Dialect and Standard
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 it, I thought it was a spelling mistake. You'll also
hear ním instead of déanaim, abraim instead of deirim, and
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 replies "Ó deirimse
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 amrárach".
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
to advanced level grammar
to Beginners Blas