Seachtain na Gaeilge, a fortnight – yes, yes, we know, and that isn’t even the worst of it – when two young and good looking people are pictured in zany and exuberant poses that illustrate to a grateful nation what fun it is to speak one’s own language.
However. The biggest obstacle to learning Irish isn’t the absence of youth, or pulchritude, or zaniness. It’s the absence of any consistency in the language. Why does Gaeilge always have to be briste, everywhere you look?
Peig Sayers’ infamous autobiography is no longer on the curriculum, but it remains a stick with which to beat the language. The life of an old woman on the Great Blasket Island is not seen to be relevant to contemporary youth, unlike, say, the adventures of a medieval Danish prince with an Oedipus complex, or something like that.
But the spurious issue of “relevance” isn’t the real problem with Peig for students of Irish. The problem with Peig is that the language of the book is not standard Irish. It’s Munster Irish.
When you’re all grown up and fluent in the language the quirks of the different dialects are small beer. But when you’re trying to learn the thing the inconsistencies are the very stuff of nightmares.
Consider a student trying to get her séimhiús and urús in order. On Monday she reads that Peig is hanging out her washing “sa ghairdín,” and on Tuesday she discovers that Padraig Ó Conaire’s little black donkey is grazing contentedly “sa ngairdín.” Who’s right? Either? Both? Neither?
The Académie française was established in 1635 to preserve standards in the French language. What of Irish, gasping for breath on the edge of the Atlantic? Who are the forty immortals who look after its well-being?
In theory, the well-being of Irish is looked after by a body called Foras na Gaeilge. Foras na Gaeilge was founded in late 1999. Before that, there was nobody, really, in charge of the standard of Irish. Not really. Maybe a few desks in the Department of Education, but nothing serious.
People think the welfare of the language is the responsibility of the Minister for the Gaeltacht, but it’s not. Her job is currently to keep the people of the Gaeltacht sweet and not have them voting for those damned Shinners next time out.
So how, then, is the standard maintained? If you are a commercial entity or a Government department, say, do you get in touch with Foras na Gaeilge and get them to sign off on your translation, or even do the translations themselves?
This is important because contemporary Irish is being destroyed by translations that are unaware of Irish idiom. These translations translate word-for-word with no account being made for idiomatic difference and end up with Béarlachas, English disguised by an Irish overcoat. A good-for-nothing patois, neither one thing nor the other.
For instance: Dublin Bus currently runs a recorded announcement imploring passengers not to do something (stand up upstairs, maybe, but I can never catch the first part) “when the bus is moving.” “While the bus is moving” is translated as “nuair atá an bus ag bogadh.”
That is textbook Béarlachas. It is correct and yet utterly wrong. It’s like pork-flavoured ice cream. There’s nothing technically wrong with it. It’s just not natural. It just doesn’t work.
The Irish word “agus” doesn’t just mean “and.” It also means when or while. “Bog” does mean “move,” but it’s more in the sense of softening or melting or loosening. The word you want here is “gluaiseacht,” moving, which even non-professional you may be vaguely familiar with from the Irish for motor car. Gluaisteán is the third Irish word every Irish child learns, after milseán and leithreas.
That then gives us “agus an bus ina ghluaiseacht.” This literally translates as “when the bus is in its movement,” because to say “ag gluaiseacht” is another slice of Béarlachas. It sounds ridiculous in English, and so it should - its idiom is entirely Irish.
What has all this got to do with anything? Well, thousands of schoolchildren travel in and out to school every day on Dublin Bus. Those thousands of schoolchildren hear this rubbish, and then it’s a big mystery why their own Irish is equally rubbish, or why they can’t get seem to get it into their heads how the language works. But what chance have they when bad examples abound to the extent they can’t tell the good from the bad anymore?
Maybe Foras na Gaeilge would be better off translating that one phrase than sponsoring all the coming two weeks’ gurning for the camera and acting the eejit. It'd be a start, wouldn't it?