Archive for the Irish Language Category

Lá Saoire i mí Mheitheamh

Posted in Biographical, Irish Language on June 5, 2023 by telescoper

Today has been (and indeed continues to be) the June Bank Holiday (Lá Saoire i mí Mheitheamh) in Ireland. It is the equivalent of the usual May Bank Holiday in the UK in that both have their origin in the old festival of Whitsuntide (or Pentecost) which falls on the 7th Sunday after Easter. Because the date of Easter moves around in the calendar so does Whit Sunday, but it is usually in late May or early June. Here in Ireland the Bank Holiday is always on the first Monday in June whereas on the other side of the Irish Sea it is on the last Monday in May.

Anyway, in a break with tradition, we have had and still are having lovely weather over the holiday long weekend. It’s not exactlly a heatwave, but as I write the temperature is a pleasant 20° C. It being warm last night, I thought it would be nice to light a big candle and sit out in the garden for a bit with a glass of wine, but I was beset by moths and had to come back inside. My concern is that the garden is bone dry, especially considering it is early June. The lawn is looking parched. Some of the plants in my garden are also struggling a bit because of the lack of rain but some others seem to be thriving so much they’re crowding out the ones that prefer the more normal damper conditions.

The Scarlet Firethorn – so called because it produces bright red berries – is growing like wildfire as well as flowering profusely. The flowers are nice, but I think past their peak so when they’re done I’ll take some remedial action. The other plants are basically wild flowers, which I like having in the garden as they tend to be rather robust. The long green leaves in the first two pictures are Montbretia, which produced bright red flowers later in the summer, and which is grown from bulbs.

My rear garden is enclosed by high walls but gets the sun in the morning, so I’ve been having breakfast and lunch out there for the last several days.

Anyway, it’s back to work tomorrow for our Departmental Examination Board so I’ll take it easy for the rest of the day off. After all, I’m an old man now…

Tá mé sa bhaile – Biden’s Irish

Posted in Irish Language, Politics with tags , , , , , , on April 14, 2023 by telescoper


Yesterday, President of the United States of America, Joe Biden, addressed a joint sitting of the houses of Oireachtas in Dublin. Predictably he included an attempt at Irish in his speech to the obvious appreciation of those attending. I was a bit confused by the way what he said was reported in the Irish media, however, e.g.

My confusion was that I didn’t think he said tá mé seo abhaile as widely reported. For one thing, even I as a beginner could see that phrase means “I am this home”, which doesn’t make any sense (not to me, anyway). There are various possibilities for what Joe Biden did say. For what it’s worth I thought it was tá mé sa bhaile which, loosely, means “I am at home”. I note that the news media have generally changed their accounts (e.g. here) to reflect this, although other forms of words are possible. I’m not surprised that Biden struggled with the pronunciation – most of us beginners do, but I think the writers and editors of the newspapers above might at least have corrected his grammar.

The phrase illustrates a couple of interesting curiosities about the Irish language. Expressing the verb “to be” in Irish isn’t as straightforward as it is English. There are two grammatically distinct ways of doing this. The two Irish forms are , which is like the English verb “to be” and the so-called copula, is, which is sometimes called a defective verb. It’s admittedly a bit confusing that the copula looks like the third-person singular of the verb “to be” in English, but there you go.

Going back to, it is frequently referred to as tá (its present tense form as in the phrase above). It can be fully conjugated in all tenses and persons but it is highly irregular. Grammatically, is also just like any other verb, coming first in the sentence, followed by a subject (either a separate noun or pronoun or a suffix, depending on the tense and person, as shown in the conjugations), and then its predicate and any remaining adverbial information. Thus tá mé is “I am” with the pronoun . The accents (síneadh fada)  mean that this is pronounced taw-may.

The copula, however, is not fully conjugated for different subjects, which are always expressed by separate nouns or pronouns, and it only has two forms for different tenses: is can be used for present or future meaning, and ba (with lenition) is used for past or conditional meanings.

Among the specific situations in which the copular is must be used instead of but the main one is to be followed by a noun. You can’t say “I am a Professor” using – it has to be Is Ollamh – but to say “I am old” it is Tá mé sean.

One final remark. If you’re scared of pronouns please look away now. There are over 120 different pronouns in the Irish language. There’s a special version of the pronoun written mise which has two uses that I am aware of. One is when the copular is used for identification – so “I am Peter” is Is mise Peadar – and the other is for emphasis, when it is roughly equivalent to “myself” in English.

