A few weeks back, when we were looking at how to find the information you need in dictionaries, I mentioned the so-called Caighdeán Oifigiúil, the standard grammar and spelling rules for Irish. Anyone who has been to Donegal couldn’t help but notice that the Irish spoken there differs in many ways from the written standard. This doesn’t mean that either is wrong. The Standard has prevented the language being torn apart by the claims of the different dialects, and it’s worth remembering that many of those who fought hardest for the standardisation of written Irish were themselves native speakers, such as Donegal’s Niall Ó Dónaill. But at the same time, you’d have to be a bit arrogant, and very stupid, to ‘correct’ native speakers when their spoken language doesn’t fit into the standard framework. It’s important, though, to recognise certain features as aspects of the Ulster dialect. Then you can make your decision as to what extent you want to use them in your own Irish.
On my first visits to the Gaeltacht, I noticed that it’s often the most common parts of the language that differ the most. Take a much-used verb such as feicim, for example - I see. It didn’t take long for me to realise that Donegal people were more likely to say chím. Chífidh mé amárach thú – ‘I’ll see you tomorrow’ and so on. Strangely enough, they say the same thing down in Munster, only they pronounce it slightly differently - chím. In Ulster the word sounds as if it begins with a ‘t’ and you sometimes see it spelt that way: tchím. The first time I saw this version, I thought it was a spelling mistake! You’ll also hear ním instead of déanaim, abraim instead of deirim, bheir instead of tugaim and gheibhim instead of faighim. If you want to use those forms, be careful not to overgeneralise. Not even the purest speakers of Donegal Irish use all of them in the negative or in indirect speech. You’ll never hear anyone say ní chím or dúirt sé nach ngeibheann sé pá ar bith - ‘he says he gets no pay.’ What you will hear is ní fheicim and dúirt sé nach bhfaigheann sé pá ar bith. I know some learners who make it a point of honour to use the dialect forms of these verbs. They feel them to be more authentic, and using them makes their Irish more like Gaeltacht Irish. But the truth is that some of these forms are more common than others and that native speakers of this generation skip back and forth between these and the standard forms. There’s even a story about a scholar researching a dialect and asking someone what form of the verb ‘to say’ he uses, abraim or deirim. The man repliesÓ deirimse abraim!
In all Gaeltacht areas you’ll hear a relative form of the verb that wasn’t given a place in the Standardised Language - why I don’t know. ‘When will Aoife be home?’ could be asked with a simple future tense: Cá huair a bheidh Aoife sa bhaile? but you’ll also hear native speakers say Cá huair a bheas Aoife sa bhaile? Similarly, “Here’s the man that will do the work” can be expressed as: Seo an fear a dhéanfaidh an obair but you’ll also hear Seo an fear a dhéanfas an obair. It’s sometimes hard to know what tense the speaker has in mind when he or she uses this relative form. It’s identical for the conditional and future tenses, so Seo an fear a dhéanfas an obair could even mean “Here’s the man that would do the work.” It all depends on the context. It’s used in the present tense as well, but is spelt differently - without the silent ‘f’ that you see in verbs in the conditional and future tenses. It’s present, for example, in set phrases such as na rudaí seo a leanas or na daoine seo a leanas, which you see a lot on forms and so on and which means ‘the following’.
Usually it’s just a matter of adding that ‘as’ ending to the stem of the verb, but some verbs have a distinct relative form. We’ve already had the relative form of the verb to be - Cá huair a bheas Aoife sa bhaile? ‘To go’ also has a distinct relative form - théid. “There’s not a day goes by I don’t think about it” - Níl lá a théid thart nach smaoiním air.
Learners can sometimes go overboard in their loyalty to that other marker of Ulster dialect, the use of cha instead of ní. From an historical point of view cha is every bit as legitimate as ní. They are twins, in fact. They developed from the Old Irish word níchon. The first part, ní, was retained all over Ireland and the second part, which eventually became cha, established itself in Ulster, on the Isle of Man and in Scotland. So it’s not as if one is more ‘historic’ or ‘older’ than the other. The problem with cha is that it’s quite difficult for learners to use correctly. The first point of difficulty is that you don’t use the future tense with it. If you want to say “I won’t be there tomorrow” you can’t say Cha bheidh mé ann amárach. In this respect, cha is just like a word we’ve already talked about in this series - má, which is one of the words for ‘if’. Both má and cha take the present habitual instead of the future, so “I won’t be there tomorrow” becomes Cha bhím ann amárach. Another complicating factor is the effect cha has on the verb coming after. Mostly it causes séimhiú - cha bhím, cha chaithim, cha phósaim and so on. It becomes chan before verbs beginning with a vowel. Chan ólaim, chan ithim and so on. But if the verb begins with a d or t, we have urú. “I won’t go” is Cha dtéim “He never does a hand’s turn” is Cha ndéanann sé turn. So all this is fine, if you remember the rules and use the word correctly. And of course, everyone uses ní as well as cha, so it’s not as if you have to use cha to be understood or to be authentic, or whatever.
If you go to Donegal this summer you’ll hear all these things. Hopefully now you’ll be able to use them but maybe it’s enough just to recognise them and work them into your own Irish at your pace and to whatever extent you want.