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    Studies of Irish

   Historical background
   The bardic tracts
   Early grammars of Irish
   Linguistic terminology in Irish
   Studies in Irish phonology
   Mid-20th century dialect studies
   Phonological theory

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 speculation, such as that of O’Donovan (1845: 55) who saw 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

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 to 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 language1773) by Charles Vallancey 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 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. This culminated 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.

Studies in the phonology of Irish

Linguistic investigations into the sound structure of modern Irish stem from the end of the 19th century. The milestone among these is definitely Pedersen (1897), the same scholar who wrote the monumental comparative grammar (see above). Unfortunately, no English version of this work was published, but it nonetheless set the tone for many investigations of Irish dialects in the 20th century. Pedersen had done fieldwork for his work in the west of Ireland and had indeed been to the Aran Islands collecting data where Finck also did research (see Finck 1899). The study of Irish dialects can be said to date from both their works. Henebry’s 1898 thesis on Irish in Waterford is slight in comparison to the works just mentioned. A bridge between Pedersen and Finck on the one hand and the dialect studies described in the next paragraph on the other is provided by Sommerfelt’s 1922 study of a dialect of Donegal Irish and by Sjoestedt-Jonval’s two studies of Irish in Co. Kerry (Sjoestedt-Jonval 1931, 1938).

Mid-20th century dialect studies

Between the early 1940s and the late 1960s a number of dialect studies appeared which cover the major dialect areas, indeed in many cases they record varieties in communities which have all but ceased to exist. These studies cover the various areas where Irish was still spoken in the first half of the 20th century from Co. Cork in the south to Co. Donegal in the north (see locations marked on the map of all the Gaeltacht areas in tree on left). The dialect studies were instigated by Thomas O’Rahilly and published by the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies (which has also produced books on Scottish Gaelic, see Dorian 1978 and Ó Murchú 1989).

The studies published by the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies are all investigations of individual Irish-speaking areas. There was a rough blueprint for each of these books. The first half consists of a phonetic description of sounds and texts and the second half of remarks on the historical development of the dialect in question. The studies are good phonological taxonomies, but little linguistic analysis is offered and they all share certain inaccuracies, for instance in transcription and in the systemic assignments made for certain sounds. As a rule they contain little information on morphology (but see de Bhaldraithe 1953a, a comprehensive treatment of the morphology of the Cois Fhairrge dialect) and none on syntax. To this day they still serve as standard sources for information on varieties at a time when they were still relatively vibrant. The main studies in this group are the following.

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

Bhaldraithe, Tomás de 1953. Gaeilge Chois Fhairrge. An deilbhíocht. [The Irish of Cois Fhairrge. The morphology] Dublin: Institute for Advanced Studies.

Breatnach, Risteard B. 1947. The Irish of Ring, Co. Waterford. Dublin: Institute for Advanced Studies.

Búrca, Seán de 1958. The Irish of Tourmakeady, Co. Mayo. Dublin: Institute for Advanced Studies.

Ó Cuív, Brian 1944. The Irish of West Muskerry, Co. Cork. Dublin: Institute for Advanced Studies.

Mhac an Fhailigh, Éamonn 1968. The Irish of Erris, Co. Mayo. Dublin: Institute for Advanced Studies.

Wagner, Heinrich 1979 [1959]. Gaeilge Theilinn. [The Irish of Teelin (Co. Donegal)] 2nd edition. Dublin: Institute for Advanced Studies.

The single major work which attempted to give an overview of all the dialects both within the established Gaeltacht and in English-speaking areas, where Irish had been spoken shortly before the investigation was made, is the four-volume atlas by Heinrich Wagner.

Wagner, Heinrich 1958-64.
Linguistic atlas and survey of Irish dialects. 4 Vols.
Dublin: Institute for Advanced Studies.

Some of the loopholes in the coverage of historically continuous varieties of Irish were filled somewhat later with publications by the Institute of Irish Studies in Belfast, e.g. by Stockman (1974) on the Irish of Achill, Hamilton (1974) on the Irish of Tory Island and by Lucas (1979) on the Irish of Ros Goill, the latter two locations in north Co. Donegal. A study of east Mayo Irish based on recovered material from a mid 20th century study by Thomas J. Lavin is to be found in Ó Catháin (forthcoming). Ó Curnáin (1996) is an unpublished thesis on the Irish of Iorras Aithneach (the western edge of the Connemara Gaeltacht) in Co. Galway. A very comprehensive treatment of this dialect, based on the thesis, is to be found in Ó Curnáin (4 vols, 2007).

Phonological theory and Irish

Linguistic analyses of modern Irish phonology are not very common. In the past 50 years there have been a number of dissertations, most produced in America, with a few others from Germany and Poland. The earliest of these is Hughes (1952, PhD Columbia, New York) followed by Krauss (1958, PhD Harvard). Boyle [= Ó Baoill] (1973, PhD Ann Arbor, Michigan), entitled Generative phonology and the study of Irish dialects is the first work to consider the dialects of Irish within a theoretical framework (though Wigger 1970 had done this for the nominal area in one dialect). Boyle’s study does not suffer from the weaknesses of Ó Siadhail and Wigger (1975) (see below) but nonetheless often evinces too much abstraction in the underlying forms posited for surface forms. For instance, Boyle attempts (1973: 192) to derive all autonomous verb forms from a single underlying form. The criticism of too great abstraction applies even more to Ó Baoill’s underlying forms for the prepositional pronouns in all the dialects including Scottish Gaelic (1973: 82-97). It should be said that this approach was common at the time and that the author has since presented studies with a different orientation.

