Readers’ Questions Answered About Starting to Learn Irish

Dog's questions over Ireland
“Over here! I have a question!”. Our dog Uisce over barren Tipperary, Ireland in late winter.

We all have questions that may seem too silly to ask.

And you may have plenty of questions related to Ireland and learning Irish.

It’s your chance to leave a reply below this blog post to ask your question about the Irish language or Ireland, but “were too afraid to ask”.

Bill’s (non-silly) questions about Irish

Bill emailed us a while back with some questions, and I thought you might be interested in the replies:

Is it correct that when Irishmen are speaking English, that the English word GAELIC refers to Scottish Gaelic, and IRISH refers only to the 3 major Irish Gaelic dialects?

Generally, yes, that is the case. You can watch several videos about this topic on Bitesize Irish Gaelic.

And when speaking in the “Irish language”, is there another word for GAELIC (referring to other countries, such as Scotland)?

In Irish, we tend to refer to the Scottish Gaelic language as Gàidhlig, a direct import of their word for it. That’s how I’ve seen it used anyway. Pronounce it something like /Gah-lig/.

Also, what is the accepted pronunciation of “GAEILGE”?  I hear both (guelga) and (gaelga).  Which is preferable in your opinion?

It really varies across dialects. In Ulster (towards the north) it almost sounds like /Gae-lig/ (close to Gaelic, eh?). Conamara is more like /Gae-lig-eh/. In Muster it’s said /Gway-lig-eh/, but in Munster it’s often called Gaolainn /gway-lin/ and not Gaeilge. Take your pick.

Am I correct that the word ANSIN means either THEN (referring to the past) or AT THAT TIME?

Yes, sounds right.

Can it also mean NEXT (referring to something coming up in the future)?

That doesn’t sound wrong to me in any case.

Is there any other meanings that go along with that word ANSIN?  I am frequently listening to RTE radio, so am noticing re-occurring words.

Yes, there’s more meaning to it! “Shall ansin” mean “over there”, so it can also refer to a place.

Over to you: Leave your questions below

Now it’s your chance to ask questions that, perhaps, you thought were too small to ask.

Perhaps we won’t be able to answer every question if it’s outside of our range, but we can try and send you in the right direction anyway.

Leave your replies below with your questions about Irish or Ireland.

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25 thoughts on “Readers’ Questions Answered About Starting to Learn Irish”

  1. So I’ve been wondering about something: What are the differences between Irish and Scottish Gaelic? Are there a lot of similarities between the two?

  2. Luis Miguel Diaque

    I have a question: Why does it seem that I keep hearing that the Irish themselves DO NOT like to speak Irish? Does it have anything to do with the fact that it is a recquired subject in school? If that is so, is this attitude changing or has it changed at all in recent years that you have noticed?

    1. Great question, Luis.

      You know, this is quiet a contentious issue because of emotions on “both sides”. Yes, many many Irish people don’t especially want to speak Irish, and it’s not really part of their life.

      Some people blame the education system, but I think that’s an old complaint. The language teaching is far from perfect, but it doesn’t “hurt” people generally. For example, if school hurt people, people would also complain about French, maths, geography, etc. But it’s just an excuse that lingers with Irish in particular.

      I think attitudes have changed for the better in the past decade or more. Much of that, I think, has come from new media like TG4 television being more “cool”. It’s a positive change, but don’t be fooled, many people in Ireland just don’t care.

      1. Steven Lindsley

        That is interesting to know, Eoin! Well, thank you for caring, so that those of us who also care can learn the language!

      2. Luis Miguel Diaque

        Another question, Eoin… About what Bill asked. I often hear “ansin” used as “then” whereas I had learned it as a word for “there”. “mar sin” being what I learned to use for “then”… This confuses me to no end. Is there an explanation? Is using “ansin” to mean “then” just a bad habit of Irish people? or is it correct?

        1. Hi Luis, nice to see that you’re making the connections with these words. Yes, “ansin” will be used as “then”, and also as “there”.

          For example “shall ansin” /howl on-shin/ means “over there”.

          “Sin” /shin/ means “that”. A simple phrase is “Sin é” /shin ay/ which means like “That’s it”.

