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The Irish For Hiberno English is a feature not a bug

Sometimes Béarla and Gaeilge are presented as being in conflict in Ireland, but they’re both part of our cultural heritage, writes Darach Ó Séaghdha.

This is 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.

THERE IS AN African proverb I was reminded of recently: when an old person dies, a library burns to the ground.

On the 20 April, Ireland lost one of its most wonderful human libraries when Professor Terry Dolan passed away.

I was lucky enough to have been his student in UCD, and his lectures on The Canterbury Tales and Middle English were always engaging and inspiring.

However, it was his lessons on Hiberno-English that really stood out. He literally wrote the book on the subject.

I recall he once told us a story about a visiting Japanese professor giving a lecture on The Dead by James Joyce. It was all going swimmingly until the visiting professor revealed that he understood Greta’s remark about her lost love Michael Furey-  “I was great with him at the time” – to mean that she was pregnant with Furey’s child at the time. She was not.

‘Great’, like ‘grand’, ‘only’, ‘after’, ‘altogether’ and ‘now’ is a normal English word (as opposed to your classic Hiberno-English words like sleeveen, plámás, flootered, banjaxed and langer) that has an additional meaning, or manner of use, that is specific to Ireland – the kind that computer translation software might be oblivious to.

Professor Dolan’s Dictionary of Hiberno-English is a labour of love and a heroic attempt to fill two conspicuous gaps.

The first gap was the absence of so many widely-used Irish words and word uses in major English dictionaries.

The second is the lack of an official dictionary of the English language of Ireland comparable to Australia’s Macquarie Dictionary, The Reed Dictionary of New Zealand English, Webster’s Dictionaries of American English and so on – not just glossaries of idiosyncratic slang but ongoing projects which track and record English use in their countries.

Presumably, this is why Béarla doesn’t have its own style guides for academic and journalistic consistency either.

I’ve written before about why Ireland’s dialect of English should be the official version of EU English much as Tuscan is the official version of Italian. But a more urgent reason is language’s role in the advance of technology.

Machine Learning and AI have come a long way since the annoying paperclip noticed that you were writing a letter and offered to help and are now sophisticated enough to compose poetry, pop songs and paintings as well as review mortgage applications and drive cars.

This is done by feeding the software substantial amounts of data and allowing it to identify patterns to interpret and base decisions on – the same way that Google Translate and Bing Translate work.

So what happens when they stumble upon “I was great with him at the time”, “you won’t know yourself” or “your one is grand”?

If those patterns that the software is identifying can’t include Hiberno-English norms and vocabulary (or dismiss these norms as errors) because a dictionary is not available, significant misunderstandings could occur – and these machines will be performed increasingly complicated tasks.

Given that such dictionaries are available for Irish, machine learning creates the unusual situation where Hiberno-English is in greater danger of obliteration than Gaeilge.

Sometimes Béarla and Gaeilge are presented as being in conflict in Ireland, but this is not the case: they’re both part of our cultural heritage.

Given the amount of Irish loanwords in Hiberno-English (and vice versa) a useful database of one should be able to reference the other – to really deliver and see both thrive in the digital age.

It would be ironic if machine learning killed Hiberno-English but let Irish be; but with complementary dictionaries, maybe the two languages can save each other.

And if an English loanword into Irish here and a focal iasachta into English there annoy you, then maybe you fail the Turing Test.

Darach’s new book Craic Baby is the follow-up to his acclaimed Motherfoclóir and is out now under the Head of Zeus imprint.

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

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