2,500 year history of the Irish language

2018 marks 125 years since Conradh na Gaeilge (or the Gaelic League) was set up, marking the birth of the Irish language revival (in 1893). In the previous 300 hundred years, but largely in the 50 years since the Great Irish Famine, English had long surpassed Irish as the main language spoken on the island. Yet, the 2016 census revealed that around 37% percent of the population can speak Irish (up from 16% in 1901), so certainly, things have changed in the 125 years since Conradh na Gaeilge was founded. But where did the Irish language originate, and for how long was it prevalent in Ireland?

From the first settlers to the Celts (circa 8000-1500BC)Archaeology can trace human settlement in Ireland back to at least 8000 years before Christ (that’s 10,000 years ago!). The origin of the first Irish settlers is hotly disputed, but the most accepted view is that they originated in modern-day Spain, on the Iberian peninsula. Without any written evidence however, linguists can only rely on the modern Irish language itself for clues as to what languages it replaced. It’s been suggested that perhaps the early settlers spoke a language similar to that spoken in North Africa, but we aren’t sure what exactly they spoke. These pre-Celtic languages are thought to have some influence on what is now called the Irish language.

Common Celtic (500BC-1500 BC approx)Around 2-3,000 years ago, during the Bronze Age, Irish developed from a dialect brought to the island by the Celts. The Celts originated in central Europe, but seeing as Ireland was invaded many times in that period, we can’t be sure exactly when they arrived with their language.. What’s known, however, is that the Celts eventually succeeded in conquering the country and their language became widespread through it. The first mention of the word ‘Gaelic’ came from the Welsh, by Christian times the language was prevalent not just in Ireland, but also on the Isle of Mann (Mannish), the south-west of England (Cornish) and Scotland (Scots Gaelic).

Old-Irish (500-900 AD):The first real examples we have of the Irish language written down are from the remains of Ogham stones from around 1,500 years ago. The Irish language is the earliest known vernacular language written north of the Alps. Ogham consisted of various strokes and dots representing letters, and was usually inscribed on upright stones. Believed to have largely been memorials dedicated to warriors, hundreds of these still survive in Ireland today.  

Christianity arrived in Ireland in the 5th century, and in the succeeding years, Irish scribes would annotate Latin scripts with Old Irish. It’s from these ‘glosses’ that we known most about Old Irish.

Middle-Irish (900-1200 AD)Ireland was invaded many times in 900-1300 AD period, firstly by the Vikings, and later by the Anglo-Normans. It’s during the 900-1200 period that some Scandinavian words began to be adopted by the Irish language, and are still in use today. Words such ‘pingin’ (penny) and ‘margadh’ (market) and a number of nautical terms used in Irish today are believed to have originated with the Norse. But the syntax of the Irish language was largely unchanged by the Vikings.

Early Modern / Classical Modern Irish (1200-1600 AD)The Normans arrived in Ireland around 1169 and a started a period of multilingualism in Ireland. The vast majority of the Normans spoke French, but gradually, began to speak Irish as their main language, and it was to remain the main language of the country for a few hundred years. However there is significant evidence today of the French influence on Irish. Words such as cóta (coat/cloak), gáirdín (garden), seomra (room, chamber) and séípéal (chapel) are all words that are understood to have their roots in the Norman language. Additionally, the language itself went through many changes during the period 1200-1600, with many dialects emerging.

But although Irish was the most common language spoken by the ordinary people, it was during this period of English administration that English became more widespread, as it was necessary for administrative and legal affairs.

1600-presentThroughout the 17th and 18th centuries, Irish continued as the language of the greater part of the rural population, particularly in the West of Ireland. However English became the predominant language among the more prosperous members of the Irish-speaking community, and this increased greatly in the 19th century due a number of factors: after the Great Famine of the 1840s – English was adopted to prepare children for emigration to England, America and Australia in later life. The National Schools system, the first state system of primary education, was introduced in the 1830s, but one of it’s main aims was to teach Irish to children. Children wore a “tally stick” (the “bata scoir”) in the classroom, and a notch was carved into the stick if they spoke Irish. At the end of the day, they would be punished if they had notches carved on their tally stick.

And so, by the late 1900s, the Irish language was almost extinct. The 1901 census revealed that only around 16% of the population could speak Irish. With this in mind, some scholars became interested in preserving and reviving the language, and this was something that was to tie in greatly with the Irish Independence movement of the late 19th and early 20th century. A sort of renaissance of the Irish language ensued. Organisations such as the Society for the Preservation of the Irish Language (1876) advocated the need for the Irish language to be taught in schools. And as noted above, in 1893 Conradh na Gaeilge (the Gaelic League) was established to gather support or the resurgence of the language and to bring written and spoken Irish in line with each other.

The Official Standard (Caighdáin) Gaeilge was declared by the government in 1958. In 2016, 1.76 million people stated on the census that they could speak Irish, amounting to around 37% of the population. A sharp rise from 16% in 1901! And with more and more Irish language festivals taking place across the country from Belfast to Carlow to Donegal, with ‘meet-up’ groups such as Pop-Up Gaeltacht gathering ever more numbers, will Irish become a mainstream language once more?

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