Friday, March 18, 2016

Country Profile: The Languages of Ireland

Since yesterday was Saint Patrick's Day, the religious and cultural holiday celebrating the patron saint of Ireland, it seems only fitting that we take a look at the languages spoken there today. To avoid confusion, we should point out that we're focusing on the Republic of Ireland and not Northern Ireland (a constituent country of the UK that encompasses the northernmost areas of the island of Ireland).

The Official Languages

The Campanile of Trinity College, Dublin
The Republic of Ireland has two official languages: Irish and English. While the vast majority of Irish people speak English as a native language, the Irish language has the added benefit of being the country's only national language due to its cultural and historical importance. This fascinating Celtic language, also known as Gaelic or Irish Gaelic, actually originated in Ireland, unlike English. Today, the country is home to about 140,000 native Irish speakers, as well as around 1 million non-native speakers. 

English, on the other hand, was first introduced to the island during the Norman invasion in the 12th century, though it didn't become widely spoken until Ireland fell under English rule during the Tudor conquest in the 16th century. Over the decades, English became increasingly important, and has been the country's dominant language since the early 19th century. Over 90% of Irish people speak English as a native language, while nearly 300,000 more speak it as a second language.

That said, Irish and English are both widely used throughout the Republic of Ireland. In addition to both languages being taught in schools, there are also Irish-language television and radio stations, as well as newspapers and magazines. In recent years, there have also been widespread efforts to help revive the Irish language and promote its use throughout the country.

Other Languages

The Ethnologue lists just two other languages that are used in Ireland: Scots and Shelta. If you read our post on Germanic languages, you may recall that Scots is a Germanic language that is so closely related to English that linguists can't decide whether it's a distinct language or a variety. In any case, Ireland is home to approximately 10,000 native speakers of Ulster Scots, the dialects of Scots used in the province of Ulster.

Finally, there are thought to be about 6,000 native speakers of Shelta, which is used by the Irish Travellers ethnic group. Technically, it's a cant instead of a language, since it is a unique mixture of English and Irish grammar, syntax, and vocabulary that was designed so that it couldn't be understood by outsiders.