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    Early Studies of Irish

Early grammars of Irish
The bardic tracts
Linguistic terminology

Historical background

The first treatise in Irish on questions of language is the Auraicept na n-Éces, literally ‘the poet’s primer’ (Calder 1917, Ahlqvist 1983), an uneven work, containing many unfounded speculations on the origin of Irish and of alphabets alongside reasonable comments on the structure of Irish. It was composed in sections, the earliest of which reach back to the seventh century (although the manuscripts date from the 14th century and afterwards) and in which many of the terms later found in the language were introduced. The text itself is quite short, less than 200 lines, but the manuscript contains much extraneous comment, resulting in a size of some 1600 lines for the entire work. It is not known who the original author was, although there is no lack of speculations, such as that of O’Donovan (1845: 55) who sees the work as having been composed by one Forchern who is supposed to have flourished in Ulster in the first century AD.

More recent authors such as Ó Cuív (1965: 158) see the Auraicept na n-Éces as arising under the influence of Isidore of Seville’s (c 560-636) Etymologiae (something also noted by Thurneysen 1928: 303) and ventures that the latter accounts for the liking for etymologies and explanations which one finds in many of the later glossed manuscripts. The Auraicept na n-Éces is the nearest thing to the Icelandic First Grammatical Treatise which Ireland has produced, though on a much more modest level. It is not until very much later that one has grammars on Irish.

The bardic tracts

The Irish Bardic Tracts is a collective term (McKenna 1979 [1944]) given to a series of treatises for instructing professional writers in the grammar of Irish. They belong to the period from 1200 – 1600 (Classical Modern Irish, Ó Cuív 1965:141) during which a uniform type of language was used in professional praise-poetry for Irish local rulers. This written register was far removed from spoken speech and one of the chief purposes of the bardic tracts was to instruct potential writers in a form of the language which for them would have been quite archaic. Most of the material in the tracts stems from the 16th and 17th centuries (Adams 1970: 158) but some of it survives in manuscripts which were written in the 18th and 19th centuries. The earliest of the tracts may, in the opinion of Ó Cuív and Bergin go back to 1500 or possibly earlier.

Linguistically, the bardic tracts are far superior to the Auraicept na n-Éces. They contain terms which are both derived from Latin and devised to deal with the special features of Irish, for instance the well-known three parts of speech: focal ‘noun’, pearsa ‘verb’ (later replaced by the indigenous term briathar) and iairmbéarla, literally ‘hindspeech’ a term used to refer to unstressed proclitics (Adams 1970: 158).

Early grammars of Irish

In 1571 there appeared the Alphabeticum et Ratio legendi Hibernicum, et Catechismus in eadem Lingua by John Kearney. At the beginning of the 17th century Giolla Brighde Ó hEodhasa [O’Hussey] (c 1575-1614), a Franciscan monk working in Louvain, produced a grammar entitled Rudimenta Grammaticae Hibernicae (de Clercq and Swiggers 1992: 87-91). Later in the 17th century, in 1677, the Grammatica Latino-Hibernica, nunc compendiata by Francis O’Molloy appeared and somewhat earlier, in 1643, Micheál Ó Cléirigh had produced an elementary Irish dictionary again in Louvain.

At the beginning of the 18th century one finds The Elements of the Irish Language, grammatically explained in English, in fourteen chapters by Hugh McCurtin which was printed in Louvain in 1728. By the same author there exists an English-Irish Dictionary (Paris, 1732). In keeping with the profession practised by many of these authors, one often has grammatical comment as an interspersion or an appendix in a religious work. Thus Andrew Donlevy appended a chapter entitled ‘The elements of the Irish language’ to his Irish-English catechism of 1742. Towards the end of the 18th century one finds an Irish grammar (Grammar of the Iberno-Celtic, or Irish language) by Charles Vallancey in 1773 which was printed in an enlarged edition in 1782. By the beginning of the 19th century more grammars begin to appear, the most comprehensive being A grammar of the Irish language by John O’Donovan in 1845. By this time of course the interest of Indo-European scholars had been directed towards Celtic languages, seen in Johann Casper Zeuß’s Grammatica Celtica of 1853 (revised by H. Ebel in 1871) and in articles by scholars like Heinrich Zimmer, Alfred Holder (see his Alt-celtischer Sprachschatz, 3 vols. 1896-1907) and Franz Nikolaus Finck (see his Die araner mundart. Ein beitrag zur erforschung des westirischen 1899) in the latter half of the 19th century and culminating in the monumental Vergleichende Grammatik der keltischen Sprachen by Holger Pedersen from 1909 to 1913 and Rudolf Thurneysen’s standard work Handbuch des Altirischen (1909, translated into English in 1946) along with the Grammaire du Vieil-Irlandais by Joseph Vendryes (1908), the Manuel dirlandais moyen by Georges Dottin (1913) and Julius Pokorny’s A concise Old Irish grammar and reader (1914).

