Ask an Irish person a question, and you’ll most likely get a longer answer than you were expecting. The world over, we’re known for our penchant for conversation. The thing is, we may be able to attribute our love of the chat to the delightful wordiness of our native Irish language, Gaeilge. Please do read on, you may find some interesting stuff in here.

Language matters

At a talk I was delivering recently, I mentioned that not too long ago when we talked about ‘home’ we meant the place and the community where we were from. Whereas now when we talk of home we mean the four walls within which we live and store all of our stuff. I was commenting on how we have, over the past number of decades, reduced our understanding of what our community, our social circle and our home is.

After the talk, during the Q&A, an Irish teacher who was there made some incredibly interesting points about the Irish language that sent me off down an exciting rabbit hole of research to find out more. Fear not, you won’t have to be a gaelgoir (native Irish speaker) to read on. I’m not, but I promise you will be left as intrigued as I was by what I tell you next about the Irish language.

What we mean by home, and family 

My interest was initially piqued when said Irish speaker made the comment that in Irish, when we say we are going home, we say ‘dul abhaile’, which, she explained, literally translates as ‘back to my town’. Home, in the Irish language then, refers to the wider community in which we live. I loved that, as it resonated with what I was saying about community. I needed to learn some more.

We have a couple of words in Irish for ‘family’. We say ‘clann’ which refers to our clan. More beautifully I think, we say ‘muintir’ which translates as people, or loved ones. So our family is our clan, our people, our loved ones. Again, it has a broader meaning than those directly related to you by blood.

Yes or no – that is never the answer

I very quickly happened upon maybe the most wonderful, and surprising fact about the Irish language. There are no words for ‘yes’ or ‘no’. This is the truth. When replying to someone, instead of saying ‘yes’ or ‘no’, a person would re-frame the verb used in the question with an affirmative or negative in response.

For example:

Ar mhaith leat cupan tae?

Ba mhaith liom cupan tae / ba mhaith liom. Ni mhaith liom cupan tae / ni mhaith liom 

Translates to : Would you like a cup of tea? I would like a cup of tea/ I would, or I wouldn’t like a cup of tea/ I wouldn’t.

How delightfully wordy! There are no short, sharp hurried responses here. To an Irish person, a short, simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ borders on rudeness. It’s too curt. We might offend, or end up insulted ourselves. Instead, the lack of a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ means that the responses are usually inroads to further conversation.

Other examples:

An bhfuil tu ag teacht? Ta me ag teacht/ Ta me. (Are you coming? I am coming/ I am)

An feidir leat an doras ar oscailt? Is feidir liom an doras ar oscailt/ Ni feidir liom. (Can you open the door? I can open the door/ I can’t)

What we have here is a delightfully wordy language that is lengthy, long-winded, and primed for getting conversations started.

Sure we speak english now

Here’s where it gets really interesting. As I was learning this, I realised that today, in the English language that we now all speak, Irish people are still reluctant to answer with a simple and short ‘yes’ or ‘no’. Do test this yourself. Ask an Irish person if they would like a cup of tea, and they are more likely to say ‘I’d love one thanks’, or ‘I’m grand thanks’ or ‘I will but sure I’ll put the kettle on there’ rather than a simple yes or no. Ask them if they have a minute for a chat, and they will say ‘Of course I do’ or ‘I’m up to ninety at the minute can it wait’ or ‘I’d love a chat’. Ask us if we would like some cake with our cup of tea and we will say ‘I’d love a bit but only if it’s no bother and you’re having some yourself.’

Aren’t we delightfully chatty all the same? Even our native language has conspired to make us talkative.

I thought we had a yes in ‘sea’ ?

At this point I should mention ‘sea’ (pronounced sha) , a commonly used Irish word, and what many believe to mean ‘yes’. ‘Sea’ is actually ‘Is e’ and it translates as ‘it is’, and the negative is ‘ni he’ (pronounced neeha) which means ‘it isn’t’. And so when asked ‘An bhfuil an caca milis blasta?’ (is the cake tasty?), when we say ‘sea’ we are really saying ‘is e’ or it is.

Pleasantries pondered

Even in the pleasantries of greeting we are exuberant. When we say hello, we say ‘dia duit’ which translates as ‘god be with you’. And our reply is even more flowery. We say ‘dia is muire duit’ which is ‘may god and mary be with you’. No simple hellos to be had here!

For ‘please’, we say ‘le do thoil’, which means ‘with your will’. And I love this next one. For ‘you’re welcome’ we have ‘ta failte romhat’, which translates as ‘there is a welcome before you’. How lovely. There is a welcome before you. If only we could always be sure there was a welcome before us.

Here’s a hard to say one for you. For ‘excuse me’ we have the guttural sounding ‘gabh mo leithsceal’, which has the clunky literal translation of ‘take my literal excuse’.

It’s in our blood

The Irish are known the world over for their penchant for conversation. We have a history of incredible storytellers, the ‘seanchai’, who had an important role in Irish history as the ones who were experts at their craft; the art of storytelling. They were the preservers of our oral tradition, the ones who told stories and tales at ceremonies and community events. I’m sure the lengthy and exuberant nature of Gaeilge lent itself beautifully to their storytelling. 

I’ve always loved that storytelling is practically part of my genetic make-up. Now I am even prouder to be Irish as I learn about the delightful quirks in our native language. It makes me even more certain that I am on the right path in my passion for promoting conversation, social interaction and F2F communication in an increasingly digital and disconnected world. Language matters, more than we know. 

To leave you then with an Irish proverb: ‘Ar scath a cheile a mhaireann na daoine’, which means ‘Under the shelter of each other, people survive’.