I was watching the addictive TG4 soap opera Ros na Rún one day, and I must admit, I stood up and cheered when I heard this line:
Ní hé an Béarla teanga na tíre seo! Is í an Ghaeilge í! (English isn’t the language of this country! Irish is!).
(My husband just shook his head. He’s used to me shouting at the computer screen in Irish, and has long since given up asking “what?”)
But is it?
I think there’s no doubt that Irish is certainly the birthright of every Irish person. It is Ireland’s traditional and ancestral language, one of its two official languages (the other being English), and is even recognized as an EU language.
And it’s picking up ground in the cities, where an increasing number of people are attending Irish language classes, sending their children to Gaelscoileanna (Irish-medium schools), and even choosing to raise their families through Irish.
Enter the “Urban Irish” controversy
I’ve actually wanted to write something about so-called “Urban Irish” for some time, but have been a bit hesitant, given the controversy that seems to surround it.
When I first encountered the term, I thought it only referred to Irish as spoken in the cities…mainly by people who had learned it as a second language and were trying to live through it as much as possible.
The term is so vague, though, that I decided to ask other Irish learners and speakers about it. What was their impression of the Urban Irish phenomenon? Boy, did I ever get an earful!
Some of the objections people raised were pretty disconcerting (please note that these were opinions expressed by people on internet forums, and don’t necessarily represent my own views…we’ll get to those in a minute!):
- “‘Urban Irish’ is ‘learners’ Irish’.” (Some simply said “It’s bad Irish”). Similar complaints included “It’s not Gaeltacht Irish,” or “It represents a mixture of dialects.”
- “Urban speakers use a lot of English words, and tend to lapse into English syntax.” A related complaint was “Urban speakers use a lot of Béarlachas (Anglicized terms)” or “coin terms not natural to the language.”
- “Urban speakers mispronounce the unique sounds of Irish and defend this by saying ‘That’s MY dialect’.” A related concern was “Urban speakers have been known to claim that they can’t understand Gaeltacht Irish.”
I will admit to having experienced some of this, though apparently not to the same degree as the people I questioned. And I’m not convinced that all of the above is necessarily “bad,” though some of it certainly could be.
Let’s take a look at these objections one by one:
Urban Irish is “Learners’ Irish”
This one is kind of a no-brainer, really. Of course it’s “learners’ Irish.” There are exceptions, of course — native Gaeltacht speakers who have relocated to another part of the country — but there’s no question that a majority of Irish speakers in an urban environment are going to be people who learned it as a second language.
The question has to be raised, though: Why is that a bad thing? If Irish is to survive as something other than a museum piece, it must be embraced by people who didn’t necessarily learn it in the Gaeltacht as children. In other words: “learners.”
The other question is, when does it stop being “learners’ Irish”?
If two people in a non-Gaeltacht area (let’s say Dublin) who learned Irish as a second language decide to raise their children through Irish from day one — if Irish is the language of those children’s home life (and, if they’re very lucky, their school life as well) — isn’t it fair to say that those children are not learners, but native speakers?
What they speak may not be Gaeltacht Irish, but I’d be hard-pressed to call it anything but legitimate, inherited, Irish.
And what of those children’s children? At what point do we stop speaking of “learners’ Irish” and start speaking of a new dialect?
The “Mixed Dialect” Question
I’ll admit I’m saying this very much as an outsider looking in, but I have to say that I don’t see why this is a problem. Most people who learn Irish do learn a mixture of dialects. Some do ultimately choose to specialize to some degree or another, and that’s just fine, but I’m not sure it’s required.
If a person who lives in Dublin, for example, feels no particular connection to Munster, Connacht, or Ulster, why must he ultimately choose one of those dialects and discard what he’s learned from the others?
Or what if someone from the Donegal Gaeltacht (Ulster) marries someone from Connemara (Connacht) and they end up raising their family in Cork (Munster)? Which dialect should the children speak? Mom’s? Dad’s? Munster Irish, since that’s where they live? School Irish?
Heck…a fair number of native English speakers speak a mixture of dialects, especially living as we do in the age of television and computers..
As a person who grew up in the Inland Northwest of the United States (with a mother who grew up in Alabama), who lived for 10 years in North Carolina, who has spent a significant chunk of her adult life in California, and who habitually hangs out with people from Ireland, I’ve been known to use “pop,” “dude,” “y’all,” “might could” and “lads” in the same sentence.
(And yet people somehow manage to understand me! Go figure!)
Don’t get me wrong. Gaeltacht Irish, whether it hales from Ulster, Connacht, or Munster, is beautiful. It’s the heart and soul of the language, and gives it an important anchor in its history. But is it really such a tragedy if someone chooses to use features from more than one?
Urban Irish is “bad” Irish
Well, some of it is, to be sure. I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve seen some pretty bad Irish on signs and in print (including some that, frankly, looks to have come from Google “Translate,” or, as we sometimes call it, “Trashlate”).
I have to wonder, though, how much of this can actually be laid at the feet of Urban Irish speakers, as these mistakes are often so elementary and so blatant that even a relatively new Irish learner can spot them as wrong.
Common mistakes seen on signage and in print include incorrect word order (using English syntax, for example, or putting the adjective before the noun), incorrect word choices, use of English idioms that don’t really translate well to Irish, incorrect capitalization, and incorrect (or lacking) initial mutations.
This is definitely a serious problem, especially if, from these mistakes, learners get the idea that these constructions are “OK” or “dialectical.”
