Irish language needs simpler grammar to survive


Madam, - In your column Teaching Matters of April 5th school curriculum developments are proposed once again with the aim of enabling the people of Ireland to use Irish as a vernacular language.

The need for change is great: Irish today has the function once occupied by Latin and Greek in the English educational system. Success in its examinations proves that students have the ability to study but does not provide them with an adequate means of communication. It is a poor return for over a century of effort.

During that time Israel, tackling the same problems encountered in reviving an ancient language, has succeeded in making Hebrew the commonly spoken language of the Israeli nation. Though the methods used have been studied exhaustively, one matter has received less attention: how extensively was the language changed to adapt it to the needs of the people who were to learn it and to life in modern times?

An answer was provided in The Emergence of Spoken Israeli Hebrew, a lecture given by Shlomo Izre'el in Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia, in February 2000. He said that what happened was not the revival of a dead language but the creation of a new one. Though ancient Hebrew is a Semitic language, Indo-European structures were introduced to provide a new grammatical system, including present, past and future tenses, which, according to classical grammars, the language lacks.

Clearly Hebrew was transformed. It could be said that violence was done to the language of the Old Testament. In 1951 Forbairt na Gaeilge was published, in which Niall Ó Dónaill stated that violence (foréigin) must be done to the dialects in which the Irish language was found. Could its failure to become a vernacular in Ireland be attributed to too close an adherence to the old language as it existed? Could success be ensured by a deliberate acceptance of fundamental changes?

One's first language is easily acquired. For those who must study Irish as a second language there are two great sources of difficulty - dialectical differences and grammatical practices. A solution to the first is found in the standardisation of grammar and spelling carried out in 1958, and the pronunciation system devised for Foclóir Póca (An Gúm). Oh that people would accept these developments!

Of all the language's grammatical practices the most troublesome is the alteration of initial letters of words by eclipsis, lenition (aspiration) and prefixed h and t. These affect the recognition of spoken words and present students with a complex mass of rules and exceptions which they must learn if they are to speak Irish grammatically.

The size of the task before them is revealed in the huge number of pages devoted to the subject in any grammar that aims to give a complete account of the language. There is too much to learn before one can express oneself adequately; too many mistakes must be corrected by teachers; too much time must be spent in teaching grammar.

As a very simple but fundamental solution to this daunting problem I would suggest that all alteration of initial letters in Irish should be abandoned. It can be done completely in the written language; many speakers would persist with the existing usage but others should not be corrected if they adopt the new. It would be hoped that, in time, no initial letter would be altered by lenition, eclipsis or prefixed h and t, though, of course lenition might still occur in the body or ending of a word. A simpler language, in which the basic forms of words would be preserved and emphasised, would be spoken.

Good arguments in favour of the abandonment of initial alteration can be advanced. It adds nothing to the meaning of a word or sentence, for many words begin with letters that it cannot affect and they lose nothing by its absence. If Irish is to become a vernacular in Ireland it must become learnable by the English-speaking people of the Gaeltacht, to whom the alteration of initial letters is a strange practice, no matter what imperfect memories they have of rules drummed into them in school. The great body of Gaelic literature need not be affected, for in reading existing books, people could simply disrgard the remnants of the old usage.

Let us remember how the transformation of Hebrew led to its revival. - Is mise,

SÉAMAS CÉITINN, Carryduff, Belfast 8.