Making the language up

The authoritative form of a language is that spoken by its native speakers. In most countries, this is not a controversial proposition, because in most countries the official language is widely spoken. In Ireland, the pretence remains that Irish is the official language. I say it is a pretence, as nearly all work in government departments is done through English, and in most cases it is done by people who couldn’t do it in any other language. The official working language is English.

However, for political reasons, the official language is stated as being Irish, and everything must be translated into Irish. The problem is that Irish is a language only spoken natively in small farming or fishing communities. If Irish had remained the language of all, then scientists, politicians, academics, journalists and others would all have had Irish as their first language, and the vocabulary needed for every sphere of life would have evolved naturally. But as this is not the case, vocabulary is being invented by a Coiste Téarmaíochta to fill the gaps.

Clunky terminology

Terms that are simply not needed, and therefore not found, in the Gaeltacht, are being concocted by the Coiste, which is part of a public-sector body, Foras na Gaeilge. A glance at their website ( shows the following terms now “exist”:

  • géarpholaifhréamhán-néarapaite dhímhiailinitheach athlastach: acute inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy
  • siondróm easpa imdhíonachta faighte: AIDS
  • eangach dhronuilleogach ilmhodúlach phleanála: rectangular multimodular planning grid
  • cáin ghnóthachan caipitiúil: capital gains tax
  • téacs réamhshocraithe: boilerplate
  • tuirse chomhbhá: compassion fatigue
  • claonbholscaire: spin doctor
  • ionadaíocht chionmhar: proportional representation
  • tógáil shóisialta na n-inscní: social construction of gender
  • féiniúlacht chorparáideach: corporate identity
  • liobraíochas: libertarianism
  • deicre: decking
  • comhdháil mhúscailte feasachta: awareness raising conference
  • frith-bhriochtchuarc: anti-charmed quark
  • ascalascóp ga-chatóideach: cathode-ray oscilloscope
  • tacaíocht trasphobail: cross-community support

Most of these are transparent inventions by non-native speakers in Dublin, often in defiance of the real meaning of words. For example, ínscne means “grammatical gender”, not biological sex, and so is just not correctly used above in any case. This matters because unlike English Irish does have grammatical gender, and there is the case of the noun cailín, which refers to females, but is grammatically masculine. Sex and gender can diverge in Irish. Most of the others are clearly not in use in any Irish-speaking community and would not be accepted. Then the final category are words that would be understood, but have been concocted in order to correspond to some kind of media catchphrase. For example, “compassion fatigue” is a hackneyed cliché in English, best avoided by good writers, and yet the Coiste Téarmaíochta has come up with an Irish equivalent. If English has a hackneyed cliché, Irish must have the equivalent cliché too. Tuirse means “tiredness”, so to my mind tuirse chomhbhá is only correct if the feeling of “compassion fatigue” involves a genuine physical exhaustion.

Conor Keane, a native speaker of Irish from the Galway Gaeltacht, has written of the development of what he calls Gobbledegaeilge, nonsense Irish that is used by officialdom to translate officialese:

 Most translated documents are converted to a clunky overdeveloped Gaeilge that is impenetrable for the majority of Irish speakers. One remembers the last Lisbon campaign where the booklet detailing the treaty provisions in Irish held the odd distinction of being more difficult to understand than the stilted English used in the original. We care little for the ‘Official Irish’ because it is not a natural form of the language we have lived with for hundreds of years. We normally use the English standards of forms and so on because they are easier to understand.

Even more damningly, Feargal Ó Béarra, also a native speaker of Irish and an academic working in NUI Galway, wrote of the incorrect terms made up by the Coiste Téarmaíochta:

 Much of the terminology being coined by terminologists in Ireland flouts some of the most basic rules of Traditional Late Modern Irish. Very often, it displays a total lack of understanding of the way the language works. The latest example I came across is the term for dental hygienist, i.e. sláinteolaí déadach. Now of course anyone who has heard of Fearghus Déadach or Dubhdhéadach will know that the word déadach means ‘having teeth’. So sláinteolaí déadach actually means a toothed hygienist. What we should expect is sláinteolaí fiacla with the noun fiacail being used to form a genitive plural with adjectival force. But as this concept does not exist in English it will not be found in Irish.

Despite, therefore, claiming the “authority” to coin terms, the Coiste Téarmaíochta has a clumsy approach to new terminology, with new terms being devised by non-native speakers with an inadequate grasp of the language. Following Ó Béarra’s intervention, the Coiste Téarmaíochta has changed its recommended translation of “dental hygienist” to sláinteolaí fiacla. While some assert that, owing to the Coiste’s “authority”, which should not be questioned, any alternatives are “incorrect”, the Coiste clearly can be embarrassed into improving its translations from time to time.

Should native speakers do the coining of new terms?

