Keeping the Irish language up-to-date

For many who struggled with Péig and dreaded the intricacies of the modh coinníollach, a press release earlier this week from Pat Carey on when to use an úrú (eclipse) or séimhiú (lenition) might have been easily ignored.

But behind the dry grammar of the impressively named Standing Committee to review Caighdeán Oifigiúil na Gaeilge lie implications for Irish lawyers, legislators, parliamentary draftsmen and EU translations.

The change likely to affect the greatest number of people may be seen on Leaving certificate papers in coming years.

The Caighdeán Oifigiúil (Official Standard) was put together in the 1940s and 1950s, first bringing in agreed rules on Irish spelling, then going on to create grammar rules.

The aim of the project was never to replace the regional dialects still spoken in the Gaeltachts, but to create a single, standard, written language which could be used in official documents and legislation. A reference work was published in 1958.

“That book is the official State sponsored standard in Irish,” said Tomás Ó Ruairc, head of the central translation unit in the department of the gaeltacht.

Differences in the dialects can introduce ambiguities in meaning between speakers from the different Gaeltachts, and the Caighdeán created a single reference point to avoid these uncertainties in government publications. However, as the language evolved, newer dictionaries veered from the Caighdeán to reflect the spoken language, so the government set up a review unit to update the Caighdeán.

Ó Domhnaill’s dictionary, published by An Gúm in 1978, differed from the Caighdeán in several areas, reintroducing many of the uncertainties the project had hoped to eliminate. The Christian Brothers grammar guides also reflected changes in the modern languages.

“The official standard was so out-of-date that it was felt timely to do this review,” said Ó Ruairc.

“We’re about halfway through the process now, and due the steering committee is due to finish its work by June of next year.”

Exam papers

“The impact in terms of education could be quite significant. There is a representative from Education & Science on the steering committee.”

“In terms of exam papers, you can’t have three different versions of a question on a Maths paper, for example. It would obviously take time to implement it, but from June of next year the new standard would be the one to be followed by agencies and departments of State.”

Students (and anyone else writing to the government) are free to write in the dialect of their choice, but all written communication from the state follows the Caighdeán.

The review does not cover new words, so there won’t be a new official word for a computer as a result of the review. A separate terminology section keeps track of neologisms, an ever-expanding area in areas like computing (ríomhaireacht, feminine third declension, in case you’re wondering). And if you’re curious, you can satisfy your curiosity about technical jargon from computing and other areas at where you can look up the standard approved term.

“If there’s one term in law, and other terms in common usage, they do give both terms, showing which is which,” Ó Ruairc said.

The fourth public consultation, published this week, is expected to last until the end of the year.

“It is evident from the number of people who registered for those consultation periods that the public has a great interest in the issues in question and in the debate surrounding them,” said Pat Carey, the gaeltacht minister.