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Irish ( ) is a Goidelic language of the Indo-European language family, originating in Irelandmarker and historically spoken by the Irish people. Irish is now only spoken natively by a small minority of the Irish population but also plays an important symbolic role in the life of the Irish state, and is used across the country in a variety of media, personal contexts and social situations. It enjoys constitutional status as the national and first official language of the Republic of Irelandmarker and it is an official language of the European Union. Irish is also an officially recognised minority language in Northern Irelandmarker.

Irish is the main community and household language of 3% of the Republic's population (which was estimated at 4,422,100 in 2008). Estimates of fully native speakers range from 40,000 up to 80,000 people. Areas in which the language remains the vernacular are referred to as Gaeltacht areas. The Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs estimated in 2007 that about 17,000 people lived in strongly Irish-speaking communities, about 10,000 people lived in areas where there was substantial use of the language, and 17,000 people lived in "weak" Gaeltacht communities; Irish was no longer the main community language in the remaining parts of the official Gaeltacht. However, since Irish is an obligatory subject in schools, many more are reasonably fluent second-language speakers. Furthermore, a much larger number regard themselves as competent in the language to some degree: 1,656,790 (41.9% of the total population aged three years and over) regard themselves as competent Irish speakers. Of these, 538,283 (32.5%) speak Irish on a daily basis (taking into account both native speakers and those inside the education system), 97,089 (5.9%) weekly, 581,574 (35.1%) less often, and 412,846 (24.9%) never. 26,998 (1.6%) respondents did not state how often they spoke Irish. Complete or functional monolingualism of Irish is now restricted to a handful of elderly within more isolated Gaeltacht regions as well as among many mother-tongue speakers of Irish under school age.

14% of the population of the Republic of Ireland listen to Irish radio programming daily, 16% listen 2-5 times a week, while 24% listen to Irish programming once a week.

The number of inhabitants of the official-designated Gaeltacht regions of Ireland is 91,862, as of the 2006 census. Of these, 70.8% aged three and over speak Irish and approximately 60% speak Irish on a daily basis.

The 2001 census in Northern Ireland showed that 167,487 (10.4%) people "had some knowledge of Irish" (see Irish language in Northern Ireland). Combined, this means that at least one in three people (~1.8 million) on the island of Ireland can understand Irish to some extent.

On 13 June 2005, EU foreign ministers unanimously decided to make Irish an official language of the European Union. The new arrangements came into effect on 1 January 2007, and Irish was first used at a meeting of the EU Council of Ministers, by Minister Noel Treacy, T.D., on 22 January 2007.

Names of the language

In Irish

In the (the official written standard) the name of the language is ( .

Before the spelling reform of 1948, this form was spelled ; originally this was the genitive of , the form used in classical Modern Irish. Older spellings of this include in Middle Irish [ge:ʝəlg] and [goiðelg] in Old Irish. The modern spelling results from the deletion of the silent dh in the middle of Gaedhilge.

Other forms of the name found in the various modern Irish dialects, in addition to south Connacht mentioned above, include ( ) or ( ) in Ulster Irish and northern Connacht Irish and ( ) in Munster Irish.

In English

The language is usually referred to in English as Irish. The term Irish Gaelic is often used when English speakers discuss the relationship between the three Goidelic languages (Irish, Scottish Gaelic, and Manx) or when discussion of Irish is confused to mean Hiberno-English, the form of English as spoken in Ireland. Scottish Gaelic is often referred to in English as simply Gaelic. Outside Ireland and often among native-speakers themselves, the term Gaelic is still frequently used for the language. The archaic term Erse (from Erische), originally a Scots form of the word Irish applied in Scotland (by Lowlanders) to all of the Goidelic languages, is no longer used for any Goidelic language, and in most current contexts is considered derogatory.


The earliest attested form of Irish is known as Primitive Irish. It is chiefly known through fragments inscribed in the ogham alphabet, which have been found throughout Ireland and the west coast of Great Britainmarker. Primitive Irish transitioned into Old Irish through the 5th century. This is the earliest form of Irish for which there are extensive written texts. By the 10th century Old Irish evolved into Middle Irish, which was spoken throughout Ireland and in Scotlandmarker and the Isle of Manmarker. From the 12th century Middle Irish began to evolve into modern Irish in Ireland, into Scottish Gaelic in Scotland, and into the Manx language in the Isle of Man. Modern Irish emerged from the literary language known as Early Modern Irish in Ireland and as Classical Gaelic in Scotland; this was used through the 18th century.

Official status

In the Republic of Ireland

Irish is given recognition by the Constitution of Ireland as the national and first official language of the Republic of Ireland (with English being a second official language). Since the foundation of the Irish Free State in 1922 (see also History of the Republic of Ireland), the Irish Government required a degree of proficiency in Irish for all those who became newly appointed to civil service positions (including postal workers, tax officials, agricultural inspectors, etc.). Proficiency in just one official language for entrance to the public service was introduced in 1974, in part through the actions of protest organizations like the Language Freedom Movement.

While the First Official Language requirement was also dropped for wider public service jobs, Irish remains a required subject of study in all schools within the Republic which receive public money (see also Education in the Republic of Ireland). Those wishing to teach in primary schools in the State must also pass a compulsory examination called "Scrúdú Cáilíochta sa Ghaeilge". The need for a pass in Leaving Certificate Irish or English for entry to the Gardaí (police) was introduced in September 2005, although applicants are given lessons in the language during the two years of training. All official documents of the Irish Government must be published in both Irish and English or Irish alone (this is according to the official languages act 2003, which is enforced by "an comisinéir teanga", the language ombudsman).

The National University of Ireland requires all students wishing to embark on a degree course in the NUI federal system to pass the subject of Irish in the Leaving Certificate or GCE/GCSE Examinations. Exemptions are made from this requirement for students born outside of the Republic of Ireland, those who were born in the Republic but completed primary education outside it, and students diagnosed with dyslexia.

In 1938, the founder of Conradh na Gaeilge (The Gaelic League), Douglas Hyde, was inaugurated as the first President of Ireland. The record of his delivering his auguration Declaration of Office in Roscommon Irishmarker remains almost the only surviving remnant of anyone speaking in that dialect.

The National University of Ireland, Galwaymarker is required to appoint people who are competent in the Irish language, as long as they meet all other respects of the vacancy they are appointed to. This requirement is laid down by the University College Galway Act, 1929 (Section 3). It is expected that the requirement may be repealed in due course.

