Saturday, 12 September 2020

Goidhilg, gaoidhilg and goidhealg


This is just a short post to address a very superficial point of terminology that some people may have wondered about.

It has come to my attention that some visitors to this blog may be uncomfortable with the way this blog uses the terms ‘Irish dialects’, ‘Gaelic dialects’ and ‘Irish’ and ‘Gaelic’ interchangeably.

Some people may argue that the correct name of the language which calls itself Gaeilge – and many variants besides (see below) – should always and exclusively be ‘Irish’ in English. To refer to it as anything else, they might say, is ignorant at best and insulting at worst, as it risks implying that Gaeilge is somehow not the language proper to Ireland.

While I understand this point of view, as a researcher of Gaeilge as a Goidelic (Gaelic) language in its Goidelic (Gaelic) dialect continuum context, I use both ‘Irish’ and ‘Gaelic’ as synonyms in an attempt to broaden understanding of the existence and nature of that continuum – a continuum and a linguistic closeness that has always been there, and always will be there, no matter how observers and speakers of these languages attempt to close themselves off from this fact and from one another. 

Referring to Irish as ‘Gaelic’ is a simple linguistic fact – because Irish is a Gaelic language and its dialects are always Gaelic dialects, called such by their speakers. Scottish Gaelic is also a Gaelic language by simple linguistic fact, called such by its speakers. Manx (Gaelic) is also a Gaelic language by simple linguistic fact, called such by its speakers. It would of course be cumbersome and repetitive to refer to Gaeilge as Irish Gaelic in every instance on this blog.

The entire point of this blog is to put the Irish Gaelic dialect once spoken in county Dublin – one irony being that people rarely have any socio-political difficulties with terms like ‘County Dublin’ or any of the other counties, despite their historical origins – in its wider sociolinguistic and dialectological context from Cape Wrath to Cape Clear. That point will not change regardless of what sort of terminology is used.

Another irony here is that limiting our thinking to ‘Irish’ rather than ‘Gaelic’ wilfully obscures the possible closeness of the Irish Gaelic of Dublin  and the dialects of South East Ulster (which include Louth in a linguistic and historical sense, incidentally) and of Meath for that matter – to for example Manx. If you are interested in the Irish Gaelic of Dublin, I would hope you are also interested in what might have been closest to it linguistically – even if such dialects lay outside the island of Ireland. 

We can of course play a game of wishful thinking in which we limit ourselves to the Irish language in Irish Ireland, and imagine a hermetically sealed set of dialects which could have been standardised based on the Irish of Athlone or of north Offaly, historically the most central dialects; conversely, if we wish, we can go the other way, with a pan-Gaelic central point in East Ulster Irish – probably the dialect of Down, in fact. But such mental exercises, while fun, are futile; the sad irony is that the surviving dialects in Ireland are separated from one another by hundreds of kilometres, and seem so inconveniently different to one another today because the dialects once linking them have vanished. This is tragic, but it was not historically the case, and this blog attempts to fill in some of those ahistorical gaps.

Therefore, one must understand that ‘Gaelic’ is not and should never be an offensive term. It is a helpful synonym that originates in the one single word that unites speakers of all these dialects, despite its many forms: Gaeilge, Gaelainn, Gaeilg, Gaeilig, Gaedhlag, Gaeilic etc. At no point did they (or do they) call their language Éireannais, so I fail to see why it is so important that we should.

Given all this, I hope there is now understanding as to why this blog uses ‘Irish’ and ‘Gaelic’ and ‘Irish dialects’ and ‘Gaelic dialects’ more or less interchangeably – as a simple statement of underlying linguistic reality. There are no plans to change this approach, either.

And should anyone wonder, up in all this, what the speakers of Irish in Dublin actually called their dialect, the answer is that the great Tadhg Ó Neachtain (c. 1670-1752) refers to his language variously as goidhilg, gaoidhilg, goidhealg and gaoidhiolaic – yes, without a capital letter. (I will be returning to what we can learn from Ó Neachtain's dialect in a future post.)

It will however no doubt come as a great surprise – it did to me – that in his 42 600 word dictionary from 1739 (which Ó Neachtain himself understandably calls 'The Tedious and troublesome Labour of Thaddeus Norton'), Ó Neachtain also gives the following glosses for the name of his language:

sgota scott 

sgotbhearlathe Irish tongue

sgotbhearlacha speaker of Irish

sgotbhearlachtspeaking Irish

Finally, in the same dictionary, Ó Neachtain also refers twice to Scottish Gaelic, calling it 'hilland Irish' (i.e. Highland Irish) each time, ironically enough. 

The Gaelic world. Or Irish, Scottish and Manx worlds. Both are correct(Coiste na bhFocal Nua)


  1. Ceart ar fad agat, níl aon chiall leis an gcearán.

    You're 100% right, this complaint makes no sense at all.

  2. 'Sgotbhearla': And in Geoffrey Keating's 'The General history of Ireland', it's given as 'Scotbhearla'.