Speak Irish: Ishi
by Bob Carney
Tá súil agam, go bhfuil sibh go maith. November was Native American Awareness Month and public television had extensive programming in recognition of it. Many of the programs addressed the younger people that are reconnecting with their heritage, through traditional skills, dance and language.
As I watched, I couldn’t help but notice many of the same things we’ve dealt with as we attempt to further our study of Irish. More importantly, it was easy to see the enthusiasm and urgency in connecting with their language.
Years ago, I happened across a book entitled “Ishi in Two Worlds” By Theodora Kroeber, written in 1961. Ishi walked out of the wilderness in California in August of 1911. He was starving, fatigued and injured when he was found in the corral of a slaughterhouse.
The local sheriff was called, and took Ishi into custody as he tried to figure out who he was and where he came from. Local Indians, as well as Spanairds and Mexicans were brought in, in an effort to communicate with him, but to no avail.
When the news story about the “last wild Indian” being rescued, reached a couple of anthropologists at The University of California, they realized the importance of finding out as much as possible about this man and his people. Professor Kroeber (the author’s husband) armed with dictionaries of known native languages from the surrounding areas, spoke word after word with no recognition from Ishi, until finally uttering the Yahi word for yellow pine; Ishi lit up and banged on the pine table in front of him repeating the word over and over.
After a time, it was established that Ishi was the last survivor of a lost tribe of Yahi, whose dialect was vastly different from the other northern Yahi dialects known. Ishi’s language would have never been known had he not made it to that corral. The book chronicles Ishi’s life before his contact with the modern world and his life after, very interesting if you wish to know more about Ishi.
In Robin Wall Kimmerer’s book, “Braiding Sweetgrass,” she speaks of her quest to learn the language of her ancestors. She tells of her experience at a class that was held at a yearly tribal gathering. There was a great deal of excitement since every native speaker of the tribe would be present.
When they were called forward “to the circle of folding chairs, they moved slowly, with canes, walkers and wheelchairs; only a few entirely under their own power.” Nine speakers in all.
Tips for Pursuing Learning Irish
Robin has taken the route that many of us have in pursuing Irish. Post it notes on items in the home, trying to incorporate words and phrases into daily conversation, she speaks with her sister once a week on the phone using as much Potawatomi as they can.
She uses simple commands with her dog: sit, come here, be quiet. Robin does however share the same lament I have made about teaching a dog who ignores you in English to be bilingual. Her teacher also encouraged her when she complained about having no one to talk to by saying, “None of us do, but someday we will.”
I find it encouraging to hear about others trying to learn the language of their ancestors, facing some of the same obstacles and challenges that many of us have in our study of Irish. It is also easy to share in their joy at being able to use their language and be understood. I believe that all of us when we use these words and phrases, once so foreign to our ear, breath life into these languages that otherwise might become lost, like Ishi’s.
The vocabulary and phrase list below contains many things that we’ve covered in the past, but I think it is worth reviewing. These are things we can use in our English conversations with others on a daily basis, even if that other is four-legged.
Remember the example shown for yes and no is not always correct in an Irish conversation, but will suffice for our purpose.
Irish Pronunciation English
Sea (shah) yes
Ní hea (nee hah) no
Go raibh maith agat (gorra mah ah-gut) thank you
Tá fáilte romhat (taw falcha roe-it) you’re welcome
Le do thoil (leh duh hahl) please
Dia duit (dee-uh gwit) God to you (hello)
Dia’s Muire duit (dee-us morra gwit) God and Mary to you
Gabh mo leithscéal (guh mo lesh-shkale) Excuse me
Maidin mhaith (mo-jin wah) good morning
Oíche mhaith (ee-ha wah) good night
Ceart go leor (kyart guh lore) right enough ok
Maith go leor (mah guh lore) good enough
Is maith liom é (iss mah lum ay) I like it
An bhfuil sé ceart go leor? (ahn will shay kyart guh lore) Is it ok?
Tá sé sin go maith (taw shay shin guh mah) It’s good
Tá an ceart agat (taw ahn kyart ah-gut) that’s right
Conas atá tú? (kun-us ah-taw too) How are you?
Táim go maith (tame guh mah) I’m good
Tá an lá go bréa (taw ahn law guh braw) It’s a fine day
Dia linn (dee-uh lynn) a blessing when someone sneezes
An bhfuil Gaeilge agat? (ahn will gway-la ga ah-gut) Do you speak Irish?
Tá beagáinín agam (taw bee-ahgon-ing ah gum) I speak a little
Cén scéal agat? (kayn shkale ah-gut) What’s up?
Maith thú! (mah who) good job!
An mhaith (ahn wah) very good
Tóg go bog é (toeg guh bog ay) take it easy
Suigh (see) sit
Síos (shees) down
Suigh síos (see shees) sit down
Madra maith (mawdra mah) good dog
Tar (tawr) come
Tar anseo (tawr ahn-sho) come here
Bog (bug) move
Bí ciúin (bee ku-inn) be quiet
Go mall (guh mall) slowly
Stad (stahd) stop
Slán go Fóill!
*Bob Carney is a student of Irish history and language and teaches the Speak Irish Cleveland class held every Tuesday @PJ McIntyre’s. He is also active in the Irish Wolfhound and Irish dogs organizations in and around Cleveland. Wife Mary, hounds Morrighán and Rían and terrier Doolin keep the house jumping. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org