Even though modern parliamentary legislation is supposed to be issued in both Irish and English, in practice it is frequently only available in English. This is notwithstanding that Article 25.4 of the Constitution of Ireland requires that an "official translation" of any law in one official language be provided immediately in the other official language—if not already passed in both official languages.

In Northern Ireland

Prior to the establishment of the Northern Ireland state in 1921, Irish was recognised as a school subject and as "Celtic" in some third level institutions. Between 1921 and 1972, Northern Ireland had a measure of devolved government. During those years the political party holding power in the Stormont Parliament, the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), was hostile to the language. In broadcasting, there was an exclusion on the reporting of minority cultural issues, and Irish was excluded from radio and television for almost the first fifty years of the Northern Ireland state. The language received a degree of formal recognition in Northern Ireland from the United Kingdom, under the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, and then, in 2001, by the Government's ratification in respect of the language of the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. The British government promised to create legislation encouraging the language as part of the 2006 St Andrews Agreement.

In the European Union

Irish became an official language of the EU on 1 January 2007 meaning that MEP's with Irish fluency can now speak the language in the EU Parliament in Europe and at committees although in the case of the latter they have to give prior notice to a simultaneous interpreter in order to ensure that what they say can be interpreted into other languages. While an official language of the European Union, only co-decision regulations must be available in Irish for the moment, due to a renewable five-year derogation on what has to be translated, requested by the Irish Government when negotiating the language's new official status. Any expansion in the range of documents to be translated will depend on the results of the first five-year review and on whether the Irish authorities decide to seek an extension. The Irish government has committed itself to train the necessary number of translators and interpreters and to bear the related costs.

Before Irish became an official language it was afforded the status of treaty language and only the highest-level documents of the EU had been made available in Irish.


There are parts of Ireland where Irish is still spoken as a traditional, native language used daily. These regions are known collectively as Gaeltachts, or in the plural Irish Gaeltachtaí. While the Gaeltacht's fluent Irish speakers, whose numbers have been estimated by scholar Donncha Ó hÉallaithe at twenty or thirty thousand, are a minority of total Irish speakers, they represent a higher concentration of Irish speakers than other parts of the country and it is only in Gaeltacht areas (in especial the more strongly Irish-speaking ones) that Irish continues to be a natural vernacular of the general population.

There are Gaeltacht regions in:

Smaller ones also exist in:

To summarise the extent of the survival: (See Hindley, 'The Death of the Irish Language')Irish remains as a natural vernacular in the following areas: south Connemara, from a point west of Spiddal, covering Inverin, Carraroe, Rosmuck, and the islands; the Aran Islands; northwest Donegal in the area around Gweedore, including Rannafast, Gortahork, the surrounding townlands and Tory Island; in the townland of Rathcarn, Co. Meath.

Gweedoremarker ( ),County Donegal is the largest Gaeltacht parish in Ireland.

The numerically and socially strongest Gaeltacht areas are those of South Connemara, the west of the Dingle Peninsula and northwest Donegal, in which the majority of residents use Irish as their primary language. These areas are often referred to as the ("true Gaeltacht") and collectively have a population just under 20,000.

"Caution Children"
Irish summer colleges are attended by tens of thousands of Irish teenagers annually. Students live with Gaeltacht families, attend classes, participate in sports, go to céilithe and are obliged to speak Irish. All aspects of Irish culture and tradition are encouraged.

According to data compiled by the Irish Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, only one quarter of households in officially Gaeltacht areas possess a fluency in Irish. The author of a detailed analysis of the survey, Donncha Ó hÉallaithe of the Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology, described the Irish language policy followed by Irish governments a "complete and absolute disaster". The Irish Times, referring to his analysis published in the Irish language newspaper Foinse, quoted him as follows: "It is an absolute indictment of successive Irish Governments that at the foundation of the Irish State there were 250,000 fluent Irish speakers living in Irish-speaking or semi Irish-speaking areas, but the number now is between 20,000 and 30,000."


There are a number of distinct dialects of Irish. Roughly speaking, the three major dialect areas coincide with the provinces of Munster ( ), Connacht ( ) and Ulster ( ). Records of some dialects of Leinster were made by the Irish Folklore Commission among other bodies prior to their extinction. Newfoundlandmarker, in eastern Canada, is also seen to have a minor dialect of Irish, closely resembling the Munster Irish spoken during the 16th to 17th centuries (see Newfoundland Irish).

Munster dialects

Munster Irish is mainly spoken in the Gaeltacht areas of Kerry ( ), Ringmarker ( ) near Dungarvanmarker ( ) in County Waterfordmarker ( ) and Muskerry ( ) and Cape Clear Islandmarker ( ) in the western part of County Corkmarker ( ). The most important subdivision in Munster is that between Decies Irish (Na Déise) (spoken in Waterford) and the rest of Munster Irish.

Some typical features of Munster Irish are:
  1. The use of endings to show person on verbs in parallel with a pronominal subject system, thus "I must" is in Munster as well as , while other dialects prefer ( means "I"). "I was and you were" is as well as in Munster, but more commonly in other dialects. Note that these are strong tendencies, and the personal forms Bhíos etc. are used in the West and North, particularly when the words are last in the clause.
  2. Use of independent/dependent forms of verbs that are not included in the Standard. For example, "I see" in Munster is , which is the independent form – Northern Irish also uses a similar form, tchím), whereas "I do not see" is , feicim being the dependent form, which is used after particles such as "not"). Chím is replaced by feicim in the Standard. Similarly, the traditional form preserved in Munster I give/ is / in the Standard; I get/ is / .
  3. When before -nn, -m, -rr, -rd, -ll and so on, in monosyllabic words and in the stressed syllable of multisyllabic words where the syllable is followed by a consonant, some short vowels are lengthened while others are diphthongised, thus ceann [kʲaun] "head", cam [kɑum] "crooked", gearr [gʲa:r] "short", ord [o:rd] "sledgehammer", gall [gɑul] "foreigner, non-Gael", iontas [u:ntəs] "a wonder, a marvel", compánach [kəum'pɑ:nəx] "companion, mate", etc.
  4. A copula construction involving "it" is frequently used. Thus "I am an Irish person" can be said is Éireannach mé and Éireannach is ea mé in Munster; there is a subtle difference in meaning, however, the first choice being a simple statement of fact, while the second brings emphasis onto the word Éireannach. In effect the construction is a type of "fronting".
  5. Both masculine and feminine words are subject to lenition after insan (sa/san) 'in the', den 'of the' and don 'to/for the' : sa tsiopa, "in the shop", compared to the Standard sa siopa (the Standard lenites only feminine nouns in the dative in these cases).
  6. Eclipsis of f after sa: sa bhfeirm, "in the farm", instead of san fheirm.
  7. Eclipsis of t and d after the preposition+singular article with all prepositions except after insan, den and don: ar an dtigh "on the house", ag an ndoras "at the door".
  8. Stress falls in general found on the second syllable of a word when the first syllable contains a sort vowel, and the second syllable contains a long vowel, diphthong, or is -(e)ach, e.g. ("pin"), as opposed to in Connacht and Ulster.

