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The Name of the Irish Language

If you’re learning Irish, and especially if you don’t live in Ireland, sooner or later you’re sure to hear the following:

  • “They have their own language?
  • “Do you mean you’re learning to speak with an Irish accent?”
  • “Are you talking about ‘Gaelic’?”

An identity crisis

Outside of Ireland, the Irish language seems to suffer from an identity crisis. Surprisingly few people seem to know that the Irish have ever spoken a language other than English.

Among those who are aware that English hasn’t always been the majority language in Ireland, the tendency is to refer to the language as “Gaelic,” and to assume that it is dead, or nearly so.

Because of this, proponents and teachers of the language outside of Ireland often compromise — using”Irish Gaelic” (as is done here at Bitesize), to avoid confusion.

“Irish Gaelic” is not a term you will typically hear in Ireland, however, and some proponents of the language actively dislike the term.

Within Ireland, where the language is very much alive, the preferred term is “Irish,” and some will defend the term vociferously, even to the point of saying that the use of the word “Gaelic” is incorrect.

Is the word “Gaelic” incorrect?

There really is nothing technically incorrect about referring to Irish as “Gaelic.”  It is a Gaelic (Goidelic) language, brought to Ireland by a Celtic tribe known as The Gaels.  In Irish, it’s called An Ghaeilge.

What’s in a name?

You may wonder, then, what all the fuss is about. If “Gaelic” isn’t technically incorrect, why not use it?

There are actually quite a few very good reasons to prefer the term “Irish,” including:

  1. “Irish” is the most commonly used English name of the language. If you’re speaking to people from Ireland, they will know immediately what you mean by “Irish.”
  2. It isn’t the only “Gaelic” language. Manx and Scottish Gaelic are also members of the Goidelic (Gaelic) branch of the Celtic family tree.
  3. “Gaelic” by itself is typically used for the language of Scotland. Irish and Scottish Gaelic are closely related and have a lot of similarities, but they are different languages.
  4. The Irish language is the heritage of all Irish people, not just those of Gaelic ancestry. Many Irish people come from various backgrounds, and Irish is their language too!

Despite the fact that it isn’t used in Ireland, however, there are very good reasons for people outside of Ireland to use the term “Irish Gaelic” on occasion, including:

  1. Many people outside of Ireland don’t realize there is such a thing as an Irish language, or think that “learning Irish” equates to learning Hiberno-English.
  2. Not everyone realizes that Irish and Scottish Gaelic are different languages. Using “Irish Gaelic” makes it easier for them to find resources for the language that interests them.

So, what should I call it?

Generally speaking, “Irish” is the best term to use. It is the preferred English name for the language.

It’s particularly important to use “Irish” if you’re looking for learning resources, such as dictionaries, self-teaching programs, etc. Some may use the term “Irish Gaelic,” but most will simply use “Irish.”

It is very important, when looking for such resources, to avoid using the word “Gaelic” without qualification.  When “Gaelic” is used by itself, Scottish Gaelic is typically what is meant.

When speaking with people who are unfamiliar with the two languages, however, “Irish Gaelic” isn’t technically incorrect, and may be useful for the sake of clarity.

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3 thoughts on “The Name of the Irish Language”

  1. I have a doctorate degree and I did not know this distinction. I’ve even been to Ireland Dublin and Belfast.
    Thank you for educating this ignorant American!!

  2. Oh thank you..
    I keep Corte ting my friends and family and I don’t know why. You have helped me pick up some info to help me. I will use “irish” when talking about ireland. Thanks

  3. Really good info, Audrey. Thanks for sharing this with our readers.

    The Irish vs Gaelic vs Irish Gaelic is something we’ve had trouble settling on in the past. But as long as we can educate people who start researching “Gaelic” (and having Ireland in mind), I’m happy to continue using the “Irish Gaelic” label.

    If there’s one take-away here for new readers, it’s: call the Irish language as “Irish” where possible (as long as the people around you know what you’re referring to).

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