May 1, 2013 | Irish

Studying Irish

The first question: what to call it?

In recent months, when I have told people I will be studying Irish, I have gotten some confused looks.

An Irish Bar in Midtown. I believe the name means 'Land of Youth.'

An Irish Bar in Midtown. I believe the name means ‘Land of Youth.’

“Do you mean Gaelic?” I have been asked. Another question I have gotten is: “What’s the difference between that and Gaelic?” 

I was pretty sure “Irish” was the best term to describe my language-learning intention, but have not been well equipped to explain the terminology, so that’s where I will start now.

The language is referred to in three ways in English: “Irish,” “Irish Gaelic,” or just “Gaelic.” 

Gaelic is ambiguous, because there are three main versions of Gaelic. One is Scottish Gaelic, and one is Irish Gaelic, both of them living languages. The third is Manx Gaelic, spoken historically on the Isle of Man. The last native speaker of it died in 1974, but I have read it is being revived.

Scottish Gaelic and Irish Gaelic are closely related. I gather that a speaker of a Scottish Gaelic dialect and a speaker of an Irish Gaelic dialect would not at first necessarily understand each other, but that, if not, mutual intelligibility could be achieved without too much effort. 

At Barnes & Noble a few weeks back I almost bought a book on Gaelic, but then I noticed that the writer was from Scotland. I put the book back on the shelf, which I think was the correct choice given my wish to learn the Irish language. I imagine I am not the only would-be Irish student to be confused about language-learning materials in this way.

Anyway, if you are talking to someone outside Ireland, the easiest way to make clear what language you are studying is to use the term “Irish Gaelic,” but I have read that that’s really just to help people who don’t realize “Irish” can describe a language. People in Ireland would normally refer to just “Irish.”

I am open to corrections on any of these points, but this is what I have gathered to date on the question of terminology.

From here on out I will refer to the language as “Irish.”

Comments (6)

John Burton • Posted on Wed, June 12, 2013 - 1:09 pm EST

Hi Ellen

When I was in a gaeltacht in County Kerry, the proprietress of the B&B said that she understood girls speaking Scottish Gaelic (or what I think is usually called “Gaelic”) better than girls who came from Donegal.  As you know, the Munster, Donegal and Connacht dialects of Irish can be quite different.

You probably know this too, but there are two branches of the Celtic languages, Gaelic and Brythonic.  Irish and Scottish, along with the last speak of Manx who died in the 1970s (I think) are the Gaelic branch, while Welsh, Breton (now spoken in Brittany) and the last speaker of Cornish (died in the 1800s, or maybe I have that backwards) or the Brythonic branch.  Side by side, Irish and Welsh look almost completely different.

Robert Nielsen • Posted on Wed, July 02, 2014 - 12:10 pm EST

Hi Ellen, the easiest way to explain the difference is that everyone from Ireland calls it Irish and everyone else calls it Gaelic.

Claire • Posted on Tue, July 08, 2014 - 6:59 pm EST

Very belatedly catching up on your Irish language adventure. I’m an Irish teacher who travels a lot.

When I meet Americans the conversation usually goes like this:

Them: What do you do?
Me: I teach Irish.
Them: *confused scrunchy face*
Me: What you call Gaelic.
Them: Ahhhh

But at least Americans know a separate language exists. Some people think I teach people how to speak English with an Irish accent….

Ellen Jovin • Posted on Tue, July 08, 2014 - 8:16 pm EST

Hm, there are plenty of Americans who think that Irish is English with an Irish accent!

I loved your short play, Claire. Especially the “confused scrunchy face.” He he he.

Steve Pepper • Posted on Wed, December 03, 2014 - 10:20 am EST

I believe there’s a difference in pronunciation. Gaelic pronounced “gay-lick” means Irish Gaelic, Gaelic pronounced “gal-lick” means Scots Gaelic.

Ellen Jovin • Posted on Wed, December 03, 2014 - 9:18 pm EST

So interesting! Thank you, Steve!

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