Connacht dialects

The strongest dialect of Connacht Irish is to be found in Connemara and the Aran Islandsmarker. Much closer to the larger Connacht Gaeltacht is the dialect spoken in the smaller region on the border between Galway ( ) and Mayo ( ). The northern Mayo dialect of Erris ( ) and Achillmarker ( ) is in grammar and morphology essentially a Connacht dialect, but shows some similarities to Ulster Irish due to large-scale immigration of dispossessed people following the Plantation of Ulster.

There are features in Connemara Irish outside the official standard—notably the preference for verbal nouns ending in , e.g. instead of , "weakening". The non-standard pronunciation of the Cois Fharraige area with lengthened vowels and heavily reduced endings gives it a distinct sound. Distinguishing features of Connacht and Ulster dialect include the pronunciation of word final broad bh and mh as , rather than as in Munster. For example ("mountain") is pronounced in Connacht and Ulster as opposed to in the south. In addition Connacht and Ulster speakers tend to include the "we" pronoun rather than use the standard compound form used in Munster e.g. is used for "we were" instead of .

Like in Munster Irish, when before -nn, -m, -rr, -rd, -ll and so on, in monosyllabic words and in the stressed syllable of multisyllabic words where the syllable is followed by a consonant, some short vowels are lengthened while others are diphthongised, thus ceann [kʲaun] "head", cam [kɑum] "crooked", gearr [gʲɑ:r] "short", ord [ourd] "sledgehammer", gall [gɑul] "foreigner, non-Gael", iontas [i:ntəs] "a wonder, a marvel", etc.

The present-day Irish of Meath (in Leinster) is a special case. It belongs mainly to the Connemara dialect. The Irish-speaking community in Meath is mostly a group of Connemara speakers who moved there in the 1930s after a land reform campaign spearheaded by Máirtín Ó Cadhain (who subsequently became one of the greatest modernist writers in the language).

Irish President Douglas Hyde was one of the last of speakers of the Roscommonmarker dialect of Irish.

Ulster dialects

Linguistically the most important of the Ulster dialects today is that of the Rosses ( ), which has been used extensively in literature by such authors as the brothers Séamus Ó Grianna and Seosamh Mac Grianna, locally known as Jimí Fheilimí and Joe Fheilimí. This dialect is essentially the same as that in Gweedoremarker ( = Inlet of Streaming Water), and used by native singers Enya ( ) and Máire Brennan and their siblings in Clannad ( = Family from the Dobhar[a section of Gweedore]) Na Casaidigh, and Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh from another local band Altan.

Ulster Irish sounds very different and shares several features with Scottish Gaelic, as well as having lots of characteristic words and shades of meanings. However, since the demise of those Irish dialects spoken natively in what is today Northern Ireland, it is probably an exaggeration to see Ulster Irish as an intermediary form between Scottish Gaelic and the southern and western dialects of Irish. For instance, Northern Scottish Gaelic has many non-Ulster features in common with Munster Irish.

One noticeable trait of Ulster Irish and Scots Gaelic is the use of the negative particle in place of the Munster and Connacht . Southern Ulster irish retains most strongly, while cha(n) has ousted in northernmost dialects (e.g. Rosguillmarker and Tory Islandmarker), though even in these areas "is not" is more common than chan fhuil or cha bhfuil.

An Caighdeán Oifigiúil

An Caighdeán Oifigiúil ("The Official Standard"), often shortened to An Caighdeán, is the standard language, which is taught in most schools in Ireland, though with strong influences from local dialects.

Its development had two purposes. One was to simplify Irish spelling, which had retained its Classical spelling, by removing many silent letters, and to give a standard written form that was "dialect free". Though many aspects of the Caighdeán are essentially those of Connacht Irish, this was simply because this is the central dialect which forms a "bridge", as it were, between the North and South. In reality, dialect speakers pronounce words as in their own dialect, as the spelling simply reflects the pronunciation of Classical Irish. For example, "head" in early modern Irish was pronounced . The spelling has been retained, but the word is variously pronounced in the South, in Connacht, and in the North. "small" was in early modern Irish, and is now in Waterford Irish, in Cork-Kerry Irish, varies between and in the West, and is in the North.

The simplification, however, in some cases probably went too far in simplifying the standard with only reference to the West. For example, the early modern Irish "bed" is pronounced as well as in Waterford Irish, in Cork-Kerry Irish, in Connacht Irish ( in Cois Fharraige Irish), and in the North. Native speakers from the North and South consider that leabaidh should be the representation in the Caighdeán rather than actual .

On the other hand, the Caighdeán arguably did not go far enough in many cases. For example, it has retained the Classical Irish spelling of "on, for, etc." and "at, by, of, etc.". The first is pronounced throughout the Goidelic-speaking world (and is written in Manx, and in Scottish Gaelic), and should be written either or or in Irish. The second is pronounced in the South, and in the North and West. Again, Manx and Scottish Gaelic reflect this pronunciation much more clearly than Irish does (Manx , Scottish ).

In many cases, however, the Caighdeán can only refer to the Classical language, in that every dialect is different, as happens in the personal forms of "at, by, of, etc."

