Irish Language Purism or Why Browsing Language Forums Makes Me Want To Strangle People.

“There is nothing in this life so nice and so Gaelic as truly true Gaelic Gaels who speak in true Gaelic Gaelic about the truly Gaelic language.”

– Ó An Beal Bocht / The Poor Mouth le Flann O’Brien.

If I could reach through this computer and throttle every person who uses the term “authentic Irish” I would.

Have you ever encountered phrases like “unnatural non-Gaeltacht Irish”, or “mere Ulsterised / Connachtised / Munsterised versions of Standard Irish” or the infuriating “real Irish”? Having visited some Irish language learning forums this week, I have – a lot – and I am now angry. Angry, not just at the arrogance, self-aggrandisement and rudeness of the people who use these terms, but angry because they will kill the Irish language.

And they will never understand that.

Note that the people I’m talking about- the people who talk this way- are consistently not from the Gaeltachtaí. – Go príomha mar tá muintir na Gaeltachtaí ró-gnóthach lena shaolta fá choinne an chac seo* – They’re a breed of learners who have raised “native speakers” to the status of demigods and labour in the living martyrdom of trying, while solemnly sighing that it’s impossible, to imitate exactly the phonology and lexis of one specific hamlet in the arse-end of Coirce Duibhne or Gaoth Dobhair or An Mám.

One wonders how they bring themselves to speak aloud for fear of corrupting the language’s purity.

God, Peig, you're not even from Great Blasket

“Sorry, Peig, you’re not actually from Great Blasket”. PS- I love that this picture exists

Nevertheless, this linguistic masochism would be fine were it not for the tendency of these self-appointed acolytes to lurk on internet forums and pounce on advice-seeking beginners. They’ll quickly shoot down any and every approach suggested before explaining that, if you can’t move to Ros Muc for twenty years, the only approach is to learn- here they shudder- a mix of standardised Irish and whatever dialect the learner has expressed an interest in. Then, they tell you, you will have to unlearn most of it, if and when you are competent enough to distinguish the “real” Irish from the “fake”, if you actually want to speak with people.

Not true, by the way. But if that doesn’t make you want to run out and invest months, years, money in the language then I don’t know what will.

I wish I were making this up. And I’m not talking about a few isolated cases, such attitudes are endemic on popular Irish language learning sites. Daltaí Na Gaeilge being a particularly egregious example.

I’m not attacking dialectical Irish. I grew up and live in the Donegal Gaeltacht and I love Gaeilg Uladh. I’m also developing a fondness for Gaeilge Chois Fharraige, among other variants, even if I do speak in that dreaded blend of dialects which repulses so many forum-lurkers.

Nor am I saying, as I was accused of when I broached a related subject on one such site, that anything goes and we should abandon the phonology and, indeed, the saibhreas of Gaeltacht dialects.

But I do object, as strenuously as I can, to the idea that there is an insuperable barrier between the Irish of the Gaeltachts and that learned by second-language speakers. That one must pick a side in a linguistic civil war between caighdeán and Gaeltacht. That non-Gaeltacht Irish is not legitimate. That’s a hell of a lot of baggage to dump on Irish speakers, native or otherwise, and on a language which already comes with more than its share of hang-ups. Why would you get involved? 

Why wouldn’t you just stick with English instead?

We've already made some inroads

We’ve already made some inroads

Every assertion of a “pure”, “authentic”, or “real” Irish is a nail in the coffin of Gaeilg/Gaeilge/Gaelainn**. I contend that the clue is in the names. There are many variants of Irish. As many, I believe, as there are speakers of Irish. And my issue is not that there is no “pure” or “authentic” way of speaking the language- that claim has been obsolete in contemporary linguistics since before I could speak. My issue is that the more energy Irish-speakers expend arguing about “legitimate” Irish, the more people will be turned off the idea of learning, much less speaking, Irish.

It takes willpower and enthusiasm to commit oneself to learning a minority language, particularly when it has so often been so poorly taught. Anyone who cares about the future of the language should embrace and rejoice in all use of it in everyday life, not disparage and attempt to delegitimise the efforts of learners.

David Crystal, in Revitalizing the Celtic Languages, puts the point so well that it is worth quoting- and reading, I promise- at length:

“There are people who are losing their command of the small language… for whatever reason. And there are those who have never got to the top of the continua, for whatever reason. Both tend to be condemned by purists, who thereby generate in the less strong-minded of these people that inferiority complex, which further harms their motivation to continue with the language.