Linguistic terminology in Irish

Irish language equivalents of Latin linguistic terms were arrived at in quite typical ways (see Ahlqvist 1979/1980: 16f.; 1982: 14-16; specifically on Old Irish see further Ahlqvist 1993). The first is to be seen where an existing Irish word with the corresponding meaning of a Latin term was used, e.g., the word aimsear ‘time’, now with the meaning ‘weather’, was used for tempus ‘tense’, the word ainmfhocail ‘name-word’ was used for nomen ‘noun’ while Latin casus gives tuiseal ‘fall’ in Irish much as it does Fall in German (see Ó Cuív, 1965: 151ff. for more terms). The influence of Latin may perhaps be seen in the development of the word for ‘language’ itself. This is in Old Irish bélre (later through metathesis béarla) and is connected with the word bél (Modern Irish béal ‘mouth’). But a shift took place whereby the word teanga ‘tongue’ (Old Irish teng(a)e) came to mean ‘language’ (cf. Latin lingua) and the term béarla acquired the meaning ‘English’ although the Irish ethnonym for the English derives from ‘Saxon’: Sasanach (noun and adjective).

The second situation is one where calques were formed. Thus one has firinscneach and baininscneach for ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’, both terms deriving from inflected forms of the words for ‘man’ fear and ‘woman’ bean and meaning ‘with male or female gender’ respectively; pronomen results in forainm literally ‘pre-name’; praefixus appears as réamhlitir literally ‘in-front-of letter’, etc. Later Latin terms, formed from Greek originals are also calqued, e.g. morphologia (Priscian’s accidentia) is rendered as deilbhíocht ( < deilbh ‘shape’ + íocht quality noun suffix) ‘the study of forms or shapes’, compare German Formenlehre in this connection.

The third means of forming equivalents is by simply adopting the Latin term into Irish, its Irish appearance deriving from the phonological reshaping which took place on borrowing, e.g. genetivus results in ginideach, declinatio in díochlaonadh, adjectivum in aideacht, etc.


Adams, George Brendan 1970. ‘Grammatical analysis and terminology in the Irish Bardic schools’, Folia Linguistica 4: 157-166.

Ahlqvist, Anders 1979-80.‘The three parts of speech of Bardic grammar’, Studia Celtica 14/15: 12-17.

Ahlqvist, Anders 1983. The early Irish linguist: An edition of the canonical part of the Auricept na nÉces. With introduction, commentary and indices. (Helsinki: Societas Scientiarum Fennica). Commentationes Humanarum Scientiarum 7.

Ahlqvist, Anders 1993. Téarmaíocht gramadaí na Sean-Ghaeilge [Grammatical terms in Old Irish]. Dublin.

Ahlqvist, Anders (ed.) 1992. Diversions of Galway. Papers on the history of linguistics from ICHL5, Galway. Amsterdam: Benjamins.

Ball, Martin J. (ed.) 1993. The Celtic languages. London: Routledge.

Bhaldraithe, Tomás de 1945. The Irish of Chois Fhairrge, Co.Galway. Dublin: Institute for Advanced Studies.

Calder, G. 1917. Auraicept na n-Éces/The Scholar’s Primer. Edinburgh: John Grant.

