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Review of  A History of the Irish Language

Reviewer: Andrew Carnie
Book Title: A History of the Irish Language
Book Author: Aidan Doyle
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Historical Linguistics
Subject Language(s): Irish
Issue Number: 27.342

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Reviews Editor: Helen Aristar-Dry


This volume is an important contribution to not only the history of the Irish language, but of Ireland itself. It provides, for the first time in English, a comprehensive look at the links between language, culture, politics and religion in Ireland for the last 800 years. The book is written for a non-specialist audience, and would be particularly appropriate for the lay reader or undergraduate with an interest in better understanding how the dominant language of a country and people can descend to being a severely endangered language.

Doyle limits the time frame for this history from roughly 1200 -- the start of the Norman Invasion -- to 1922 – the founding of the Irish Free State. The history of the Irish language, of course extends beyond these dates, but the choice here makes sense. In effect it sets the bounds of the history to the versions of the language commonly called “Modern Irish” (including Early Modern Irish (EMI) and Late Modern Irish (LMI). Older forms of the language are briefly discussed in the second chapter. The reason Doyle selects 1922 as the end date for his work has to do with the fact that it was around that time Irish became a language largely dominated by second language speakers, and in effect has changed or is in the process of changing because of that.

The book is composed of 9 chapters, most of which (except for the last three) are divided into two parts: a social history of the country and the language followed by a description of the critical linguistic trends of the period. Each chapter ends in a helpful further reading section and the book concludes with a glossary of technical terms for the non-linguist.

Chapter 1 sets the scene laying out some critical assumptions about history and defines such notions as standard languages, dialects, inter-language and bilingualism.

Chapter 2, The Anglo-Normans and their Heritage (1200-1500), starts with the Anglo-Norman invasion of Ireland. This marks the first time that some form of English is introduced to the island, so marks an important turning point in the history of the language. Also important is the introduction of new legal and social systems, which disrupt the native traditions. Doyle covers the eventual Gaelicization of the Anglo-Norman aristocracy, but observes that despite this switch of languages, English did have an effect on the shape and form of the language largely through borrowing. Perhaps the most interesting part of this chapter is the lengthy discussion of how we can make deductions about the form of the spoken language based on grammatical tracts that were written for poets. These track “correct” and “incorrect” usages, where the “incorrect” uses likely reflected the vernacular. I found this a fascinating use of prescriptive formulations to infer something about the actual state of the language.

In Chapter 3, The Tudors (1500-1600), Doyle looks at the impact that the renaissance and early reformation had on the use and form of the language. The renaissance brought education and a broader international perspective to the elites of the island. Henry VIII’s new Anglican church also became the official religion – although it failed to take root outside of the cities and towns. No religious education in either religion was conducted in Irish. It was also in this period that widespread settlement of the island began as a means of controlling rebellion. All of these factors impacted the status of Irish. The cities and towns became majority English-speaking and there were large swathes of the country that became bilingual. The status of Irish declined significantly. This is reflected in much wider spread code-switching and diglossia in the language.

Under the Stuarts and subsequently Cromwell’s Commonwealth (Chapter 4), things for Irish got worse. The country saw a significant shift in land ownership from the gaelicized Anglo-Normans to new protestant elites imported into the country. English was widely viewed as the vehicle for opportunity. The effect on the structure of the language was also significant. It’s at this time we see the switch to Late Modern Irish

Doyle next turns, in Chapter 5, to the widely held idea that Ireland between 1700 and 1800 was effectively a bicultural country. This idea was first presented by Daniel Corkery in his 1924 book “The Hidden Ireland.” The basic premise is that there was an extreme kind of diglossia at work in the country at this time. There were two language communities that lived side by side but had little contact with each other. On the other hand, this is also the beginning of a period of romanticization of the Celts, increased literacy among Irish speakers and very rudimentary attempts to document the language through dictionaries and grammars.

A New Language for a New Nation, Chapter 6, examines the important role that growing anti-British sentiment and Irish Nationalism had on the status of the language. The Irish nationalist Daniel O’Connell, advocated for a nativist politics and link between nationalism and native traditions. However, this nationalism did not necessarily translate into real advances for the Irish language. The bulk of the republican agenda was advanced through the medium of English. English was also the sole medium of education in the early 19th century. Evangelical bible societies of all the different religious groups promoted their religions through English. One also can’t forget that this was the period of the Potato Famine, which resulted in widespread emigration of Irish speakers. Even among native Irish speakers there were largely positive attitudes towards English, representing economic opportunity and negative attitudes towards their own language. The few attempts to document and revitalize the language during this time were largely academic and didn’t have roots in the native speaker communities. During the period described in this chapter, the status of Irish moved from being a primarily rural but widely spoken language to a language only spoken in the outlying areas of the country. The section of this chapter on the structure of the language focuses on orthographic reform, borrowing and the initial creation of neologisms for technology and science.

Chapters 7 and 8 focus on the revival movement from 1870-1922. Unlike other chapters these are not divided into history and structure sections. Chapter 7 is largely a historical review. Chapter 8 is about language structure and the modernization of the language during the period under consideration.