  • Munster : agùm, agùt, igè, icì, agùing/aguìng (West Cork/Kerry agùin/aguìn), agùibh/aguìbh, acù
  • Connacht : am (agam), ad (agad), aige [egɨ], aici [ekɨ], ainn, aguí, acab
  • Ulster : aigheam, aighead, aige [egɨ], aicí [eki], aighinn, aighif, acú
  • Caighdeán :

Another purpose was to create a grammatically "simplified" standard which would make the language easier to learn for the majority English speaking school population. In part this is why the Caighdeán is not universally respected by native speakers, in that it makes simplified language an ideal, rather than the ideal that native speakers traditionally had of their dialects (or of the Classical dialect if they had knowledge of that). Of course, this was not the original aim of the developers, who rather saw the "school-version" Caighdeán as a means of easing second-language learners into the task of learning "full" Irish. The Caighdeán verb system is a prime example, with the reduction in irregular verb forms and personal forms of the verb – except for the first persons. However, once the word "standard" becomes used, the forms represented as "standard" take on a power of their own, and therefore the ultimate goal has become forgotten in many circles.

The Caighdeán is in general spoken by non-native speakers, and as many of such influential speakers are from the capital (and are more often than not politicians), it is sometimes also called "Dublin Irish". As it is taught in Irish-Language schools (where Irish is the main, or sometimes only, medium of instruction), it is also sometimes called "Gaelscoil Irish". It is also the basis of the so-called "Belfast Irish", which is the Caighdeán heavily influenced by Ulster Irish.


The differences between dialects are considerable, and have led to recurrent difficulties in defining standard Irish. A good example is the greeting "How are you?". Just as this greeting varies from region to region, and between social classes, among English speakers, this greeting varies among Irish speakers:

  • Ulster: ("What is it as you are?" Note: or and sometimes are alternative renderings of )
  • Connacht: ("What way [is it] that you are?")
  • Munster: or ("How are you?" - conas was originally cia nós "what custom/way")
  • "Standard" Irish: ("How are you?")

In recent decades contacts between speakers of different dialects have become more frequent and the differences between the dialects are less noticeable.

Linguistic structure

The features most unfamiliar to English speakers of the language are the orthography, the initial consonant mutation, the Verb Subject Object word order, and the use of two different forms for "to be". None of these features are peculiar to Irish, however. All of them occur in other Celtic languages as well as in non-Celtic languages: morphosyntactically triggered initial consonant mutations are found in Fula, VSO word order is found in Classical Arabic and Biblical Hebrew, and Portuguese, Spanish, and Italian have two different forms for "to be".


Word order in Irish is of the form VSO (Verb-Subject-Object) so that, for example, "He hit me" is [hit-past tense] [he] [me].

One aspect of Irish syntax that is unfamiliar to speakers of other languages is the use of the copula (known in Irish as ). The copula is used to describe the permanent identity or characteristic of a person or thing (e.g. "who" or "what"), as opposed to temporary aspects such as "how", "where", "why" and so on. This has been likened to the difference between the verbs and in Spanish and Portuguese (see Romance copula), although this is not an exact match.

Examples are:
  • "He is a man." (Spanish , Portuguese )
  • "He is a cold(hearted) person." (Spanish , Portuguese )
  • "He/Thomas is cold" (= feels cold). (Spanish – in this case Spanish says "has", Portuguese )
  • "He/Thomas is asleep." (Spanish and Portuguese )
  • "He is good (a good person)." (Spanish , Portuguese )
  • "He is well." (Spanish , Portuguese )


Another feature of Irish grammar that is shared with other Celtic languages is the use of prepositional pronouns ( ), which are essentially conjugated prepositions. For example, the word for "at" is , which in the first person singular becomes "at me". When used with the verb ("to be") indicates possession; this is the equivalent of the English verb "to have".

  • "I have a book." (Literally, "there is a book at me.")
  • "You have a book."
  • "He has a book."
  • "She has a book."
  • "We have a book."
  • "You (plural) have a book."
  • "They have a book."

Orthography and pronunciation

The alphabet which modern Irish typically uses is the similar to English without the letters j,k,q,v,w,x,y,z, however some anglicised words with no unique Irish meaning like 'Jeep' are written as 'Jíp'. Some words take a letter(s) not traditionally used and replace it with the closest phonetic sound, e.g. 'phone'>'Fón'. The written language looks rather daunting to those unfamiliar with it. Once understood, the orthography is relatively straightforward. The acute accent, or (´), serves to lengthen the sound of the vowels and in some cases also changes their quality. For example, in Munster Irish (Kerry), a is or and á is in "law" but in Ulster Irish (Donegal), á tends to be .

Around the time of World War II, Séamas Daltún, in charge of (the official translations department of the Irish government), issued his own guidelines about how to standardise Irish spelling and grammar. This de facto standard was subsequently approved of by the State and called the Official Standard or . It simplified and standardised the orthography. Many words had silent letters removed and vowel combination brought closer to the spoken language. Where multiple versions existed in different dialects for the same word, one or more were selected.

  • → , "Irish language" ( or is still used in books written in dialect by Munster authors, or as a facetious name for the Munster dialect)
  • → , "Louth"
  • → , "food"

The standard spelling does not always reflect every dialect's pronunciation. For example, in standard Irish, bia, "food", has the genitive bia. But in Munster Irish, the genitive is pronounced . For this reason, the spelling is still used by the speakers of some dialects, in particular those that show a meaningful and audible difference between (nominative case) and (genitive case) "of food, food's". In Munster, the latter spelling regularly produces the pronunciation because final -idh, -igh regularly delenites to -ig in Munster pronunciation. Another example would be the word crua, meaning "hard". This pronounced in Munster, in line with the pre-Caighdeán spelling, cruaidh. In Munster, ao is pronounced and aoi pronounced , but the new spellings of saoghal, "life, world", genitive: saoghail, have become saol, genitive saoil. This produces irregularities in the matchup between the spelling and pronunciation in Munster, because the word is pronounced , genitive .

Modern Irish has only one diacritic sign, the acute (á é í ó ú), known in Irish as the "long mark", plural . In English, this is frequently referred to as simply the , where the adjective is used as a noun. The dot-above diacritic, called a or (often shortened to ), derives from the punctum delens used in medieval manuscripts to indicate deletion, similar to crossing out unwanted words in handwriting today. From this usage it was used to indicate the lenition of s (from to ) and f (from to zero) in Old Irish texts.

Lenition of c, p, and t was indicated by placing the letter h after the affected consonant; lenition of other sounds was left unmarked. Later both methods were extended to be indicators of lenition of any sound except l and n, and two competing systems were used: lenition could be marked by a or by a postposed h. Eventually, use of the predominated when texts were writing using Gaelic letters, while the h predominated when writing using Roman letters.

