Sunday, June 4, 2017

Why I'm learning Irish.

"City Wall" in English and Irish, Kilkenny | Copyright Lynne Cantwell

I ran into our Irish instructor on the Metro a few weeks ago. I'd mentioned during the class that I'd studied Czech (more on how it came up below). So when he asked me on the train why I was learning Irish, I said, "Well, I've already studied one useless language, so..."

I was joking, mostly. Czech is a living language (although not for lack of invaders trying to kill it, first the Hapsburgs and later the Nazis), but as the Czech Republic isn't strategically important, studying the language is not likely to get you either a job with the CIA or a promotion at work. But still, about 10.5 million Czechs speak it every day.

Irish, too, is a living language (although not for lack of the English trying to kill it), but the number of those who speak it daily is much smaller -- about 74,000 people, according to Ireland's 2016 census -- and shrinking. Irish children are required to learn the language in school, but most adults say they haven't retained much.

So why am I bothering with these weird languages? The short answer is that it's part of my heritage. My mother's side of the family is all Czech, and a chunk of my father's side is Irish. But there's also the challenge of gaining insights into how people in other countries think, and grammar is one way to do that. No, really. In Czech, for example, you don't say something happens on Tuesday, you say it happens in Tuesday. It's kind of a neat concept, don't you think? Here's Tuesday's bucket, and you put the things that are happening that day inside of it.

It's also fun to see how language has changed over the centuries. All of the languages I speak or have studied -- English, Spanish, Czech, and Irish -- have a common proto-Indo-European root. (In fact, there are only a handful of languages spoken in Europe that aren't Indo-European in origin, Turkish and Finnish being among them.) So some really old words are at least a little similar. The word mother, for instance, is madre (pronounced MAH-dreh) in Spanish, matka (MAHT-kah) in Czech, and máthair (MAW-hirz) in Irish.

Did you notice how the Irish snuck in that z sound after the r? Irish, I'm learning, has two ways to pronounce nearly every consonant: broad and slender. In English, we do this with only a couple of consonants, particularly g (discuss: is gif pronounced with a hard or soft g?), but the Irish go whole hog. And the way you tell whether a particular consonant is broad or slender in Irish is by the vowel next to it.

So the i in máthair is silent -- it's there only to tell you that the r is slender. A slender r sounds kind of like rz in English, and similar to my old Czech friend ř -- r with a caron on top -- except Czech rolls its rs the way Spanish does, and Irish doesn't at all (which is going to take some getting used to).

Anyhow, it was the slender r discussion in which I brought up Czech. Another way Czech and Irish are similar is that nouns are declined in both -- that is, like in Latin, each noun changes in form, depending on what it's doing in the sentence. Irish only has two cases, though, whereas Czech has something like seven. And Irish has only two cases for nouns -- masculine and feminine -- while Czech has three. So Irish should be easier for me, right? Right. Other than all those extra vowels.

I've heard it said on separate occasions that the hardest language for English speakers to learn is either Czech or Irish. Gee, thanks, Mom and Dad.

These moments of linguistic blogginess have been brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell.

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