[Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society, J22, 1997/2 pp19-23]

The Standardization of Irish Spelling: an Overview.

Muiris Ó Laoire.

Dr Muiris Ó Laoire has taught modern languages in secondary school for a number of years. While studying Irish language pedagogy, he researched language revitalization at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and was awarded a PhD from the National University of Ireland in 1995 for a dissertation on language revival. Having worked in IÉ (The Linguistics Institute) and in the NCCA (National Council for Curriculum and Assessment), he now teaches and researches in Oifig na Gaeilge Labhartha, University College, Galway.


Both Irish (an Ghaeilge) and English are recognized as official languages in the Republic of Ireland. English is the mother tongue of the vast majority of the population. The Constitution of 1937, however, affirmed the status of Irish as the national and first official language. While over a million persons declare themselves as Irish speakers in the census returns, the reality is that the language is spoken in daily transaction and communication by only about five per cent of the population, mainly in the indigenous speech communities, Na Gaeltachtaí, geographically located along the Western seaboard. This accords a unique status to the language among the languages of Europe in being at once a national language and a lesser used language. The language is now undergoing a revival with a renewed interest in Irish-medium education, and now has the support of an all-Irish TV station, Teilifís na Gaeilge, established in November 1996.

It is proposed here to give a brief overview of the processes of standardization of the Irish spelling system that took place forty years ago. It is intended to show that the trends of these standardization processes were towards a simplification and a greater correlation between the spoken and written language. To examine these processes, it is necessary, first, to give a brief account of the evolution of the language and of some of its inherent features.

Historical Overview of the Language.

The earliest evidence of Irish as a written language is very scant, dating back to the 4th century AD, and consisting of the names of people and places inscribed on slabs and on pillar stones. This form of writing was called ogham and was prevalent between the 4th and 7th century. The ogham script consisted of short lines (consonants) or dots (vowels) drawn on the left or on the right or across a base line.

When the Latin alphabet was introduced into Ireland, there arose a written language and a vibrant literature characterized by sagas, epics, religious and personal lyric poetry and monastic and ecclesiastical texts. The language subsequently underwent various periods of development. The first period is known as the Old Irish period 600-900. There followed what scholars call the Middle Irish period 900-1200, when during the era of the Viking invasions the language underwent Scandinavian influences with new loan-words being adopted. During the classical Irish period, 1200-1600, a standardized literary language flourished among the literati of the era, the poets and professional scholars, who were supported by literary families and chieftains. This era is characterized in particular by a type of standard syllabic, bardic poetry often written in praise of the patron-chieftain to commemorate events in his life and to satirize his enemies. The language of this poetry was regulated and standardized and remained virtually unchanged for three hundred and fifty years while the colloquial language evolved and developed.

As Irish feudalism became increasingly de-stabilized with the English plantation system and its political influence, the language gradually came under threat. The Irish chieftains, who had supported the poets and literary families, fled and had their lands confiscated. This led to the demise of the formal, literary language, which had been preserved and cultivated by the poets and literati. This literary language was gradually superseded by the colloquial language of the people that had continued to develop over the centuries, but had not been recorded in, or admitted into the standardized literature of the period.

Large scale settlements of English and Scots in the plantations marked the beginning of a shift from Irish to English. English became more important economically and socially with the growth of towns and commerce. This led to the gradual disuse of Irish, especially in the eastern half of the country. An English-medium education system from 1831 further contributed to a shift to English. It is estimated that the Famine of 1845-48 reduced the number of Irish speakers by one million (Ó Cuiv 1967:19). In 1851, it was estimated that there were 166,839 Irish speakers in the under 10 age group. By 1891, this figure has fallen to 30,785. (Ó Murchú 1988:81).

As the spoken language further retreated during the 19th century, it is somewhat ironic that its academic status was beginning to be restored and re-established by historians, antiquarians and international linguistic scholarship. This interest coincided with the growth of cultural nationalism and with a movement for the restoration of the spoken language at the end of the 19th century.

This movement gained strength, with the language serving as a powerful symbol of national identity (Ó Baoill 1988:110), until the advent of the free state in 1922, when the movement was absorbed into the political agenda and responsibility for the restoration of the language largely devolved on the educational system.

Features of the Language.