I’ve heard a fair bit of “iffy” Irish on radio and TV as well, though it’s less marked (which could, in part, be due to the kinds of programs I tend to listen to).
I’m not sure it’s fair to tar an entire language movement with the same brush, however. I know more than a few people who would consider themselves to be “Urban Irish” speakers who have excellent Irish. Perhaps the sign makers and TV and radio script writers would do well to hire such people as proofreaders and editors!
English Words and Béarlachas (Anglicization)
It’s true…Urban speakers use a lot of English words. But here’s the thing: So do Gaeltacht speakers.
In fact, in some Gaeltacht areas, you’re more likely to hear “bicycle,” “boyfriend” and “fridge” than “rothar,” “buachaill” or “cuisneoir.”
It’s inevitable, really. Languages tend to borrow from other languages, particularly from currently dominant languages, and especially when it comes to modern terminology or slang.
In fact, Irish has, in the past, cheerfully taken words from Norman French, from Latin, and from the languages of the Vikings without a lot of eye-batting going on.
Sometimes these borrowed words take on a new form…perhaps a different spelling or a slightly different pronunciation. For example, the French “garçon” became the Irish “garsún“ (which you may have seen Anglicized to “gossoon”). The English (by way of Greek) “phone” has become the Irish “fón.”
Béarlachas, on the other hand, is a bigger issue. Usually Béarlachas consists of directly translating English idioms into Irish, and that rarely works well (for more on why this is, see my post The Irish Language: Let’s Get Literal (Or Not)).
There’s little doubt that learners of the language are more likely to do this than native speakers, especially if they don’t have guidance regarding more suitable Irish idioms when they’re learning the language.
The reverse is also true, however. I’ve known learners who refused to use idioms derived from English, even if they’re quite commonly used in the Gaeltacht.
It remains to be seen just how much of an impact English will ultimately have on the Irish language. Some impact is inevitable. I do think that learners, including those who identify as Urban Irish speakers, would do well to let the Gaeltacht speakers lead the way, however.
Urban speakers mispronounce Irish, and defend that as “dialect”
This is a problem I haven’t encountered personally, but I’ve heard it said enough to be reasonably certain that it does exist. Of all the objections raised to the Urban Irish movement, this is the one that I think is the most concerning.
Granted, Irish has sounds that English does not have (the reverse is also true). Some of these sounds are difficult for new learners to perceive, let alone replicate.
Every language learner, however, should make the effort to listen to and emulate native speech as much as possible. That’s a fundamental part of learning a language.
Those different sounds may be difficult at first, but they do come easier with practice. And saying “that’s how everyone I know says them” is no excuse.
This isn’t to say that people who learn Irish as adults won’t retain a regional accent. No matter how correct your pronunciation, unless you’re an extremely good mimic or have professional vocal coaching, you will speak Irish with an accent.
If a lot of people in the same general area learn the language, they will tend to have the same basic accent…which may come, in time, to be a standard and recognized variation in the language.
An accent is not the same thing as blatant mispronunciation, however! If you’re pronouncing “ch” as “k” or “gh” as “g,” that’s not your accent, that’s a mistake, and it’s something you should work on, not excuse.
Urban speakers claiming they can’t understand Gaeltacht speech
This is another one I haven’t encountered personally. Most of the people I know who would identify as Urban Irish speakers visit the Gaeltacht whenever they can, and have little trouble understanding or making themselves understood.
The only time I’ve actually encountered this kind of thing, the person who said it was a fairly new learner from outside of Ireland. That person had a pretty extensive vocabulary and a good grasp of the basic grammar, but very little experience speaking with native speakers.
It’s not unusual, in that situation, to find native speech, or even very fluent learner’s speech, difficult to follow at first.
If I were to hear the same thing from a person who lives in Ireland and who considers himself fluent in Irish, however, I’d take it as a cop out (and a sign that he’s maybe not quite as fluent as he thinks!)
Always granted that dialect differences and strong regional accents can make understanding speakers from other areas challenging at first, it’s hardly impossible! All you have to do is explain that you don’t understand and perhaps ask the other person to slow down. All it takes is practice.
If this is, indeed, happening more frequently than I’ve experienced, it’s something that really needs to be addressed. There’s little point in Irish being the language of the land if no one can understand anyone who comes from a different region!
So what is it: blight or blessing?
There’s absolutely no doubt in my mind that the expansion of the Irish language into urban areas, and the increasing tendency of people outside of the traditional Gaeltacht areas to use it (and especially to bring their children up through it) is a wonderful thing.
If Irish is ever to be anything other than a museum piece, it needs to grow in this way. Such growth often brings changes, and sometimes change is jarring.
Some of these changes, such as the vocabulary expanding to embrace the modern urban world, are good — in fact, they’re vital.
Some of the changes, such as the tendency to mix dialects, is, to my mind, neutral.
Other changes, however, such as reliance on English syntax and Béarlachas, are not so good. I sincerely hope that they’re merely growing pains, and not things that will permanently change the face of the language.
On balance, however, I have to say that the very fact that we’re talking about such a thing as “Urban Irish” is a very positive thing. Perhaps someday we’ll all be able to say “Ní hé an Béarla teanga na tíre seo! Is í an Ghaeilge í!”
A girl can dream, right?
Tell us your opinion!
What do you think of the phenomenon of “Urban Irish”? Do you see it as a good thing or a bad thing? Please feel free to share your thoughts on the matter in the “comments” section below (just keep it civil, people, OK?)