P.S. The Irish word for “pedantry” is pedantraí

Nollaig na mBan

Posted in Irish Language, Literature with tags , , , on January 6, 2023 by telescoper

Today is January 6th, which is Epiphany in the Church calendar, Twelfth Night, usually the day the Christmas decorations came down when I was a kid, and here in Ireland a day known as Nollaig na mBan (Women’s Christmas).  You can read more about the origin of this Irish tradition here.

This allows me an excuse to be a grammar bore yet again. The Irish word for “woman” is bean, which has the plural form Ban; na  is the corresponding definite article. However, in the phrase  Nollaig na mBan, “women” is in the genitive case (Christmas of the women) and the B therefore undergoes lenition to become m. This sort initial consonant mutation is very common in the Irish language. Instead of being pronunced “ban” the word for women is therefore spoken as “man”. Fortunately, the written language is kind in that it leaves the unmodified consonant in place, hence mBan.

I was also reminded today that 6th January (in 1914) was the date of the gathering described in James Joyce’s wonderful short story The Deadthe last, the longest, and the best of the collection Dubliners, which I thoroughly recommend if you haven’t read it yet. It’s an ideal gateway into Joyce’s writing:

Nollaig na mBan shona daoibh go léir!

Nolan, Moran and Schwa…

Posted in Biographical, Irish Language with tags , , on January 2, 2023 by telescoper

This Bank Holiday afternoon I’ve been pottering about at home and listening to The Full Score on RTÉ Lyric FM, which is presented by Liz Nolan. I like this programme because it consists of performances of full works rather than bits and pieces extracted from longer compositions (“bleeding chunks” as my music teacher at school used to call them). Unfortunately this programme is broadcast on weekday afternoons so I can’t listen to it often except when I’m off work.

The presenter’s surname Nolan made me reflect on how many Irish surnames end with –an. Other examples aside from Nolan include Regan, Keegan, Dolan, Coogan, Behan, Whelan and Moran. In Ireland these are all pronounced with a stress on the first syllable, as they are in English pronunciation, but curiously English people usually pronounce the last with a stress on the second syllable, i.e. Mor-AN. I’ve been pulled up for doing this on more than one occasion. Here in Ireland it’s not Mor-AN but MOR-an. A little googling suggests that the English version is influenced by the French name Morant rather than the original Gaelic Ó Móráin.

Anyway this line of thought took me to the realization that the vowel in an unstressed final syllable such as in Nolan is a very indistinct sound. You could almost put any vowel in there and get the same sound: “Nolan” could easily be transcribed as “Nolon” or “Nolun” etc if the second syllable is not stressed.

Then I realized that linguists, specifically those who study phonetics and phonology, have been there long before me. There is a name for the indistinct vowel sound in such cases: it is called schwa and is denoted by the character ə. Schwa sits right in the middle of the vowel chart. Produced when the lips and tongue are completely relaxed, it’s neither an open nor a closed vowel but something in between. It’s actually quite a common sound in English, though it’s taken me almost 60 years to discover its name! – and exists in many other languages too.

The Week(s) Ahead

Posted in Biographical, Education, Irish Language with tags , , on November 6, 2022 by telescoper

So here we are then. The study break is over. Tomorrow we resume teaching. Six weeks of the semester gone. Another six to go. I didn’t do half the things I meant to do last week but at least I’m not behind with teaching things. I should be able to cover everything I need to cover in the second half without having to speed up too much. That’s the hope anyway.

Over the weekend I’ve been thinking a bit about my social media strategy, if you can call it that. It seems Elon Musk has realized that Twitter isn’t worth a fraction of what he paid for it, and is worth even less now that advertisers are fleeing, so has decided to recoup at least some of his losses by giving priority to anyone who wants to pay $8 a month so they can broadcast whatever they like withouyt moderation. The famous “blue tick” will no longer even mean a verified user, just someone willing to pay to shout at everyone else. Musk is also in the process of sacking about half his workforce.

I’m not going to pay anything to the Chief Twit and don’t like the way Twitter is going anyway so I’ve decided that I will indeed move to Mastodon, which I quite like, and where you can find me here. I don’t have a huge Twitter following so migrating to Mastodon is no big deal for me. I see many thousands I know on Twitter and many more I don’t are doing likewise.

Posts from this blog are automatically sent to Twitter and I won’t stop doing that, but I won’t be logging on there much except from time to time to block anyone I see who has a blue tick on their profile…

Anyway, in other news, the forthcoming week also sees me resume my feeble attempts to learn the Irish language, so it’s possible I may be boring you all with updates over the next few weeks and months. You have been warned.

