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On the Irish Language

Before we dive in to the wonderful world of Gaeilge, we must tell you that we are not fluent in the language. Not by a long shot. What follows are only the thoughts and musings of two Americans who have had some small experience with Irish. We’ve studied it a bit (well, tried to at least), and we know a few basics, but we are by no means true Irish speakers.

Quite simply, we are fans, and we hope that you will join in our enthusiasm for and support of the language. That's why we've incorporated it into Unlocked and why we write about it here.

Now, back to our regularly scheduled program...

Gaeilge (gwayl-guh) is sometimes called “Gaelic” by English speakers, but in Ireland it's just “Irish.” After all, the English term “Gaelic” can also refer to Scottish and Manx Gaelic as well as Irish. These Gaelic languages form a branch of the larger group of Celtic languages, which include Welsh, Cornish, and Breton.

The Irish language has some serious street cred. It's been spoken for over 2,000 years in Ireland. It survived several waves of foreign invasion and the English, who long ago tried to prevent Irish people from speaking or sharing their own language in a number of creative ways. (Not bashing the English here, we're actually quite fond of them as well, but there was a period of history when the English weren't so kind to their neighbors….) Irish is the only Celtic language that is an official language of the European Union. And today, Irish is the national language of Ireland, even though English is the dominant language. Irish is spoken by 40% of Irish people and featured prominently on every sign and government document you'll see there.

If you've ever had the pleasure of hearing Irish spoken or sung by a native tongue, then you know what a beautiful and expressive language it is, even when you can't understand a word. It's easy to appreciate the rolling, melodic sound that's both soft and strong in your ear.

But if you've ever tried to learn it...that's a very different story. It's got to be one of the most intimidating languages written it the Roman alphabet. Consonants combine to make completely unpredictable sounds. Sentence structure feels vaguely like playing a game of three card monte with your nouns, verbs and adjectives. Pronunciation is probably the easiest part, once you learn that “mh” and “bh” both make a “v” sound (sometimes) and “S” followed by a vowel makes a "sh" sounds...etc. etc.

If you can get past the fear of unfamiliarity, though, Irish turns out to be a beautifully constructed language as well. For example, in Irish, you don't say "I am hungry" but "Tá ocras orm," which translates to "the hunger is on me." It's the same with emotions. "I am sad" is "Tá brón orm" in Irish, which literally means “the sadness is on me." Not only is this a more poignant way of describing the things we experience, but it's more accurate, too. Think about it. Hunger or sadness don't define who we are, they aren't part of our being that we should declare, "I am" these things. Rather, they are temporary conditions that we carry around with us until they are satisfied, mollified, or whatever the case may be. We love this unique and rather poetic perspective.

Incidentally, "Tá brón orm" is also the expression generally used to say "I'm sorry" in Irish. You'll see this pop up in Unlocked. We don't know about you, but we'd certainly feel more sympathetic toward someone who, by way of apology, tells us that their guilt, remorse or sadness literally sits upon them like a weight. "Sorry" seems awfully weak in comparison.

Then again, there are times when Irish just reminds us of Yoda. Consider “Níl Gaeilge agam.” This means "I don't speak Irish," but translates literally to "No Irish I have." Patience you must have, my young padawan.

Simply put, the Irish language is an adventure, one that is fun, frustrating, and fascinating all at the same time. For more information, check out the links below from some authorities on the subject. You can also read through our Pronunciation Guide, which will help you with some of the Irish words we use in Unlocked. And of course, don't forget to read Unlocked here!

Sláinte! Cheers!

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