Look, I can speak Irish!!! Except, not really. Not even close to really. That's just what I got out of an hour long "Intro to the Irish Language" class. But it was a class packed to the brim with information.
The language has a fascinating history! I'm sure the instructor only scratched the surface in the short amount of time available, but from the glimpse into the past I got, it was very interesting. The Irish language is in the midst of a massive revival in Ireland. And not just Ireland, throughout many countries. Through Ireland's history of being taken over, and the religious reformation that pushed the native tongue and religion almost completely out of its own borders, the number of citizens who could still converse fully in Irish had dwindled severely. It is now making a resurgence. The Irish government has implemented the language back into schools from primary education to graduate levels, and the ratio is apparently up to one in four Irish citizens from age three and up who have reached a level of proficiency in Irish.
The regions of areas that still speak Irish as their main language, regions known as gaeltachts, have historically formed a coastal-lining semi-circle around the country from north to south. Places like County Donegal in the Northwest, into Galway and Limerick in the Munster Region, and then down to the southwestern corner in Kerry and Cork. Coincidentally, the spread of the gaeltachts spans three of Ireland's regions -- Munster, as mentioned, along with Ulster and Connacht -- and each region has its own dialect of the language. No gaeltachts existed in the eastern half of the country until quite recently. So to help spread the language across all of Ireland government set up grants for its citizens. The deal was this: if you could take a test to prove proficiency in Irish, they would pay money to move you to a region in the East. Plenty of people decided to take the Irish government up on their offer, and so came to be the first man-made and newest gaeltacht of Rathcairn. Dublin is attempting to put it's name on the gaeltacht map with a small one emerging in its city though it is not yet officially recognized.
After an hour of instruction, I would summarize the Irish language in comparison to English as this: It has all the same letters, and none of the same sounds. Well, almost all the same letters; the Irish alphabet has 18 of the English alphabet's standard 26. But this is about how one of the first slides of the presentation went:
*Word flashes up on the slide: Dia Duit
Lecturer: Alright, so how do ye think we say the first word?
Class: *in unison, but tentatively*"Dia" (as in it rhymes with the end of the word diarrhea)
Lecturer: Exactly! Very good, fair play to ya. Alright, how about the next one?
Class:*In unison again, and with confidence* "Duit" (as in a combination of the words "do" and "it")
Lecturer: Actually, it's "Goit" (as in a combination of phonetically saying "goy" and throwing the word "it" on the end)
Class: *In unison* "Huhh???"
And that pretty much set the tone for the next forty minutes. Further examples: a combination of "bh" makes the "v" sound, because that's one of the letters that didn't make the cut; "Aoi" makes the "e" sound like in the English word screen; and just a stand-alone "e" makes the "ay" sound. So for any English speaker who wants to learn Irish, do not rely on sounding out the words.
Irish phrases are also very unlike English phrases, and it's an aspect I found myself drawn to. They don't just say "Hi" or "Hey" (though they do have words for those kinds of greetings), the traditional salutation to someone is "Dia guit" which literally translates to "God is with you." To which the traditional response is "Dia is Muire duit"; "God and Mary be with you". It's not so much the religious connotation that draws me, but just the fact that it is a traditional exchange of words that genuinely wish well upon the person you are talking to. Another example is "Slán leat", or "Safety be with you"; the Irish way to say goodbye. We don't really have that in American culture or the English language in general. Heck, we say "break a leg" when wishing someone good luck; the complete opposite kind of sentiment.
One of the funnest fun-facts of the session was a quick lesson about the name Sean. The name Sean is traditionally Irish but the American-ized spelling is not. The Irish language has what are called fadas, an angled accent mark that goes over a number of its vowels to change their sound. Adding a fada elongates the sound, as the lecturer said like taking a piece of wax and stretching it out. Essentially the difference between the letter "a" being pronounced "ay" or "ah". The Irish word "Seán", has a fada over the "a" which is what gives it the "ah" sound. Irish word "sean" means old.
So way to go America, we name people "Old".