Ireland Language History

The development of a language over the centuries is always a testimony to the development and history of the people by whom it is spoken. Ireland’s island location meant that the Irish language changed under the influence of the respective missionaries, conquerors or settlers. Religion, politics and power relations as well as trade relations between foreign-language newcomers and Irish residents were decisive for their development. Therefore, the respective conditions in Ireland were also the reason why phases of relatively uniform use of the language alternated with phases in which different variations of Irish were spoken. Nowadays, the state is working hard to promote Irish as a living language and words that are not yet in the language

Like humans, animals and plants, languages ​​have developed over many centuries or even millennia and can also boast their own family tree. Many different languages ​​that are more or less closely related to each other have emerged from a common trunk. One of these model trees represents the Indo-European language family. Over the past 3000 years, the Indo-Germanic spoken in Europe and parts of Asia has grown into the Celtic language branch, from which the Irish language emerged as a further branch. Here research also has a more precise date: the arrival of the Celts in Ireland around 300 BC Chr. Is generally understood as the beginning of the Irish language, because the island existence favors the development of an own language. However, what we know today about the exact development of the Irish language can be traced back to its written evidence such as indentations on stones or manuscripts. So the development of the Irish language is the development of its written form.

Ogham as the first writing system

The Ogham -Schrift is the first Irish writing system and is about due to the 4th century. N. Chr.. Lines and holes carved in stone formed a system of characters based on the Latin alphabet and grammar. Even before the Christian missionaries, the Latin language was already present in Ireland (even if only indirectly). This is not to be confused with the fact that the vocabulary of the Irish language is of Celtic origin. At the time of the Ogham script, however, the Celtic residents of Ireland spoke a preliminary form of today’s Irish.

Standard and dialect

The history of the written Irish language goes through four periods of time in which it was alternately either used uniformly or many dialects predominated at the same time, which were also carried over into the writing system. Then there were different spellings at the same time.

Old Irish (Old Irish, 600-900 n. Chr.) Was dissolved in monasteries and Abbey maintained. This guaranteed a uniform written Irish language. The monks all had the same standard of education and background, so that the stories, laws, verses, etc., which they wrote down, corresponded in linguistic usage.

With the onset of the incursions of Nordic seafarers and new ones Trade connections began to change dramatically. Middle-Irish (Middle Irish, 900-1200 n. Chr.) Consisted of various dialects. A fact that can be explained by the fact that the living language used by the people was very different from the old, educated standards.

With the growth of an educated lay class, who sold their poems of praise to the aristocracy, the Irish language experienced its so-called early modern or classical phase. Classical Irish (Early Modern / Classical Irish, 1200-1650) showed a renewed standardization in written usage.

With the disintegration of the old Irish nobility, for whom it was mainly composed, the uniformity of the language also broke. Modern Irish (Modern Irish, 1650 to today) varies due to the widespread dialects and high level of illiteracy, especially in rural areas. Since the 1930’s and 40’s there has been a standard issued by the state again. The only problem here is the artificiality of many regulations that do not do justice to natural language usage. This may be one reason why Irish, a compulsory subject in school, is ultimately mastered by very few Irish people.


With the arrival of the Christian missionaries in AD 430, above all St. Patrick, the Irish national saint, Ireland also experienced its first “language revolution”: the Ogham script was slowly superseded by the Latin language. The missionaries brought not only the cross and scriptures to the island, but also the Latin alphabet and the Roman letters. Their work on site was successful because they did not impose their religion on the pagan Celts, but rather carefully combined Christianity with the old manners and customs. Latin gained through contact with the local population also rapidly gaining influence on the Irish language. Latin words from the Christian religious area were adopted when there was no corresponding word in the Irish language for them. Examples are Lat. oratio – ortha or scribendum – scribend.

Old Nordic

With the Scandinavian raids on the Irish coast in the late 8th century AD. Irish encountered another foreign culture and language: Old Nordic . Since the Vikings, unlike the Irish, were a people of seafarers and traders, Irish borrowed some old Nordic words from the fields of navigation, trade and clothing. Because the Vikings primarily represented the superior sea power, words were mainly borrowed from the field of seafaring. Examples of this are the words for tax – stiur and shilling – scilling, which were taken directly into Irish .

French and English

With the arrival of the Anglo-Normans (Norman Invasion) in 1169, two new languages ​​came to Ireland: (Middle) English and (the Norman form of) French . The presence of the Anglo-Normans brought Ireland to the political and ecclesiastical tradition of Western Europe (there had been some church reforms in Europe that had bypassed Ireland since the 5th century). As a result, words mainly related to church and administration were used accepted. Norman French was the official language at the English court and was therefore also used in the administration of the Irish lands under English rule. After French was no longer the official language, it was replaced by the English language. English was becoming more and more influential, especially among the Irish-speaking urban population.

From the 17th century the old spelling system and grammar of the Irish language deteriorated. The different dialects influenced written Irish, which had previously had strict rules, and fewer and fewer new words were incorporated into the Irish language as loan words. Instead, there was a tendency, as is the case today, for example in the German language, to use English words directly in the context of the Irish language. To counter this trend, government agencies and researchers are trying to incorporate new (English) words into the Irish language using the spelling rules. English telescope becomes Teileascóp in modern Irish .

Ireland Language History