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Review of  The Dialects of Irish

Reviewer: Andrew Carnie
Book Title: The Dialects of Irish
Book Author: Raymond Hickey
Publisher: De Gruyter Mouton
Linguistic Field(s): General Linguistics
Historical Linguistics
Subject Language(s): Irish
Issue Number: 23.1465

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AUTHOR: Raymond Hickey
TITLE: The Dialects of Irish
SUBTITLE: Study of a Changing Landscape
SERIES TITLE: Trends in Linguistics. Studies and Monographs [TiLSM] 230
PUBLISHER: De Gruyter Mouton
DATE: 2011

Andrew Carnie, Department of Linguistics, University of Arizona.

Following in a long tradition of Irish language dialect description (see for
example O’Rahilly 1932, Ó Cuiv 1951, Ó Siadhail 1989, Wagner 1958, among many
others), this book provides a modern overview of the current state of Irish
dialectology in the traditional Irish-speaking areas (or “Gaeltachts”). It
contains brief summaries of the general properties of Irish phonology and
orthography. It also attempts a reconstruction of some of the major features
that 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 gathered
sample sound files for each of the major features discussed in the book in each
of the dialect areas.

The book is divided into three major parts (introduction, the sound system of
Irish, and the dialects of Irish) and is followed up with over a hundred pages
of 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 of
the Irish language today. The author concludes that fewer than 18000 speakers
use the language daily in the Gaeltacht, which less than 0.44% of the total
population of the island. This number is startling given the current official
government assessments of language use -- assessments that are clearly
unrealistic. Hickey’s numbers bring into focus the importance of doing a
careful, modern, dialect study at this critical point in the decline of the
language. As Hickey observes, although the language may well continue to be
transmitted through speakers in urban areas and by committed language
revivalists, this transmission does not appear to be on going among traditional
dialect speakers in the Gaeltacht regions. So documentation in these places is

Part 2 covers the sound system of Irish, with an emphasis on the features that
vary among the dialects. The chapter outlines basic transcription practice, as
well as descriptions of lexical, morphological, and surface phonological
processes. These include length distinctions, affrication, polarization (roughly
palatalization vs. velarization), vowel quality, diphthongization, phonotactics,
syllable structure, assimilation processes, initial consonant mutation.
Following Wells (1982), Hickey establishes lexical sets of words that can be
compared for what amount to phonemic contrasts. One unique and particularly
interesting property of this chapter is the information on the frequency of
sounds in the data set -- to my knowledge this kind of information has never
been gathered for the language before. Part 2 concludes with a very useful
survey of the many studies of individual dialects that were conducted in the
last century, including dialects that are no longer spoken.

Part 3 forms the real meat of the work. It begins with a brief history of the
language from the Old Irish period, with some discussion of the emergence of the
different dialect varieties. A thorough discussion of the methodology used in
this study are provided. The study is based on the recordings of 200 speakers
from around Ireland. Ample maps are provided showing where the speakers were
from. Clickable versions of these maps are available on the DVD. The software on
the DVD allows you to click on the place name and be linked to the relevant
sound files. This survey, known as “Samples of Spoken Irish”, includes speakers
from a variety of age groups and both genders. However, no sociophonetic
analysis based on gender or age is attempted, although presumably such studies
could be reconstructed from the data. The survey included the following three
methodologies 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 variation
between and within larger dialect areas.

The dialects of Irish fall into three major groups (North, West and South). The
scope of variation within and between these dialects is characterized primarily
through phonological criteria (e.g. whether there is epenthesis in compounds,
whether palatalization is realized via affrication or not, the realization of
certain orthographic vowels among many others -- there are too many such
dimensions to discuss here). One particularly insightful discussion covered how
the historically geminate “tensed” sonorants are realized in the various dialect
groups, as well as how vowels before these sonorants are either lengthened or
diphthongized. Lexical variation between the dialects is not really discussed,
but this is reasonable given the coverage of lexis in other sources on the
language. Grammatical variation is also discussed, but to a much smaller degree
than phonological variation. Grammatical topics include variation in verbal
inflection, grammatical gender, the use of the relative form of the verb, and
the type of negation used. The descriptive content of part 3 concludes with an
interesting description of the prosodic features of the language.

The fifth section of part 3 is devoted to the first step of reconstructing some
of the major features of now extinct and sometimes long extinct dialects. Using
Anglicizations of place names as well as historical dialect records, certain
features emerge of dialects intermediate in location between the current
Gaeltacht 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 or
partially native speakers, especially in the urban areas.

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

The book is a truly outstanding contribution. Comparative work of this scale
about Irish simply has never been so systematically and thoroughly done. The
accompanying DVD is an utter delight. It is easy to use and contains a wealth of
additional information. The sound files bring to life the textual descriptions
of linguistic variation. There is no doubt that readers of the book should have
the 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 should
distract 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 of
urban dialects of Irish, and none of the recordings of the Samples of Spoken
Irish included these varieties. The reason the author chose to do this is
obvious, the speakers of these forms often -- although not always -- exhibit
non-native like language competence. There is also a great deal of controversy
among 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 the
future of Irish may well live on in these speech communities. So documentation
of the emergence of these varieties, especially in the context of the
traditional Gaeltacht speakers would be helpful. This is especially true since
many speakers even in the Gaeltacht are showing the influence of linguistic
change in the face of Dublin and Belfast Irish. On a similar note, I would have
enjoyed reading more about sociolinguistic variation. The author’s decision to
exclude such studies here is well motivated, as there is largely a lack of
vertical social structure in the Gaeltacht. The discussion of younger female
speakers at the end of the book is a welcome exception. As a syntactician I wish
there had been more exploration of grammatical issues, as the book is largely
focused on phonology. One clear example that isn’t discussed is the variation in
case and word order of non-finite clauses with overt subjects first discussed in
McCloskey (1980).

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

We have a work of the highest quality in front of us. It should be of interest
not only to Celticists and phonologists, but also to other linguists who are
investigating variation in endangered languages. This is particularly true for
scholars looking at languages with non-contiguous communities of speakers. The
methodology and presentation are as enlightening as the language-specific
results. I strongly recommend it to anyone with an interest in the Celtic
languages or in variationist studies in general.

McCloskey, 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 &

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

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

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

Andrew Carnie is Professor of Linguistics, and Faculty Director of Graduate Interdisciplinary Programs at the University of Arizona. His research focuses on the syntax, morphology, phonetics, and phonology of the Celtic Languages, with a particular emphasis on Irish and Scottish Gaelic. He recently has been exploring experimental and instrumental investigations of the Scottish Gaelic sound system. His books include “The Syntax of VSO languages” (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 edition o