Clercq, Jan de and Pierre Swiggers 1992.‘The Hibernian connection: Irish grammaticography in Louvain’, in Ahlqvist (ed.), 85-102.

Dorian, Nancy 1978. East Sutherland Gaelic. Dublin: Institute for Advanced Studies.

Dottin, Georges 1913. Manuel d’irlandais moyen. 2 vols Paris: Champion.

Holder, Alfred 1896, 1904, 1907 Alt-celtischer Sprachschatz. 3 vols. Leipzig: B. G. Teubner.

Lewis, Henry and Holger Pedersen 1937. A concise comparative Celtic grammar. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht.

Macaulay, Donald et al. 1992. The Celtic languages. Cambridge: University Press. Cambridge Language Surveys.

McCone, Kim et al. (eds) 1994. Stair na Gaeilge. In ómós do Pádraig Ó Fiannachta [The history of Irish. In honour of Patrick O’Finaghty] St. Patrick’s Maynooth: Department of Irish.

MacCurtin, Hugh 1972 [1728]. The elements of the Irish language, grammatically explained in English. First printed in Louvain. Menston: The Scolar Press. English Linguistics 1500-1800, Vol. 351.

McKenna, Lambert 1979 [1944]. Bardic syntactical tracts. Dublin: Institute for Advanced Studies.

Ó Cuív, Brian 1965.‘Linguistic terminology in the Irish Bardic Tracts’, Transactions of the Philological Society 141-164.

O’Donovan, John 1845. A grammar of the Irish language. Dublin: Hodges and Smith.

Pedersen, Holger 1897. Aspirationen i irsk. [Aspiration in Irish] Copenhagen: Spirgatis.

Pedersen, Holger 1909-13. Vergleichende Grammatik der keltischen Sprachen. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck und Ruprecht.

Pokorny, Julius 1969. Altirische Grammatik. Berlin: de Gruyter.

Sjoestedt-Jonval, Marie-Louise 1931. Phonétique d’un parler irlandais de Kerry. Paris: Ernest Leroux.

Sjoestedt-Jonval, Marie-Louise 1938. Description d’un parler irlandais de Kerry. Paris: Champion.

Stockman, Gerald 1974. The Irish of Achill. Belfast: Institute of Irish Studies.

Thurneysen, Rudolf 1928.‘Auraicept na n-Éces’, Zeitschrift für Celtische Philologie 17: 277-303.

Thurneysen, Rudolf 1946. A grammar of Old Irish. Translated D. A. Binchy and O. Bergin. Dublin: Institute for Advanced Studies.

Vendryes, Joseph 1908. Grammaire du vieil-irlandais. Paris: Guilmoto.

Vendryes, Joseph 12959-78. Lexique étymologique de l’irlandais ancien. Dublin: Institute for Advanced Studies.

Wigger, Arndt 1970. Nominalformen im Connemara-Irischen. Hamburg: Lüdke.

Windisch, Ernst 1879. Kurzgefaßte irische Grammatik. Leipzig: Hirzel.

Early treatments of the Irish language (up to 18th century)

Richard Creagh (c.1525-1585) De origine linguae Hibernicae (not available)

John Kearney 1571. Alphabeticum et Ratio legendi Hibernicum, et Catechismus in eadem Lingua

Giolla Brighde Ó hEodhasa [O’Hussey] (c.1575-1614) Rudimenta Grammaticae Hibernicae. Louvain.

Francis O’Molloy 1677. Grammatica Latino-Hibernica, nunc compendiata. Louvain.

Micheál Ó Cléirigh (1575-1645) 1643. Foclóir [Irish dictionary]. Louvain.

Hugh McCurtin (1670-1755) 1728. The Elements of the Irish Language, grammatically explained in English, in fourteen chapters. Louvain.

Hugh McCurtin (1670-1755) 1732. English-Irish Dictionary. Paris.

Andrew Donlevy (1694-c.1765) 1742.‘The Elements of the Irish Language’ in: Irish-English Catechism.

Charles Vallancey 1773. Grammar of the Iberno-Celtic, or Irish Language. Enlarged edition 1782.