Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Essential sources for Irish dialect study

What is a dialect continuum?

Dialects of Irish spoken in Greater Dublin, and around it, were crucial pieces in an uninterrupted Gaelic jigsaw puzzle extending in a vast Atlantic arc from Co. Cork and its islands in the southwest of Ireland up to part of Caithness in Scotland's northeast.

All languages are made up of dialects (some very divergent from the standard, others less so); the Gaelic languages are no different. Each of these variants connect like a chain: for example, dialect A is similar to dialect B, to its north; dialect C, to the north again, is more similar to B than to A; and so on and so on. The same is true east to west or of any point on the compass.

Data collection points from the Survey of the Gaelic Dialects of Scotland (Cathair Ó Dochartaigh [ed.], DIAS, 1997), top, and from the Linguistic Atlas and Survey of Irish Dialects (Heinrich Wagner, DIAS, 1958), left. The Irish map shows phonetic transcriptions of eirball 'tail'. These surveys are research masterpieces, invaluable to study of the Gaelic dialects of Ireland, Scotland and Mann. The maps are in approximate geographical position; the Isle of Man is inset (point 88) on the Irish map. Click to zoom.

Had we walked from, say, Kerry to, say, Sutherland two centuries ago, we might have noticed subtle changes every few kilometres the entire length of our journey, and the occasional abrupt halt of one feature and the beginning of another; we would essentially travel 1200km without being aware of any bigger picture. Yet eventually, if we looked back, dialect Z would be barely recognisable compared to the dialect A of our starting point.

Therefore, to understand the role played by any one dialect on this map of ours (including those of Greater Dublin), it is wise to have an overview of all variants, especially historically, in order to compare and contrast general characteristics. 

Are there many resources available on the Gaelic dialect continuum?


We have a good body of research on Gaelic dialects - although admittedly not as much as we would like. There are detailed linguistic studies into dozens of varieties of Irish and Scottish and even into Manx.

Very many of these date from the first half of the twentieth century, when groundbreaking work was done primarily by German-speaking and Nordic linguists (to whom we owe a great debt of thanks), though we have a good deal of relatively contemporary work too. 

There is a rich body of data listed by geographical location, in the four-volume Linguistic Atlas and Survey of Irish Dialects (which also includes the Isle of Man) and the five-volume Survey of the Gaelic Dialects of Scotland (see above), both from the Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies (DIAS), although these are extremely detailed, complex reading and thus not recommended for non-linguists.

(Readers who already have some Irish will be well served by setting aside an hour or two to peruse and listen to the invaluable recordings of native speakers in sixteen counties from 1928-31 digitised by  the Doegen Records Web Project here, whilst a comprehensive bibliography of published works on all Irish dialects can be found at the Universität Duisburg-Essen's very useful site here.)

The springtime of dialect research, as noted, was the first half of the twentieth century, and an essential overview of the situation (which I recommend to anyone interested in the subject regardless of their level of engagement), still of unending usefulness to the novice, is Professor Thomas F. O'Rahilly's controversial Irish Dialects Past and Present, with Chapters on Scottish and Manx (Dublin: Browne and Nolan, 1932).

Required - if tendentious - reading: O'Rahilly (1932).

Here I must be candid and confess that it was this book, purchased some years ago now, that ignited my initial curiosity into dialects of Gaelic. O'Rahilly, from Listowel, became Professor of Irish at Trinity College Dublin; Professor of Celtic Languages at University College Cork and then at University College Dublin; and was Director of Celtic Studies at DIAS in the 1940s.

O'Rahilly's attitude, and his scholarship, has been (rightly) criticised: most obviously, it exhibits a clear Munster favouritism; it also exhibits serious flaws in the linguistic description of the extent of various features in Ireland. Of course, O'Rahilly is most known for his strong antipathy toward Manx, which he infamously described, scandalously in light of later scholarship, thus:
"From the beginning of its career as a written language English influence played havoc with its syntax, and it could be said without much exaggeration that some of the Manx that has been printed is merely English disguised in a Manx vocabulary. Manx hardly deserved to live. When a language surrenders itself to foreign idiom, and when all its speakers become bilingual, the penalty is death." (p. 121)
The professor was also extremely dismissive of Ulster Irish, which he saw (incorrectly) as thoroughly Scottified. The extent of O'Rahilly's prejudice against Ulster Irish is systematically exposed (and each point demolished) by Cathair Ó Dochartaigh in his brilliant Dialects of Ulster Irish (Belfast: QUB, 1987), p. 205-219, which is also highly recommended for anyone who has already acquainted themselves with the Linguistic Atlas and Survey of Irish Dialects.

Nevertheless, Irish Dialects Past and Present - even today, eight decades later - remains an unmissable entry point into the issues raised by this blog. It is readable, enjoyable and thought-provoking, and the first publication to push a pan-Gaelic understanding of dialects: in broad strokes, Professor O'Rahilly sketches out the major characteristics of the dialect areas of Ireland, Scotland and Mann and, using a rewarding methodology contrasting features of then-living dialects with dialect features identifiable in manuscripts and placenames (for those areas where Gaelic had died out), gives as complete an overview of the Gaelic dialect continuum as any beginner could hope for. In particular, his methodology is an inspiration for anyone working on extinct dialects. You can get a copy here.

The second great reference work I recommend for anyone even remotely interested in this field is Brian Ó Cuív's Irish Dialects and Irish-Speaking Districts (1951), originally three lectures given by Ó Cuív under the auspices of DIAS and available here.

Three lectures no one should miss: Ó Cuív (1951).

Ó Cuív's lectures, which deal solely with Ireland, are nonetheless of great relevance to the whole Gaelic area. Ó Cuív pores critically through all available statistical sources and historical reports to trace the position and retreat of Irish throughout the island at various points in time (especially in the previous century and a half), all the time referring back to the state of Irish in the country as a whole. Like O'Rahilly, Ó Cuív is biased toward Munster, although his case study comparison of Cork dialects - and their position relative to the dialects of Kerry, Tipperary and Waterford - is a great introduction into how to think in a comparative manner. 

Ó Cuív stresses again and again the local nature of Irish as it was spoken, and as it ceased to be spoken, tracking reports of the last few native speakers here, a monoglot there, assessments as to the state of Irish in this district or that; all the while maintaining a critical eye towards his data, for example (of relevance to this blog) in Co. Dublin:
"In the Barony of Castleknock in County Dublin there were [in the 1851 census] 243 Irish speakers. 200 of these were male and 118 were between the ages of 20 and 30 years. I have little doubt that the explanation of this lies in the fact that in this barony were the Royal Hibernian Military School with 333 inmates and the Constabulary Barrack with 606 inmates. I am sure one would have found there ample material for dialect study."(p. 23)
Both O'Rahilly and Ó Cuív, in their own ways, underlined the urgency of dialect fieldwork in Gaelic-speaking areas; work that remains as urgent today as it was in the 1930s or 1950s, and which has, sadly, in a great many cases not been followed up.

My next post will focus on an area in which fieldwork necessarily had to take a different approach, for there were hardly any Irish speakers left when linguistic study finally caught up with the facts on the ground: the Gaelic dialects spoken in Leinster, and what remained of them.

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