Had Irish remained the first language of most Irish people, they would have used Irish terms for everything. English officialese is similarly clunky, but people who don’t speak any other language than English don’t have any option other than to say “cathode-ray oscilloscope” if that is the meaning they intend to convey. We might groan at some of the Greek and Latin origins of these terms, but there are no alternatives. Surely, if Irish were spoken by everyone in Ireland, terms as clunky as those devised by the Coiste Téarmaíochta would be being used by everyone in Ireland for things like VAT, beef premiums, alternating current and the like. The Plain English Campaign exists because clunky English terminology is not appreciated by all, but at least terms like “cathode-ray oscilloscope” were devised by native speakers of English to begin with and are in daily use by native speakers of English working in the appropriate fields.

However, the fact that all languages have clunky modern jargon does not change the fact that Irish is spoken as a native language by a small and dwindling population of people who are all bilingual. They pepper their speech with English words. Where Irish terms weren’t even made up by native speakers in the first place, they are simply wrong unless and until adopted in native speech. If cáin ghnóthachan caipitiúil has been adopted into the natural speech of the Gaeltacht—and it is likely a similar term would have been so adopted had Irish remained the only language of most Irishmen—then it has become native Irish. If the native speech of the Gaeltacht drops into English to utter the phrase “capital gains tax”, then cáin ghnóthachan caipitiúil has no validity as an Irish term. I personally have not conducted research into what is said in the Gaeltacht for “capital gains tax”, but the principle I am advancing should be clear.

Gaeltacht speakers should exclusively staff the Coiste Téarmaíochta, so that if terms are to be coined, they will be coined well and coined in line with the rules of the language and the correct meanings of words. But what if terms are coined by native speakers, but not frequently found in Gaeltacht speech? This is an interesting question, because some would argue that the speech of the tigh tábhairne, the conversational language of those native speakers in the Gaeltacht who do not read and write the language much, cannot be expected to provide authoritative modern terms, and we ought to look to new coinages, novels and longer writings by Gaeltacht natives who are engaged to a greater degree in the creation and use of a wider range of modern terms. An example that is sometimes given is that Niall Ó Dónaill was in favour of “modernism”, including the creation of new terms. I have also read that Máirtín Ó Cadhain was not afraid to use new words, including those he borrowed from Scottish Gaelic.

In the context of studying Munster Irish, the works of younger Gaeltacht writers such as Pádraig Ó Ciobháin may provide a wider range of vocabulary from which to draw native Irish words and phrases. It makes sense to base the Irish that learners aim to imitate on the Irish of the best Gaeltacht speakers. But to the extent that such writings contain new coinages, it is still worth considering the question of the wider adoption of such terms. For example, many words entered the English language through the works of William Shakespeare: by being accepted, they changed the language. But where Thomas Cromwell, who compiled the 16th-century Book of Common Prayer, attempted to concoct the word immarcescible, meaning “never-fading” in the context of immarcescible crowne of glory, the word failed to gain wider currency. Consequently, even were the Coiste Téarmaíochta purely staffed by native speakers of Irish from the Gaeltacht, it would still be a relevant consideration the extent to which terms were being made up but then not adopted into use by the community of native speakers, but only used by translators in the Galltacht.

There is a difficulty here, as most native speakers of Irish, as Feargal Ó Béarra pointed out in his article, do not read Irish. The Irish language—at the native end of the Irish-using community, at least—has become more or less a purely spoken language. While not totally so, as there are Gaeltacht novelists, it is largely so. There is a mismatch, therefore, between the spoken language of the Gaeltacht and the written, official language found in the artifical so-called Standard. Where native speakers hardly ever read or write a language, the language quickly loses an official register of speech, a register that the Coiste Téarmaíochta is clearly trying to summon into existence for the purposes of official translation. The reason why native speakers might drop into English for certain phrases is that those phrases belong to the official register, a register of language that is better known to them through English. In other languages, including English, new coinages, devised by native speakers, are spread through the written word, with the Bible, Shakespeare and the Book of Common Prayer playing a key role in that process in the English language at one point, with literature and newspapers playing a similar role in the modern day. (At one point, it looked as if Peadar Ua Laoghaire’s works would establish a native Irish standard, but his works have nearly all been allowed to go out of print.) If native speakers in the Gaeltacht don’t read Irish, then new words cannot spread too far. Even where modernist writers in the Gaeltacht do coin words, they are unlikely to be taken up by many. This limits the ability of Gaeltacht modernists to develop the language, leaving everything in the hands of the Coiste Téarmaíochta in the Galltacht.

