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Irish Gaelic 

Céad míle fáilte

Irish Gaelic (Gaeilge nah Eireann)  is a Celtic language spoken by 138,000 people as a first language, and by another 1,000,000 people as a second language in Ireland with 276,000 first-language speakers worldwide (Ethnologue).The language is sometimes referred to as GaelicIrish Gaelic, or Erse, but in Ireland it is simply called Irish.


Republic of Ireland

Irish was the only language spoken in Ireland until the 17th century, but the dominance of English and the effects of 19th-century potato famines and emigration led to a sharp decline in the population. Today, Irish is spoken as a first language by a small minority of the population of Ireland. The main concentrations of native Irish speakers are scattered along the west coast of Ireland. An Irish-speaking area is called Gaeltacht.   Ireland map When the Republic of Ireland was established in 1922, Irish was adopted as an official language, along with English. Since then it has been a compulsory subject in government-funded schools. A relatively recent development is the spread of gaelscoileanna, i.e., schools in which Irish is the medium of instruction. Irish is also used in radio broadcasting (Raidió na Gaeltachta), television (Teilifis na Gaeilge), in newspapers, magazines, literature, theater, and the arts. In spite of all these efforts, the future of the Irish language remains uncertain. Although the number of speakers of Irish is rising in urban areas due to Irish-medium instruction, young people in Gaeltacht tend to use the language less than their elders, preferring to communicate in English.

Northern Ireland

Irish is an officially recognized minority language in Northern Ireland. It received official recognition in Northern Ireland for the first time in 1998 under the Good Friday Agreement. There is a cross-border body that promotes the language in both the Republic of Ireland and in Northern Ireland.

European Union

Irish became an official language of the European Union in 2005.


There are three major dialects with considerable variation among them (Ethnologue).

  • Munster-Leinster (Southern Irish)
  • Connacht (Western Irish)
  • Donegal (Ulster, Northern Irish)


There is also some evidence that the Irish spoken in urban areas and that spoken in Gaeltacht by an older population are becoming progressively more distinct.


Sound system

The sound system of the Irish language varies from dialect to dialect; there is no standard pronunciation of the language.The description below is of a somewhat ‘idealized’ phonology of Irish.


Irish vowels can be long or short. Vowel length makes a difference in word meaning. In writing, long vowels are marked with an acute accent (known in Irish as síneadh fada or simply fada ‘long mark’), e.g., í, é, á, ú, ó. In the table below, vowel length is indicated by a macron over the vowel.

i, ī
u, ū
e, ē
o, ō
a, ā
  • /ə/ occurs only in unstressed syllables.
  • There are 5 diphthongs: /au, ai, ei, uə, iə/. Some dialects have additional diphthongs.



Below is an inventory of Irish consonant phonemes.

  • /?/ = sound between vowels in uh-oh
  • /z, ʒ/ occur only in borrowed words
  • /x, ɣ/ have no equivalents in English
  • /ʃ/ = sh in shop
  • /ʒ/ = s in vision
  • /ŋ/ = ng in song


All consonants except /h/ can be either velarized or palatalized. The velarized-palatalized distinction is commonly referred to as broad vs. slender. During the articulation of the sound, broad consonants are pronounced with the back of the tongue pulled back and slightly up towards the soft palate. Slender (palatalized) consonants are pronounced with the tongue pushed up toward the hard palate. The contrast between broad and slender consonants changes the meaning of a word. Broad-slender paired consonants are given below.



Irish words can begin with clusters of two or three consonants. In general, consonants in a cluster are either all broad or all slender. Like other Celtic languages, Irish words undergo several kinds of initial mutations:



For the most part, Irish words are stressed on the first syllable. There are some exceptions.


Irish is a highly inflected language.


  • Irish nouns are marked for gender. In general, words ending in a broad consonant are masculine, while words ending in a slender consonant are feminine.
  • Irish nouns have four cases: nominativevocativegenitive, and dative. There are five noun declensions that depend on several factors.
  • The definite article has two forms: an and na. Their distribution depends on whether the noun is singular or plural, on the case of the noun, and on the initial sound of the noun. There is no indefinite article.
  • Adjectives follow the nouns they modify and agree with them in gender, number, and case.



