Language Evolution: The Windows Approach addresses the question: "How can we unravel the evolution of language, given that there is no direct evidence about it?"
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AUTHOR: Raymond Hickey TITLE: The Dialects of Irish SUBTITLE: Study of a Changing Landscape SERIES TITLE: Trends in Linguistics. Studies and Monographs [TiLSM] 230 PUBLISHER: De Gruyter Mouton DATE: 2011
Andrew Carnie, Department of Linguistics, University of Arizona.
SUMMARY Following in a long tradition of Irish language dialect description (see for example O’Rahilly 1932, Ó Cuiv 1951, Ó Siadhail 1989, Wagner 1958, among many others), this book provides a modern overview of the current state of Irish dialectology in the traditional Irish-speaking areas (or “Gaeltachts”). It contains brief summaries of the general properties of Irish phonology and orthography. It also attempts a reconstruction of some of the major features that we might have expected to find in areas where the language is now extinct. The book is accompanied by a fantastic DVD with maps and recently gathered sample sound files for each of the major features discussed in the book in each of the dialect areas.
The book is divided into three major parts (introduction, the sound system of Irish, and the dialects of Irish) and is followed up with over a hundred pages of appendices and additional material. Each part is subdivided into subsections, many of which have the flavor of chapters although they are not numbered as such.
The introduction provides a bracing and realistic evaluation of the status of the Irish language today. The author concludes that fewer than 18000 speakers use the language daily in the Gaeltacht, which less than 0.44% of the total population of the island. This number is startling given the current official government assessments of language use -- assessments that are clearly unrealistic. Hickey’s numbers bring into focus the importance of doing a careful, modern, dialect study at this critical point in the decline of the language. As Hickey observes, although the language may well continue to be transmitted through speakers in urban areas and by committed language revivalists, this transmission does not appear to be on going among traditional dialect speakers in the Gaeltacht regions. So documentation in these places is critical.
Part 2 covers the sound system of Irish, with an emphasis on the features that vary among the dialects. The chapter outlines basic transcription practice, as well as descriptions of lexical, morphological, and surface phonological processes. These include length distinctions, affrication, polarization (roughly palatalization vs. velarization), vowel quality, diphthongization, phonotactics, syllable structure, assimilation processes, initial consonant mutation. Following Wells (1982), Hickey establishes lexical sets of words that can be compared for what amount to phonemic contrasts. One unique and particularly interesting property of this chapter is the information on the frequency of sounds in the data set -- to my knowledge this kind of information has never been gathered for the language before. Part 2 concludes with a very useful survey of the many studies of individual dialects that were conducted in the last century, including dialects that are no longer spoken.
Part 3 forms the real meat of the work. It begins with a brief history of the language from the Old Irish period, with some discussion of the emergence of the different dialect varieties. A thorough discussion of the methodology used in this study are provided. The study is based on the recordings of 200 speakers from around Ireland. Ample maps are provided showing where the speakers were from. Clickable versions of these maps are available on the DVD. The software on the DVD allows you to click on the place name and be linked to the relevant sound files. This survey, known as “Samples of Spoken Irish”, includes speakers from a variety of age groups and both genders. However, no sociophonetic analysis based on gender or age is attempted, although presumably such studies could be reconstructed from the data. The survey included the following three methodologies for gathering dating:
(a) Reading aloud from sentence lists (regionally adjusted for lexical content) which included all the relevant speech sounds. (b) Reading aloud of a text passage written in the region. (c) Translation from English into Irish of a set of sentences.
This last task is designed to reveal grammatical and morphological variation between and within larger dialect areas.
The dialects of Irish fall into three major groups (North, West and South). The scope of variation within and between these dialects is characterized primarily through phonological criteria (e.g. whether there is epenthesis in compounds, whether palatalization is realized via affrication or not, the realization of certain orthographic vowels among many others -- there are too many such dimensions to discuss here). One particularly insightful discussion covered how the historically geminate “tensed” sonorants are realized in the various dialect groups, as well as how vowels before these sonorants are either lengthened or diphthongized. Lexical variation between the dialects is not really discussed, but this is reasonable given the coverage of lexis in other sources on the language. Grammatical variation is also discussed, but to a much smaller degree than phonological variation. Grammatical topics include variation in verbal inflection, grammatical gender, the use of the relative form of the verb, and the type of negation used. The descriptive content of part 3 concludes with an interesting description of the prosodic features of the language.