The importance of Gaeltacht use of words and phrases

Gaeltacht usage is everything. That is all there is to it. This is because the spoken language of the Gaeltacht is the only real register of native use of the language. Many words in Irish—as in every other language—were artificially introduced, including the word cigire, which resulted from a misinterpretation long ago—but as long as the word has been adopted in the native speech of the Gaeltacht, it is good to use now. Of course, Gaeltacht use varies over time, and Peadar Ua Laoghaire’s opposition to the use of ball in the meaning of “member” has probably given way to frequent use of this word in this meaning in native Irish. As long as it is in use in native Irish, then the word is good. All other considerations are irrelevant.

Clearly, the Gaeltacht communities do vary one from the other, and they are farflung, and so the terms that have been adopted in natural speech are likely to vary. Primary research is required into Gaeltacht speech in the various communities. I was told in Múscraí that there is no such word as deicre—that is just a made-up term and the word used is just “decking”. Similarly, I was told in Múscraí, “aftershave lotion” is precisely that—and not lóis iarbheárrtha. It would be interesting to know if these terms are in native use in the Connemara. If they are, then they must be accepted as good Irish terms; if they are not, then they are just not. Similarly, the term for “microwave oven” is not oigheann micreathonnach in the Gaeltacht.

Another important point that learners fail to notice is the way in which as Gaelainn is used in Irish. As Gaelainn refers to the spoken language; i nGaelainn is of wider reference, including both the spoken and written languages. This is one area of syntax where usage in the Galltacht appears to be replacing the natural usage of the Gaeltacht (and subsequently influencing the Irish of younger and weaker speakers in the Gaeltacht itself). Abair as Gaelainn é! Scríbh i nGaelainn é!: these are the correct forms. With labhairt, it is much better to say labhair Gaelainn than labhair as Gaelainn, labhair i nGaelainn or even labhair an Ghaelainn. Yet the preferences of learners seem to have the upper hand in Ireland today.

Numerous terms are also found at much greater frequencies in officialese than in native speech, but are still valid Irish terms and could be recommended for a written register of Irish. Look at these for example:

  • teaghlach: family
  • tuismitheóirí: parents
  • garmhac: grandson
  • forbairt: development

These words correspond to modern concepts. Teaghlach is a good Irish word, meaning “household”. The nuclear family, as such, was not a traditional Irish concept. Muiríon would refer to the “burden” of dependents a man had. Líon tí would refer to all the people under one roof. None of these words corresponds exactly to the nuclear family, but all may be used in various contexts, and teaghlach would seem the most appropriate one for use in official contexts. However, made-up terms like teaghlach núicléach for “nuclear family” aim to replicate English clichés. If they are in common use in the Gaeltacht, then they are right. Clann is found in the Galltacht for “family”, but only refers to children or offspring in native Irish (clann mhac, “sons”).

Tuismitheóirí was attested in Dinneen’s dictionary and so is not a new coinage, but the word fundamentally means “originators, progenitors” and is glossed by Lambert McKenna as a Connacht word. Do mhuíntir is a much better word for your parents in Irish; you could also say t’athair agus do mháthair. In official contexts, tuismitheóirí seems advisable, but once again this word can be overused. Garmhac is also an old word, but mac mic and clann clainne would seem much better in conversational Irish.

Forbairt is an awkward word, as it has been introduced to translate, on a one-for-one basis, “development” in English. Its fundamental meaning is “growth, increase”, and so the meaning has been extended to cover “development”. Forbairt isn’t wrong, but saothrú and saothrúchán cover most of the intended meanings (“the development of the Irish language”, saothrú na Gaelainne; “development fund”, given in McKenna’s Foclóir Béarla & Gaedhilge as ciste fás shaothrúcháin). It is worth adding that examples of the use of forbairt in the Royal Irish Academy’s Corpas na Gaelainne 1600-1882 mainly contain the phrase d’fhás agus d’fhorbair. Claims that a finite verb exists with forms such as forbraím (present), d’fhorbair mé (past), d’fhorbraínn (past habitual), forbróidh mé (future), d’fhorbróinn (conditional) and go bhforbraí mé (present subjunctive) need to be checked against corpuses of Gaeltacht Irish usage. I would argue that aside from d’fhorbair, forbairt and forbartha, all other forms of this verb should be avoided. An example is d’fhorbrófaí córais, found on an EU website: this would be much better as do déanfí córais a dh’fhorbairt (or do chur ar bun, avoiding the modern use of forbairt as a transitive verb). (I am personally unsure if córas is correctly used in the plural, as the word means “system/systems, arrangements” anyway, but this is a separate question.)