Study Break Time

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19, Education, Irish Language, Maynooth with tags , , , , on October 29, 2022 by telescoper

Yesterday my Vector Calculus students gave me the above Hallowe’en gift, which was nice of them, although I did chastise them for missing the apostrophe. Of course Hallowe’en itself is not until Monday, but that is a Bank Holiday in Ireland and the rest of next week is Study Week so there are no lectures or tutorials.

Hallowe’en is, in pagan terminology, Samhain. This, a cross-quarter day – roughly halfway between the Autumnal Equinox and the Winter Solstice, represents the start of winter (“the dark half of the year“) in the Celtic calendar. Samhain is actually November 1st but in Celtic tradition the day begins and ends at sunset, so the celebrations begin on the evening of 31st.

Incidentally, Samhain is pronounced something like “sawin”. The h after the m denotes lenition of the consonant (which in older forms of Irish would have been denoted by a dot on top of the m) so when followed by a broad vowel the m is pronounced like the English “w”; when followed by a slender vowel or none “mh” is pronounced “v” or in other words like the German “w” (which makes it easier to remember). I only mention this because I will be resuming my Irish language education after the break with classes every week for the rest of the academic year. Hopefully I’ll make some progress.

This term has been very tiring so far. I have to teach a very big first-year class this year which meant adding another tutorial group. Although I stepped down as Head of Department at the end of August the powers that be delayed appointing a replacement until well into term which caused a lot of unnecessary stress for everyone. Once we got under way, though, everything has settled down reasonably well.

One thing I was a bit worried about this term was that the resumption of in-person teaching would lead to a surge in Covid-19 cases, not only in Maynooth but across the country. However there isn’t any evidence of significant increases in the latest figures (updated weekly nowadays, on Wednesdays):

Some students have come down with Covid-19 of course but not in the numbers I had feared. Also despite accommodation shortages and other difficulties, attendance at lectures and tutorials has so far held up well.

I like having the study break. I’ve never previously worked at an institution that has such a thing, but I think 12 weeks of non-stop teaching would be extremely exhausting. Anyway, after the break we have a further six weeks of teaching until December 16th, which is the official end of term, but for now I have Monday off completely and the rest of the week without teaching duties. That’s not to say I’ll be on holiday though. I have a number of tasks to catch up on, including setting examination papers for January…

Rainy Season

Posted in Biographical, Cricket, Irish Language with tags , , , , on September 30, 2022 by telescoper

Yesterday saw the end of this year’s County Championship cricket season*, which many people regard as the official end of summer. As if to prove the point today, strong westerly winds have brought a deluge of rain all morning.

While I was waiting for my coffee to brew before venturing out into the rain this morning I was thinking about some idiomatic expressions for heavy rain. The most familiar one in English is Raining Cats and Dogs which, it appears, originated in a poem by Jonathan Swift that ends with the lines:

Drowned puppies, stinking sprats, all drenched in mud,
Dead cats and turnip tops come tumbling down the flood.

My French teacher at school taught me the memorable if slightly indelicate Il pleut comme vache qui pisse, although there are other French expressions involving, among other things nails, frogs and halberds.

One of my favourites is the Welsh Mae hi’n bwrw hen wragedd a ffyn which means, bizarrely, “It’s raining old ladies and sticks”. There is also Mae hi’n bwrw cyllyll a ffyrc – “It’s raining knives and forks”.

Related idiomatic expressions in Irish are constructed differently. There isn’t a transitive verb meaning “to rain” so there is no grammatical way to say “it rains something”. The way around this is to use a different verb to represent, e.g., throwing. For example Tá sé ag caitheamh sceana gréasaí which means “It’s throwing cobblers’ knives”.

Talking (of) cobblers, I note that in Danish there is Det regner skomagerdrenge – “It’s raining shoemakers’ apprentices” and in Germany Es regnet Schusterjungs – “It’s raining cobblers’ boys”.

Among the other strange expressions in other languages are Está chovendo a barba de sapo (Portuguese for “It’s raining toads’ beards”), Пада киша уби миша (Serbian for “It’s raining and killing mice”),  Det regner trollkjerringer (Norwegian for “It’s raining female trolls”) and Estan lloviendo hasta maridos (Spanish for “It is even raining husbands”).

No sign of any husbands outside right now so I’ll get back to work. My PhD student is giving a seminar this afternoon so I have to think of some difficult questions to ask her! (Joking).

