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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. Audrey, good article. I am somebody who complains sometimes about these issues, in particular the issue of phonetics which are not taught at all in Irish schools (anglicised pronounciation is taught mainly by teachers who never learned about the phonetics of the language themselves).

    However my complaints are not about learners who are on their journey of constant improvement, but University graduates, teachers in schools and Gaelscoils, certain people with media jobs in the language. People who allegedly should have achieved a certain degree of accuracy in the spoken language, but instead butcher it (the pronounciations) just as much as a brand new learner might, except fluently. If English was not my native language I would not be able to tell that they were even speaking a different language to English, and many of my friends from Portugal and Brazil have confirmed that this is the case for them when hearing most Irish, unless it is on RnaG.

    What’s really annoying, and believe me it is a very common attitude and one that I find upsetting, is that these speakers, University graduates with degrees in Irish, Gaelcholáiste graduates working in the media, are both blissfully unaware of how amateurish they sound (imagine pronouncing the ‘j’ in bonjour as an English j) and also will argue that there’s no need for them to improve because ‘this is how we speak it in my area’ or ‘I don’t need to speak like them because I’m from…’

    It’s an atrocious attitude for learners of any language to have and I really wish that Universities would stop handing out degrees to students who either don’t know what a slender r is or refuse to use it consistently.

    I met a Gaelscoil teacher once and he complained (in Irish) about native speakers using English words. He then admitted that he couldn’t understand native speakers and said that they should learn ‘proper Irish’.

    This guy was militant about not using English words and yet he used the English phonetic system to speak Irish. There are over seventy phonemes in Irish and just over forty in English. How are we training teachers and not training them in phonetics at all!!

    Some of the complaints people have are very legitimate and academically recognised problems, and some of the people who should be at the forefront of the languages preservation are instead alienating native speakers and creating tension with their arrogant attitude to this language which they learned as a second language but claim it as their own. They then use that ‘claim’ of theirs to the language to avoid having to do certain things that all learners of languages should do. It takes humility to learn a language.

    1. I agree with you completely, shame that many people don’t realise the hypocrisy of saying in full English phonetics that gluaisteán is better than carr despite the fact that not only is carr actually used by native speakers, it is not an English loanword and is itself derived from an ancient Irish word for cart. Even more, the word car in English may ultimately be derived from Gaulish, a Celtic language.

      The absolute ridiculousness of somebody to tell native speakers how they should speak their own language blows me away. Imagine going to France and telling everybody that they should speak Franglais because you’re too lazy to learn the language properly. I’m not even saying this from a prescriptivist stand point, Gaeltacht people should and will speak Irish natively but its up to learners to learn Irish properly.

  2. I live in Belfast, I am from the Shaw’s road Gaeltacht and speak fluent Irish and I personally know plenty of Belfast Gaels who would put Irish speakers from “traditional Gaeltachtaí” to shame based on competency in Irish. We must get Irish into the cities if it is to survive and thrive.

  3. Ray Lawler O'leathlobhair Clan

    I just retuned from Ireland and somehow mustered up the the courage to try/share my few newly learned Irish words with the locals. Overall, I was pleasantly surprized by their response to me throughout Ireland. They even understood me which greatly increased my confidence! lol However, this was short lived when I hit a bump while on the Aran islands. lol One lady looked at like I was from a different planet, and after we exchanged a few words and she lost me totally (to her delight it seemed ) and then proceeded to inform me in english that the “learned” Irish is no good at all. I told her I was learning on-line and she got a real chuckle at that one. I responded to her that I thought folks from the mainland come out to learn there. She said..” no we don’t want them here”. lol I felt a tad foolish at that point and had wished I never tried to chat /engage her. But then I realized how fortunate I was and what a great opportunity to have crossed paths with her. Old school native speaker meets a very rank newbie from another county. Cool stuff. I learned first hand that there is at least one native speaker out there who believes that unless you were born on the Aran island and perhaps the Connemara she said that its not really the Irish language. In fairness to the others there they seemed to be delighted that someone would take the time to even try to learn one single word of their native language. We had a wonderful trip/experience. It is my hope that if I run into this lady again that I know a few more words to share and that she hopefully would have become a wee-bit more understanding that even one word spoken in Irish by a stranger even if not perfect, is better than reading about it two-hundred years from know in a museum of what used to be. But thinking I will have a better chance of hitting the lottery. lol Nonetheless, my Great Grandfather Patrick, and his ancestors would have been very proud of me. Stay strong and keep on learning. Cheers.

    1. Hi Ray,

      Thank you for sharing your experience.

      We are glad to hear that you had a chance to practice your Irish Gaelic.

      Yes, I am sure that your great grandfather would have been proud to hear your speak your native language.

      Keep up the good work 🙂

      Le meas,

  4. Hi Marlene,

    Regarding “often,” it depends on which dictionary you consult. Many now list “OFF-ten” as an alternative pronunciation. It’s been pronounced that way in the Northwest for at least 50 years (possibly longer, but I can only speak for 50 of those years, being only 52 myself!). That’s how it was pronounced in my hometown (Spokane, Washington) when I was growing up, and the only time I heard it otherwise was on the occasional TV show, or from my high school music teacher, who grew up in the Midwest. It’s definitely a dialect thing.

  5. “I have yet to find anyone who can explain how the word páiste came from French.”