          “Mar sin” /mar shin/ would mean something like “Like that” to me. I would not translate this directly as “then”.

          On your last question: as far as I know, it’s not a bad habit to use “ansin” like “then”. For example, when telling a story of something that happened, I would often use “ansin”. For example “Ansin, right sé amach” would be “Then, he ran out”.

          1. Luis Miguel Diaque

            Thanks Eoin… And once again let me reiterate what so many others here have said… Thank you for caring about your language and for teaching it… Keep up the good work. Slán.

  3. In live in Hawai’i. Here every vowel is cleanly pronounced. There can be many vowels in a row, or even the entire word can be only vowels, but each is pronounced. In Irish, vowels can be put together, but the sound is completely different. Also, when certain, non-vowels are combined the sound is entirely different. I have read that the “H”, in combination is not a letter, but a function, such as “th”, “dh”, “mh”, “gh” and so forth, is this correct? How can we hope to learn to read Irish, with such complex combinations? Ath Cliath, I have heard as, Aha-Cleah, with neither ‘T’ pronounced??
    Daniel

    1. Steven Lindsley

      The use of two letters to represent one sound is called a “digraph” and we use them extensively in many similar ways in English as well (for example “th”, “sh”, “ph”, “ea” each represent one sound). But I might venture to say that reading Irish, once you learn the spelling rules, can be a whole lot easier than reading English, whose spelling has many exceptions.

    2. Steven explained it much better than I could!

      Like you said, “h” is often a function on the preceding consonant.

      Look at it this way: in old writing what is now written with “h” was actually a dot over the consonant to show that consonant is different. When modern typesetting came along, the dot was dropped, and replaced with a “h” beside the consonant.

      P.S. Feel free to checkout out our reference Pronunciation Cheat Sheets: http://www.bitesizeirishgaelic.com/ebooks/pronunciation/

    1. Hi Conrad. I’m no expert on this. I would venture a guess that the bible has had an effect on language through religious phrases. The word “Dia” in Irish for “God”, for example, looks suspiciously like the Latin version. Another example is my name “Eoin”, which, in English, is John in the bible.

      Modern-day spoken Irish is influenced by English (with lots of English words being heard in spoken conversation in the Gaeltachtaí, Irish speaking areas).

      There are older influences like French from the Normans (“seomra” from “chambre”, and the name Seán from Jean).

      Scandinavian words also appear from Viking times. “Go breá” in Irish means something like “excellently”, and is similar to a phrase still used in Scandinavian. Our word “cnaipe” /k-nap-eh/ for “button” is also close to their word for the same thing.

  4. I wanted to thank you for your efforts to teach Gaelic. A people without a language isn’t a people at all. Dia dhuit Eoin.

  5. Why is it that after interrogative words Irish sometimes uses “atá” and other times “bhfuil”, for example “Conas atá tú” but “Cén chaoi bhfuil tú”
    Love your blog.
    Le meas,
    John

    1. Hi John, nice question, and it’s not one that I can answer fully 🙂

      “Bhfuil” is the interrogative form of Bí (to be).

      I wonder if this comes down to “tá” vs. “is”, the different forms of the “bí” verb. We have a full lesson (members-only) on that:
      http://www.bitesizeirishgaelic.com/learn-gaelic-online/verbs-to-be/

      I can’t come to a good answer for you, and I hope someone more knowledgeable can answer here. All I can point out (but not explain why it is) is that “conas atá tú?” means “how are you?”, when “cén chaoi bhfuil tú” literally means “in which way are you?”. Perhaps the two different questions result in the different forms of the verb being used.

      1. Hi Eoin,

        If I can jump in as resident grammar bore: it has to do with relative clauses. “Atá/’tá” is the direct relative. “A bhfuil” is the indirect relative.

        Certain phrases take the indirect relative automatically, and “cén chaoi” is one of them.

        The grammar behind it gets a bit complicated, I’m afraid. It has to do with which word is the subject of the sentence.

        With “conas ‘tá tú?,” “tú” is the subject of the sentence. It’s a direct corollary to the English sentence “How are you?”

        With “cén chaoi a bhfuil tú?” what you are actually saying is “what condition/state are you [in]?” (the “in” being implied) In this case, “chaoi” (state/condition) is the subject of the sentence, so the verb takes the form for an indirect relative clause: a bhfuil.