*For the record I should mention that Glamorgan drew their last game of the County Championship against Sussex (at Hove) and thus finished in 3rd place in Division 2. They might have beaten Middlesex to second place had they won and Middlesex lost their final matches but in the end both games were high scoring draws. Glamorgan lost to Middlesex in feeble style a couple of weeks ago so I think it was fair outcome.

Tywysog and Taoiseach

Posted in History, Irish Language with tags , , , , on September 12, 2022 by telescoper

When I heard that King Charles III has conferred the title “Prince of Wales, Tywysog Cymru”, on his eldest son and heir William, I was intrigued by the appearance of the Welsh word Tywysog because of its similarity to the Irish word Taioseach. There aren’t that many words that sound so similar in Welsh and Irish because the two language groups to which they belong diverged in the distant past. Their similarity suggests to me a common etymology that pre-dates the development of the two distinct branches of the Celtic languages that we now refer to as Goidelic and Brythonic. There isn’t any literature to go on, as ancient Celtic languages were primarily oral, but the theory is that both words are derived from a Proto-Celtic form towissākos.

The Goidelic group comprises Irish, Manx and Scottish Gaelic; and the Brythonic group comprises Welsh, Cornish and Breton. These are sometimes referred to as q-Celtic and p-Celtic, respectively, although not everyone agrees that is a useful categorization. It stems from the fact that the “q” in Indo-European languages morphed into a “p” in the Brythonic languages. The number five in Irish is a cúig which has a q sound (though there is no letter q in the Irish alphabet); five in Welsh is pump. Contrast with the number two: a dó in Irish and dau in Welsh.

Incidentally, Scottish Gaelic is not the language spoken by the Picts, the Celtic people who lived in Scotland at the time of the Romans, which is lost. Scottish Gaelic is actually descended from Middle Irish due to migration and trading contacts. The Ulster dialect of Irish is in turn much influenced by reverse migration from Scotland. Languages do not evolve in isolation or in any simple linear trajectory.

Contrary to popular belief, Breton is not a Continental Celtic language but was taken to Brittany by a mass migration of people, which peaked in the 6th Century AD, from South-West Britain, fleeing the Anglo-Saxons. The Saxons won a great victory in battle at Dyrham (near Bath) in 577 after which they advanced through Somerset and Devon, splitting the Celts of Cornwall and Wales and leading to the formation of two distinct Brythonic language groups, Welsh and Cornish. Breton is much closer to Cornish than it is to Welsh.

The Continental Celtic languages are all extinct, except for fascinating remnants that linger here and there in local dialect words in French and Spanish.

Anyway, both modern words tywysog and taioseach originally meant “leader”. In Scots Gaelic, tòiseach was the name given to a clan chief; the Irish taioseach had a similar usage. The capitalized form “Taioseach” has only been used for the Head of the Irish Government since 1937 when the name was introduced in the Constitution. It was remarked at the time that An Taoiseach – the equivalent of Prime Minister – has the same literal meaning as “Il Duce” or “Die Führer“…

The last native Welsh Tywysog was Owain Glyndŵr after whose demise in c1415 the title was appropriated by the English monarchy no doubt as part of its rigorous suppression of Welsh identity. The term doesn’t actually mean “Prince” and the “Prince of Wales” is certainly not a leader. If anything the word should be applied to the First Minister of Wales, an office currently held by Mark Drakeford.

P.S. The presence of the “e” in taioseach indicates that the “s” is pronounced like “sh” (as in “Seán”) so the word should not be pronounced “tea sock”…


The Perfect Afters

Posted in Irish Language with tags , on June 18, 2022 by telescoper

When I first arrived in Ireland, one thing I noticed about the way Irish people use the English language is a construction using the word “after” and the present participle of a verb. I first heard it in the context of a football match on the television, actually, during which the commentator said “the ball is after going out for a corner” or words to that effect.

This construction is basically an alternative way of constructing what is called in Latin called (past) perfect tense of a verb, indicating an action which is now completed. In Latin this would be formed by a particular ending of the verb but when translated into English it would either be a simple past verb form (usually ending in -ed) or using the auxiliary verb “to have”. For instance, in the football example above you would interpret the meaning as “the ball has gone out for a corner” or the “the ball went out for a corner”.

(Now I’m regretting using the irregular verb “to go” in the football example but I hope you catch my drift…)

The “after” construction is not just an alternative way of writing the past tense, however, as it can (and usually does) specifically imply an action that has been completed in the very recent past, something you might express in English by inserting the word “just”. This is sometimes called the immediate perfective. It can also be used to form the pluperfect tense (expressing an action already completed at some time in the past) by using the past of the verb “to be”, though in modern Irish it seems to be more-or-less exclusively used for actions only recently completed.