Today the Gaelic script and the are rarely used except where a "traditional" style is required, e.g. the motto on the University College Dublinmarker coat of arms or the symbol of the Irish Defence Forces, The Irish Defence Forces cap badge . Letters with the are available in Unicode and Latin-8 character sets (see Latin Extended Additional chart).


In Irish, there are two classes of initial consonant mutations:

  • Lenition (in Irish, "softening") describes the change of stops into fricatives. Indicated in old orthography by a written above the changed consonant, this is now shown in writing by adding an -h:
    • "throw!" — "I threw" (this is an example of the lenition as a past-tense marker, which is caused by the use of , although it is now usually omitted)
    • "market", "market-place", "bargain" — "the man of the street" (word for word "Tadhg of the market-place"; here we see the lenition marking the genitive case of a masculine noun)
    • "Seán, John" — "O John!" (here we see lenition as part of what is called the vocative case — in fact, the vocative lenition is triggered by the or vocative marker before )
  • Eclipsis (in Irish, ) covers the voicing of voiceless stops, as well as the nasalisation of voiced stops.
    • "father" — "our Father"
    • "start", "at the start"
    • "Galway" — "in Galway"


Written Irish is first attested in Ogham inscriptions from the fourth century AD; this stage of the language is known as Primitive Irish. Old Irish, dating from the sixth century, used the Latin alphabet and is attested primarily in marginalia to Latin manuscripts. Middle Irish, dating from the tenth century, is the language of a large corpus of literature, including the famous Ulster Cycle. Early Modern Irish, dating from the thirteenth century, was the literary language of both Ireland and Gaelic-speaking Scotland, and is attested by such writers as Geoffrey Keating.

From the eighteenth century the language went into a decline, rapidly losing ground to English due in part to restrictions dictated by British rule - a conspicuous example of the process known by linguists as language shift. In the mid-nineteenth century it lost a large portion of its speakers to death and emigration resulting from poverty, particularly in the wake of the Great Famine (1845–1849).

At the end of the nineteenth century, members of the Gaelic Revival movement made efforts to encourage the learning and use of Irish in Ireland.

Current Status

Republic of Ireland

The number of native Irish-speakers in the Republic of Ireland today is a smaller fraction of the population than it was at independence. Many Irish speaking families encouraged their children to speak English as it was the language of education and employment; the Irish-speaking areas today were always relatively poor and remote, and this remoteness caused the survival of the language as a vernacular. The Official Languages Act of 2003 gave people the right to interact with state bodies in Irish. It is too early to assess how well this is working in practice. Other factors were outward migration of Irish speakers from the Gaeltacht (see related issues at Irish diaspora) and inward migration of English-speakers. The Planning and Development Act (2000) attempted to address the latter issue, with varied levels of success. Planning controls now require new housing in Gaeltacht areas to be allocated to English-speakers and Irish-speakers in the same ratio as the existing population of the area. This is intended to prevent new houses allocated to Irish-speakers being immediately sold on to English-speakers. However, the restriction only lasts for a few years. Also, people are not required to reach native speaker standards of fluency to qualify as Irish-speakers.

On 19 December 2006 the government announced a 20-year strategy to help Ireland become a fully bilingual country. This involved a 13 point plan and encouraging the use of language in all aspects of life.

Percentage of Irish-Speakers by County

This is a List of Irish counties by the percentage of those professing some ability in the Irish language in Irelandmarker in the 2006 Irish census. The census did not record Irish speakers living outside of (the Republic of) Ireland.

The census produced [721875] a detailed breakdown of abilities as:
  • Irish spoken inside or outside the education
  • Native speakers in the Gaeltacht areas.

Rank Area Irish %
1 County Carlowmarker 39.5
2 County Dublinmarker 37.2
3 County Kildaremarker 42.4
4 County Kilkennymarker 43.5
5 County Laoismarker 42.6
6 County Longfordmarker 41.2
7 County Louthmarker 36.7
8 County Meathmarker 40.1
9 County Offalymarker 39
10 County Westmeathmarker 41.5
11 County Wexfordmarker 37.4
12 County Wicklowmarker 38
13 County Claremarker 48.8
14 County Corkmarker 46.6
15 County Kerrymarker 47.2
16 County Limerickmarker 46.2
17 County Tipperarymarker 45
18 County Waterfordmarker 44.2
19 County Galwaymarker 49.8
20 County Leitrimmarker 43.1
21 County Mayomarker 47.2
22 County Roscommonmarker 45
23 County Sligomarker 43.9
24 County Cavanmarker 38
25 County Donegalmarker 39.6
26 County Monaghanmarker 39.6

Daily life

Several computer software products have the option of an Irish-language interface. Prominent examples include KDE,Mozilla Firefox,Mozilla Thunderbird,,and Microsoft Windows XP.

Many English-speaking Irish people use small and simple phrases (known as cúpla focal, "a few words") in their everyday speech, e.g. ("goodbye"), ("get home safely"), ("good health"; used when drinking like "bottoms up" or "cheers"), ("thank you"), ("a hundred thousand welcomes", a tourist board saying, also used by President Hillery to welcome Pope John Paul II to Ireland in 1979) and ("How are you?"). There are many more small sayings that have crept into Hiberno-English. The term craic has been popularised outside Ireland in this Gaelicized spelling: "How's the craic?" or "What's the craic'?" ("how's the fun?"/"how is it going?"), though the word is not Irish in origin, and the expression "How's the crack?" was widely used in Ireland since at least the 1960s before the Irish-language spelling "craic" became the common journalistic style.

Many public bodies have Irish language or bilingual names, but some have downgraded the language. An Post, the Republic's postal service, displays Irish place names in both Irish and English with equal prominence outside its offices and continues to have place names in Irish on its postmarks as well as recognising addresses. Royal Mail also recognises Irish language place names in Northern Ireland. Traditionally, the private sector has been less supportive, although support for the language has come from some private companies. For example, Irish supermarket chain Superquinn introduced bilingual signs in its stores in the 1980s, a move which was followed more recently by the British chain Tescomarker for its stores in the Republic. Woodies DIY now also have bilingual signs in their chain of stores. In contrast, the "100% Irish" SuperValu has few if any Irish signs, and the German retailers Aldi and Lidl have none at all.

