Why Irish Spelling Looks Familiar Yet Strange


March 17th is St. Patrick’s Day, or Lá Fhéile Pádraig (Irish), named for one of the most recognized of the patron saints of Ireland, Saint Patrick, who died on this date around 493 A.D. While St. Patrick is famous for allegedly driving snakes out of Ireland, he is also responsible for the oldest known Gaelic composition in existence. This fact provides to explore the question of why Gaelic uses familiar letters in such unfamiliar ways. Gaelic, pronounced: /ˈɡeɪlɪk/, is an adjective that means “pertaining to the Gaels” – the speakers of the Celtic language originating in Ireland around the fourth century.

Written Irish, or An Caighdeán Oifigiúil, from this period is known as Primitive Irish. The fifth century saw the language transition into Old Irish – which, with the placement of marginalia (marginal notes) from manuscripts, is known to have utilized the Latin alphabet.  A hymn entitled “The Cry of the Deer” written by Saint Patrick may be the only written proof of Gaelic from this time. By the 12th century, Middle Irish evolved into the Early Modern Irish  which was used through the 18th century. There is no standard pronunciation of the Irish language, and the phonology varies amongst the Irish Gaelic and its sister languages the Scottish and Manx Gaelic dialects. Even within the language there are three main dialects – Munster (the south of Ireland), Connacht (Connemara and Aran Island in the west of Ireland) and Ulster (the north of Ireland). Each dialect may vary in their word and phrase selection, pronunciation and even grammar. There is, however, a mutual intelligibility amongst speakers of different Gaelic dialects.

In the case of Irish Gaelic, familiar consonants come in pairs, except for /h/: One is’ broad’ – pronounced with the tongue placed on the back of the soft palate; the other is ‘slender’ – pronounced with the middle of the tongue pushed up towards the hard palate.The use of consonant mutations changes a word according to its morphological and syntactic environment. It helps to identify the relationship between two similar words and their various meanings, but also results in written combinations that can be unusual to the non-Gaelic speaker. As a result of the Great Famine (known outside of Ireland as the Irish Potato Famine) in the mid-nineteenth century, the Irish Gaelic language lost a great number of its speakers  to death and emigration due to poverty. The Gaelic Revival movement, which began at the end of the nineteenth century, encouraged the learning and use of the Irish language throughout Ireland. Today there are just over 72,000 people who use Irish Gaelic as a first language throughout different parts of the country.

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