeltacht Irish is, at least for its broadcasters, a medium through which they are working and thinking for most of the day without the undue influence of other languages.

LANGUAGE PURISTS may claim this as more evidence that Irish is dying, but it must be most vigorously noted that this small study shows quite the opposite. The language is being spoken in all corners of the country (and abroad), and while it might be changing radically, particularly in this current generation, there is no evidence of it dying out. The good news is that there are urban Irish-language radio stations, and that they broadcast a wide variety of programmes directed primarily at young people. There were no such media 20 years ago, and this suggests that Ireland’s towns and cities are reaching a critical mass of second-language Irish speakers who want their own media.

If their language is to move beyond its current unstable stage, however, they will have to consider making the decision to raise their children through Irish.

Some, such as my Limerick friend, are already doing so, and we can only wait to see what sort of Irish the next generation of urban speakers will have. Will the urban variety become its own dialect of Irish, or grow further apart from its Gaeltacht cousin, becoming a Creole or new language?

Brian Ó Broin teaches linguistics and medieval literature at William Paterson University, New Jersey, US.