As Gaeilge

As one of my new hobbies I am taking an Irish language class. This has no real practical utility for me at all. The odds of my ever meeting a person who speaks Irish but not English is spectacularly low, if such a rare and special unicorn even exists. Even in Ireland it’s only the third most common language spoken, after English and Polish. There’s an interesting documentary series about a guy who tries to tour Ireland speaking only Irish, and he has a rough time of it. The State Department doesn’t test in the language, so no promotion fodder there. The most direct job-related benefit I get out of it is that it makes it slightly easier for me to figure out how to correctly pronounce the crazy Irish names I have to call on a loudspeaker on a daily basis. (Favorite example so far: Caoilfhionn = KWAY-lin. Seriously?)

The language itself is perhaps the most baffling I have been exposed to so far. The underlying structure is more Latinate than I had expected, but there are several quirks that I am certain exist for no other reason than to make things more complicated for me personally. Some examples I have encountered:

  • Irish has no words for “yes” and “no” – you have to use the positive or negative form of the verb in the question you’re responding to. So the answer to “are you hungry?” is “I am.” or “I’m not.”*
  • There are completely different sets of number words depending on whether you are listing numerals, counting things, or counting people. 
  • There are no fewer than four different forms of the word for “year” depending on how many you’re talking about. 
  • Irish uses the vocative case, which means that people’s names are sometimes pronounced (and spelled) differently depending on whether you’re talking to them or about them. 
  • The pronunciation generally is just ridiculous. We have yet to be given a full rundown on the system, but the sound of any given letter is highly reliant on what other letters happen to be next to it. This makes me long for the phonetic simplicity of Arabic – you have to learn what sound each squiggle makes, but once you sort that out you’re golden. Irish also uses some throaty sounds very similar to the ones that gave me trouble in Arabic. 

I’m only taking two hours a week, and it’s a conversation-focused curriculum so seven weeks in we haven’t conjugated a single verb yet. This is kind of frustrating for me since I’m actually really interested in the grammar, but I’m also enjoying the relaxed pace and the lack of looming exams, an inevitable feature of all my previous language learning experiences. There are no stakes here – no grades, no deadlines, no need to cram it in and get to post on time. It’s just something to do for fun, and if it stops being fun I’ll stop doing it. It’s kind of freeing like that.

* The actual construction is more like “Is hunger upon you? It is/It’s not”, but you get the idea.