Irish belongs to the Celtic branch of the Indo-European languages and as such displays some of the general features or characteristics of the other Celtic languages, notably in inflectional morphology. Nouns are grouped into declensions and verbs into conjugations. Thus, the noun cat, meaning cat can exist as cat, chait, chat, gcat. Inflection in the case of nouns usually involves initial mutation called lenition (see below) and a change in the ending of the consonantal cluster, referred to as attenuation or slendering. Thus an post (the post) in the genitive case becomes an phoist, as in fear an phoist 'the postman'. Syncopation (loss of a letter or more from the main body of the word) may also occur, eg, Micheál 'Michael' becomes Mhichíl in the genitive. Verbs inflect for number, person, mood, tense and voice, and exist in both analytical and synthetic forms; thus the verb tóg 'take' in the first person, present, past, future, conditional mood appears as tógaim, thóg mé, tógfaidh mé, thógfainn respectively.

Central to the Irish orthographical system is the existence of two vowel groups, broad (a, o, u) and slender (e, i), phonetically back and front vowels respectively, and two consonantal groups, broad and slender. This feature is also present in Scottish Gaelic and Manx. This distinction between broad and slender consonants corresponds roughly to the distinction between hard and soft consonants in Russian and Polish and is often referred to as velarization and palatalization Greene 1966: 19, Ó Siadhail, 1989: 9) To provide an example, 'is fare' has a broad T since the vowel following it, A, is broad, while te 'hot' has a slender T since it is followed by a slender vowel, E. An important rule in Irish spelling is what is termed the caol le caol, leathan le leathan 'slender with slender, broad with broad' rule. This means that, particularly in the verb endings system where a slender vowel occurs on one side of a consonantal cluster or group, it must be followed by a slender e. Thus in briseann 'breaks' the slender I in the root bris has to be followed in the present tense by the ending -eann, beginning with a slender E. Similarly, broad vowels must be followed by broad vowels, eg, in glanann 'cleans' the broad A in the root glan is followed by the ending -ann, beginning with the broad vowel.

Lenition and aspiration, which are grammatically conditioned initial mutations, are features of modern Irish most worthy of note. Lenition occurs quite frequently in nouns and verbs, involving inclusion of h after the initial consonant, thus effecting the sonal quality of that consonant, eg, the plosive C /k/ becomes /x/ as cat > chat or B /b/ becomes BH /w/ in bhog. Eclipsis is the other grammatically conditioned initial mutation where a letter or combination is placed before the initial consonant or vowel in nouns and verbs, thus altering the initial phoneme. Thus N is placed before the initial G giving NG /ŋ/. G is placed before C giving GC /g/, and BH is placed before F giving BHF /w/.

The phonological variants in Irish are considerable and are attributable to the existence of three separate dialects, roughly corresponding with geographical distribution, canúint an Tuaiscirt 'northern dialect' in the northwest region, canúint an Iarthair 'western dialect' in the western region of Co. Galway and Co. Mayo and Connemara, and canúint na Muamhan 'Munster dialect' in the southwest region. The dialectal variations have not been confined to phonology alone, but have also effected lexis, grammar and orthography. The differences are in evidence in the common greeting, how are you?
Northern: Goidé mar atá tú?
Munster : Conas tá(nn) tú?
Western: Cén chaoi a bhfuil tú?
All these features give the language an intricate beauty as well as a certain complexity that made standardization more difficult to achieve, as will be seen from the account below.

Norm Selection.

As part of its campaign for the restoration of the language, the Gaelic League secured recognition for Irish at second and tertiary level education. After 1913, when it was accepted as a subject for matriculation purposes, there was a considerable increase in the number of secondary schools that included Irish in their programme of instruction. This increase in the use of Irish for instructional and academic purposes as well as the existence of a growing number of Irish writers focused debate on the question of standardization.

A controversy arose over the form of written Irish to be used. Some scholars argued for a linear continuation of the standardized written form of the neo-classical period, as exemplified in the seventeenth century prose writing of Seathrún Céitinn. Others sought to establish a form of written Irish that would mirror and reproduce the colloquial Irish of the people.

It was the latter group who won the debate. Ó Baoill (1988;111) makes an important remark on the outcome of this controversy in favour of the language of the people, caint na ndaoine. "Had the grammar of classical Irish (1200-1650) as used by Seathrún Céitinn and the professional poets of that period become the norm, the resulting cleft between the literary language and the speech of the Irish-speaking areas (collectively known as the Gaeltacht) would certainly have alienated native speakers of Irish and those who had already learned Irish to a proficient degree."