Purists, accordingly – and I don’t care how often I repeat it – are a small languages’ worst enemy. It is sad to have to say it, because such people do believe they have their language’s best interests at heart; but they are nonetheless wrong.

By contrast, as I have said, I take the view that a small language needs every friend it can get, and that someone who shows even the slightest interest in encountering a small language is a friend, and should be welcomed and included within the community, even if their levels are 1% all over, as it were. All the population need to be involved.”

On TG4, yesterday, I watched a documentary called Ag Bogadh go hInis Meáin***. That rock in the grey Atlantic is about as far from the “Galltacht” as it is possible to be and the programme showed a flourishing and strikingly happy Gaeltacht community going about their lives.

This is actually Inis Oirr but the point stands

While this is actually Inis Oirr, Inis Meáin IS in the picture, I promise. Ain’t it pretty?

The headmaster of the primary school was from Dublin and spoke a broad urban Irish with strong vowels and hard k-sounds. A Canadian stockbroker spoke his halting Irish with an Asian-Canadian twang. The couple from Kilkenny spoke their best school Irish and the elderly farmer who opened and closed the show spoke the thickest Conamara Irish I’ve ever had the pleasure of hearing. They were all of them, delightfully, getting on with their lives frí Ghaeilg.

What more could you want?


*Mainly because the people of the Gaeltachtaí are too busy with their lives for this shite.

**Irish (Ulster) / Irish (Connacht) /Irish (Munster).

***Moving to Inishmaan.                                                                        

Further reading:

An interesting post on this topic by journalist Ciarán Dunbar can be found here:
Revitalizing the Celtic Languages and other articles by David Crystal can be found here:
Alternatively, an (extensive) argument from the other end of the spectrum, in favour of studying pre-Standardised Irish only, can be found here:

15 thoughts on “Irish Language Purism or Why Browsing Language Forums Makes Me Want To Strangle People.

  1. Maith thú! This article should be printed out and handed to every Gaeilgeoir or foghlaimeoir in the country. I’m a complete novice, but I already feel more overwhelmed by purists than I’ve experienced in any other language. I’ve never once had a German correct me and tell me I was using the *wrong* dialect. ¬_¬

  2. This is something I wish I’d have written! Maith thú! I’ve often counted myself lucky that the internet forum I first encountered when I started learning Irish (long gone, alas) wasn’t like the ones you describe, as I’d have given the whole thing up as a bad job before I got much past “is mise Audrey.” By the way, I was attacked rather nastily on Daltaí na Gaeilge for using the word “variant” (called, among other things, a “caighdeán lackey” simply for referring to a dialect form as a “Munster variant”)…fortunately, my skin was a bit thicker by then and I’d had too many years invested in learning Irish to give up at that point just because some people got snarky. That said, I’ve also never gone back to that forum.

  3. I started a Irish only ‘ Gaeilge Amháin’ page a few years ago , so i wouldnt have to translate everythg i and my friends wrote on my own page , to accomadate my friends , Family and Learners. And yeah in my naievity i never thought it would attract 2700 members , of various levels and Dialects, It wqas Never my intention that it be Irish Only , was only to practice my Written Irish to get it up to speed with my already chatty Conversational , loaded with simple basic and Grammar Mistakes , Irish. Only to be blamed for damaging the Language and putting people of with snobbery and not being Helpul to Learners. Firstly its Not a Learners Site , but can be frequented by Anyone of Any Level of any Dialect with NO Exceptions. Who may write as much or as Little as they choose, Many of course have told me that they read it regularly and find it Very helpful , yet are not confident to take part yet. So again i repeat its Not a Learners site , but help can be found there , to point the Learners to many useful aids and sites and pages online, as i have witnessssed many many times. i guess you could say its more directed at people of a certain level .. Dont they also Deserve a Haven Free from the Dreaded Béarla ?

    Ailéin Ó Clúmháin
    Gaeilge Amháin

    • You’re the least snobby person I’ve ever met, Ailéin! And you’ve always been tremendously helpful to learners. I don’t think this post was referring to something like Gaeilge Amháin. My impression was that this article is talking about those “purists” (most of whom aren’t even Irish) who insist you’re not speaking “real” Irish if mix dialect features and the like (you know the kind I mean).

