Dictionaries are a bit of a minefield for anyone learning a language. Your own vocabulary is so small that you can’t do without them, but you know that no dictionary on earth has enough space to give you all the information you need about a word. Is the word commonly used? Is it a bit high-falutin’ or a bit coarse? Can you use the word in this context or that context? It’s all a bit confusing and I’d say anyone who has ever marked an exam or an essay has dozens of examples of learners putting all their faith in the dictionary and getting it badly wrong. Like the student who listed among her hobbies ag léamh armlann (reading magazines). Go to the dictionary and the mystery is solved - armlann means ‘magazine’. Unfortunately it means magazine in the military sense, a place where guns and ammunition are stored.
So how can you minimise the risk of getting it wrong? Well the first thing to do is to learn how the dictionaries work. That might seem a bit patronising - anyone can open a dictionary and search for a word. But the fact is that there are certain skills involved in consulting a dictionary. We’ve already mentioned that dictionaries are too small to give every last detail on every word in the language. All that the compilers of a dictionary can hope for is to give a general idea of how words are used and, in order to save space, all dictionaries make use of abbreviations. For example, the student who came up with the word armlann for ‘magazine’ wouldn’t have made that mistake if she had known what the abbreviation ‘Mil’ stands for in de Bhaldraithe’s English Irish Dictionary. It’s clear after the event that it stands for ‘Military’ but often we don’t pay any attention to these helpful hints when we’re searching for words. If that magazine had a ‘supplement’ and the learner wanted to know what the Irish for that is, he or she would have a choice between forábhar and forlíonadh and breis. What’s it to be? Again, the abbreviation directs the learner to the answer. J O U R N, short for journalism is beside the word forlíonadh - the right word in the context.
It’s very important to be aware what these directions mean. ‘Journ’ for ‘journalism’ is pretty obvious, but they’re not always so self-explanatory. ‘Lit’ is a very important abbreviation in Ó Dónaill’s Foclóir Gaeilge Béarla, still the best Irish to English dictionary available. It means ‘literary’ and describes words that belong to various periods of the history of the Irish language, Old Irish, Middle Irish and Early Modern Irish. In other words, they’re almost all words that don’t exist in today’s spoken language. Unless you have a very good reason for it, you should give them a wide berth, but it’s not unknown for learners of Irish to inadvertently pick words from the dictionary that are more than just a little out of place in modern Irish. If you were writing English you wouldn’t write something like ‘Verily, mine heart gladdens at perceiving thee’ when you mean ‘I’m really glad to see you’. So watch out for that one.
Ó Dónaill’s dictionary also provides a lot of information about the grammar of words - genitive and plural and so on. It’s also very useful for getting to grips with dialect and standard Irish. Now, you’ve probably heard of An Caighdeán Oifigiúil, the ‘official standard’ spelling and grammar which was published by the translators in Dáil Éireann in the nineteen-fifties. It was an attempt to get to grips with the many different forms of Irish in Munster and Ulster and Connacht. The fear was that the language was being pulled apart by dialect differences. Take for example, a sentence as simple as ‘I built myself a house’. In Munster it could be Do dheineas tig dhom féinig and in Ulster it might be Rinn’ mé teach domh fhéin. If the Munster writer and the Ulster writer follow the standard rules they should both write the same thing: Rinne mé teach dom féin. It’s a compromise and no-one ever suggested that the dialect forms were ‘wrong’ or that they should be banished from the language.
You’re perfectly free to write as you see fit, although most people will expect standard Irish in official or semi-official documents.
When Niall Ó Dónaill was compiling his dictionary he continued the standardising project and tried to arrive at one definitive, standard form of all the words in the dictionary. But because he didn’t want to rule out the dialect forms he included them too, with the abbreviation ‘Var’ for ‘variant’. So if you’re not sure whether or not your spelling of a word is standard or dialect, you can check in Ó Dónaill’s dictionary. What about domh in the sentence Rinn’ me teach domh fhéin? If you go to the word domh you’ll see that it equals the standard spelling dom. So you can write it in your letters, in your diary, or in your stories and poems, but you wouldn’t expect to see it in a government policy document. And you might want to think twice about using it in an essay. It’s a good idea to look through the introductions to the various dictionaries and learn how they work. The Connemara writer Máirtín Ó Cadhain once said that Irish speakers ought to take a copy of Dinneen’s Irish-English Dictionary to bed with them - but maybe that’s taking it a bit too far.