Examples include:

  • He is after writing a letter – He has (just) written a letter
  • I’m only after getting here – I’ve just got here
  • He was after walking the dog – He had walked the dog
  • I’m after reading James Joyce’s Ulysses for the second time – I have just read James Joyce’s Ulysses for the second time…

In the book English As We Speak It In Ireland, the author P.W. Joyce writes that no such form ‘would be understood by an Englishman, although they are universal in Ireland, even among the higher and educated classes’.

It’s certainly the case that I didn’t really understand it when I first heard it, but I have heard it used on countless occasions by friends and neighbours since then. I think I was initially confused because “he is after..” can appear in English. phrases such “he is after a new job” expressing something like “looking for” (i.e. with intent) but that is not suggested in the examples above.

I think poll my readers on this, which will probably demonstrate how few Irish readers I have. If someone were to say “I’m after getting a cup of tea” would this mean:

It’s reasonable to wonder how this construction came about. The answer is that in Irish the verb “to be” is very peculiar, existing in two distinct forms, and there is no direct equivalent of the verb “to have” as it is used in the formation of verb tenses in English. There is a simple past in Irish that basically works like the English equivalent but tenses involving “have” or “had” as an auxiliary verb are impossible to render word for word. For example, translating I have just done it into Irish could give you  Tá mé tar éis é a dhéanamh or Tá mé i ndiaidh é a dhéanamh, both of which literally mean I am after doing it. (Tá mé means “I am” and the underlined phrases essentially mean after).

I suppose you can think of this interesting construction as being a relic of the Irish language surviving after the imposition of English on the population. Whatever its origins, though, I’m after concluding that this construction, although not standard in British English, is perfectly sound from a grammatical point of view.

Finally, and incidentally, the lack of an appropriate verb “to have” causes some other interesting expressions in Irish. One of my favourites is exemplified by the phrase “I have a cold” which, translated into Irish is “Tá slaghdán orm” which means, literally, “A cold is on me”…

Anyway, I’m after finishing.

Lá Saoire i mí Mheitheamh

Posted in Biographical, Irish Language, Maynooth on June 6, 2022 by telescoper

Today has been (and indeed continues to be) the June Bank Holiday (Lá Saoire i mí Mheitheamh) in Ireland. It is the equivalent of the usual May Bank Holiday in the UK in that both have their origin in the old festival of Whitsuntide (or Pentecost) which falls on the 7th Sunday after Easter. Because the date of Easter moves around in the calendar so does Whit Sunday, but it is usually in late May or early June. Here in Ireland the Bank Holiday is always on the first Monday in June whereas on the other side of the Irish Sea it is on the last Monday in May (except for this year when it was moved at the behest of some old Queen).

Although I’m only at beginners’ level in Irish, the phrase Lá Saoire i mí Mheitheamh gives me a chance to bore you about it. It’s actually quite a straightforward phrase until you reach the last word: “Lá” means “day” and “Saoire” means “leave” or “vacation” so “Lá Saoire” means “holiday”; “i” is a prepositional pronoun meaning “in” and “mí” means “month”. So far so good.

The word for June however is Meitheamh (at least when it is in the nominative singular case). As an Indo-European language, Irish is distantly related to Latin which has six grammatical cases for nouns (actually seven if you count the rarely used locative case). Irish has only four cases – there’s no ablative and, curiously, no real distinction between nominative and accusative (though there is for some pronouns). That leaves nominative, dative, genitive, and vocative. The dative case– used after simple prepositions – is only rarely distinct from the nominative so basically the ones you have to learn are the genitive and the vocative.

Whereas in Latin cases are indicated by changes to the end of noun, in Irish they involve initial mutations. In the example of “mí Mheitheamh” meaning “month of June”, requiring the genitive form of “June”, the initial consonant “M” undergoes lenition (softening) to sound more like a “v”. In old Irish texts this would be indicated by a dot over the M but in modern orthography it is indicated by writing an “h” after the consonant. This is called a séimhiú (pronounced “shay-voo” ). Note the softened m in the middle of that word too but it’s not a mutation – it’s just part of the regular spelling of the word, as is the -mh at the end of Meitheamh. There’s also a softened “t” in the middle of Meitheamh which makes it vrtually disappear in pronunciation. Meitheamh is thus pronounced something like “Meh-hiv” whereas “Mheitheamh” is something like “Veh-hiv”.

Anyway, here’s a picture of Maynooth University Library Cat.