    • Hi Ailéin. I’m actually a fan of Gaeilge Amháin (on facebook, I assume that’s yours). That site certainly wasn’t what I had in mind when I wrote this and I hope you didn’t feel I was attacking you or it. My issue is not with purism in the sense of only writing in Irish on a website. That’s laudable. As I wrote above, I think we *should* be putting our energy into actually using the language and online spaces provide one of the few places one *can* get away from Béarla.

      My issue is with “purism” in the sense of elitism. My issue is with people who get their jollies looking down on anyone who does not speak / learn / think about Irish as they do, who want to tell the hundreds of thousands of people who have studied Irish in school, who are our only hope of creating a place for Irish in everyday life, that they are speaking a “fake” language. That the only true way is to be like them.

      I can think of no way faster to kill Irish for good.

      • To be honest i guess i did think that you may have also had Gaeilge Amháin in mind when you mentioned on line sites etc, Im delighted to find out that is not the case, as i know some people have left the page for maybe similar reasons. Reading your reply i am and have been of the same mind as you regarding Elitism with Irish. I have long stood by two sayings ‘ Is fearr Gaeilge bhriste ná Béarla Cliste, and ‘ Irish is Irish is Irish ….. No matter where you learn it and regardless of pronounciation and Grammr mistakes. Encourage Every single person who enters the Process in Learning Irish , weather they are Irish or from any other part of the World. I have been criticised for my own Irish , and yeah it only helps to make me feel less Confident , instead of letting me trundle along and find my own way back to speaking with the correct pronounciation and correct grammar when im ready. Although i have been learning about 13 years and attended the Gaeltachts many times and done many courses and exams and Proudly wear my Gold Fáinne and have been writting online on a daily basis for many years, i would still gladly encourage a Beginner and Will whole Heartedly and Vocally disagree with Anyone who isnt off the same mind as me, Although i am the founder of an All Irish Facebook page , i cannt see the division , as a learner trying to keep up with the constant rolling Richness of Irish that happens in Gaeilge Amháin , it would be like a beginner trying to take part in an Ardrang / Higer level than beginner class. Find your level and your own Dialect and a good teacher / Class and only be in company with people who are positive to your Passion.

        Is mise le meas

  4. A Chara,
    I agree with many of the points of your article and the fact that the purism is killing the language couldn’t be more true. Irish language speakers and activists are too separated- more unity is needed to protect the language all we can. My own Irish is certainly a mish-mash of all different sorts of Irish and I am very proud to call myself a teacher and promoter of the language.

    I do a show on Raidió na Life in Dublin about Irish speakers around the world and I’m wondering if I could talk to you some more about your piece here/perhaps do an interview if you could! My details are below
    Míle buíochas

  5. You and Ailéin Ó Clúmháin are a welcomed oasis for learners as they drift upon a sea of Irish insanity. I love Gaeilge Ámháin and I have learned more Irish on it than I ever imagined. I also found people there who invested in me and actually spent time with me on Skype to got me up and going (speaking). I love the craic on the site and appreciate the great humility of our leader, Ailéin as as we tease him mercilessly about his funky shades, bald head, etc. The girls think he’s sexy but I just can’t see it. (love you Allen!) Thank you both for doing great things for the Irish language.

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  7. Let me just get something out of my chest, in the hope that language purists will read and perhaps rethink their approach: I gave up on the idea of learning Irish after about eight months given, in a large part, to everything this topic says. Sorry for the length of the post, and apologies it if make a caricature of some positions here and there, it’s therapy in part.

    I’m Brazilian with an Irish/Portuguese background (this is almost irrelevant but not quite, I’ll talk about it bellow, but at least this can explain any English mistakes I make) and much like North-Americans I decided that learning Irish would be interesting, a way to reconnect to part of my roots. Whatever the reason behind it though it soon became very hard to maintain any focus on learning: in the beginning it seemed almost straightforward, just order some books and online courses, there was even an European Common Framework certification (always a good thing for people who work by setting goals, and this kind of things are important for learners and for the language itself, even if many do not think so), work hard and enjoy. But soon after, and since I devoted myself to reading all the forums out there, the whole balkanisation of Irish began to take it’s toll: using Búntus Cainte? That’s CO, not a real language. Using In Your Own Words? That’s Standard Irish with some Ulster accent (which was what I was using, but nobody wants to learn from something which isn’t the very, very best right?). Teach Yourself Irish? Fine if you like Munster Irish… or Connemara, or whatever, I forgot. Every resource seemed soiled, which in turn meant that to someone learning the uncertainty was becoming unbearable. I got caught up in the process so much that I think I ended up learning more about the names of remote villages with 20 inhabitants and a donkey than any vocabulary (my fault, of course).

