Tomhas na Teanga

By Jim Norton / le Séamas Ó Neachtain

Iúil/Lúnasa 2002

Leithscéalta (excuses)


The word leithscéal (LEH-shkale) means excuse.  'th' in Irish is never pronounced like it is in english (like a theta), but it is like an 'h.'  Think of how a typical Irish person might pronounce the English word 'three.'  Tree.  Trí (pronounced 'tree') is the word 'three' in Irish.  It's hard to say a sound that doesn't exist in your native language.  Why do people speak with an accent?  Mostly because they are not speaking their native language.  Most Irish people, under a great deal of pressure, have opted to switch to English.  Sometimes this has happened very recently, sometimes a few generations ago. Some of you may have even made this decision yourselves.  If we learn Irish, are we showing disprespect to our ancestors (or doubting ourselves)?  Was this a wrong decision?  Would those who switched have done it if they weren't driven to it?  If they were prosperous like most Americans, and given the opportunity, and all the reasons not to use it were gone, would they like to have their own language back?  Is what they felt compelled to do an excuse not to learn Irish today, or a reason for doing it?


'Excuse me' in Irish is 'gabh mo leithscéal' (GAHV muh...), literally 'take my excuse.'  If  addressing more than one person, it has to be changed to 'gabhaigí (GAHV(a)gee) mo leithscéal.'  By the way, the accent is almost always on the first syllable in Irish words.  So I won't always bother to show that from now on.


People sometimes have lots of excuses not to learn or use Irish.  I would like to address some of these.


·         It's a very difficult language.

It's much easier than Russian, Chinese, or English.  It has features that are very different from English, and so is perhaps a little harder than French or German or Italian.  Maybe.  But it is nowhere near as hard as Greek or Latin.  Lame excuse.


·         They forced it on me in school in Ireland and I hate it because of that.

Well, there was probably a time when most of us hated school - all the subjects!  Have you ever experienced being taught badly in a subject, and then later being taught well (or discovering it for real on your own)?  I sure have.  Don't blame other people.  And some people had a great experience learning Irish in school.  Maybe they had bad math teachers...


·         Well, I knew Irish, but they've changed the spelling and I don't want to start over.

The spelling was simplified (sometimes making the origins of words more obscure, or favoring one pronunciation over another) mostly by eliminating silent letters, starting in 1948.  Irish spelling looks really weird to English speakers when they first see it.  It used to be worse!  Here's what happened.  Let's start with the name of the language, Gaeilge (GALE-guh).  It used to be spelled Gaedhilge.  If you know Irish pronunciation and sound out either spelling, you come up with the same result.  Here are a few others:  bia (BEE-a, food) used to be 'biadh.'  Nollaig (NULLig, Christmas or December) used to be Nodlaig.  Fiafraíonn (FEEfree(u)n, asks) used to be fiafruigheann.  Most of the time, saying it out loud clears up what it is. 


·         It's too hard to read those Gaelic letters.

Irish also used to be printed in the Gaelic type.  That isn't used much at all anymore.  It’s gone the way of Fraktur in Germany – it’s around, but it is the exception, not the rule.


·         I don't have the time.

Watch a lot of TV?  We all have time for that.  Commute?  Perfect time to study.  A little bit of time goes a long way.  Retired?  What a great new hobby!


·         Is í teanga na mbochtáin agus an bhochtanais í.  It's the language of the poor and of poverty. 

That's the story, but it wasn't true long ago, and isn't true today.  Ní huasal ná íseal ach thuas seal agus thíos seal, agus ní sháródh an saol an seanfhocal.  Ní hé sin mar a bhíodh sé fadó, nó mar atá sé inniu.  Ach is é an scéal atá ann ón nGorta anuas.  Ghoid na gaill agus an gorta ár dteanga uainn - le tamall.  Ach ní bhfuair sí bás riamh, agus tá sí neart beo inniu, gan amhras.  Is stór álainn í, péarla róluachmhar.


·         The only people speaking Irish are snotty college kids trying to show off how much they know, and ignorant farmers from the boondocks.