In an effort to increase the use of the Irish language by the State, the Official Languages Act was passed in 2003. This act ensures that most publications made by a governmental body must be published in both official languages, Irish and English. In addition, the office of Language Commissioner has been set up to act as an ombudsman with regard to equal treatment for both languages.

A major factor in the decline of natively-spoken Irish has been the movement of English speakers into the Gaeltacht (predominantly Irish speaking areas) and the return of native Irish-speakers who have returned with English-speaking partners. This has been stimulated by government grants and infrastructure projects: "only about half Gaeltacht children learn Irish in the home... this is related to the high level of in-migration and return migration which has accompanied the economic restructuring of the Gaeltacht in recent decades". In a last-ditch effort to stop the demise of Irish-speaking in Connemara in Galway, planning controls have been introduced on the building of new homes in Irish speaking areas.

Thanks in large part to Gael-Taca and Gaillimh Le Gaeilge and two local groups a significant number of new residential developments are named in Irish today in most of the Republic of Ireland. In several counties there are a large number being named in Irish.

In 2007 Irish television channel TG4 aired No Béarla, a series of programmes in which the writer Manchán Magan travels around Ireland trying to speak only Irish, and encountering mostly complete incomprehension as he does so.


Support for the language has been made through the media, notably with the launch of RTÉ Raidió na Gaeltachta (Gaeltacht radio) and Teilifís na Gaeilge (Irish language television, initially abbreviated to 'TnaG', now renamed TG4) and Raidió na Life in Dublin, and Raidió Fáilte in Belfast have been relatively successful. TG4 has offered Irish-speaking young people a forum for youth culture as Gaeilge (in Irish) through rock and pop shows, travel shows, dating games, and even a controversial award-winning soap opera in Irish called Ros na Rún(with 160,000 viewers per week) and comedy-drama Rásaí na Gaillimhe with 223,000 viewers tuning in on its opening night. In 2007 TG4 reported that overall it "has a share of 3%(800,000 daily viewers) of the national television market". This market share is up from about 1.5% in the late 1990s. TG4 delivers 16 hours a day of television from an annual budget of €35 million, which is widely judged to be relatively efficient. The budget has the full support of all political parties in parliament. TG4 is the most successful and high-profile government initiative for the Irish language for the past fifty years.

The Irish language daily newspaper Lá Nua published five days a week and had circulation of several thousand, until it ceased publication in December 2008. There is also a weekly paper, Foinse published as a supplement with the Irish Independent with a circulation of 152,000 as of 18 November 2009. From 2010 on, another weekly newspaper called Gaelscéal will begin publication in cooperation with the Connacht Tribune and EO Teilifís. These require government sponsorship. The Irish News has two pages in Irish every day. The Irish Times had up until recently one article in Irish every week. Now it has several articles with some articles appended with short lists giving the meaning of some of the words used in English. Another paper, Saol, and about 5 magazines are also published in the language, as well as internet-only publications such as "Beo!". The immigrants magazine Metro Éireann also has articles in Irish every issue, as do many local papers throughout the country including university publications. The BBC offers a website for beginners called Blas ("a taste").

There are community radio stations broadcast in Irish in Dublin and Belfast. Raidió Na Life is based in Dublin and broadcast in Dublin and to parts of some surrounding counties and Raidió Fáilte is based and broadcast in Belfast. Raidió Fáilte has applied for a license to broadcast throughout Northern Ireland. Community radio stations in Ireland try to have at least one Irish language programme per week depending on their number of employees/volunteers who speak it. The community radio station for North-East Dublin Near90fm's "Ar Muin na Muice" programme is broadcast five days a week and occasionally one of their current affairs programmes "Between The Lines" is also broadcast in Irish.

Information sign in Irish and English.
The Placenames Order / (2004) requires the original Irish placenames to be used in the Gaeltacht on all official documents, maps and roadsigns. This has removed the legal status of those placenames in the Gaeltacht in English. Opposition to these measures comes from several quarters including some people within popular tourist destinations located within the Gaeltacht (namely in Dinglemarker) who claim that tourists may not recognise the Irish forms of the placenames.

However following a campaign in the 1960s and early 1970s, most roadsigns in Gaeltacht regions have been in Irish only. Maps and government documents did not change, though. Previously Ordnance Survey (government) maps showed placenames bilingually in the Gaeltacht (and generally in English only elsewhere). Unfortunately, most other map companies wrote only the English placenames, leading to significant confusion in the Gaeltacht. The act therefore updates government documents and maps in line with what has been reality in the Gaeltacht for the past 30 years. Private map companies are expected to follow suit.Beyond the Gaeltacht only English placenames were officially recognised (pre 2004). However, further placenames orders have been passed to enable both the English and the Irish placenames to be used. The village of Straffanmarker is still marked variously as and , even though Irish has not been the spoken widely there for two centuries. In the 1830s John O'Donovan listed it as "Srufáin" The nearby village of Kilteelmarker was "Cill tSile" for centuries, meaning "The church of Saint Síle", but since 2000 it is shown as "Cill Cheile" which does not carry the same meaning. There are numerous other examples.

Irish vehicle registration plates are bilingual: the county of registration is shown in Irish above the plate number as a kind of surtitle, and is encoded from English within the plate number. For example, a Dublin plate is surtitled Baile Átha Cliath and the plate number includes D.

Conradh na Gaeilge has expressed concern over the proposed introduction of postcodes, which, similarly, may use abbreviations based on English language place names, although people sending mail would still be able to use addresses in Irish. It has advocated that postcodes should either consist solely of numbers, as in many other bilingual countries, or be based on Irish language names instead.

Religious texts
The Bible has been available in Irish since the 17th century, and the four Gospels had been translated several times. In 1964 the Bible was translated at Maynoothmarker for Roman Catholics for the first time under the supervision of Professor Pádraig Ó Fiannachta and was finally published in 1981. The Church of Ireland Book of Common Prayer of 2004 is published in both Irish and English.

