Sometimes called Erse, a Celtic language spoken in Ireland by approximately 600,000 people living in scattered communities along the west and south coasts and in certain inland areas. Three periods of Irish are roughly distinguished: Old Irish to about A.D. 900, Middle Irish to about the sixteenth century, and Modern Irish. The language is one of the two official languages of Ireland.
Irish has a strong stress on the first syllable of the word, and unstressed syllables are therefore liable to be lost or reduced. Compound verbs in Old Irish form an exception to this rule, inasmuch as the first preverb is separable and unstressed and pronouns and verbal particles can be affixed to it. The result is a shifting accent and a drastic opposition of independent and dependent forms, as in do-sluindi (“refuses”), ni diltai (“does not refuse”). The mutation of initial consonants, the syncope of vowels, and the shifting ver¬bal accent are the most remarkable features of Old Irish.
Only five cases of the noun have survived, but the three genders and three numbers (singular, dual, and plural) are intact, and there are many declensions. The adjective and pronoun have lost the dual. The verb has no dual; the aorist and perfect of Indo-European have merged, as in Latin, in a common preterit tense, and there is a new preterit in -t-; there are special future stems; the subjunctive mood is archaic, deriving from ancient aorist stems; and there is an elaborate system of retrospective and prospective aspects which cannot be illustrated here. The prepositions take on affixed pronominal suffixes, as though one were to say in English “with’m, with’y” for “with me, with you,” etc.
In Middle Irish a great deal of simplification appears. The neuter gender is lost, the verbal system is transformed so that the opposition of independent and dependent forms is less prominent, and the pronoun is no longer infixed. The strong verbs tend to disappear and a common weak inflection becomes dominant. These changes are probably due partly to the disturbance of the conservative Irish tradition by the ravages of Norse invaders in the ninth and tenth centuries and pardy to the influence of medieval Latin texts, many of which were translated in this period. For Modern Irish it is possible to set up five declensions of nouns and two conju¬gations of verbs, but the syntax of Modern Irish has preserved many features of the early language that contrast strongly with the common systems of west European idiom. There is no verb “to have,” the type est mihi being still used. The prepositions are still conjugated.
The great importance of medieval Irish literature is only gradually being recognized. This neglect is due partly to the lack of good editions and translations and partly to the uneven value and sometimes barbarous form of the extant texts. It is now supposed that the sources of the Tristan legend and the legend of the Holy Grail are to be found in Irish saga, and that it was in Ireland that the Norse discovered the saga form. The early Irish nature-poetry of the 9th to the nth centuries, the later bardic poetry with its elaborate prosody, and the Modern Irish lyric poetry are all worth attention. The characteristics of modern Irish are illustrated by the following translation of the Lord’s Prayer:
Ar n-athair at a ar neamh, go naomhuightear d’ainm, go dtagaidh do Rioghacht, go ndeantar do thoil ar an dtalamh, mar ghnithear ar neamh. Tabhair duinn indiu ar n-aran laetheamhail, agus maith duinn ar bhfiacha, mar mhaithimidne dar bhfeicheamhnaibh fein, agus na leig sinn i gcathu, ach saor sinn on olc. Aimen.