They're not the ONLY people!  I know people from all walks of life learning the language.  Most are really great people.  Isn’t it  fine to look down on laborers and farmers and call them ignorant when they know much more than 'educated' folk do about a lot of things!  Isn’t it fine to consider every college educated person arrogant!  Every person is important.  Every person has something to say.  As for those who think they're a little too important, well, má tá tú ag lorg cara gan locht, beidh tú ag lorg cara go deo (look for this Irish proverb and many others at  They have translations and even sound files for all of them.  There's also a nice picture book I recommend called 'Ireland of the Proverb' by Liam Mac Con Iomaire.  Or just search for 'seanfhocal' (SHAN-uckle, proverb, literally 'old word/saying') on the internet).  This one means ‘if you’re looking for a friend without a fault, you’ll be looking for a friend forever.’


·         Irish is just a political tool.

Yes, republicans promotes the language.  Yes, they learn it and speak it in the prisons.  English is a political tool, too.  Just because a language is used by a certain group doesn't mean they own it.


·         I'm not good with languages. 

Well, you've already learned a harder one.  Maybe you won't be fluent.  Maybe you'll always sound like you're from Chicago or New York.  But a little goes a long way.  Everyone has their own pace.  Tús maith, leath na hoibre (toos mah lah (like in hat) na hibra) a good start is half the work.


·         People will criticize me if I say something wrong.

Have you ever known anyone who likes to criticize?  OK, some folks are just born to be pains in the butt and pick pick pick.  Others are truly helpful.  Others just let it slide.  Moladh luath agus cáineadh mall (mulluh looah ahgis koynuh mall - early praise and delayed criticism).  Mol an óige agus tiocfaidh sí (mull an oyga ahgis tyuckuh shee - praise the young person and they'll come along).  Just use one of those if someone bothers you!


·         Chan ach Gaelainn bhocht agam (d'aon turas a scríobh mé é mar sin) agus ní thuigim Caighdeán Oifigiúil nua seo na scoileanna; Níl ach Gaeilge na scoile agam agus ní hí sin an fhíorghaeilge ar chor ar bith.  Beidh siad ag magadh fúm (féach thuas faoin gcáineadh).

Is féidir le daoine ó gach cúige na hÉirinn caint lena chéile tar éis tamaill ag cleachtadh.  Is an-éasca na canúint go léir a chloisint agus a léamh san lá atá inniu ann.  Is an-mhaith le foghlaimeoirí na canúint a chloisteál agus a fhoghlaim.  Is minic nach dtuigeann daoine a chéile as Béarla Meiriceánach (mar shampla, duine as Maine agus duine as Georgia).  Ach de réir a chéile, éiríonn siad leis.  Déan iarracht, agus foghlaimeoidh gach duine.  Bíodh foighne ort.  Agus mar is eol duit, bíonn níos mó ná slí amháin rud ar bith a rá as Gaeilge.  Mura dtuigeann duine thú, bain triall as focal eile.  Labhair í mar atá sí agat, gan náire, agus le meas ar chách ag a bhfuil saghas Gaeilge eile.

(Don't worry too much about your dialect.  They exist, and are not that hard to deal with, after a little practice).


·         Irish is only suited to the university, to study the old myths, and everything has been translated.  What good is it?

Bíonn craic agus comhrá ann i gcónaí as Gaeilge.  Is teanga bheo í an Ghaeilge.  Ní féidir liom trácht a dhéanamh ar gach rud atá ar siúl inniu trí mheán na Gaeilge, ach tá na mílte leabhar nua ann, nuachtáin, cláracha radío agus teileifís, agus go mór mhór rudaí ar an idirlíon.  Is fíor go bhfuil sean-leabhair thábhachtacha againn, freisin.  Agus is fearr riamh rud ar bith a léamh mar a scríobhadh é, más féidir.

There's always crack (Irish word for fun) and conversation going on in Irish.  The Irish language is a living language.  It is not possible for me to mention everything that is going on throught the medium of Irish, but there are thousands of new books, newspapers, radio and television programs, and especially things on the internet.  It is true that we have important old books, too.  And it is always better to read anything as it was written, if possible.


·         And now the most pernicious and perfidious of all, "Irish is a dead language." 


Try searching for 'Gaeilge' on the internet and you'll soon see how dead it is. (the Irish language version of the google search engine) got me over 66,000 hits.  Want to visit an Irish speaking area on vacation?  Check out  OK, so the Irish speaking areas are small.  But Irish isn't limitted to these areas as much as it once was.  In fact, it's even international.  I know fluent speakers from Australia, Finland, Germany, Canada, France, Serbia, Poland, Sweden, Brazil, Turkey, Scotland, England...

