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Urban Irish: Blight or Blessing?

Ha'penny Bridge, Dublin
Ha’penny Bridge, Dublin. Photo 2008, by Audrey Nickel

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.

It’s taught in schools, has its own TV channel and radio stations, printed publications, websites, and literature (both ancient and modern).

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!):

  1. “‘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.”
  2. “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.”
  3. “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?)

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31 thoughts on “Urban Irish: Blight or Blessing?”

  1. I don’t see most of the “problems” mentioned in this article as real problems, with the exception of incorrectly or poorly worded signage. I live in a country with loads of regional dialects. Most of the time we understand each other, but I have experienced situations were I couldn’t understand a person speaking what they considered to be perfectly good English. Happens all the time.

    The folks with whom I study Irish speak it with a decidedly Midwestern Indiana accent. We’re doing the best we can, considering that we have few native speakers to teach us, and those distantly interspersed at seasonal language immersion weekends. The internet helps greatly, with Gaelskype and Bitesize Irish and such, but even that knowledge of correct pronunciation and grammar comes largely unfiltered for dialect. Most of us learners have no clue what dialect our teachers speak. When confronted by a different dialect from the one on our course sound files, we scratch our collective heads and say “huh?”

    1. As far as that last bit goes, Brenda, often asking on the internet (either on the Bitey Shamrock forum or on ILF) can help you work out what dialect you’re hearing, as there are definite pronunciation clues for each. For example, if the speaker pronounced “maith” as “my,” pronounces “á” as “aa” (even almost “ay”), pronounces broad “ch” as an “r” (for example, pronounces “anocht” as “un-NART” instead of “uh-NOKHT”) or uses “iontach” an an intensifier instead of “an-,” you’ve got an Ulster speaker on your hands. These aren’t all the various things that characterize the dialect, of course, but they’re easily-picked-up-on markers that learners can recognize. The other dialects have similar clues. Generally, if you ask in an on-line forum something like “hey, I heard an Irish speaker say this yesterday,” or “why do some speakers pronounce this differently?” you’ll be able to get a pretty good idea of where your speaker’s Irish comes from.

  2. “English spoken several hundred years ago almost wouldn’t even sound like the same language to a modern speaker.” Yep ,dats what i said.
    How does today’s English differ from old english? Not the words or syntax, but the overall description of language? What does it represent now that was different from then?
    The answer is a few hundred years ago the culture and character of England was encoded into it.It was an aspect of what Herder called “the Spirit of a People” [see above]. You could look at it`s make up and determine things about England and “the English”. Some of that is still there if you look hard enough, but overwhelmingly you are now looking at a Global lingua-franka that no longer strongly represents any particular people. All English speaking countries are reduced to compiling national lists of made up words or slang, distinct to their country, that speaks a little of their national character, but is a very impoverished substitute for a national language.
    Remember what Eoin and others have said about one of the values of learning Irish. “it is a very intimate way to learn about Ireland and the Irish”. That “morphed modern Irish” you will learn in 50 odd years, perhaps now fully urbanized, will tell you intimately about the people of then. The difference is, that as today, there are many parts of Ireland that don’t look or behave a lot different from any other global city. I’ve seen a cartoon here about two Irish kids who look, to all intents and purposes, like American negro rap artists. That is the culture and land they are reflecting. Except for the color of their skin, and the Irish Brogue,{when they are not rapping}, they look and behave like American ?New Yorker Youth!
    So is it a good thing that the Language is changing? Perhaps it is neither good or bad, just a fact. I think what it represents, and where it will end is a sad fact personally, but none the less a fact unchangeable. We can’t preserve Irish ,(or the worthwhile aspects of it), any more than we can stop globalization.
    In so far as it preserves a thing called Irish that has even one old word different from English, Urban Irish is more good than bad i`d recon. That one word means that there is still something to remind us of a once a great culture that taught the western world to remember what they`d lost after the Roman collapse. That hypothetical word can remind us of a time when The whole of Dear Ireland was a bright Jewel, even the crown, of what we remember as a”Celtic” culture.
    Hopefully Guinness will survive in tact too.
    Till the lips of the last person who knew your story fall silent…………
    may goodness be at you is mise mehull `