Irish makes no distinction between familiar and formal second person pronouns, such as tu-vous in French, and tu-Usted in Spanish. Personal pronouns are not marked for case, but there are three different sets of pronouns:

  • Conjunctive
    If the personal pronoun is the subject of a sentence, the conjunctive forms are used.
  • Disjunctive
    If a pronoun is not the subject, or if a subject pronoun does not follow the verb, the disjunctive form is used.
  • Emphatic
    These forms are used to emphasize the pronoun.


An interesting feature of Irish grammar is fusion of pronouns with prepositions (sometimes called inflected prepositions), as in the following examples using the preposition ag ‘at’.

1st person
agam ‘at me’ againn ‘at us’
2nd person
agat ‘at you’ (singular) agaibh ‘at you’ (plural)
3rd person
aige ‘at him’
aici ‘at her’
acu ‘at them’



There are three kinds of cardinal numbers in Irish:

  • Disjunctive numbers are used in arithmetic, in telling time, in telephone numbers and after nouns in forms, e.g., bus a tri ‘bus 3‘.
  • Non-human conjunctive numbers used for counting non-humans, e.g, tri chapall ‘three horses’.
  • Human conjunctive numbers used to count nouns that stand for humans, e.g., triúr páiste ‘three children’.



  • There are two conjugations.
  • Verbs are marked for person (1st, 2nd, 3rd) and number (singular and plural). In addition to the three persons, Irish also has an impersonal form, also called the ‘autonomous’ form, used in forming passives and which means ‘one’ or ‘someone’.
  • There are four verb forms for tense/aspect: present, past (habitual and preterite), and future. Irish verb forms are constructed either synthetically or analytically. Synthetic forms express information about person and number in the ending, e.g., molaim ‘I praise’ where the ending –aim represents ‘1st person singular present tense.’ Pronouns are not used. Analytic forms contain no information about person and number, e.g, molann sibh ‘you praise’ where the ending –ann represents the present tense, and the pronoun sibh ‘ you’ represents the 2nd person plural.
  • There are three moodsindicativeconditionalimperative.



Although Irish has borrowed some words from English, its basic vocabulary is inherently Celtic. Here are some basic words and phrases in Irish:

Welcome Fáilte
Good bye Slán
Please Le do thoil
Thank you Go raibh maith agat
Sorry Tá brón orm
A hundred thousand big welcomes Céad míle fáilte
Man Fear
Woman Bean


Below are the numerals 1-10 in Irish Gaelic.



Celtic languages were originally written with the ogham alphabet. It consisted of 25 letters. About 500 ogham inscriptions dating back to the 4th-7th centuries AD have been found in Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and England. Some linguists think that the ogham alphabet was used primarily for record keeping. Ogham letters consisted of one to five perpendicular or angled strokes, meeting or crossing a center line. The form of the letters allowed them to be carved on wood, stone, or metal. Each letter was named after a tree or a plant, e.g.,



The Latin alphabet was introduced into Ireland by British missionaries in the 5th century BC. Today, all Celtic languages are written with adapted versions of the Latin alphabet. Because the Latin alphabet was not entirely suited for representing the sounds of Celtic languages, there were many ambiguities and inconsistencies in the spelling systems that persist to this day. Spelling and grammar were oficially standardised in 1958 with Gramadach na Gaeilge agus Litriú na Gaeilge – An Caighdeán Oifigiúil and a ‘reviewed’ stadard was issued in 2012 – Gramadach na Gaeilge: An Caighdeán Oifigiúil. This is the standard used in all official documents. It increasingly affects the spoken language, since the number of native speakers from Gaeltacht regions with distinctive dialects is declining.

