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Irish Dialects

Soon after a person begins studying Irish, the question of dialect arises. Some of the questions learners ask are:

  • How many dialects of Irish are there?
  • Which is the best Irish dialect to learn?
  • If I learn one dialect, will people who speak a different dialect understand me? Will I understand them?
  • Can’t I just learn “standard Irish”?

In this post, we’ll take a look at what “dialect” means, discuss the major dialects of Irish, and, hopefully, dispel any concerns you may have about the dialect issue.

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What is a “dialect”?

Like many nouns, “dialect” can have different meanings depending on how it’s used. For our purposes, however, we’re mainly concerned with this definition (taken from the Merriam-Webster on-line dictionary):

di·a·lect: noun, often attributive \ˈdī-ə-ˌlekt\

1 a: a regional variety of language distinguished by features of vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation from other regional varieties and constituting together with them a single language <the Doric dialect of ancient Greek>

Sound confusing? Try looking at it this way:

If you’re a native speaker of English, you’re already familiar with many dialects.

If you’re American, for example, you know that a person born and raised in Texas will sound different from a person born and raised in New York, California, or Minnesota.

It’s not just a matter of different accents. People in these regions use some words differently. They have their own unique greeting styles, for example, and may use different words for the same concept.

But here’s the important thing: They’re all speaking the same language. They can understand one another. The same is true with the various dialects of Irish.

How many Irish dialects are there?

There are three primary dialects of Irish:

  • Munster, spoken in the southern part of the island (Counties Cork, Kerry, and Clare).
  • Connacht, spoken in the western part of the island (primarily Counties Galway, Mayo, and Sligo).
  • Ulster, spoken in the northern part of the island (Mostly in County Donegal, but also in parts of Monaghan, Cavan, Derry, Antrim, Down, Armagh, Fermanagh, and Tyrone).

There used to be a fourth regional dialect — Leinster Irish, spoken in the eastern part of the island — but Leinster Irish has died out as a distinct dialect.

Some would say there’s yet another developing dialect: Urban Irish. This is Irish spoken outside of the traditional Gaeltachtaí (Irish-speaking regions), primarily in the cities.

Isn’t there a standardized form of the language?

The shortest possible answer to this question is “yes, but…”.

There is a standardized form of Irish, known as “An Caighdeán Oifigiúil” — “The Official Standard.” It was created to provide a very basic standard for such things as official documents, school lessons, etc.

The Caighdeán, as it is known, contains elements from all three major dialects. There are several differences, however, between it and other standardized languages with which you may be familiar:

  • It doesn’t address pronunciation or regional accents.  The Caighdeán is an entirely written standard.
  • It allows for dialect forms. Unlike other standardized language, which may condemn regional forms as “incorrect” or “informal,” the Caighdeán holds them as equally valid.
  • It isn’t actually spoken by anyone. Even on television and radio, Irish speakers use their own regional dialects.

So, while the Caighdeán is useful as a reference, it isn’t a dialect in and of itself that learners can actually learn to speak.

So which dialect should I learn?

First, it’s important to remember that the three main dialects of Irish are mutually intelligible. Learning one will not prevent you from communicating with people who speak the other two.

There is no such thing as a “best dialect” in Irish. Other languages may have dialects that are perceived (rightly or wrongly) to be more “educated-sounding,” but that’s not the case here.

Another thing to keep in mind is that most learners actually learn a “mixed dialect,” at least initially. Some may eventually decide to specialize in one or the other, but it’s not strictly necessary.

Here are some reasons learners give for choosing a particular dialect to focus on:

  • A special affinity for a particular part of the country. If your family came from Donegal, for example, or if you’ve always dreamed of visiting Cork, you might wish to specialize.
  • It just seems easier. While the dialects aren’t that different from one another, sometimes people find one a bit easier to pronounce or a bit more intuitive than the others.
  • It’s more widely spoken. Sometimes people want to learn the dialect with the most native speakers (that would be Connacht Irish, by the way)
  • Linguistic purity. Some people just don’t like the idea of speaking a mixed dialect, and would rather just choose one and learn it in the “purest” form possible.

The most important thing to remember, however, is that language is about communication…understanding others and being understood. And you can do that with any dialect!

So, whatever your motivation for learning Irish, don’t let the “dialect dilemma” weigh you down. Focus on learning to communicate in the language, and the rest will sort itself out.

You may ultimately decide to specialize in a particular dialect; and, then again, you may not.  Either way, the world will have one more Irish speaker…and that’s a good thing!

Did you find this post helpful?

Did you know all this about Irish dialects before you read this post? Did the issue worry you at all?  Let us know your thoughts below!