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 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. 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
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 gladden at perceiving
thee' when you mean 'I'm really glad to see you'. So watch out for that
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 Conamara writer Máirtín Ó
Cadhain once said that Irish speakers ought to take a copy of Dineen's
Irish-English Dictionary to bed with them - but maybe that's taking it
a bit too far.
to basic grammar advice
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