Irish Language

Fast Facts on the Irish Language

Category: Language

Irish (also known as Irish Gaelic or Gaelic) has roughly 133,000 native speakers, most of which live in the Republic of Ireland. Irish is the national and first official language of the Republic of Ireland, an official language of the European Union, and an officially recognized minority language in Northern Ireland.

While people do use the language in their daily lives, living completely in Irish presents some challenges as filmmaker and native Irish speaker Manchán Magan can attest to. He made the documentary No Béarla (No English) about his experiences traveling around Ireland speaking only Irish. The results of his trying to speak with Gaeilgeoirí (Irish speakers) were definitely mixed and give insight into the role Irish plays in daily life. The language was outlawed by the British in the 19th century, though a revival that started in the early 20th century kept the language from completely dying out. While learning Irish is mandatory in schools, most speakers are concentrated in the west of the country in areas that are known collectively as the Gaeltacht.

Geography aside, the Irish language definitely has some quirks that set it apart from other Indo-European languages. For one, its sentence word order is Verb Subject Object, an order than only 9 percent of the world’s languages use. The English sentence “I drove a car” thus becomes “Drove I a car.” “I always speak Irish” would be “Speak I Irish always.”

There are also no words for “yes” or “no” in Irish. Instead affirmation and negation are part of the verb form. Irish also only has 11 irregular verbs (compared to the 80 commonly used irregulars in English). Irish also uses different beginnings and endings to indicate certain kinds of possession, prepositions, or numbers. Most case-based languages require knowledge of different word endings (like in German, Latin, or Russian) or beginnings, but Irish requires both, making it a bit of a challenge to learn.

Interested in learning Irish yourself? For Irish language radio and television programming, check out the BBC in Irish and RTE (Radio Teilefís Éireann). Other resources include language schools, immersion programs, and self-study.