        This is actually intermediate-level grammar, and probably not something native speakers have to think much about. For beginners, it’s probably best to just file the term away for now…it will eventually become important, but for now the most important thing is to know that there really is a valid reason.

        1. Really cool, Audrey. John, I hope you find this useful.

          For others reading: Audrey has been working hard on improving our lessons, while keeping the explanations clear and examples relevant. We’re glad to have her as part of Bitesize Irish Gaelic 🙂 If you’re a member, you can see her work in action by taking any new lessons that you see pop up.

  6. I’m really excited to be learning Irish, but sometimes it seems really daunting with all the different dialects. I had just managed to learn “Conas atá tú?” and then I found out that in Ulster it’s “Cad é mar atá tú?” That is nothing alike!

    My question is – what percentage of the language would you estimate to be the same for all dialects? Is it just a few phrases that are different, or do I have to learn to say a significant amount of things in 2-3 ways?

    Also, do there tend to be more differences in the way people say basic “every day” phrases and fewer differences when you get to more complex stuff? For example, if you were writing a history term paper and someone in Ulster was writing a history term paper would it sound basically the same, or would there still be a huge difference? Thanks!!

    1. Hi Allison, you’re looking at it in a good way.

      I know the dialects thing can be frustrating. I would estimate literally 99% of all the language is the same, especially when written, depending on dialect. Yes, the accent changes, but that’s true for any language that I know of (to different extents).

      Yes, there’s different ways of saying hello in the different dialects. But if you get into learning how to make basic sentences, there will be much more “core” Irish to learn than dialect differences.

      Stick with it. Don’t worry about not being understood, since any dialect is understood just about anywhere else in Ireland. For example, on the national Raidió na Gaeltachta radio, everyone just speaks their own dialect, depending on where they are from.

      We have more about the dialects here, and why it shouldn’t stop you from learning Irish:
      http://www.bitesizeirishgaelic.com/blog/irish-dialects/

  7. Hi Allison,

    If it seems a bit daunting, it may help to think in terms of English:

    Without even thinking about it, we use different ways to greet one another. We might say “How are you?” “How’s it going?” “How goes it?” “How are things?” “How’s life treating you?” “What’s the news?” etc.

    Imagine how daunting that may seem to a learner of English! As native English speakers, we look at those phrases, and they all seem reasonably closely related, but if we’d never studied English before, there might seem to be a world of difference between “How are you?” and “How’s life treating you?”

    If you or I were speaking to an English learner who was concerned about the differences between these greetings, we’d rightfully say “Don’t worry about it. They all mean the same thing. Use whichever seems easiest to you, and people will understand you.”

    The same is true with Irish. You can say “Conas ‘tá tú?” “Cén chaoi a bhfuil tú?” “Cad é mar atá tú?” or any variation, and you WILL be understood wherever you go. They’re just different ways of expressing the same sentiment. And just as how, in English, people may greet one another with “hi,” “hey” or “yo” (depending on where they’re from), these greetings have some regional bias…but it’s not such a difference that people from other regions won’t understand what’s being said.

    Sometimes putting these concerns in the terms of our own language makes them seem a little less overwhelming!

  8. Robert Maguire

    Eoin, I’m new to Bitesize Gaelic and I’m looking forward to learning the language.

    Both my parents are from Ireland (Mayo and Leitrim) and grew up there in the beginning of the last century. Neither one of them knew a lot of Gaelic or so they claimed, but they did teach me a few phrases. My father taught me the Sign of the Cross and he TRIED to teach me the Our Father (without success). The question I have though has to do with a phrase my mother used. Since I’ve been investigating the language, I’ve run across “Conas ta tu?” for “How are you?” What I’ve never heard or seen is what she used (and I’ll spell it phonetically): “Kay ee will two?” Hope you can make sense of that. Is that a Mayo phrase? Just curious.

    I look forward to learning lots of Irish so that I can somewhat impress my Irish-speaking cousins.

    Thanks in advance. Robert

  9. patrick mc nally

    I heard on Raidió na Gaeltachta today a lady say, ” Cén aois atá tú?. or should it be “Cén aois a bhfuil tú.? Pádraig

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