LINGUIST List 23.1465

Thu Mar 22 2012

Review: General Linguistics; Historical Ling.; Phonology: Hickey (2011)

Editor for this issue: Joseph Salmons <>

Date: 22-Mar-2012
From: Andrew Carnie <>
Subject: The Dialects of Irish
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AUTHOR: Raymond HickeyTITLE: The Dialects of IrishSUBTITLE: Study of a Changing LandscapeSERIES TITLE: Trends in Linguistics. Studies and Monographs [TiLSM] 230PUBLISHER: De Gruyter MoutonDATE: 2011

Andrew Carnie, Department of Linguistics, University of Arizona.

SUMMARYFollowing in a long tradition of Irish language dialect description (see forexample O'Rahilly 1932, Ó Cuiv 1951, Ó Siadhail 1989, Wagner 1958, among manyothers), this book provides a modern overview of the current state of Irishdialectology in the traditional Irish-speaking areas (or "Gaeltachts"). Itcontains brief summaries of the general properties of Irish phonology andorthography. It also attempts a reconstruction of some of the major featuresthat we might have expected to find in areas where the language is now extinct.The book is accompanied by a fantastic DVD with maps and recently gatheredsample sound files for each of the major features discussed in the book in eachof the dialect areas.

The book is divided into three major parts (introduction, the sound system ofIrish, and the dialects of Irish) and is followed up with over a hundred pagesof appendices and additional material. Each part is subdivided into subsections,many of which have the flavor of chapters although they are not numbered as such.

The introduction provides a bracing and realistic evaluation of the status ofthe Irish language today. The author concludes that fewer than 18000 speakersuse the language daily in the Gaeltacht, which less than 0.44% of the totalpopulation of the island. This number is startling given the current officialgovernment assessments of language use -- assessments that are clearlyunrealistic. Hickey's numbers bring into focus the importance of doing acareful, modern, dialect study at this critical point in the decline of thelanguage. As Hickey observes, although the language may well continue to betransmitted through speakers in urban areas and by committed languagerevivalists, this transmission does not appear to be on going among traditionaldialect speakers in the Gaeltacht regions. So documentation in these places iscritical.

Part 2 covers the sound system of Irish, with an emphasis on the features thatvary among the dialects. The chapter outlines basic transcription practice, aswell as descriptions of lexical, morphological, and surface phonologicalprocesses. These include length distinctions, affrication, polarization (roughlypalatalization vs. velarization), vowel quality, diphthongization, phonotactics,syllable structure, assimilation processes, initial consonant mutation.Following Wells (1982), Hickey establishes lexical sets of words that can becompared for what amount to phonemic contrasts. One unique and particularlyinteresting property of this chapter is the information on the frequency ofsounds in the data set -- to my knowledge this kind of information has neverbeen gathered for the language before. Part 2 concludes with a very usefulsurvey of the many studies of individual dialects that were conducted in thelast century, including dialects that are no longer spoken.

Part 3 forms the real meat of the work. It begins with a brief history of thelanguage from the Old Irish period, with some discussion of the emergence of thedifferent dialect varieties. A thorough discussion of the methodology used inthis study are provided. The study is based on the recordings of 200 speakersfrom around Ireland. Ample maps are provided showing where the speakers werefrom. Clickable versions of these maps are available on the DVD. The software onthe DVD allows you to click on the place name and be linked to the relevantsound files. This survey, known as "Samples of Spoken Irish", includes speakersfrom a variety of age groups and both genders. However, no sociophoneticanalysis based on gender or age is attempted, although presumably such studiescould be reconstructed from the data. The survey included the following threemethodologies for gathering dating:

(a) Reading aloud from sentence lists (regionally adjusted for lexical content)which included all the relevant speech sounds.(b) Reading aloud of a text passage written in the region.(c) Translation from English into Irish of a set of sentences.

This last task is designed to reveal grammatical and morphological variationbetween and within larger dialect areas.

The dialects of Irish fall into three major groups (North, West and South). Thescope of variation within and between these dialects is characterized primarilythrough phonological criteria (e.g. whether there is epenthesis in compounds,whether palatalization is realized via affrication or not, the realization ofcertain orthographic vowels among many others -- there are too many suchdimensions to discuss here). One particularly insightful discussion covered howthe historically geminate "tensed" sonorants are realized in the various dialectgroups, as well as how vowels before these sonorants are either lengthened ordiphthongized. Lexical variation between the dialects is not really discussed,but this is reasonable given the coverage of lexis in other sources on thelanguage. Grammatical variation is also discussed, but to a much smaller degreethan phonological variation. Grammatical topics include variation in verbalinflection, grammatical gender, the use of the relative form of the verb, andthe type of negation used. The descriptive content of part 3 concludes with aninteresting description of the prosodic features of the language.