A a
B b
C c
Ch ch
D d
Dd dd
E e
F f
Ff ff
G g
Ng ng
H h
I i
L l
Ll ll
M m
N n
O o
P p
Ph ph
R r
Rh rh
S s
T t
Th th
U u
W w
Y y


A a
B b
C c
D d
E e
F f
G g
H h
I i
L l
M m
N n
O o
P p
R r
S s
T t
U u


A a B b Ch ch C’h c’h D d E e F f F f G g H h I i J j K k L l
M m N n O o P p R r S s T t U u V v W w Y y Z z


Language Difficulty
questionHow difficult is it to learn Irish-Gaelic? There is no data on the difficulty of Irish Gaelic for speakers of English since the language is rarely taught in settings where standardized testing is used and records are kept.

19 Responses to Irish Gaelic

  1. EDward HIckey

    I remember learning gaelic in grammar school 55 years ago. My problem then and remains so was/is the alphabet or lack of one. Gaelic is not a difficult language, but the alphabet makes it very difficult to spell or pronounce written gaelic, which never resembles the spoken language.

    We need a better alphabet.

    • Irene Thompson

      Very true. The writing system is not a very accurate representation of the spoken language.

  2. Clint Ryan D castuera

    good day,
    i want to learn more about the language of gaelic/irish so that i can communicate to my friend
    thank you

    • Irene Thompson

      Do you mean you want to learn to speak the language? If so, you should be looking for
      Gaelic courses, maybe there are some online.

  3. Alexander Dietz

    I am myself a learner of Irish and a friend of Ireland and Irish culture. I have been in Ireland a number of times and befriended to a family of mothertongue speakers whose roots are in the Dingle and Muskerry Gaeltacht.

    Yes, the old, small-swathe Gaeltacht dialects handed down within families may vanish in the coming years for more English-influenced, great-regional forms of the tongue. You can make out some changes in the Gaeltacht between younger and older speakers on the one hand and between speakers from the strongest and the other Gaeltacht swathes on the other hand. For byespell, the rolled r has often changed to an English-like r. The rolled r can still be heard from some older speakers and those from the Central Donegal and Central Conamara Gaeltacht.

    Beside the folks of the Gaeltacht and with Gaeltacht roots, the drive to ednew Gaelic culture led to a small, slowly rising lot of folks brought up with so-called urban Irish from birth. Some purists call it bad Irish, but it will have to be worthed as soon as its mothertongue and day-to-day speakers will rise beyond an utmost small share of Ireland’s folkset. Dublin might unwrap its own, newly raising dialect.

    The former Irish around Dublin might be seen as a fourth, oldtime main dialect which has died out and is tried to be brought back by a small lot of folks: Leinster Irish. The other shares of Leinster have had dialects that may belong to the main dialects of the neighbouring provinces.

    In Northern Ireland, the Ulster Irish as found in the Donegal Gaeltacht and quite unsame to Galway and Munster Irish, has gained ground over time. East Ulster Irish had been a kind of link between Irish and Scottish Gaelic.


  4. Mike Banahan

    With barely any Irish at all yet, I’d make some corrections to your vocabulary section, as it’s actually wrong even for a beginner.

    Get rid of Yes and No: sea is actually a contracted form of ‘is ea’ (it is); c.f.’ni hea’ (not it is). Both are only appropriate answers to specfic forms of copula-based questions and other similar but notably different answers would be used for other forms of question. Irish just doesn’t have a yes/no construct, questions can only be constructed by using a verb and the appropriate response is always a positive or negative answer, always including the verb again. For example ‘do you speak/have Irish’ ‘an bhfuil tú Gaeilge agat’, lit. ‘is Irish at you’, is answered either ‘tá (is)’ or ‘níl (is not)’. For the grammaropaths, ‘níl’ is actually a contracted form of ‘ní bhfuil’. Tá and (bh)fuil are both forms of the irregular verb of existence ‘bí’, ‘to be’ is the closest English form, Irish having two independent verb-like constructs that deal with existence and identity. It’s probably no accident that Irish ‘bí’ and English ‘be’ are pronounced very similarly and the other Irish pseudoverb is ‘is’; however the similarity apparently stops at the pronunciation.

    Thank you is ‘go raibh maith agat’ (lit. may there be good at you). ‘Go raibh’ is meaningless stand-alone, it’s a subjunctive form of ‘bí’ with a possible English translation of ‘may there be’. Often shortened to ‘grma’ online or in text messages the full four-word form is a standard basic phrase.