In Chapter 7, we learn about the Society for the Preservation of the Irish Language – an organization that was largely led by academics and was viewed skeptically by native speakers and second language learners – and its descendant, the Gaelic League, which was much more practical, but was tied at a deep intellectual level to developing a sense of Irishness that fed into republican nationalist politics, often to its detriment. This includes a discussion of some of the leading personalities in the movement including Douglas Hyde, Padraig Pearse and others. The successes of these movements, in particular the Gaelic League, included the sanctioning of education in Irish at all levels, the creation of Irish language cultural and sporting events, the publishing of newspapers and teaching aids and the establishment of the Gaelteacht regions for protecting the language. The challenges facing the league were however, also big. For example, the movement was largely lead by non-native speakers and many of the things they achieved were more symbolic than practical.

In Chapter 8 we learn more about the efforts discussed at the end of Chapter 6, for example, spelling and typographical reform, the creation of new vocabulary and the persistent effect of English on the grammar and lexicon. The challenges and failure in establishing a single national standard and new literary forms are also addressed.

Chapter 9 provides a frank evaluation of the state of Irish in 1922 and includes some interesting insights into what has happened since that date. For example, there was hope at the time of independence that Irish would in fact become the spoken language of the country again. In fact, the exact opposite has occurred: the few places where Irish was the dominant language in 1922 are now at best described as bilingual and are probably English dominant, especially among younger people. So over a 100 years of earnest revitalization efforts largely failed in their goals. On the other hand, it is still worth celebrating the successes of those efforts, such as documentation and the establishment of a robust community of second language speakers. The new Irish spoken by that L2 community is still evolving, so the story of Irish clearly isn’t over yet.


It is important to be clear about the audience for this book. It is not aimed at linguistic professionals. Its readership is most likely to be students of the Irish language or history. It is determinedly accessible for non-linguists. It has a chatty style and it avoids as much technical jargon as possible. This is not a scholarly monograph in the traditional sense. It has a loose citation style, largely avoiding inline citations or footnotes and instead puts citation at the end in the “further reading section”. I think the author’s goal here is laudable and he is successful in writing a contentful history of the language in a way that won’t be intimidating to non-specialists.

The flip side of this, of course is that specialists like the readers of the LINGUIST List are likely to be frustrated by the lack of rigor and detail that they may be otherwise accustomed to. One particularly striking example is the fact that Doyle provides some pronunciation guides for the language in English-style pronunciation forms. For example the sound [i] is rendered as “/ee/”. This is accessible, but imprecise. It’s made slightly worse by the fact that he puts these transcriptions between IPA style slash marks. As a linguist I was perpetually thrown off by this but I suppose Doyle’s intended audience would not be.

As linguists, we should also not expect this book to provide a very detailed philological analysis of the history of sound change and grammatical change in the language. It doesn’t come close to providing that. In fact, that’s largely absent from the book. For discussion of these matters one is forced to turn to other scholarly work, such as McCone et al (1994)’s Stáir na Gaeilge. Again, this is probably a wise decision on Doyle’s part given the audience for the book, but linguists interested in the topic should not expect detailed grammatical analyses.

To most people, including probably all scholars from Ireland, the fact that a book on the history of Irish should be hibernocentric and tied mostly to the use of the language on the island of Ireland itself shouldn’t be much a surprise. I am, however, a scholar whose work straddles the Irish Sea. I work on both Irish and Scottish Gaelic. I was a little frustrated with the early chapters, in particular, in that they didn’t pursue in a little more depth the use of Irish outside of Ireland itself. Early Modern Irish was a regional language. It was also the spoken and literary language of the Kingdoms of Scotland and the Isle of Man during the early periods described by this book – times at which Ireland itself was under assault by external forces. It is easy to be limited by one's modern conceptions of nationhood. But in medieval Ireland, Scotland and Man, there was a much more fluid cultural and economic relationship among these now distinct nations with now distinct versions of Gaelic. Doyle briefly touches on these connections and relationships, but not in a serious way. Of course, this critique does not apply to later chapters, where the notion of Irish identity was more clearly defined by the geographic boundaries of the island itself.

My critiques here are perhaps all unfair to Doyle’s fine work. Although trained as a professional linguist, Doyle is not writing for us. He’s writing for non-linguists and primarily for people who are interested in the history of Irish in the context of the Irish nation-state. In this he is clearly successful. The book is beautifully produced and is an easy and engaging read. It also makes available to non-Irish speakers a fair amount of material that was previously available only in Irish. Within that context, this is a book that needed to be written and is an important contribution to not only the history of the Irish language, but of Ireland itself.


Corkery, Daniel (1924). The Hidden Ireland. Dublin: Gill and MacMillan.

McCone, Kim (1994). Stáir na Gaeilge. Maigh Nuad: Coláiste Phádraig.
Andrew Carnie is Professor of Linguistics and Dean of the Graduate College at the University of Arizona. His research is primarily on the syntax and phonology of the Modern Celtic languages.

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