The Irish language is a compulsory subject in government funded schools in the Republic of Ireland and has been so since the early days of the state. It is taught as a second language (L2) at second level, to native (L1) speakers and learners (L2) alike. English is offered as a first (L1) language only, even to those who speak it as a second language. The curriculum was reorganised in the 1930s by Father Timothy Corcoran SJ of UCDmarker, who could not speak the language himself. The Irish Government has endeavoured to address the unpopularity of the language by revamping the curriculum at primary school level to focus on spoken Irish. However, at secondary school level, students must analyse literature and poetry, and write lengthy essays, debates and stories in Irish for the (L2) Leaving Certificate examination. The exemption from learning Irish on the grounds of time spent abroad, or learning disability, is subject to Circular 12/96 (primary education) and Circular M10/94 (secondary education) issued by the Department of Education and Science.

In March 2007, the Minister for Education, Mary Hanafin, announced that more focus would be devoted to the spoken language, and that from 2012, the percentage of marks available in the Leaving Certificate Irish exam would increase from 25% to 40% for the oral component. This increased emphasis on the oral component of the Irish examinations is likely to change the way Irish is examined.

Recently the abolition of compulsory Irish has been discussed. In 2005 Enda Kenny, leader of Ireland's main opposition party, Fine Gael, called for the language to be made an optional subject in the last two years of secondary school. Mr Kenny, despite being a fluent speaker himself (and a teacher), stated that he believed that compulsory Irish has done the language more harm than good. All Bank of Ireland ATMs have an Irish interface option and can issue Irish language cheque books while Permanent TSB can issue both Irish language cards and cheque books.

Companies using Irish
Tesco Ireland and Superquinn have in-store Irish signage. Several companies (mostly current and ex-semistate bodies) publish their yearly reports in both Irish and English. These include Eircom, An Post and the ESB. Other companies have Irish language options on their websites. Examples of these include Bord Gáis, Meteor, and An Post. People corresponding with bodies like the Revenue and the ESB can also send and receive correspondence in Irish or English. Some Irish banks provide cheque books and ATM cards in both languages, and others - notably Bank of Ireland - have introduced an Irish language interface option on their ATM machines.

A relatively recent development is the proliferation of gaelscoileanna (schools) in which Irish is the medium of education. By September 2005 there were 168 gaelscoileanna at primary level and 43 at secondary level in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland together (excluding the Gaeltacht, whose schools are not considered gaelscoileanna). This represents a significant increase from the less than 20 such schools in operation in the early 1970s. These schools cover approximately 31,000 students. With the opening of Gaelscoil Liatroma in County Leitrimmarker in 2005 there is now at least one gaelscoil in each of the 32 traditional counties of Ireland. In Gaeltacht areas, the medium of education has been traditionally through Irish, ever since the foundation of the State. The majority of Gaeltacht students tend to be L1 Irish Gaelic speakers, but even in the Gaeltacht areas the language is taught as an L2 language whilst English is taught as an L1 language. Professor David Little has commented:
"..the needs of Irish as L1 at post-primary level have been totally ignored, as at present there is no recognition in terms of curriculum and syllabus of any linguistic difference between learners of Irish as L1 and L2."

The Irish Equality Authority recently questioned the official State practice of awarding 5-10% extra marks to students who take some of their examinations through Irish.

The Royal Irish Academy's 2006 conference on "Language Policy and Language Planning in Ireland" found that the study of Irish and other languages is declining in Ireland. The number of schoolchildren studying "higher level" Irish for the Leaving Certificate dropped from 15,719 in 2001 to 14,358 in 2005. To reverse this decline, it was recommended that training and living for a time in a Gaeltacht area should be "compulsory" for teachers of Irish.

Although the Gaeltacht is defined as an entirely Irish-language speaking area, the Irish government also pays families living in the Gaeltacht areas with school-age children to speak Irish. These are inspected and graded according to ability. In the 2006-07 school year, 2,216 families received the full grant of €260 p.a., 937 families received a reduced grant and 225 families did not meet the criteria. This payment scheme is called Scéim Labhairt na Gaeilge, the first example in Europe where citizens are paid to speak their first official language.

Irish colleges
There are 46 summer colleges in the country with approximately 26,000 students attending them each year. Supplementing the formal curriculum, and after the end of the primary (usually from 4th class onwards) and secondary school years, some pupils attend an "Irish college". These programmes are residential Irish language summer courses, and give students the opportunity to be immersed in the language, usually for periods of three weeks over the summer months. Some courses are college based while others are based with host families in Gaeltacht areas under the guidance of a bean an tí. Students attend classes, participate in sports, art, drama, music, go to céilithe and other summer camp activities through the medium of Irish. As with the conventional school set-up The Department of Education establishes the boundaries for class size and qualifications required by teachers.

Northern Ireland

As in the Republic, the Irish language is a minority language in Northern Ireland, known in Irish as .

Attitudes towards the language in Northern Ireland have traditionally reflected the political differences between its two divided communities. The language has been regarded with suspicion by Unionists, who have associated it with the Roman Catholic-majority Republic, and more recently, with the Republican movement in Northern Ireland itself. Erection of public street signs in Irish were effectively banned under laws by the Parliament of Northern Ireland, which stated that only English could be used. Many republicans in Northern Ireland, including Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams, learned Irish while in prison, a development known as the jailtacht. Although the language was taught in Catholic secondary schools (especially by the Christian Brothers), it was not taught at all in the controlled sector, which is mostly attended by Protestant pupils. Irish-medium schools, however, known as gaelscoileanna, were founded in Belfastmarker and Derrymarker, and an Irish-language newspaper called Lá Nua ("New Day") was established in Belfast. BBC Radio Ulster began broadcasting a nightly half-hour programme in Irish in the early 1980s called Blas ("taste, accent"), and BBC Northern Ireland also showed its first TV programme in the language in the early 1990s.

The Ultach Trust was established with a view to broadening the appeal of the language among Protestants, although DUP politicians like Sammy Wilson ridiculed it as a "leprechaun language".Ulster-Scots, promoted by many loyalists, was, in turn, ridiculed by nationalists (and even some Unionists) as "a DIY language for Orangemen".According to recent statistics, there is no significant difference between the number of Catholic and Protestant speakers of Ulster-Scots in Ulster, although those involved in promoting Ulster-Scots as a language are almost always unionist. Ulster-Scots is defined in legislation (The North/South Co-operation (Implementation Bodies) Northern Ireland Order 1999) as: the variety of the Scots language which has traditionally been used in parts of Northern Ireland and in Donegal in Ireland.

Irish received official recognition in Northern Ireland for the first time in 1998 under the Good Friday Agreement. A cross-border body known as Foras na Gaeilge was established to promote the language in both Northern Ireland and the Republic, taking over the functions of the previous Republic-only .

