Sunday (March 17th) is St Patrick’s Day, and we can think of no better way to celebrate this important event than by bringing you a few facts about the Irish Gaelic language.

Ancient roots

Irish Gaelic is part of the Celtic branch of Indo-European languages. Other non-extinct members of this family include Welsh, Scottish Gaelic, Breton (the language spoken in Brittany, France), Cornish and Manx (traditionally spoken on the Isle of Man). Indeed, within the UK it is English that is the odd one out, as this is a West Germanic Language – a completely separate branch of Indo-European.

Today Irish, or Gaeilge as it is officially known, is spoken by more than 80,000 people every day in the Republic of Ireland, as well as the UK and US. In fact, it is a language that is growing thanks to more people actively taking an interest in learning it.

The Celtic group of languages is itself split into the Insular and Continental categories, although all the languages on the Continental branch are now extinct. Within the Insular family, there are Goidelic languages – of which Gaeilge is one – and Brythonic languages. Welsh, Breton and Cornish are Brythonic, while Irish shares the most similarities with Scottish and Manx – indeed, these languages are mutually intelligible to a degree.

Ps and Qs

Lisa Spangenberg, writing for Digital Medievalist, notes that some people refer to the Brythonic group of Celtic languages as P-Celtic, while Goidelic is referred to as Q-Celtic. There’s a good reason for this: some Goidelic words are similar to Brythonic words but feature a C or K (pronounced as a Q sound) where Brythonic features a P.

For instance, Pentire in Cornwall is named after the old Cornish term for ‘head of land’, which is also the meaning of the name Kintyre in Scotland. As Ms Spangenberg jokes: “In Celtic linguistics, it really pays to ‘mind your Ps and Qs’.”

Gaeilge and Hiberno-English: spot the difference

If you’ve ever done your best Irish accent down the pub, this in no way means you are speaking Irish. As Benny Lewis of the Fluent In 3 Months blog explains, to speak with an Irish accent is to speak Hiberno-English, which is the official name of the Irish dialect.

Since the formation of the independent Irish state known as the Republic of Ireland in 1922, Irish has been one of the country’s official languages. The public sector is, as a result, bilingual – although English continues to be the main language spoken and written in the Republic of Ireland.

Gaeilge is part of the national school curriculum in the Republic of Ireland and so the number of people who speak it as a second language has been steadily growing. This makes it one of the most widely-spoken Celtic languages.

Getting to grips with Gaeilge

Blogger Benny Lewis claims that learning to speak Gaeilge is not as difficult as people assume. He notes that it has some features that, once learned, make it easy to pick up. For instance, it only has 11 irregular verbs to trip you up. Compared to the hundreds found in the English language and thousands that occur in French and Spanish, this makes Irish free of the obstacles that cause you to stumble when learning many other languages. There is also no indefinite article and the definite article is the same for both masculine and feminine nouns.

The Irish alphabet might also be putting you off learning Gaeilge, but, again, Mr Lewis says that with “a small amount of study” it’s easy to read. “Most of the letters work pretty similarly to how they do in most European languages, but some changes include mb = m, gc = c, th = h, dt = d, bhf = silent, and some consonants change sound depending on if they are before i/e or a/o/u,” he notes.

Most importantly, although it is on a totally different branch of languages to English and many other European languages, Irish uses logic to form words which makes it just as easy to learn as these, or even easier. Mr Lewis explains: “Words are formed logically using prefixes, suffixes and combinations of roots. A lot of Irish words do this so after you have some basic vocabulary it isn’t that bad to recognise more complicated words and very quickly build up your base of vocabulary.”

Ask an expert

If you want to get to grips with Gaeilge, there’s nowhere better to go than Ireland. As Mr Lewis states, the Irish speakers who live here are happy to help learners with the language. If this isn’t an option, the internet is always a useful resource as you can use social networking sites to find other people learning the language and share your experiences with them.

So, why not celebrate this St Patrick’s Day by making Gaeilge the next language you learn?