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The Irish For: Gender, LGBT and transitioning

Aerach means gay in both the modern sense as well as the original meaning of happy and carefree writes Darach Ó Séaghdha.

Darach Ó Séaghdha

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.

NATIVE ENGLISH SPEAKERS often struggle with acquiring and retaining other languages.

There are economic reasons for this: the convenience of English being widely spoken elsewhere surely dampens the enthusiasm of prospective linguists.

However, there is also the fact that English is an odd place to start, lacking certain grammatical concepts that are widespread in other languages – conditional and future tenses, the accusative and dative case, those sorts of things.

One of the most prominent of these is the concept of noun gender – that a table might be feminine and a fridge might be masculine. Could these differences in language shape thoughts differently?

As the words we use, and the assumptions that lurk behind them, when talking about gender have been discussed a lot recently, it might be worth looking at some words in Irish which shine a light on how these topics have been thought about here.

Aitherrach: Transforming (transitioning)

This is a middle Irish word meaning literally, a new springtime. It is used for an act or moment of transformation.

It is used in the curious tale of the Abbot of Drimnagh. One Easter evening back in the mists of time, the abbot fell asleep by a hillside after a long walk.

Upon waking, the abbot was surprised to find that he had transformed into a woman overnight. On her way home, she bumped into a handsome man – a senior monk at the abbey in Crumlin – and they decide to get married and have children.

The word aitherrach has itself transformed over time into the modern form, athrach.

Céas Naíon: Period pains

In Ireland’s epic poem, An Táin, the men of Ulster were cursed to experience céas naíon, “the pangs of women” for seven to nine days at regular intervals.

Cailín: Some people are amused to learn that the Irish word for a girl is a masculine noun. This doesn’t need to be confusing: lexical gender is not the same as personal gender.

Nouns ending with the diminutive form ‘ín’ are typically masculine nouns, but this does not mean that Irish culture has decreed that those things have stereotypically masculine characteristics.

Grammar is just a social construct.

Forainm: Pronouns are particularly topical at the moment. Perhaps the mention of orm, ort, air, uirthi and dom, duit, do, di brings back memories from school for some of you.

Irish makes use of prepositional pronouns more than English, as in ‘tá brón uirthi’ means ‘sadness is on her’ rather than ‘she is sad’, which communicate more than gender and number.

LADT:  This is the Irish for LGBT

Leispiach, Aerach, Déghnéasach agus Trasinscneach: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender.

In 2018 the USI published An Foclóír Aiteach (the Queer Dictionary) which presented a range of terminology for LGBT experiences, some of which had not been included in the 1977 and 1959 dictionaries.

One word which was in both was aerach, which means gay in both the modern sense as well as the original meaning of happy and carefree. 

Tras: If you did Irish dancing at any stage, you’ll remember trasna, trasna, a h-aon, do, trí. Trasna means going across, which will help you to remember that tras is trans.

Fear tras is a trans man and a bean thras is a trans woman. She gets a séimhiú and he doesn’t because that’s just how Irish acknowledges their identities. 

Darach’s new book, Craic Baby: Dispatches From A Rising Language is published by Head of Zeus and available in bookshops now.

He runs @theirishfor Twitter account and the @motherfocloir podcast.

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Darach Ó Séaghdha

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