    You see, the message in the end was this: Irish is actually made of different dialects, the learning resources available are useless and if you try to learn “Standard Irish” (made by bureaucrats which don’t speak the language, or speak it badly, or have an agenda, or…) nobody will love you, understand you or look at you since it’s such an abomination. They will reply to you in English since your existence reminds them of the rape of their pure language and laugh at you behind your back by speaking such a monstrosity. So, the way forward is to devote yourself to learning specific dialects, using ad-hoc methods which vary according to one’s purity threshold and that could involve living in the top half of a barn in Inis Oírr for a decade. That, or simply give up, which is what I did and started to learn German (which has less interest to me but doesn’t have all this drama)

    Part of the problem is that the “purists” put forward some arguments which are in themselves correct and find a home in the hearts of those just beginning: one should learn the best version of the language there is, and not something incorrect. It also appeals to the tendency we all have to love the “pure”, being part of a minority within a minority which alonebears the beacon of language correctness amid the darkness of the Standard. Additionally I think there are likely valid concerns, but what isn’t fully explained is how so many native speakers who are scholars end up being part of the “Standard Irish” normalisation effort – I mean, I have the feeling that we only get half of the story here, especially since I haven’t seen any comments on the most recent revision which apparently, gives more leeway and addresses several common concerns (or not, but I never see this debated).

    In the end, as I said, I decided that it was not worth the effort. One additional thing I noticed is that “purists” (for lake of a better word, and note that I am in general a “purist” myself, at least ideally, although with some pragmatism involved) have different motivations, from simply wanting to maintain the characteristics of existing dialects to seeing dialects as a dead language which should be learned without any kind of innovation, including vocabulary for new things. This carry with them different politic perspective as well, related to both revivalism and Irish nationalism and the use of English as the national language. In the end it doesn’t matter because it causes so much stress and lack of motivation that giving up is seen and the easiest way, and in all honesty at a point I thought that the level of sectarianism I was absorbing was actually unhealthy.

    This is given me, however, a new kind of appreciation for the unity of my own language, which was actually a positive thing. As some of you may know there is some rivalry between Brazil and Portugal (the latter comprising countries in Africa and Asia as well) in terms of Portuguese language “ownership”, differences and standards. My experience with Irish made me realise how good we have it, obsessing about using or not a voiceless “c” in writing some words in a language spoken by 200 million people (and with numerous dialects/accents/regionalisms, just like English) is nothing compared with the picture I got from Irish, where years of study would end up with one being unable to ask for a pint “the right way”.

    So, as I said, just some food for thought, coming from someone who is naturally attracted to the “speak it properly like a native” position but ended up being a victim of it. I hope that the good things about wanting to maintain the highest quality and even identity of specific regionalisms and dialects can be made in tandem with the standardisation needed to maintain a language possible to learn without fretting about having “the right stuff”.

    • I’ve come on a bit since writing this blog post, both in opinion and with the language and one of the best things I’ve learned is that the vast, vast majority of Irish speakers, native and non-native, don’t actually care so much about speaking perfectly dialectical Irish, so much as just using the language. This is particularly true of young Irish-speakers like myself- many of whom will be marching for our linguistic rights next Saturday 15th in Dublin. It’s among learners that I’ve come across the really extreme sectarianism and purism.

      True, some people I know here in the Donegal Gaeltacht dislike the Standard but I’ve noticed that those same people are equally scathing and dismissive of other native dialects also- some even switch into English when confronted by them.

      There’s a deeply ingrained insecurity in the Irish people, of all linguistic backgrounds. We tend to put others down to feel secure in ourselves. Unfortunately, this seems to manifest itself most vehemently in the place where it will cause maximum damage to the language: the (online) learner community.

      Please don’t let the close-mindedness of a minority put you off learning a vibrant and exciting language. Bí linn, a chara!

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