    The word for thousand ‘míle’ sometimes doubles as an intensifier in Irish so you also see ‘go raibh míle maith agat’ – a thousand good to you – as ‘thank you very much’. The same intensifier is also found in ‘céad míle fáilte’ (a hundred thousand/big welcomes) and ‘is tú mo mhíle grá’ literally ‘is/are you my thousand love’ but in practice something like ‘you are my great love’ or thereabouts. That latter example uses ‘is’ and is not related to ‘bí’.

    Notice the mutation of the initial consonant in ‘mhíle’ caused by the preceding ‘mo’. This is a central feature of the language and is a challenge for the complete beginner. The pronunciation changes from something roughly like English ‘meal-uh’ to ‘veal-uh’. And ‘an bhfuil’ is pronounced something like ‘on wool’ since bhf comes out approximately as a ‘w’ sound (bh => w, f silenced grammatically). Irish orthography takes some time to wrap your head around, but once you get there it is at least mostly consistent. Words with initial mutations makes using dictionaries interesting until you learn the simple rules to get back to the root.

    • Irene Thompson

      Thank you for the corrections. We will make the appropriate changes.

  5. Charlie

    I mo thuraim is teanga deacair go leor e an nGaeilge, ach is brea liom e!!!!!!!! Ach, Mona bhfuil tu o Eire nil aon phionte an ag foghlaim e mar ni bheith se in unsaid agat!!!!

    • Irene Thompson

      Could you provide a translation into English so more visitors and ourselves could read it? Thank you.

  6. Pingback: Welsh & Irish Languages: Still Relevant in Society Today? | Listen & Learn

  7. Fearghas Mac Nic

    Charlie’s message of 02/10/14 translates as:

    In my opinion, Irish is a difficult language, but I love it. If you are not from Ireland, there is no point in learning it because you will not use it.

    There is a couple mistakes in the Irish:
    1. ‘an Ghaeilge’ and not ‘an nGaeilge
    2. Mona should be Muna
    3. ‘O Eire’ should be ‘on Eirinn’ with a fada on the ‘o’ and the ‘E’
    4. ‘Aon phionte’ should be ‘Aon phionte’

    5 ‘an’ after ‘phionte’ should be ‘ann’
    6. ‘ag foghlaim e’ should be ‘ a foghlaim’ with a fada on the ‘a’
    7. ‘ ni bheith’ should be ‘ ni bheidh’ with a fada on the ‘I’ in ‘ni’
    8. A no of fadas have been left out.

    I hope I have made all of the corrections.

  8. Fearghas Mac Nic

    I see that I have made a mistake in 4

    ‘ Aon phionte’ should be ‘Aon phointe’

  9. renato

    I love Irish language, since I was a little boy I wanted to learn the language. but I see it is too difficult for a Brazilian, I only know few words and sentences

  10. Vanessa Bushell

    Dia Dhuit

    I’m living in Australia and learning Irish from Bitesize Irish Gaelic which is an online learning program with wonderful podcasts that cover Irish history, music, writing and culture and of course links to their native language. Through that program I’ve hooked up with Facebook groups that Skype across the world, translate books into Irish, and promote the language through snippets of Irish with pronunciations and meanings. Now, I’ve met people living in Australia who speak some Irish who I’m trying inspire to talk to me in Irish 🙂

    All in all, the more I learn and look for avenues to learn Irish, the more I find. And what is most wonderful is the emerging international community of speakers who are lovely people. It turning out to be an amazing journey! Go raibh maith agat (thank you)!

  11. pesan snack box

    Thanks for finally writing about >Irish Gaelic | About World
    Languages <Liked it!

  12. Simon Ager

    The native name of Irish is Gaeilge. The name you have should be written Gaeilge na hÉireann, and is only used when you want to distinguish between Irish, Manx and/or Scottish Gaelic.

  13. Peter Gerrard Flynn

    I am Canadian. I would love to learn Irish. I was told my great great grandparents on both sides spoke Irish. Each generation became more Canadian and lost the ability to speak Irish. I just know a few sentences and probably don’t pronounce the words correctly.


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