The Origins of the Irish Language
The Irish language, also known as Irish Gaelic, or simply “Irish” in Ireland, is a member of the Goidelic group of the Celtic subfamily of the Indo-European family of languages. The language is categorised into three periods: Old Irish (7th–9th century A.D.), Middle Irish (10th–16th century), and Modern Irish (since the 16th century). (Lehman, An Introduction to Old Irish, 1975)
Irish and her sister languages, Welsh and Breton, are among the oldest living languages in Europe. There are written records of the language going back to the early Christian period.
The Celtic language we now know as Irish came to Ireland before 300 BC. The first evidence of writing in Irish can be found in the markings on commemorative Ogham stones. Ogham was a writing system consisting of notches or strokes on a stone. Only when Christianity was well established in the 5th Century did true literacy in Irish begin. Using Roman lettering, Irish monks wrote little poems or translations in the margins of manuscripts. Many of those manuscripts, such as the Book of Kells, still exist to this very today. The coming of Christianity and, with it, Latin brought many new terms to Irish, especially those concerning literacy and religious life.
Facts and Figures of the Irish Language
Not to dwell too long on this fact, the Irish language was previously surpressed by the ruling English in Ireland. In fact the language was prohibited until 1871 (Gaeltacht Travel.com). Other events irreversibly harmed the language, most prominently the Great Famine (1845-1848). But that’s all certainly in the past, and the Irish language still struggles with the people of Ireland!
In 2006 (according to the official census) there were 1.6 million Irish speakers in the Republic of Ireland above the age of 3, and 2.4 million non-speakers. Also, there were 68,000 private households in which people spoke Irish daily. The Central Statistics Office is your source for the latest information on Irish language facts for the Republic of Ireland.
More Quick Facts on the Irish Language
- The Irish language came to Ireland before 300BC, replacing existing languages.
- As early as the 4th century, the language spoken in Ireland spread across in to Scotland. The language in Scotland emerged into what is now termed as a different language (Gàidhlig/Scottish Gaelic). The language replaced English in considerable areas (see Wikipedia).
- Irish has been influenced by the Viking raids, adopting many commercial and maritime words. For example bád from bátr (boat) and cnaipe from knappr (button). Read more about the Vikings in Ireland [PDF].
- The Irish language experience rapid decline under English rule. By 1800, Irish had ceased to be the language of anyone in Ireland who had political, social or economic power.