According to the recent report on the Gaeltacht that the Irish government just produced, while the Gaeltachtaí themselves may not be growing, and have some problems, they are working hard to make things better. 

(You can read the report at

The number of Irish speakers in the entire republic increased from 20% in 1961 to 40% in 1996 (and I have heard that even more is happening in the six counties).  Much has happened positively since then (1996 is when I started learning…), and there’s more to come!


Mar sin, ná bí ag déanamh leithscéalta!  Labhair í.  Is í ár dteanga í. 

So don't be making excuses.  Speak it.  It's our language.


Agus anois, seo duit beagán siamsaíochta.  Scríobh mé an scéal beag seo mar scrúdú béil (mar mhagadh). 

And now for a little entertainment.  I wrote this little story to be used as an aural exam (as a joke).  If you only speak English, save this and come back after learning Irish for a couple of years.


Samhlaigh an múinteoir os do chomhair ag rá "Éistigí leis an scéal seo, agus breacaigí síos cúpla focal dá mhíniú..."

Scéilín na mBreallairí


Bhí féar ann fadó agus nathair ina chónaí faoi, cois abhann, agus ba é Annraoi an t-ainm a bhí air.  Ní tharlaíonn faic ansin seachas uair sa bhliain tagann na héisc ar ais.   Mheabhraigh an nathair ar a athair.

Fadó, le linn athar na nathrach seo, bhí iasc darb ainm Eo Feasa ina rí na n-iasc.  Bhí coinín a raibh aithne ar an athair agus ar na nathracha go léir aige i gcónaí ag cabaireacht agus é ina chónaí le hais na habhann agus é ina ghabha, agus bhí gabhann aoiligh aige, mhuise! Ba bhreá leis an nathair ársa an boladh de nuair a bhíodh sé ina chodladh. 

Bhuail an coinín leis an athair, tráth, agus é ag smaoineamh ar a nathair bheag, Annraoi, faoi láthair, agus ar an rí. 

"An umhal rí na n-iasc, an gceapann tú?" d'fhiafraigh an coinín d'athair na nathrach. 

"Tuathal a cheapadh gur umhal," dúirt an nathair-athair.  "Cónaíonn sé taobh leis an aoileach, ach ní hé sin a bhfuil ina choinne againne" ar seisean.  "Tá linn ag bun na habhann agus itheann sé ann agus fiafraíonn sé i gcónaí den choinín Cóilín, 'Nach nimh na huibheacha sa linn seo le linn dul a chodladh?'"

"Ní fheadair an bhfuil aon chiall leis," arsa an coinín. 

"Ní linn ach loch é," dúirt an nathair Annraoi lena athair. 

"Linn nó loch, tá an loch linn fós," arsa an coinín. 

"Aontaím leat, a choinín," arsa an nathair a raibh a athair ann, "ach loch nó linn, tá locht ar a cháineadh, mar dá n-íosadh sé uibheacha ar maidin, ní bheadh siad ina nimh san oíche!  Amadán an bradán!" 

"Ní bradán ach eo é!  Mar sin, tabhairfimid 'Breac Feasta' air," arsa an t-ársa. 

"Ná bí ag ithe na haoiligh," arsa an coinín. 

Ansin, tháinig na héisc. 

Thosaigh an rí ag éirigh agus bhí sceimhle ar Annraoi. 

"Ó, a athair," ar seisean, "ní féidir go n-itheann sé siúd an rud sin!  Geal mar an ghealach is ea é, gan baint leis an aoileach!" 

"Cá bhfuil Cóilín?" arsa rí na n-iasc. 

"Sa bhaile in a phoillín," a dúirt Annraoi.  "Chífidh mé sa phollán (small pool, hollow space) é agus boladh uafásach ann, agus ná bígí ag gearrán faoi!" arsa an rí agus é ag screadach mar bhradach aisteach as Madagascar.

"Feicim anois, a athair, gur amadán rí na mbradán," arsa Annraoi.

Agus sin mar a bhí le linn sin, a dhuine na n-árann.