  3. I personally think that this is actually a good sign for the language. The fact that the language is changing means that it’s growing. English dictionaries have tons of new words added to them each year because so many people speak the language and so new words are invented constantly according to modern needs. In order for Irish to be adopted by a bigger portion of the general population, it has to be changing. Even when you read books in English written only eighty years or so ago, the language has a distinct “old” feel to it which means that it has changed substantially in less than a century. And the English spoken several hundred years ago almost wouldn’t even sound like the same language to a modern speaker! All healthy languages are changing all the time. That’s not to say that people should stop caring about real pronunciation and that they should start slipping in random English words because it’s easier… but still, the changes to the language show that there are several modern speakers adapting it to the times.

  4. PS. I hope that bitch who stole the baby gets what she deserves for wrecking so many lives in Ros Na Run. is mise mehull

  5. Have you ever tried to read old English documents? Most need to be translated by a historian/scholar these days. The same is true for all the old Irish manuscripts. I’ve heard tell there is old , and even middle Irish, both just about as unintelligible to the modern Irish people.
    So what is the sacred aspect of this exercise of judging if a particular form of Irish is a good or bad thing? What criteria do we use? I have taken to using the term ~Polarity of Divinity~ to address this, and like questions. Herder 1744-1803 , held that the cultural expressions of a group, including language, in so far as they could be identified as unique/ national, what he called “the Spirit of a people”, were ultimately a result of that peoples sustained interaction with their land / environment.
    In a way you can say that Old Irish,Syntax and vocabulary, was the human language aspect of the nature/-{land, air,fauna,flora in aggregate} of Ireland herself.What Spinoza 1632-1677 might have called “God”‘{land not the language}. What some others can term the goddess- {Eriu-Fodhla- Banhba- Innisfail} and various other names.
    Possibly middle Irish was better, and perhaps Irish up until we started to separate ourselves from her, {the land}[Urban living an example], was the nearest we will get to a language
    ~of Ireland~.
    So is it all down hill from here? That`s one way of looking at it. The language is morphing under the influences like those urban ones described, and the greater forces of globalization as a whole.Whatever it is in 100 years it will be as much like Irish to us as old and middle are now, and certainly more reflective of a globe than any individual island land mass on it. There is an old Celtic saying though “that until the last person who knew your story`s lips fall silent, you are not truly dead” . So it is with all we hold dear about Irish Identity, “the spirit of the people”. Linguist historians can translate our old manuscripts with greater ease i am sure because modern Irish still exists. While any word in Irish still exists it is like a lump in the ground over a hill fort. You can dig to find the archaeology beneath.Follow the words So-long [american for goodbye], back to Slan, and back to a beautiful goddess, made of many parts now extinct. Follow what i term ~the Polarity of Divinity~. is mise mehull

  6. Gordon Molengraf

    We have the same problem here in Texas with the Spanish language, either spanlizing english words or inserting english words into spanish sentences. “shelves de libros” or “parquear vs.estacionar”