The fifth section of part 3 is devoted to the first step of reconstructing some of the major features of now extinct and sometimes long extinct dialects. Using Anglicizations of place names as well as historical dialect records, certain features emerge of dialects intermediate in location between the current Gaeltacht regions. Two extensive examples are given.
Part 3 closes with a very brief discussion of other kinds of variation in Irish, including the utterances of young female native speakers, and of non-native or partially native speakers, especially in the urban areas.
The book includes a number of important appendices, including more information on the history of the language, a discussion of Irish orthography, details on traditional and IPA transcriptions of the language, the samples of text and sentence lists read by the speakers, some instructions on how to use the DVD software and a comprehensive glossary.
EVALUATION The book is a truly outstanding contribution. Comparative work of this scale about Irish simply has never been so systematically and thoroughly done. The accompanying DVD is an utter delight. It is easy to use and contains a wealth of additional information. The sound files bring to life the textual descriptions of linguistic variation. There is no doubt that readers of the book should have the DVD loaded on a computer right next to them as they work their way through. The two go hand in hand.
I can’t write a review without nitpicking on a few points, but none should distract from the high quality of this book. It is an impressive piece of work. One thing I was disappointed in was that there was very little discussion of urban dialects of Irish, and none of the recordings of the Samples of Spoken Irish included these varieties. The reason the author chose to do this is obvious, the speakers of these forms often -- although not always -- exhibit non-native like language competence. There is also a great deal of controversy among Irish language scholars, particularly in the applied linguistic community, about “legitimizing” these non-traditional (and often grammatically bleached) forms of the language. Nevertheless I think it’s a linguistic reality that the future of Irish may well live on in these speech communities. So documentation of the emergence of these varieties, especially in the context of the traditional Gaeltacht speakers would be helpful. This is especially true since many speakers even in the Gaeltacht are showing the influence of linguistic change in the face of Dublin and Belfast Irish. On a similar note, I would have enjoyed reading more about sociolinguistic variation. The author’s decision to exclude such studies here is well motivated, as there is largely a lack of vertical social structure in the Gaeltacht. The discussion of younger female speakers at the end of the book is a welcome exception. As a syntactician I wish there had been more exploration of grammatical issues, as the book is largely focused on phonology. One clear example that isn’t discussed is the variation in case and word order of non-finite clauses with overt subjects first discussed in McCloskey (1980).
There are a few minor errors, like these: page 37, 2nd paragraph dis-+inguishes should be distinguishes; and page 78, example 25, the Irish orthographic forms contain pronouns that don’t correspond to the transcriptions. The bottom line in (a) should read “Leagann muid”, and (b) should be “Nionn muid”. However, the book is otherwise well edited and an easy read for a specialized and technical description.
We have a work of the highest quality in front of us. It should be of interest not only to Celticists and phonologists, but also to other linguists who are investigating variation in endangered languages. This is particularly true for scholars looking at languages with non-contiguous communities of speakers. The methodology and presentation are as enlightening as the language-specific results. I strongly recommend it to anyone with an interest in the Celtic languages or in variationist studies in general.
REFERENCES McCloskey, James (1980). Is there Raising in Modern Irish? Ériu 39: 59-99.
Ó Cuív, Brian (1951). Irish Dialects and Irish-Speaking Districts. Dublin: Institute for Advanced Studies.
O’Rahilly, Thomas F. (1932). Irish Dialects Past and Present. Dublin: Browne & Nolan.
Ó Siadhail, Michael (1989). Modern Irish: Grammatical Structure and Dialectal Variation (Cambridge University Press)
Wagner, Heinrich (1958-64). Linguistic atlas and survey of Irish dialects. 4 Vols. Dublin: Institute for Advanced Studies.
Wells, John (1982). Accents of English. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
Andrew Carnie is Professor of Linguistics, and Faculty Director of Graduate
Interdisciplinary Programs at the University of Arizona. His research
focuses on the syntax, morphology, phonetics, and phonology of the Celtic
Languages, with a particular emphasis on Irish and Scottish Gaelic. He
recently has been exploring experimental and instrumental investigations of
the Scottish Gaelic sound system. His books include “The Syntax of VSO
languages” (2000, OUP, with E. Guilfoyle), “Formal Approaches to Function”
(2003, Benjamins, with H. Harley and M. Willie), “Verb First” (2005,
Benjamins, with H. Harley and S. Dooley), “Irish Nouns” (2008),
“Constituent Structure”, 2nd Edition (2010, OUP), “Modern Syntax” (2011,
CUP), “Formal Approaches to Celtic Linguistics” (2011, C-SP). The third