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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.

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!

19 thoughts on “Irish Dialects”

  1. Yes, I agree with Sean below, learning Irish at times is confusing with the various dialects.

    I, like Sean, learnt the Ulster dialect and soon realised it was spelt and said differently, e.g. as Sean said, I was learned to spell “hello” as Dia Duit, pronounced in Ulster dialect as “JEE-uh DITCH” instead of Dhuit (Ghwitch), “How are you?” in Ulster dialect is Cad é mar atá tú?, instead of Conas atá tú? and “Good morning” in Ulster dialect is Maidin mhaith instead of Dia Dhuit ar maidin.

    So, yes, it is confusing, especially to a beginner only starting out to learn our beautiful language, and I can see why it would put some people off even beginning to start to learn it.

    Absolute beginners should be taught to say it one way only from the start, like “JEE-uh Ghwitch”, and one way only to say good morning and how are you, rather than knowing there are several ways. If someone THEN wants to move onto a certain dialect in years to come, when they are far more fluent, to concentrate on a certain area, by all means, but there should be a clear, simplified, non-dialect, non-area way to say things rather than learning to say a certain dialect from the start.

    1. Pat, a chara
      I agree, it can be daunting at the start but that is sometimes the beauty of a language, the different ways to express the same idea. There can be many differences in dialects as you learn, the greetings can differ at the very start but as you go along you see that there are also many similarities and the differences don’t seem too scary.
      My suggestion to learners would be to pick a greeting that they like best, be aware of the others but you will never not be understood if you use conas atá tú instead of cén chaoi a bhfuil tú.
      We have an official grammar standard that is in most books but no standard dialect/pronunciation.

  2. Sometimes it can be confusing about which dialect to learn, but a lot of the dialects have words / phrases that interact with the other dialects.

    For example, my Irish class learns me the Ulster dialect, so I say “jee-uh DITCH” instead of what is pronounced on here “jee-uh GHWITCH”.

    My accent does find “ditch” easier to say than the throaty “ghwitch”, but I do worry if I’m saying it right, or if others, in Munster or Connacht (when I go on holidays or short breaks) will understand me and appreciate my dialect or attempts at Irish, or if they will think “A north person!” So I do understand other beginners concerns despite the likes of Eoin, Emma and Audrey trying to put our minds at ease by saying that it doesn’t matter what dialect you learn. For beginners it is worrying what is the best dialect to learn.

    1. Seán, a chara
      Don’t worry about being understood, you will be understood in all dialects, especially with ‘Dia dhuit’.
      The ‘dh’ is quite throaty and I would say to try your best with it, It comes up in many other words, not just here so start as you mean to go on 🙂

      Le beannacht
      Emma

  3. It seems (if you wanted to specialize in one) there are less resources for Ulster Irish than Connacht or Munster, is that correct? Are Connacht and Munster dialects more easily mutually intelligible than those two with Ulster? From pronunciation examples on Teanglann.ie Ulster seems to be noticeably different from the other two, which it seems definitely vary one to the other but not as dramatically. My family is from Donegal, so it seems like it wouldn’t be a bad thing to learn the Ulster dialect but wondering if it would make clear communication with the other two dialects a little more challenging?

    Love the videos and the site, thanks very much!

    1. Derek, a chara
      A lot of material you will find will follow the official standard Irish or ‘An Caighdeán’ which is a mix of all dialects made into a standard. There is material specific to each dialect available, one example being Buntús Cainte / Now You’re talking which would be in the Ulster dialect, although quite old.
      Focus on whatever dialect you like and there shouldn’t be much confusion in regards to people understanding you. There are some vocabulary and pronunciation differences but as you learn you become aware of those!
      Glad you enjoy the videos.
      Le gach dea-ghuí
      Emma

    2. It’s REAL:LY easy to find courses in Ulster. Oideas Gael in Glencolmcille run LOTS of courses every year. Although I’m from Munster I learned Ulster Irish first – it’s not really that different.

  4. Thank you for this post. Can you tell me in what dialect would the people of south Leitrim have spoken?
    Go raibh míle maith agat

    1. Hi Louisa,

      We have a crash course on pronunciation for members, if you are interested in signing up.
      We also have our walk through videos and our ‘how to say videos’ under ‘more’ where we pronounce words and phrases much slower. They might be of help to you 😀

      Le beannacht,
      Aisling

  5. I came with the question of how many officially accepted accents there are and instead I got every answer I was aiming for in the long run. Thank you for this and your help.

    1. Siobhan below is correct. Just try to imitate the sounds you hear with no preconceptions about how they OUGHt to sound.

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