Similarly, no attempt should be made to avoid terms that mirror English if they are used in the Gaeltacht. They may reflect English influence over the centuries, but if they are the natural terms used by native speakers of Irish—as opposed to the Béarlachas of weak learners thereof—they are the correct terms. For example, Peadar Ua Laoghaire used these:

  • déanamh amach: to make out (what something is)
  • fáil amach: to find out (who someone is)
  • duine ’ chur suas chuige: to put someone up to it
  • fáil dul ann: to get to go there (cé ’ gheóbhadh dul ann?)
  • cur suas le: to put up with
  • cimeád suas le: to keep up with
  • iompáil amach: to turn out (a certain way)
  • féachaint rómhat chun an lae: to look forward to the day
  • slí ’ thógaint suas: to take up space
  • déanamh suas le: to make up for (some lack)

I found the following in the stories of Amhlaoibh Ó Loingsigh:

  • críochnú suas: to finish up (conclude)
  • tu féin a fháil ollamh: to get yourself ready

Clearly, what is good Irish is therefore dependent on a detailed knowledge of the spoken language of the Gaeltacht. Most individual people do not have the resources to investigate Gaeltacht speech. The Coiste Téarmaíochta do, but choose instead to make up their own vocabulary. As Ó Béarra said in his article, this serves the needs of the translation industry, which has become a public-sector vested interest that is now opposed to traditional Irish and the language of the Gaeltacht communities.

On email forums such as that run by, translators frequently ask for recommended translations of abstruse terms unlikely to exist in the real language. Recent examples on that forum have included “VRT Export Refunds” and “quantum entanglements”, neither of which has any equivalent in the natural Irish of the Irish-speaking communities. In answering queries relating to the translation of such terms, discussion of the gap between Gaeltacht Irish and that used by translators in the Galltacht has been ruled off-topic on that list. Most translators on such lists seem to be aggressively and vituperatively opposed to Gaeltacht Irish, easily provoked to sudden fury if it be pointed out that the terminology they are suggesting has no currency in the Irish-speaking community. To answer a query on the translation of an odd phrase by examining what the native Irish speakers might say is, apparently, unacceptable, so far has the translation industry come from any connection with the real language. In another context, these translators might wax lyrical over the role of British rule in eroding the Irish language, while overlooking their own contempt for native Irish and the role of their made-up Standard in weakening the language in the Gaeltacht.

Claims that all English terms must have an Irish equivalent are false; there are entire subject areas the technical vocabulary of which cannot be put into Irish. It seems that translated nonsense is being churned out in great quantities, using made-up terminology and with nary a peer review, by people whose main aim is to corner public spending for themselves. Apparently, their livelihoods depend on there being an Irish phrase meaning “VRT Export Refunds”. Consequently, anyone who suggests there is no natural phrase in Irish for this is seen as attacking their professional and financial interests as translators.

The best approach to unusual terms that would certainly not be found in any Irish equivalent in the Gaeltacht is to use the English word in italics. In English, words like “restaurant” and “façade” entered the language in this way. After long usage, they seem to have been nativised and italics are no longer used for those terms. Similarly, any English word that is nativised by natural usage in the Gaeltacht and thereby adapted to Irish grammatical patterns can be accepted. Words like neoidríonó, which have never been used once by a single native speaker, simply display a pretense of nativisation—apparently even plurals such as neoidríonónna are adduced on for such non-words. It can even be declined in all the cases. If you ever need to say, “ye lovely neutrinos!” in the vocative plural, the Coiste Téarmaíochta will tell you it will be a neoidríonónna breátha! The word has genitive singular and plural too, but no dative, as the dative has been retired in Standardised Irish. The fact that detailed forms of a word that has never existed are being made up will not concern the Coiste. Yet the correct way of writing about neutrinos in Irish is simply to accept that the word relates to a concept that is not Gaelic and to acknowledge that no particle physics has ever been done in the Gaeltacht. Neutrino in italics it is, then. Any other approach is simply incorrect. I would urge the people paying for these translations to demand their money back. They have been sold a pig in a poke!


3 thoughts on “Making the language up

  1. Your final paragraph essentially outlines the system I see most frequently in Gaeltacht novels. Take for example Maidhc Dainín Ó Sé’s novel Punt Isló (2013), we find “conscription”, “designer” (in the sense of designer clothes) “boss” and other such words in italics. Nativised English words such as boiler are not italicised and are instead found as “badhlaeir”. Interestingly enough, I have found that words from other languages (commonly French, Spanish, Italian or German) are often not italicised.
    Also even non-nativised words are subject to lenition and eclipses e.g. “mo bhoss”, “i bhFocke Wulf 200”.

  2. This is really eye-opening for me, an American of Irish descent, learning the language here in America. has been one of my go-to sites for difficult terms (and many not-so-difficult ones!) for some time. It only makes sense, what you are putting forth here, though. It’s easy for someone in my position to feel stuck in the middle of this debate, not really knowing whose Irish to use, where to get information, or whether that information is going to be accepted everywhere. I suppose my job is to use my best judgement and be open to suggestions on proper usage, especially when in the Gaeltacht!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s