Or – the Official Standard. Of Irish that is! Now prior to the country gaining complete independence from Britain, standards in Irish were variable to say the least. While we speak now of three main dialects, or canúintí, before the Caighdeán was established, there were many many more pre-1950’s ish. It could prove difficult for speakers of different dialects to understand each other – and indeed, even in English accents and dialects were far more pronounced before the advent of international telly/ radio. One only needs look at the entries in Irish on Dúchas to see the differences in spelling and grammar across different areas.
The Caighdeán was an attempt to make things easier for Irish learners and fight against the lowering rates of people speaking the language. Irish has, and continues to be, a major part of the Irish identity for many people, although in modern Ireland, there are those who lament time “wasted” on learning it. In case you’ve not read this blog before – I love the language, love speaking it and work on improving my Irish. But it has to be said, looking at those old Dúchas entries, there were an awful lot of extra letters banging around teh place!
The Caighdeán was focused on making things simpler for new learners, but it kinda left out those who had learnt spelling, grammar and even font before it was implemented. Oh yes, there was a specific font used for writing Irish – you’ll have noticed this from Dúchas as well, I hope – but here’s an example of what it looked like. Many silent letters were left out in the new Caighdeán (an caighdeán nua) meaning that words like Lughnasadh now became Lúnasa August, or the festival of Lúnasa). Or, for a more extreme example, Gaedhealtacht became Gaeltacht (Irish speaking area). It was a way of making the written word look less intimidating.
But the Caighdeán was dealing with many different dialects – the one quoted most often is the Roscommon dialect, spoken by our first president Douglas Hyde (Dubhghlas de hÍde) which has now died out. Even trying to pick a “correct” option from Munster, Connacht and Ulster Irish would be difficult – try telling any native speaker of any language that the grammar or pronunciation they’ve been using since birth is incorrect? Ah go, I dare yah! So, the Caighdeán is a bit of a mess alright when it comes to picking one or the other. And really, if you’re speaking Connacht Irish, for example, it’s perfectly acceptable to say “Cá bhfuil my bhicycle?” instead of “Cá bhfuil mo rothar?” since as it was explained to me, the word “bicycle” had been used in the Gaeltacht for decades before this new-fangled “rothar” came along. Equally, the official word for potato in Irish is práta (prátaí in the plural, cos who’d need to know what 1 spud is??), but for my mothers family in Clare, it was always fataí/ phataí. And I’m not telling her she’s wrong!!
So what ended up being in the Caighdeán was a mixture of what was most commonly used, what the particular contributor liked or pure accident. Now my Dad, good Galwayman that he is, would claim that Connacht Irish is the best, although I have read things on the internet (cos everything written on the internet is true!) indicating that Munster Irish would be closer to the written Irish we have from the 16th century on. To me, it doesn’t matter, as long as the language is being spoken. I mean, in English, we don’t argue whether the Dublin “Staarhy” (the word story, short for “any story?” or “what’s the story”) is any more or less correct than the more rural “how’s she cuttin’?” Both are understood to be colloquialisms rather than standard language. Why shouldn’t the local idiosyncrasies in Irish be treated the same? In practice, it is – it’s really only when dealing with scholarship, education and political publications the Caighdeán become important.
But that’s part of the issue. Children from the age of 4 in schools are taught Irish, sometimes according to the Caighdeán, sometimes according to the teacher’s own Irish, which may or may not be fluent or approaching fluent in standard. I remember going over the irregular verb to be/ bí 5 times in my first year in secondary school, but whereas in primary school we had covered the aimsir chaite, aimsir láithreach, aimsir fháistineach, módh choinníollach, aimsir ghnáthchaite, aimsir ghnáthláithreach, and a few other bits and bobs, in secondary school, we just did 3 of them (aimsir chaite, aimsir láithreach, aimsir fháistineach), cos the rest were deemed too scary. There are 11 irregular verbs in Irish and the verb to be is one of them, but to cover it 5 times in one year, and only in 3 verb tenses at that? Well it was a bit of overkill to me, even as a 12 yr old.
The language is presented as a big deal to kids and the Caighdeán is complicated – it’s trying to condense an entire language to a system of rules and grammars and syntax. I never knew there was tenses in verbs in English until my teenage years – I knew they were there in Irish, French and German though. I though the tuiseals, the cases of nouns, were an Irish only thing, until I started learning German. Even now, if you ask me for the Tuiseal Ginideach of any noun, I’ll struggle, but most of the time if I put it into a sentence, it will come to me. Equally, knowing whether a noun is male or female is mostly beyond me, but I can usually get the use of a séimhiú roughly right.
No more than we have “Learning English as a foreign language” classes, I think we need to do the same with Irish. It doesn’t matter which canúint you’re learning – and I’d argue the Caighdeán or “school Irish” is a fourth canúint all on its own – it doesn’t matter if you mix the words and syntax and grammar from all 4 of the canúintí. No more than other languages, the official standard of the language doesn’t always bear a resemblance to the actual spoken, every day language and that’s ok. I mean, think of someone from Ayrshire in Scotland and Somerset in England and the differences between the English they speak. Hell, think of the difference between Liverpudlian and Mancunian English, and they’re much closer together, geographically speaking! None of those could be considered to be “Standard English” but there’s no problem with the deviations.
The Caighdeán caused a gap in the passing on of the language from generation to generation, since those who had learned the language for writing pre-Caighdeán would struggle with the spelling at least post-Caighdeán, and so, would struggle with helping the next generation. But it’s not exactly the evil that many people call it. It’s a mixed bag like so much else in this world. And it’s been updated since the 1950’s, which is good, cos Ireland has changed since the 1950’s, why wouldn’t the language?
The Caighdeán is a useful tool to have in your back pocket, but it’s not the end of the world if you don’t conform to it. Equally, if you have a fierce love of silent letters, sure fire ahead, it’ll look strange to modern eyes, but we’ll cope. And the cló gaelach is a lovely font, sure why wouldn’t you want to use it occasionally!