The fact that the written form now reflected the language spoken by the people augured well for the future of the Irish as a vibrant, modern language in tune with the thoughts, aspirations and imagination of its speech community. However, the use of the language of the people as it occurred in the three dialects across three provinces underlined the need for standardization and for norm selection in particular. This was all the more difficult, since none of the three dialects possessed the prestige and status to dominate as a socially accepted norm. Had a speech community developed in any urban centre, its dialect would be expected to dictate the choice of norm. This, however, has not occurred to any extent in Ireland. The fact that no one dialect was prescribed as being normative meant that spelling followed the varying pronunciation patterns of each of the dialects. Ó Baoill (1988:112) mentions a further problem with spelling at this time. "Words in many instances looked longer than their present pronunciations would indicate, because of the retention of certain older spellings handed down from an earlier period of the language. Such spellings had changed very little since the period of classical Irish 1200-1650. In many respects it was far removed from the type of Irish current in Ireland in 1922."

When the national government of 1922 was working towards achieving a restoration of the language and its maintenance in the indigenous speech communities, it had to confront all these problems which arose from the lack of norm selection and standardization. In any event, it seemed to have been taken for granted without debate that there ought to be a national standard language.

The Gaelic script.

From 1600 onwards, writings in Irish mainly used the Gaelic script.

Gaelic script

When the language of the people was adopted as the norm, decision was made to abandon the Gaelic script in favour of the Roman script. This not only involved an obvious change in the shape of the letters and in the way Irish appeared, but there were also morphophonemic changes to be made. A dot over the initial or internal consonant in the Gaelic script conveyed lenition. In the Roman script, this dot was replaced by h following the lenited consonant. Thus dotted C /x/ was replaced by CH and dotted F by FH, etc. It was hoped that the change in script would simplify and modernize the language, thereby bringing it into line with the modern languages of western Europe. The change was decried and resisted, however, by many campaigners for the revival of language who advocated a basic and pure preservation.

The Problem of Spelling.

Problems had always surrounded the system of spelling in Irish. The adaptation of the Latin alphabet in the sixth century caused problems in the development of a system of orthography that would accurately reflect pronunciation. Ó Cuiv (1969:26) explains that certain features in Irish such as lenition and eclipsis had no counterpart in Latin. This created a problem where a single letter had to represent more than one sound. The letter G, for example represented the modern G sound as well as the lenited variant, today spelt GH, a division of values for G not unlike that in Old English. Ó Cuiv (1969:27) explains the outcome: "All this is slightly puzzling to us nowadays and it does not surprise us to find that literate Irishmen eight or nine centuries ago were not altogether satisfied with the current system of orthography. Bit by bit, the main inconsistencies were removed and eventually a reasonably unambigious system was available. This orthography was relevant to the sound system of spoken Irish of the twelfth century and as such it was adequate."

When the standardized literary language was established during the classical Irish period, the spelling problem was resolved. However, once caint na ndaoine or 'the language of the people' was accepted at the end of the 19th century as the norm, the problem of spelling emerged again. While the classical literati had no problems with spelling because they ignored the spoken language, the writers of the late 19th century felt the need for a more simplified system corresponding to pronunciation.

Ó Cuiv (1969:25) tells us that efforts at such simplification and correlation of spelling and pronunciation had already taken place in the classical era. Theobald Stapleton, author of a catechism published in Brussels in 1639, Cathcismus sen Adhon, an Teagasc Críostaí iar na foilsiú a Laidin & a Ngaoilaig, attempted a simplification which deviated from the classical standard. Silent letters in certain words were replaced, eg, the DH in the word suidhe 'sitting' was replaced by Í in suí, as in modern Irish. The GH and DH in ríoghdhacht 'kingdom' were omitted to produce ríocht. He brought the spelling closer to the pronunciation by replacing THBH by F as in spoken Irish uathbhás 'terror', giving uafás as in modern Irish. It was only the authors of devotional literature, however, who followed Stapleton's lead and the spelling system retained its classical complexity until official efforts at standardization took place after 1922 and in particular after 1931.

Writers of the Gaelic League era continued to use the antiquated classical spelling. Fr. Dineen's Irish/English dictionary, published in 1927, did little to revise the spelling system and align it with the current language of the people. The dictionary, in fact, had the effect of stabilizing the old spelling system, although it was helpful in exposing learners and speakers to examples of lexis from the three dialects.

In 1922 the National Government had officially assigned the standardization of the spelling and grammar to the Translation Section of the Dáil (Parliament).

