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Wednesday 6 December 2023 Dublin: 8°C
PA Archive/PA Images Eamon De Valera

The Irish For... Why do feelings run so high around the letter V?

Is V a cheeky stowaway in the Irish language? Darach Ó Séaghdha takes a look.

This the latest dispatch from our columnist Darach Ó Séaghdha, author of the award-winning and bestselling Motherfoclóir. Every Sunday morning, Darach will be regaling (re-Gaeling?) us with insights on what the Irish language says about Ireland, our society, our past and our present. Enjoy.

WHEN AN TAOISEACH confirmed that he would like to be addressed in Irish as An tUasal Leo de Varad, some eyebrow were raised about the use of a certain letter. It’s not unprecedented for the name of a Taoiseach (think of De Valera) and not especially recent (think of De Valera) and yet the letter V is still seen by some as a cheeky stowaway in the Irish language, a two fingers at its heritage. But why do feelings run so high about this letter?

Vox Hiberionacum: The first written reference a specific Irish identity, meaning “voice of the Irish”, is found in the Latin writings of Saint Patrick and includes a V (which would have been pronounced as a W). Latin script was used for centuries in Ireland before the Gaelic alphabet, so Vs were widespread in the Book of Kells and other medieval texts.

Bhí/Ubh: The main argument against V is that v-sounds exist in Irish without it, typically expressed with a bh or an mh. Bhí the past tense of bí (to be) and ubh (an egg) are cases in point. So why aren’t we saying De Bharad and De Bhalera instead of De Varad and De Valera? Well…

Bainne/Mo Bhainne: One reason we wouldn’t substitute a bh for every V sound is that the H that follows a B or an M serves a grammatical purpose, such as a séimhiú in possessive nouns (mo bhainne, my milk) or the past tense in verbs (bhásaigh sé, he died). So replacing a V with a BH might confuse a reader; is An tUasal Bh—— belonging to someone or trapped in the past?

Ó Cuív: The move to include a V is often credited to Shán Ó Cuív, grandfather of the politician and co-author of An Leitriú Shimplí in 1907, an attempt to simplify Irish spelling. This was roughly contemporaneous to George Bernard Shaw’s campaigns to simplify spelling in English – he famously declared that fish could be spelled ghoti if you used the gh from tough, the o from women and the ti from election. Irish, unlike English, is a language that tries to live by its own rules. Ó Cuív made the decision to apply his own simplified spelling to his own name (he had previously been known as Ó Caoimh).

Vótáil: The Irish for voting is vótáil and this is the term used in the 1922 constitution, which came out between the two editions of Dinneen’s classic (eighteen letter) dictionary. So the forbidden letter was already in use before its official inclusion. What did people call voting before then? Dinneen lists the term ceantáil, which can also mean selling something by auction- hardly an appropriate word when thinking of Irish democracy.

Vac Vac: In 1959, Tomás De Bhaldraithe’s English to Irish dictionary was released, and this formally included the letter V. Entries included onomatopoeic words, such as this entry which translates as “quack quack”. It also included loanwords such as veist (vest) and veilbhit (velvet).

Svaidhpeáil/Tvuít: Despite protests from purists, the letter V still finds its way into new Irish words in 2018. As these entries (meaning swipe and tweet) show, one of its most popular uses is replacing a W in new loanwords. So why is a V deemed acceptable but not a W? Bhuel, we have to draw the line somewhere.

Darach’s new book Craic Baby is the follow-up to his acclaimed Motherfoclóir and has just been published  under the Head of Zeus imprint. He runs @theirishfor Twitter account and the @motherfocloir podcast.

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