In 2001, the British government ratified the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages in respect to Irish in Northern Ireland.

The Good Friday Agreement's provisions on "parity of esteem" have been used to give the language an official status there. In March 2005, the Irish-language TV service TG4 began broadcasting from the Divis transmitter near Belfast, as a result of an agreement between the Department of Foreign Affairs and the Northern Ireland Office, although so far this is the only transmitter to carry it.

Belfast City Councilmarker has designated the Falls Road area (from Milltown Cemetery to Divis Street) as the Gaeltacht Quarter of Belfast, one of the four cultural quarters of the city. There is a growing number of Irish-medium schools throughout Northern Ireland (see picture above).

Under the St Andrews Agreement, the UK Government committed to introduce an Irish Language Act. Although a consultation document on the matter was published in 2007, the restoration of devolved government by the Northern Ireland Assembly later that year meant that responsibility for language transferred from London to Belfast. In October 2007, the then Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure, Edwin Poots MLA announced to the Assembly that he did not intend to bring forward an Irish language Bill.

Outside Ireland

An interest in the Irish language is maintained throughout the English-speaking world among the Irish diaspora and there are active Irish language groups in North American, British, and Australian cities. In Australia, a network of people have established special Irish schools around the country teaching the language and music.

The Irish language emigrated to North America along with the Irish people. Although Irish is one of the smaller European languages spoken in North America, it has cultural importance in the northeast United States and in Newfoundlandmarker, and according to the 2000 Census, approximately 26,000 people in the U.S. speak Irish at home.

The Irish language came to Newfoundland in the late 1600s and was commonly spoken among the Newfoundland Irish until the middle of the 20th century. Today it remains the only place outside of Europe that can claim a unique Irish name (Talamh an Éisc, meaning Land of the Fish). In 2007 a number of Canadian speakers founded the first officially designated "Gaeltacht" outside of Ireland in an area near Kingston, Ontariomarker (see main article Permanent North American Gaeltacht). Despite being called a Gaeltacht, the area has no permanent inhabitants. The site (named Gaeltacht Bhaile na hÉireann) is located in Tamworth, Ontariomarker, and is to be a retreat centre for Irish-speaking Canadians and Americans.

The Irish language reached Australia in 1788, along with English. In the early colonial period, Irish was seen as an opposition language used by convicts and repressed by the colonial authorities. Although the Irish were a greater proportion of the European population than in any other British colony, the use of the language quickly declined. As legal barriers to the integration of the Irish and their descendants into Australian life were progressively removed, English became the language of social advancement. The 2001 census revealed that there are 828 speakers of the language in the country. The Department of Celtic Studies at the University of Sydney offers courses in both Modern Irish linguistics as well as Old Irish.

In May 2007, the University of Cambridgemarker in Great Britain started offering courses in Modern Irish in addition to Medieval Irish.

Many Australian slang words are Irish-derived and there are arguments that Australian English is more influenced by Irish than other varieties of English. There is a small movement to re-establish the language in contemporary Australia. The Special Broadcasting Service transmits Irish language radio and television.

See also


  1. Government of Ireland, . Retrieved on 21 January 2008
  2. CSO Ireland - April 2008 Population Estimates
  3. [1]
  4. Welcome to Ocean fm
  5. Ireland speaks up loudly for Gaelic, New York Times, 29.3.05
  6. Door Raymond Hickey, 2002, A Source Book for Irish English, John Benjamins Publishing Company: Netherlands
  7. Door Christopher Whyte, 2004, Modern Scottish Poetry, Edinburgh University Press: Edinburgh
  8. NUI Entry Requirements - Ollscoil na hÉireann - National University of Ireland
  9. Irish Statue Book, University College Galway Act, 1929. Retrieved on 13 October 2007.
  10. Changing History - Peace Building in Northern Ireland By Mari Fitzduff
  11. Belfast Agreement - Full text - Section 6 (Equality) - "Economic, Social and Cultural issues"
  12. EU Directorate-General for Translation, Irish becomes the 21st official language of the EU. Retrieved 11 September 2008.
  13. Unicode 5.0, . Retrieved on 13 October 2007.
  14. RTÉ News, 19 December 2006, Govt announces 20-year bilingual strategy. Retrieved on 13 October 2007.
  15. Government of Ireland, . Retrieved on 13 October 2007.
  16. .
  17. Royal Mail reversal in Irish names row, Irish News, December 12, 1997
  18. The state has anglicised the Gaeltacht by encouraging the immigration of English-speakers,
  19. The Irish Language in a Changing Society: Shaping The Future, p. xxvi.
  20. Sunday Times article on Gael-Taca
  21. TG4 official website
  22. [2]
  23. Blas website URL
  24. Ordnance Survey Letters of County Kildare, co-authored by John O'Donovan.
  26. An Bíobla Naofa (Maynooth 1981)
  27. Language in the Post-Primary Curriculum, November 2003.
  28. Professor R. Comerford, Ireland (Hodder Books, London 2003) p145.
  29. Department of Education & Science, 11 March 2007, Minister Hanafin announces increase in marks for Oral Irish to 40% in exams. Retrieved on 13 October 2007.
  30. Independent, 12 July 2007. Pupils lap up hi-tech learning of Irish. Retrieved on 13 October 2007.
  31. Learnosity, National Council for Curriculum and Assessment: Ireland. Retrieved on 13 October 2007.
  32. 2006 RIA language conference report
  33. Irish Independent, 20 November 2007, page 11
  34. Allen Feldman. Formations of Violence: The Narrative of the Body and Political Terror in Northern Ireland.U of Chicago P, 1991. Chapter 3.
  35. (internet archive copy as of 14 May 2005)
  36. MLA Language Map Data Center, Irish Gaelic. Retrieved on 22 July 2007
  37. Gaelport, Irish at home in Canada, 17 February 2007
  38. Gaelport, First Gaeltacht abroad planned for Canada, 23 January 2007
  39. Cumann Gaeilge na hAstráile. The Irish Language in Australia. Retrieved on 13 October 2007.
  40. "Languages Spoken At Home" from Australian Governament Office of Multicultural Interests website. Retrieved 27 December 2007
  42. Transcript of Lingua Franca of 26 September 1998, Why Learn Irish?. Retrieved on 13 October 2007.

External links


Grammar and pronunciation


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