Standardization of the spelling system essentially involved a movement towards simplification as had already been attempted by Stapleton. There was strong opposition, however, to the idea of changing the spelling, especially from the Gaelic League, the language restoration organization. In 1928, the League passed a resolution stating that it would be better not to change the spelling of Irish until the language was out of the danger of death or destruction. Ó Cuiv (1969:29-30) remarks as follows on the slow pace of change towards simplification: "So powerful were the conservatives that in spite of the fact that Roman type and a more simplified form of spelling were already in use in parliamentary publications in Irish, the government decided to publish the new Irish constitution in 1937 in Gaelic type and the outmoded spelling."

The Translation Committee nevertheless continued its difficult task, and in 1931 it prepared a circular in which the new simplified spelling system was proposed. Modifications were made to the classical spelling system in O'Dineen's dictionary, giving consideration to dialectal pronunciation, avoidance of ambiguity, grammar, appearance of words, and etymology. It is interesting to look at some of the changes suggested to the spelling system, as listed by Ó Baoill (1988: 113).

Classical Version



Modern Spelling


'middle, average'

These examples illustrate the trend of change in the revised system. One notices the efforts at simplification in effecting change in two principle ways. Firstly, the system corresponded more closely with the spoken word. One notices the substitution of internal unvoiced consonantal groupings, eg, mh, dh, in the words listed above by a stressed vowel, thereby reflecting a closer correlation between the written and the pronounced word. These changes tended to represent the general pronunciation pattern of all the dialects, although not fully and thoroughly. Secondly, the new spelling was also a good deal shorter. Ó Baoill (1988:113) writes, "The new spellings were more psychologically real in the sense that what one wrote was a lot closer to what one said than was previously the case." However such change was generally resisted, even though it was widely used in all government departments. Even though efforts at achieving a simplified and standardized system had begun as early as 1922, it is no surprise perhaps that it took thirty-five years to arrive at a final publicized accepted version. In 1945, the pace had been slow when the Taoiseach (Prime Minister) of the day, Éamonn De Valera, requested the Translation Section to complete its work. When the Translation Section submitted its work, Lamhleabhar an Chaighdeáin Oifigiúil (Irish spelling: The Official Standard Handbook), it was found that an entire system needed to be worked out and completed.

It was not until 1957, therefore, that the standard version was finally authorized and published as Gramadach na Gaeilge agus Litriú na Gaeilge (The Grammar and Spelling of Irish). This version has remained as a yardstick for all writing in Irish since, and has been more or less widely accepted. However, this was not the case in the beginning. One Professor of Irish of the National University called the newly published standard as the most hateful monster that ever appeared in the language (Ó Ruairc 1993:36). Since the standardized system was first used and propagated within the civil service, one still hears disparaging reference to Gaeilge na státseirbhíse (The Irish of the Civil Service). Dictionaries published since 1957, notably De Bhaldraithe (1959) and Ó Dónaill (1977), have had the effect of strengthening the standard version of spelling, but many problems remain unresolved.

Problems and Challenges.

The standardized spelling system has held sway for nearly forty years now and is used in all school textbooks and educational publications. Dialectal variations in spelling and grammar continue to appear in reprinted school texts (eg, the works of the Donegal writer Máire), but they are generally highlighted and explained in a glossary. The general situation, however is far from satisfactory.

First, the complicated morphological and inflectional system of the language continues to present problems for the learner. The standard evolving has not gone far enough to reduce the intricate complexities that confront learners at all levels. There is evidence to suggest that some learners in Irish schools, where the study of the language is compulsory, may have little understanding or awareness of how the system differs from English, even after a period of nine years instruction. (Ó Laoire 1995).

The biggest problem with the official standard, however, is that it does not agree in any systematic way with the spoken dialects. Any system of spelling must take account of the variations that occur in pronunciation. While some efforts were made to ensure that this occurred in Irish, many scholars would argue that such efforts have not been sufficient. Bliss (1981: 911) for example, criticizes the official standard for not taking cognizance of variation. He explains: "As far as pronunciation is concerned it seems impossible to discern any rhyme or reason in the choice of spellings. Some changes in traditional spelling are quite inexplicable, as for instance the change of the historical chuaidh, deachaidh 'went' to chuaigh, deachaigh, a change that could not possibly be dependent on pronunciation since DH or GH were identified many hundred years ago."

There appear to be discrepancies, therefore, between the choice made in the standard system and the dialectal variations. Sometimes, the choice made in the standardization makes little sense. Bliss (1981:911) quotes an interesting example of this discrepancy. For "...the word traditionally spelt tráigh, 'strand', Northern Irish generally has the pronunciation trái and Southern Irish the pronunciation tráigh, but the caighdeán (standard) spelling is trá, a pronunciation hardly heard outside Cois Fharraige (a localized sub-dialect of the western dialect)". The discarding of the -IGH was not carried out systematically. It was retained for some unknown reason in many verbs in particular, eg, dóigh 'burn' or léigh 'read'.

