Translation: Irish Language and Literature

The Irish Language

Although scholars cannot be sure of an exact date for the Celtic conquest of Ireland, it can be said with some certainty that what is known today as the Irish language first came to these shores with the Celts during the second half of the first millennium BC.

Of the languages spoken by the pre-Celtic inhabitants very little is known. However, it is reasonable to assume, and indeed has been argued by scholars, that the form of Celtic that became indigenised as the Irish language was heavily influenced by the already existing prehistoric languages, and contained a number of borrowings, particularly those relating to personal and tribal names.

Irish as a Celtic Language

Irish is regarded as a Celtic language, belonging to the larger family of languages known as Indo-European. Irish belongs to the branch of Insular Celtic known as Goidelic, which comprises Irish-Gaelic, Scottish-Gaelic and Manx ; these are distinct from the Brittonic forms of Celtic, which comprise Welsh, Cornish and Breton. The Goidelic or Gaelic language gets its name from the group of Celtic invaders known as Goídil who came to achieve cultural and political supremacy within the island of Ireland. Irish colonists subsequently took this language eastward to Scotland and the Isle of Man, where it developed into the languages now known as Scottish Gaelic and Manx.

Goidelic is also sometimes known as Q-Celtic and the Brittonic form as P-Celtic. These names refer to the various changes in the Indo-European sound 'q'. This was retained in Goidelic as 'q' or 'c' but was changed to 'p' in Brittonic. These differences can be seen today, for example, in the Irish word for 'head', ceann, and the corresponding word in Welsh, pen.

The Development of Irish

All languages change over time: Irish is no exception. The development of the Irish language, from its earliest recorded days to the present, is divided by scholars into four distinct periods:

1. Old Irish:  600-900 CE
2. Middle Irish: 900-1200
3. Early Modern Irish or Classical Irish: 1200-1650
4. Modern Irish: 1650-present day

The forms of the language known as Old Irish and Middle Irish are accessible only to those with a specialised scholarly training. Although it has a standardised spelling and grammar, Modern Irish as spoken today has three main dialects: Munster Irish, Western or Connemara Irish, and Ulster or Donegal Irish.

The name for the language in Modern Irish is An Ghaeilge and is most commonly referred to in English as 'Irish' or 'the Irish language'.

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