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    Historical outline of Irish

Old Irish
Middle Irish
Early Modern Irish

1. Ogham (400-600)

Ogham is a form of writing in which letters are represented by a series of horizontal or slanted notches on stone. Other materials such as wood and bone may have been used for short texts. A number of Ogham remains are to be found, chiefly in the south and south-west of Ireland, a few in south-west Wales and one or two remains in north-east Scotland (McManus 1991). The period to which the Ogham stones belong is known as Primitive Old Irish. The majority of inscriptions which attest this period stem from the 5th and 6th centuries and consist of personal names in the genitive (in the sense of ‘in memory of’ or ‘dedicated to’).

Language. Even at this early stage there was a tendency to weaken consonants in intervocalic position (what later lead to lenition). This was a low-level phonetic phenomena, as yet without any consequences for the language as the inherited inflections remained in tact. There are also geminate symbols which point to phonological length.

MacManus, Damian 1991. A guide to Ogam. Maynooth Monographs 4. Maynooth: An Sagart.

2. Old Irish (600-900)

The period of early Irish for which remains are available in the Roman alphabet begins after the Christianisation of Ireland in the 5th century. The first documents are glosses and marginalia from the mid-8th century contained in manuscripts found on the European continent. No doubt these stem from the missionary sites of the Irish, above all in Germany (Codex Paulinus in Würzburg) and the Alpine region comprising Switzerland (Codex Sangallensis in St. Gall which contains the glossed version of Priscian’s grammar) and northern Italy (Codex Ambrosianus in Milan). This period lasted until the end of the 9th century. The single external event which was most responsible for the demise of insular Old Irish was the Viking invasions which set in in the late 8th century.

Language By comparing a random selection of Latin loan-words in Irish one can see that part of the phonological makeup of the language was the lenition which had begun during the Ogham period. Thus one has lebor /lʲevər/ later /lʲaur/ from liber ‘book’, sacart /sagart/ from sacerdos ‘priest’. Only medial geminates are resistant to lenition: peccad /pʲekað/ later /pʲakə/ from peccatum ‘sin’.

The same applies to the Scandinavian loan-words towards the end of the first millennium margadh /margað/ later /margə/ from markaðr ‘market’. In keeping with phonological reduction as a general phenomenon one also has cluster simplification as in fuinneog /fɪnʲo:g/ from vindauga ‘window’. These developments continue well into the Middle Ages so that with Anglo-Norman loan-words from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries one has similar lenition (here intervocalic voicing), e.g. bagún from bacun ‘bacon’, buidéal from botel ‘bottle’.

In Old Irish there is also a system of vowel affection by which is meant that vowels change their height as determined by the vowel in the following syllable, a type of Umlaut which remained a characteristic of the language for a considerable time. So one has, for instance, /o/ becoming /u/ before a following /i/ or /u/ becoming /o/ before a following /a/ or /o/. However, if one compares Irish with Germanic for a moment one sees that these vowel changes, while occurring in clear phonological environments never attained grammatical status as Umlaut did in Germanic. There is a reason for this which has to do with the general makeup of the language at the time. Irish was losing vowels due to apocope (loss of inflections) and to syncope (contraction in polysyllabic forms) so that there was a concentration on consonants as the carriers of grammatical information. In Germanic the status of Umlaut in the formation of plurals was supported by the status of vowel alternations in the group of so-called strong verbs. In present-day Irish there are few if any instances of grammatical information being carried by vowels alone. These may vary as a consequence of consonantal change but vowels (short, in internal position) are not the signals of grammatical categories in modern Irish.

Quin, Ernest Gordon 1975. Old Irish workbook. Dublin: Royal Irish Academy.

Strachan, John 1976 [1949]. Old Irish paradigms and selections from the Old Irish glosses. 4th edition, rev. by Osborn Bergin. Dublin: Royal Irish Academy.

Thurneysen, Rudolf 1909. Handbuch des Altirischen. Heidelberg: Carl Winter.

Thurneysen, Rudolf 1946. A grammar of Old Irish. English translation. Dublin: Institute for Advanced Studies.

3. Middle Irish (900-1200)

This period is one in which the classical standard of Old Irish declined and spoken forms came to penetrate written Irish but no indication of dialect formation is as yet evident. There is much confusion in morphology with writers less and less sure just what constitutes correct classical Old Irish. The period draws to a close with the coming of the Normans at the end of the twelfth century, in 1169 in the south-east of the country.

