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Gaelic vs. Irish: What’s the Difference?

St. Patrick’s Day, cable-knit wool sweaters, and lush, green rolling landscapes are what people often associate with the country of Ireland. What people don’t generally know, though, is that while the majority of the country speaks English, the country’s official language is Irish and is on the UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger.


Why Gaelic Isn’t Irish

This is where things get a little complicated: specifically, Gaelic is an adjective that describes the people and culture of Ireland. The Irish language is sometimes referred to as “Gaeilge” (pronounced Gwal-gah), but it is not Gaelic; Gaelige is the name of the Irish language in Irish.

Like its Gaelic cousin, both are Indo-European languages, but Irish is actually a language unto its own. The term “Gaelic”, as a language, applies only to the language of Scotland. If you’re not in Ireland, it is permissible to refer to the language as Irish Gaelic to differentiate it from Scottish Gaelic, but when you’re in the Emerald Isle, simply refer to the language as either Irish or its native name, Gaeilge.


Experiencing the Language

In any country, depending on where you are, you’ll hear the same word pronounced differently. There are three predominately Irish-speaking areas within Ireland called Gaeltachts (pronounced Gwal-tachts), where Irish is used on a daily basis as a primary language, each with a different dialect. You’ll find them located along the Atlantic coast of Ireland:

  • Ulster Dialect—Spoken in the northwest corner of the country, concentrated near Donegal
  • Connacht Dialect—Spoken in the west of the country; the two most prominent areas are Connemara and Mayo
  • Munster Dialect—Spoken in the southwest of Ireland


Endangered Status and Support in the EU

Under UNESCO, the language qualifies as being “definitely endangered” because it is being used as a primary language by 44,000 or fewer people in the country and children are not learning it as a primary language in the home. Since 2007, Irish has been one of the 24 official languages of the European Union, but the institutions of the EU do not have any duty to translate or interpret the language unless mandated by the European Council and the European Parliament.

This decision, along with the delays in providing translation and interpretation support, drew the ire of Irish MEP, Liadh Ní Riada. In 2015, the lawmaker staged what has been referred to as a “language strike,” speaking only Irish during official proceedings, and has stated that she is willing to do it again if the EU does not fulfill its support of the Irish language as the body does with the other official languages. It is expected Irish will have full support in translation and interpretation within the EU by the year 2022.


The Future of Irish

In spite of the lack of support within the European Union and in Ireland, the Irish language is seeing a resurgence in learning in the digital age. The mobile language learning application Duolingo was recently heralded by Irish President Michael Higgins as “an act of both national and global citizenship.” Using technology to bring an endangered language to the world isn’t exactly a new feat, but it certainly provides an avenue of support to endangered and extinct languages and allows an opportunity for global support of the language to thrive.

For more information about languages across the globe, explore our blog. 

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