  7. Kris Van Campenhout

    This is indeed a very interesting article. I myself am a native Flemish speaker, living in the Northern part of Belgium. As I understand it , Irish as a very old language, but run over by the english language for centuries is now for some decades , it understandably takes time to to be regarded as a natural language. May be there is still too much a misconception that english is the standard language by people who visit Ireland. Hence, they do not bother to learn a few words…
    I personally think the urban Irish is a good evolution in language, because to my opinion this proves that Irish is fully accepted by those who speak it all be it a mixture of dialects and maybe also some english. It proves Irish does not belong in a museum but is alive and kicking! In the Netherlands and Belgium every year new words ‘neologisms’ are announced by serious language institutions. They give us the top ten most used new words and put them in our dictionary! Great fun! And where do these words generally come from? Exact: mostly from young people, native speakers or new speakers. It is clear they are the future of a language.
    That brings me to the invasion of english words in Irish. You’re not alone. Our dutch language is full of it. It’s the sign of time. We also have french words and spanish and german. Who cares? That’s what makes a language fun! How do people cope with foreign words in their own language? Is the word important enough? Is it frequently used? Are there any Irish synonyms available?
    The last item you mentioned are the use of dialects. A small country we are, but we are loaded with them, from east to west, from north to south, every small region of even town has its own dialect. Man, what a rich language dutch is! And how about the Netherlands? Same ‘problem’ there…
    So I wouldn’t worry to much about all these issues. But I believe it is important to have a standardized language, both in words, scripture and pronunciation. At least you have something to refer to when someone want to learn a language. But I gather this is already the case with Irish.


  8. Thanks for articles like this one! They give us interesting insights and are helpful, especially when there’s discussion like the great comments following this one. More articles and comments, please!

  9. I have a question: how are irish speakers treated when they are giving school-leaving-exams? Are they expected to have the same level in english as the rest of the population or do they have special exams, which take into consideration that they speak a “different” language?


    1. This short video is quite interesting:
      History of EN in 10 Minutes
      There is not really a ‘Standard English’ either. When Irish people use Hibero-English expressions they can’t be told by an English person that they are speaking incorrect English!
      We could try to repell the English ‘invasion’ by using Irish words and speech patterns in English!-)

  10. The thing with English is, it’s a conglomerate language to begin with. Started out as a form of German, and probably would still be a German dialect, rather than a distinct language, if it hadn’t been muddled together with Norman French, with a good side-helping of Latin and Greek.

    I saw a poster once that said “English doesn’t borrow from other languages. It pursues them down dark alleys, knocks them down, and rummages through their pockets for loose grammar.”

    I do think it helps somewhat to see English (and its influence) in a historical context. It’s a dominant language now, but it wasn’t that long ago that French held that distinction. And, of course, the reason that most European languages have at least some Latin influence is because it was the language of one of the word’s first “super powers.” I don’t think that some English influence on Irish is necessarily all that bad a thing (and it’s going to happen — HAS happened — in any case…no real way to avoid it)…it’s when it completely overruns the language (inappropriate idioms, people using English syntax for Irish, etc.) that it becomes a real problem.

    Of course, there are important political and emotional issues at play here as well, and that’s something I try to steer clear of myself, being an outsider.

  11. Very interesting topic for Irish, since it covers all that’s new, old, bad, and good about the language.

    Agreed, Englishisms shouldn’t be a crutch to speaking Irish.

    And Michi makes a very interesting point about the “brain damage”.

    My overarching theory on this is that if it means more people are using the language on a daily basis, then it’s probably a good thing.

    I might even say that I can’t say what’s “good” or “bad”, it’s just that people speak in different ways.

    English, itself, is quite a mixed language, without outer influence would be quite a different language. Good or bad, I don’t know. 🙂

  12. This is definitely an outermost interesting SOCIOLINGUISTIC phenomenon.
    But what I have encountered so far is that there is a certain dilemma in teaching irish. And maybe it interferes into this topic as well. Language has two major tasks:

    1. an interactive communicative task – an extroverted task
    This is what we people from all over the world are at. We are happy to fix a few sentences together and hoping to look into sparkling delighted eyes of a native, who in return will bring us the required food or drink or whatever.
    That is the easy task.
    2. an intra-active aestetic task – an introverted task
    It is a livetime task for a non-native to learn a language to perfection that it becomes part of your life and affects your thoughts.

    And even if those poor dedicated urban irish speakers do their best, they will never overcome the “brain damage” english has done to them. And instinctively everybody knows that.

    Some weird thoughts – but hopefully you got what I am at!