Some scholars also argue that simplification in spelling has led to a more complicated grammatical system. (Wigger 1979:195). In the old spelling system the ending -(E)ANN was added to all verb roots in the present tense eg, briseann 'breaks', léigheann 'reads', nigheann 'washes'. In Modern Irish, however, while the -GH was retained in the root form léigh, nigh, the present tense of such verbs according to the standard spelling system introduces a new ending -ONN in the case of NIGH, while léigh retains the -EANN ending. The new spelling system has léann, and níonn respectively. These examples represent only some of the problems that are often cited as being attributable to the new system.

Another problem that standardization did not address fully is the irregularity of the Irish spelling system. Irish, unlike Welsh (which is known for the phonographic regularity of its writing system), remains highly unpredictable. This irregularity is due to the fact that Irish has more sounds than the Latin alphabet can represent. It can be argued that efforts at standardization to date have not gone far enough to correct this irregularity and to bridge the gap between written and spoken Irish. The rules remain too faithful sometimes to the standardized written form which was first influenced by the way Irish was pronounced centuries ago. The spelling and pronunciation of the word Taoiseach 'Prime Minister' which has often caused problems for foreign news casters, illustrates this irregularity. The combination AOI in Taoiseach is an alternative to Uí. The combination EA in Taoiseach corresponds to the A sound in English hat - so alternatively the word could be spelled Tuíshach. However, AOI at the beginning of a word has an í /i:/ quality, as EE in the word been in English. Thus the proper name Aoife could be spelled as ífe. Furthermore, in Munster, AO can be pronounced as É /e:/, as in saor /sér/ 'free', or as í /i:/ in the western dialect. Visitors to Ireland have much difficulty in pronouncing placenames like Dún Laoghaoire /doon lére/ or /doon líre/ with the silent internal -GH-. The pronunciation of Irish is often not obvious from the spellings and is quite confusing as these examples serve to illustrate.


While some scholars would maintain that the official spelling standard has done "great harm to the cause of the Irish language" (Bliss 1981: 912), more research needs to be done among the public, learners and writers on the level of acceptability of the present spelling system. Very little research, if any, has taken place in this area. While problems of discrepancies still continue to exist, one must recognize that great strides have already been made. Ó Murchú (1993:60) puts the development that has taken place in context: "Twentieth century Irish, given that it was faced with critical problems of a choice of script, a destabilized spelling, and a substantial degree of dialectal variation with no unifying form, could hardly have evaded strife and vacillation."

The underlying trend has been towards the acceptance of a norm and simplification. Yet with a highly intricate morphological and inflectional system coupled with the fact that no one dialect is normative, the spelling system of Irish will still have to undergo revision before it will be completely acceptable and satisfactory. This historical overview of the standardization of Irish focuses on the difficulties of arriving at a satisfactory system in the absence of any specific, normative dialect and may well have counterparts in the history of other languages, where no one standard has arisen imperceptibly by natural historical processes.


Bliss, A (1981) The standardization of Irish. Crane bag 5(2) 908-914.

De Bhaldraithe, T (1958) An English-Irish Dictionary. Dublin: Stationery Office.

Greene, D (1966) The Irish Language, Cork: Mercier.

Ó Baoill, D (1988) The standardization of Irish. International Journal of the Sociology of Language, 70. 109-126.

Ó Cuiv, B (1967) Irish Dialects and Irish Speaking Districts, Dublin: Stationery Office.

Ó Cuiv, B (1969) A View of the Irish Language, Dublin: Stationery Office.

Ó Dónaill, N. (1977) Fóclóir Gaeilge-Béarla, Dublin: Stationery Office.

Ó Laoire, M (1995) Developing Language Awareness in the Irish Language. Classroom Journal of Celtic Language Learning 2, 54-77.

Ó Murchú, M (1988 ) Historical Overview of the Position of Irish. The Less Widely Taught Languages of Europe, Dublin: IRAAL, 77-88.

Ó Murchú, M (1993) Some General Observations, Teangeolas 32, 59-61.

Ó Ruairc, M (1993) Forbairt na Gaeilge-Caoga Bliain Amach. Teangeolas 32, 35-44.

Ó Siadhail, M (1989) Modern Irish, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.

Wigger, A (1979) Irish Dialect, Phonology and Problems of Irish Orthography. Papers in Celtic Phonology: New University of Ulster.

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