Kelly (1978, PhD Austin, Texas) is a comparative work dealing with the interface of phonology and morphology and offers a comparison of Irish with the native American language Southern Paiute which has a partially comparable system of initial mutation. Nilsen (1975, PhD Harvard) is a largely non-theoretical study of the sound structure of a dialect in west Galway. Ní Chiosáin (1991, PhD Amherst, Mass.) is quite different in its theoretical orientation and its application of recent phonological approaches to synchronic Irish data. Cyran (1997, PhD Lublin) is in a similar vein, in this case dedicated to an analysis of Southern Irish within a government phonology framework as is Bloch-Rozmej (1998). Both these Polish dissertations have been published.

There are two other monographs on the sound system of Irish in the past few decades. The first of these is Ó Siadhail and Wigger (1975). The title of this study, Córas fuaimeanna na Gaeilge, literally translates as ‘The sound pattern of Irish’, a direct reference to Chomsky and Halle (1968). One of the main aims of the authors is to posit abstract underlying forms which are taken to be those which form the basis of the different surface realisations in the various present-day dialects (see the discussion of nasalisation, Ó Siadhail and Wigger 1975: 32ff., as an example of this approach). While underlying forms may recapitulate history in representing those forms which were the outset for later changes, there is little justification in claiming that they still represent forms which speakers manipulate in deriving the surface forms of their respective dialects.

The monograph, Modern Irish. Grammatical structure and dialectal variants (Ó Siadhail 1989), is difficult to assess, given its strengths and obvious weaknesses. The work offers a solid traditional description of the phonology and morphology and also of the syntax of Modern Irish by a writer who knows his material well. The difficulty is that Ó Siadhail supports the view, first proposed by him in Ó Siadhail and Wigger (1975) and explicitly continued in the current monograph (Ó Siadhail 1989: xv), that all the dialects can be linked up with each other by positing abstract underlying forms. This idea, propounded in the immediate aftermath of classicial generative phonology (see Noam Chomsky and Morris Halle The Sound Pattern of English 1968) by such authors as Newton (1972) on Modern Greek, had already been abandoned by the mid 1980s when this book was being written.

It should be said that generative treatments of Irish often had a specific goal. All of them (with the exception of Wigger 1970) deal with several dialects and express the view that this method could provide a unified framework for all the dialects (Ó Murchú 1969), indeed that generative phonology could be a practical aid towards developing a synthesis of the dialects. This notion, that dialects could be linked up to each other by common underlying forms, was prevalent in the later 1960s and early 1970s, but is no longer adhered to.


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.

Bloch-Rozmej, Anna 1998. Element interactions in phonology. A study of Connemara Irish. Lublin: University Press.

Boyle, Donald (= Ó Baoill, Dónall) 1973. Generative phonology and the study of Irish dialects. PhD thesis, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

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

Chomsky, Noam and Morris Halle 1968. The sound pattern of English. New York: Harper and Row.

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

Cyran, Eugenuisz 1997. Resonance elements in phonology. A study in Munster Irish. Lublin: Folium Press.

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

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

Finck, Franz Nikolaus 1899. Die araner mundart. Ein beitrag zur erforschung des westirischen. 2 Bde. Marburg: Elwert’sche Buchhandlung.

Hamilton, Noel 1974. A phonetic study of the Irish of Tory Island. Belfast: Institute for Irish Studies.

Henebry, Richard 1898. A contribution to the phonology of Déise-Irish. PhD thesis: University of Greifswald.

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

Hughes, John P. 1952. A phonemic description of the Aran dialect of Modern Irish with a detailed consideration of problems of palatalization. PhD thesis, New York: Columbia University.

Kelly, Deirdre Mary 1978. Morphologization in Irish and Southern Paiute. PhD thesis, Austin: University of Texas.

Krauss, Martin 1958. Studies in Gaelic phonology and orthography. PhD thesis: Harvard University.

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

Lucas, Leslie 1979. Grammar of Ros Goill Irish. Belfast: Institute of Irish Studies.

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.

Ní Chiosáin, Máire 1991. Topics in the phonology of Irish. PhD thesis: University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

Nilsen, Kenneth 1975. The phonology and morphology of Bun a’Cruc, Sraith Salach, Co. Galway. PhD thesis: Harvard University.

Ó Catháin, Brian forthcoming. The Irish of East Mayo: A Phonetic Study. Dublin: Institute for Advanced Studies.

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

Ó Curnáin, Brian 1996. Aspects of the Irish of Iorras Aithneach, County Galway. Unpublished PhD thesis, National University of Ireland.

Ó Curnáin, Brian 2007. The Irish of Iorras Aithneach, County Galway. 4 vols. Dublin: Institute for Advanced Studies.

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

Ó Murchú, Mairtín 1969.‘Common core and underlying representations’, Ériu 21, 42-75.

Ó Murchú, Mairtín 1989. East Perthshire Gaelic. Dublin: Institute for Advanced Studies.

Ó Siadhail, Mícheál 1989. Modern Irish. Grammatical structure and dialectal variants Cambridge: University Press.

Ó Siadhail, Mícheál and Arndt Wigger 1975. Córas fuaimeanna na Gaeilge. [The sound pattern of Irish] Dublin: Institute for Advanced Studies.

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.

Wagner, Heinrich 1958-64. Linguistic atlas and survey of Irish dialects. 4 Vols. 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.