Language The simplification of the inflectional system continues throughout the Middle Irish period with the nominal and verbal system of Old Irish very much reduced. By the end of the Middle Irish period there is no distinction between genitive and dative with most nouns and the complex system of verb prefixes has been greatly simplified either by these being dropped or by being absorbed into the stem of a verb and becoming opaque in form.

Independent forms of personal pronouns develop during this period, this forming part of the typological change in the language. The old infixed pronouns are replaced by post-posed independent pronouns and synthetic forms of pronoun and copula are replaced by an invariable form of the copula with generic personal pronouns.

Changes in the sound system led to certain realignments. The loss of /θ/ and /ð/ – probably in the thirteenth century – resulted in different outcomes for lenition as an initial mutation. S now became /h/ and D became Ɣ on lenition.

Dottin, Georges 1913. Manuel d'irlandais moyen. I: Grammaire. Paris: Champion.

4. Early Modern Irish (1200-1600)

This period is that which stretches from the arrival of the Normans to the end of an independent Gaelic society with the collapse of Irish aristocratic society in the early seventeenth century as a consequence of English military successes and the increasing anglicisation of Ireland. After this period there are a series of dialects with no recognised standard.

The old form of Irish society in which poets still had a place, however tenuous, came to an end so that there was no continuation of a single written standard. Indeed it is unlikely that such a standard would have survived as it was long since remote from spoken forms of the language. The anglicisation accelerated a process which had begun long before, it did not initiate it.

It is in this period that a series of instructions for poets were composed intending to act as guidelines for those wishing to use the classical standard for poetic composition at a time when the latter was no longer spoken. These are collectively known as the Bardic Syntactical Tracts (McKenna 1944) or as Irish Grammatical Tracts (Bergin 1969) and date back to the fifteenth century or earlier.

Language This period is characterised by the language of a professional class of poets called filí; the period itself is known as aos dána ‘the age of poetry’. The writers of the period were mostly secular employees of Irish courts (witness the quantity of praise-poetry produced) and were different from the many religious writers of the Old Irish period.

From a present-day perspective the writers of this period are viewed critically. They clung to an obsolete norm quite removed from vernacular of their time. Furthermore, they were not completely conversant with the Middle or indeed Old Irish standard which they emulated and the result was an adulterated form of language hampered by its own artificiality. In this period the dichotomy of the older norm and contemporary usage lead to a tension between what was called ceart na bhfileadh ‘the poets’ standard’ and canamhain ‘speech’, i.e. the spoken Irish of the time.

Linguistically the Early Modern Irish period is a time of consolidation of the changes initiated and partially carried through in the Old and Middle Irish periods. The verb prefixes are greatly reduced in number, e.g. do-, ad-, no- and ro- frequently level to do- which was retained up to recently as a marker of the past. Independent personal pronouns became normal with a single form of the copula verb. Indeed this pattern, invariant verb form and independent personal pronoun, spread to other verbs and has become common in modern Irish outside of the present tense which does, however, retain synthetic forms.

General literature on the history of Irish

Bergin, Osborn 1969. The native Irish grammarian. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

McKenna, Lambert 1979 [1944]. Bardic syntactical tracts. Dublin: Institute for Advanced Studies.

McCone, Kim et al. 1994. Stair na Gaeilge. In ómós do Pádraig Ó Fiannachta [The history of Irish. In honour of Patrick O’Finaghty] St. Patrick’s College, Maynooth [National Unversity of Ireland]: Department of Irish.

O’Rahilly, Thomas F. 1976 [1932] Irish dialects past and present. Dublin: Browne and Nolan.

Rockel, Martin 1989. Grundzüge einer Geschichte der irischen Sprache. Wien: Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften.

General literature on Celtic

Ball, Martin J. and James Fife (eds) 1993. The Celtic languages. Second edition: 2009. London: Routledge.

Lewis, Henry and Holger Pedersen 1937. A concise comparative Celtic grammar. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck und Ruprecht.

Macaulay, Donald et al. 1992. The Celtic languages. Cambridge: University Press. Cambridge Language Surveys.

Pedersen, Holger 1909-1913. Vergleichende Grammatik der keltischen Sprachen. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck und Ruprecht.

Russell, Paul. 1995. An introduction to the Celtic languages. London: Longman.