The wild inconsistency of its spelling standards makes learning English quite a challenge for non-native speakers as they try to “sound out” a written word. Romance languages like Spanish, by contrast, show a refreshing orthographic consistency. But all it takes to baffle a smugly fluent speaker of English is to be confronted with a few phrases written in Gaelic. Unless you have had specific training, any guesses that you come up with as to how those words might be pronounced will almost certainly be wrong.
You might know by now, for instance, that the girls’ name Siobhán is pronounced something like “Shih-VOHN.” But if “bh” sounds like a “v” in Irish Gaelic, why is “dh” sometimes silent? Moreover, the initial consonant of a word can shift pronunciation depending on its grammatical relationship to other words in the same sentence, or even their gender. Then there are all those mysterious diacritical markings that change a letter’s sound. To complicate matters yet further, pronunciation varies from place to place within the scattered regions of Ireland, known as the Gaeltacht, where the ancient native language is still learned by some from the cradle onward.
Despite the efforts of the Gaelic Revival beginning at the end of the 19th century to rehabilitate what was by then a scorned and dying tongue, and the fact that it is now the official national language of the Republic of Ireland, the sad truth remains that only about two million people worldwide can speak Irish Gaelic at all, and only about 130,000 native speakers remain. Happily, pockets of resistance to this lamentable cultural extinction are growing throughout the Irish diaspora, including in parts of the US; some 22,000 Americans reportedly spoke Irish at home as of 2008.
Want to do your part, help preserve a noble tongue and conquer your terror of all those weird consonant blends and vowel combinations? You can now learn to speak Irish locally, thanks to the efforts of the Irish Cultural Center of the Hudson Valley (ICCHV). Beginning January 7 and 8, Stiofan O’Labhraí will be offering a third semester of two eight-week Learn to Speak Irish language courses, with instruction in Kingston and Red Hook.
“Basic Conversation” classes will take place from 6 to 7:30 p.m. every Wednesday from January 7 to February 25 at the Knights of Columbus Hall at 389 Broadway in Kingston. “Introduction to Irish” classes will take place from 6 to 7:30 p.m. every Thursday from January 8 to February 26 at a location in Red Hook yet to be announced as of presstime.
The cost of enrollment is $80 for the general public, $70 for ICCHV. To sign up or obtain more information, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call (845) 505-5703.