May 25, 2013 | Irish

I Can Now Use an Irish Dictionary

Yes, it took me more than three weeks, but who's counting?

Irish may use the Roman alphabet, but looking up a word in an Irish dictionary is not a simple matter.

You need to know something about the language before you can make a reasonable go of it. That’s because the beginnings of words are constantly changing, based on things like gender, and number, and case (how the word is used in a sentence), and the nature of preceding words.

Collins Pocket Irish Dictionary: I Am Taking This for a Spin

Collins Pocket Irish Dictionary: I Am Taking This for a Spin

For example, in English an apple is really just an apple. Okay, fine, you also have your apples (plural), apple’s (singular possessive), and apples’ (plural possessive), but the apple remains conspicuous and at the forefront of all of those forms. 

Even if you had no idea what an apple was, you could, upon seeing any of those forms in print, go find “apple” in an English dictionary and advance your understanding of a given English sentence containing one of those forms.

Dictionary use in both English and Irish is based on alphabetical order. In English that’s easy. But in Irish, it creates challenges, since the starting letters of words are often mucking about with you. In Irish, an apple is not necessarily an apple. At least not in the way you might expect.

The basic Irish word for apple is úll, and if you look that up in a dictionary under u, no problem: you will find your apple there, just where you expected it to be. So if you had come across the phrase úll an mhúinteora “the teacher’s apple” (is my Irish translation correct, dear Irish speakers?) and you had wondered about the úll, you would be in good shape. (Locating the teacher would be harder, but let’s set teachers aside for a moment and stick to apples.)

Now, suppose your first encounter with Irish apples is not in a translation of “the teacher’s apple,” but rather, in one of these phrases:

  • an t-úll = the apple 
  • praghas an úill = the price of the apple
  • dath na n-úll = the color of the apples
  • na húlla = the apples

You won’t find an apple in a dictionary under t, nor will you find one under n, nor will you find one under h, nor will you find one under a starting combination of úi, as in the second bulleted phrase.

Úll, Sometimes

Úll, Sometimes

You have to know enough grammar to understand the mutations, subtract any tacked-on letters from your word, and look it up under the correct basic combination of letters.

That means you need to understand genitive and various other grammatical points before you launch a dictionary expedition. Otherwise you might find yourself stranded on a desert island in a sea of totally wrong letters.

Warning: Google Translate seems to do a particularly bad job with Irish. It didn’t agree with any of my bulleted translations above, so I went to the Irish Language Forum to check them before posting here. A forum member was kind enough to point out a mistake I had made, but I can report that I did way better than Google!

And another thing: Google Translate offers pronunciation assistance for many languages, but not for Irish. Try the online dictionary Focló for English-to-Irish translations and pronunciations of individual words. Although the website is still a work in progress (meaning incomplete), I have found it quite helpful.

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