The fifth section of part 3 is devoted to the first step of reconstructing someof the major features of now extinct and sometimes long extinct dialects. UsingAnglicizations of place names as well as historical dialect records, certainfeatures emerge of dialects intermediate in location between the currentGaeltacht regions. Two extensive examples are given.

Part 3 closes with a very brief discussion of other kinds of variation in Irish,including the utterances of young female native speakers, and of non-native orpartially native speakers, especially in the urban areas.

The book includes a number of important appendices, including more informationon the history of the language, a discussion of Irish orthography, details ontraditional and IPA transcriptions of the language, the samples of text andsentence lists read by the speakers, some instructions on how to use the DVDsoftware and a comprehensive glossary.

EVALUATIONThe book is a truly outstanding contribution. Comparative work of this scaleabout Irish simply has never been so systematically and thoroughly done. Theaccompanying DVD is an utter delight. It is easy to use and contains a wealth ofadditional information. The sound files bring to life the textual descriptionsof linguistic variation. There is no doubt that readers of the book should havethe DVD loaded on a computer right next to them as they work their way through.The two go hand in hand.

I can't write a review without nitpicking on a few points, but none shoulddistract from the high quality of this book. It is an impressive piece of work.One thing I was disappointed in was that there was very little discussion ofurban dialects of Irish, and none of the recordings of the Samples of SpokenIrish included these varieties. The reason the author chose to do this isobvious, the speakers of these forms often -- although not always -- exhibitnon-native like language competence. There is also a great deal of controversyamong Irish language scholars, particularly in the applied linguistic community,about "legitimizing" these non-traditional (and often grammatically bleached)forms of the language. Nevertheless I think it's a linguistic reality that thefuture of Irish may well live on in these speech communities. So documentationof the emergence of these varieties, especially in the context of thetraditional Gaeltacht speakers would be helpful. This is especially true sincemany speakers even in the Gaeltacht are showing the influence of linguisticchange in the face of Dublin and Belfast Irish. On a similar note, I would haveenjoyed reading more about sociolinguistic variation. The author's decision toexclude such studies here is well motivated, as there is largely a lack ofvertical social structure in the Gaeltacht. The discussion of younger femalespeakers at the end of the book is a welcome exception. As a syntactician I wishthere had been more exploration of grammatical issues, as the book is largelyfocused on phonology. One clear example that isn't discussed is the variation incase and word order of non-finite clauses with overt subjects first discussed inMcCloskey (1980).

There are a few minor errors, like these: page 37, 2nd paragraph dis-+inguishesshould be distinguishes; and page 78, example 25, the Irish orthographic formscontain pronouns that don't correspond to the transcriptions. The bottom line in(a) should read "Leagann muid", and (b) should be "Nionn muid". However, thebook is otherwise well edited and an easy read for a specialized and technicaldescription.

We have a work of the highest quality in front of us. It should be of interestnot only to Celticists and phonologists, but also to other linguists who areinvestigating variation in endangered languages. This is particularly true forscholars looking at languages with non-contiguous communities of speakers. Themethodology and presentation are as enlightening as the language-specificresults. I strongly recommend it to anyone with an interest in the Celticlanguages or in variationist studies in general.

REFERENCESMcCloskey, James (1980). Is there Raising in Modern Irish? Ériu 39: 59-99.

Ó Cuív, Brian (1951). Irish Dialects and Irish-Speaking Districts. Dublin:Institute for Advanced Studies.

O'Rahilly, Thomas F. (1932). Irish Dialects Past and Present. Dublin: Browne &Nolan.

Ó Siadhail, Michael (1989). Modern Irish: Grammatical Structure and DialectalVariation (Cambridge University Press)

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

Wells, John (1982). Accents of English. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

ABOUT THE REVIEWERAndrew Carnie is Professor of Linguistics, and Faculty Director of GraduateInterdisciplinary Programs at the University of Arizona. His researchfocuses on the syntax, morphology, phonetics, and phonology of the CelticLanguages, with a particular emphasis on Irish and Scottish Gaelic. Herecently has been exploring experimental and instrumental investigations ofthe Scottish Gaelic sound system. His books include "The Syntax of VSOlanguages" (2000, OUP, with E. Guilfoyle), "Formal Approaches to Function"(2003, Benjamins, with H. Harley and M. Willie), "Verb First" (2005,Benjamins, with H. Harley and S. Dooley), "Irish Nouns" (2008),"Constituent Structure", 2nd Edition (2010, OUP), "Modern Syntax" (2011,CUP), "Formal Approaches to Celtic Linguistics" (2011, C-SP). The third editionof “Syntax: A Generative Introduction”, published by Wiley-Blackwell, will be comingout this summer.

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