    Marlene, “páiste” comes from “páitse” which is derived from French “page”, a young servant of a knight.

  6. patrick mc nally

    “An bhfeiceann tú an lá, Audrey. Nuair an theanga Ghaeilge go mbeidh teanga na tíre seo. Pádraig

    1. Correction in athuair. An bhfeiceann tú an lá, Audrey. Nuair a bheidh an Gaeilge mar theanga na tíre seo?

  7. I love that you took the time to write this Audrey! I’ve never really been exposed to the term Urban Irish, but I realize reading this article I’ve been exposed to Urban Irish itself. Love Ros na Rún too! And also love the comment about “pop,” “dude,” “y’all,” “might could” and “lads”. I’ve moved around the country too and been teased for soda, not saying y’all, and listening to the “wrong music”.

    As someone on the outside learning Irish too, and as someone who considers themselves adept with learning languages (and has even dabbled in linguistics) I have a few viewpoints as well. Not so much on Urban Irish itself, more on the language and languages in general. Maybe this is the wrong place to write it but I still feel compelled to comment.

    And also, I’ll be forthcoming that I don’t have the time to read everyone’s comments before producing a few of my own (though I will come back and read them at a later date).

    The first thing I’ve seen with every language learner is a perplexed initial look and out pops the question “why?”. People who already have the gist, generally find it’s easiest to say “Trust me, it’s just that way”. People who are native speakers (and have an interest in multiple languages) usually bridge the gap. Which at this point, it can then be shown that a language is evolving.

    I won’t really go into mistakes people make, I think this article and other comments will and have covered that.

    I will say though that over all the millennia languages are ever changing, flowing, borrowing, and language itself was once was described to me as fluid.

    I’ve read that all the words that start with P in Gaeilge are words borrowed from French (A View of the Irish Language edited by Brian Ó Cuív) however I have yet to find anyone who can explain how the word páiste came from French. Though it seems better likely the word gasúr came from French (gasúr deich mbliana).

    And what about how much Gaeilge has infiltrated English? Has anyone stopped to think about things the other way around? Stop and Gob are two of probably hundreds of examples.

    So honestly, I think about all this hogwash about English creeping in on Irish silly. I mean, English is THE trade language, isn’t that what is supposed to happen to all other languages of the world?

    Also, mistakes are made when learning any language. And I’m not saying it’s right to leave those well enough alone. I don’t think anyone who’s making a mistake wants to keep doing it. When we learn as children, someone is usually there to kindly correct or tease you and say “it’s cute” (either way makes you correct).

    I’ve found for years the most annoying thing to me is people saying words “wrong” in English. Often. In the dictionary it’s off-en. Not off-ten. But for so long people have said off-ten that I’ve learned from a linguist to “calm down, don’t you know that’s how languages actually migrate?”. And perhaps that’s where dialects bridge or start.

    In my Gaeilge class, the whole 20+ of us got into an arguing match over how to say something (and yes, we were learning all 3 dialects but it was mainly focused on Ulster). The thing that got me, was that our teacher was just sitting back and smiling. In the midst of all this I looked at her quizzically. And she laughed. The whole class quieted down, looked at her, then she leaned back and said quite loud, proud, and clear “Now yer all sound’n like the Irish!”

    Of all the languages I’ve learned (includes German, Spanish, and Japanese) Irish seems to be the most controversial. I can surmise a whole lot of reasons why, but I think the most important thing is that we are learning it.

    I could write a dissertation on this whole subject, but mainly I’ll close with this. When I first started learning Irish several years ago, people would ask “Why you learn’n a dead language?” Instead of going into my real reasons I would instead defend the Irish language. “Does a dead language have a word for high definition?”

  8. I don’t see most of the “problems” mentioned in this article as real problems,
    What you see as a problem surely must be a product of the value of what is being destroyed by it. If communication is the only issue why learn Irish at all? Most Irishmen don’t.
    Why is Irish worth preserving?
    If you want some way of impressing people you know something they don’t you might find a bigger community teaching yourself Klingon.
    If you want to impress people that you are a real Irishman, you will impress more by working on a great Brogue. {some people don’t even know Irish is a language ,and if they hear you talking it will assume you are just another foreigner}

    At the bottom of any motivation to learn a language is an attempt to learn of the culture. As Eoin and others say, “To know Ireland intimately”. The examples before mentioned, are but a few of the logics that can be bought to bare on just about any other motive.

    Assuming this argument to have currency, it follows that when changes happen in the language [word order or vocabulary],that originate from outside the culture, (a mid west american accent, or a newyourk rap idiom, for example), the language, and the reason for learning it is degraded.

    Of course the concomitant sadness is that, as is the case with Urban Ireland itself, the people of Ireland are evolving to be less Irish. If you study the anthropology, it makes sense that the language will follow and reflect the influences of the minds of those who are speaking it.
    Less words for green, more for Bricks, concrete, and buildings.
    Shillelagh will fall out of use, to be replaced by a word for flick knife. Not hard to see the end of that street. Probably impossible not to go down it though.
    At the end though, when Irish has no more beauty, content, or significance, than Klingon, There will be some remnant. Some syllable,or perhaps even a word. A word that when spoken, vibrates the air the same way it vibrated when however many thousands of years ago, it was first articulated by a distant ancestor. That is what i call significant. That is what i call a reason to learn and use any Irish you can.
    Until the last person……………
    is mise mehull