Project Description

This Survey constitutes a highly detailed micro-dialectological study of spoken Irish in the Aran Islands, focusing on geographical and social variation linked to generations (older and younger age-groups), genders (male and female), and level of education. It provides for the first time ever for any language anywhere in the world an extensive analysis of a wide range of phonological and grammatical variation on a dialectal and sociolinguistic basis. In the case of the largest of the three islands, Inis Mór, the Survey includes detailed information on phonological, grammatical and lexical variation at the level of individual townlands. The geographical layout of these townlands and the strategic position of the archipelago in Galway Bay in relation to the surrounding mainlands in Connemara, East Galway and Clare lend a remarkably potent visibility to the spectrum of linguistic variation displayed in the study. As such, the Survey echoes and also builds on Heinrich Wagner's 1958-69 work Linguistic Atlas and Survey of Irish Dialects to provide an unrivalled portrait of Irish as it was spoken in Aran in the late twentieth century. Presenting a novel and ambitious exploration of complex linguistic change embedded in a social context, the Survey represents a milestone contribution to dialectology and sociolinguistics – and, indeed, to the Irish language itself – that is of international significance.

Geographic coverage of the study

Dialectology

Dialectology has traditionally been interested in describing linguistic differences between separate communities of people speaking the same language within a broad geographical region. When dialectologists focus on a small community, they typically make an attempt to describe the general features of the dialect spoken in that community, noting variation at times, but not focusing on it. In other words, dialectology has not been interested in providing a systematic description of the differences in speech found within a small community.

Sociolinguistics

Sociolinguistics, on the other hand, has been interested in describing just such differences in speech between groups of people living side by side in the same community and in relating certain speech forms to specific social groups within the community. Such groups might be distinguished by age, gender, level of education, religious affiliation, ethnic origin, etc. Normally, sociolinguists have focused on only a few linguistic variables – differences in pronunciation, grammar or lexicon – that distinguish one group in the community from another.

Uniting Dialectology and Sociolinguistics

The Survey unites both dialectology and sociolinguistics in an unusual way. It works on a geographical scale that a dialectologist would consider tiny and includes a range of linguistic features that a sociolinguist would consider far too large and complex to allow for careful investigation. From the very beginning, the rich linguistic data gathered from the field research in the Aran Islands demanded just such an approach, one that honoured the celebrated wealth of the local dialect. Happily, the success of the project has validated the methodology employed.

Observing the Evolution of a Dialect

The perspective of generative grammarians associated with the work of Noam Chomsky has proven to be particularly valuable in this study as we observe individual speakers spread over three generations apparently choosing between logical alternatives in selecting linguistic forms as they construct their individual grammars unconsciously in their minds. In other words, we are glimpsing the evolution of a communal language, as children within each new generation of speakers absorb the language within the household and then develop their individual languages unwittingly as they interact with their playmates and age-mates in the neighbourhood and at school. In the linguistic evidence from the different generations within the community, we can observe the forces at work in the evolution of a dialect. There are the broad forces of long-term typological change operating on the verbal system and on the nominal and adjectival declensions in Irish over millennia. There are also the ever-present forces of natural selection operating on the individual linguistic forms current among individual speakers, as new forms are born and old ones die out.

Inis Oírr
Inis Oírr (pic. Deirdre Ní Chonghaile)

Celebrating Linguistic Innovation & Creativity

The Survey demonstrates that the concept of older speakers representing a 'purer' form of the dialect is misleading and over-simplified. In Aran, the speech of the older speakers does not represent a 'classic form' of the dialect, which younger speakers are somehow 'corrupting'. Younger speakers are certainly moving the dialect toward standard written Irish and producing many spontaneous innovations, but innovation, it emerges, belongs to older speakers too, a finding that recalls the work of Holger Pedersen (1867-1953) over a 100 years ago. The Danish linguist – still remembered in Aran as 'An Dane' – documents considerable linguistic innovation throughout the stories and songs he transcribed in Inis Mór in 1895-6 from older informants. Clearly, the archaism attributed to the Irish language as it is spoken in Aran belies the creativity of each individual speaker who has shaped the dialect down through the generations. Celebrating that individual creativity within the living dialect is, perhaps, the greatest contribution of this Survey.

Potential for Future Research

For over a century, Galway Bay has presented an intriguing prospect for linguistic research. This is not simply because Irish has remained a vernacular there for millennia or because it represents one of the current strongholds of the language. Rather, Galway Bay spans a broad frontier area where two provinces – Connacht to the north and Munster to the south – and their contrasting dialects meet over land and sea routes. Within that milieu, the Aran Islands hold a particular fascination because they effectively straddle the amorphous dialectal border between the provincial dialects. As such, they have a rare potential to provide a cross-section of linguistic variation in a frontier zone.

Corrúch, Árainn
Corrúch, Árainn (pic. Rónán Mac Giolla Pháraic)

Building on the Work of Past Pioneers

The first scholar to provide some insight into the spoken Irish of the Galway Bay area was Franz Nikolaus Finck (1867-1910). After spending four months transcribing material in Aran in 1894-5, he produced the first linguistic study of the Irish language, Die araner Mundart: ein betrag zur erforschung des westirischen (1899). Hot on his heels came the afore-mentioned Holger Pedersen (1867-1953) who spent six months in Aran in 1895-6. The local linguistics canon has since expanded and now includes more recent contributions, among them Heinrich Becker's work in western Connemara and in Inis Oírr (1939), Tomás de Bhaldraithe's work on the Irish of Cois Fharraige (1945-53), Heinrich Wagner's The Dialects of Connaught (LASID Vol.3, 1982), Brian Ó Curnáin's work on the Irish of Iorras Aintheach (1996-2007), and Brian Ó Catháin's work since 1990 on the Irish of Inis Oírr.

Eoghanacht, Árainn
Eoghanacht, Árainn (pic. Bailiúchán Béaloideas Árann)

Conclusions & Questions

By cross-referencing such works and the Survey, some conclusions or suggestions can begin to emerge. For instance, the Cois Fharraige dialect is almost certainly the parent dialect of the Irish spoken on Inis Mór and Inis Meáin, while Inis Oírr's links stretch eastward around Galway Bay nearly as far as Galway City itself. Questions arise too. What is the relationship between these broad linguistic areas? What historical realities do the existing dialects reflect? What further dialect areas can be delineated within Connemara and Aran and within Connacht as a whole? What kinds of linguistic change can be observed in the living dialects? Galway Bay is poised to become an important nexus of linguistic research that enables the exploration of such questions.

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