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The Irish for... 'Why the naming of new technologies in Irish can be more controversial than with English'

Darach Ó Séaghdha talks us through the Irish words for emerging technology, including ‘computer’, ‘selfie’ and ‘spam’, exploring their roots and meaning.

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.  

‘HELLO’, IT IS said, was chosen from a number of prospective candidates including ‘ahoy hoy’ as the greeting to be used by people when answering the telephone. That decision is often credited to Alexander Graham Bell.

However, I suspect that an individual person decided that ‘can I tap?’ should become the accepted phrase for when you want to make a contactless payment.

Nor indeed was it ever officially decided that the noun ‘text’ could become the verb ‘to text’.

Usually language evolves naturally as people experience a new technology at the same time. But naming of new technologies in Irish can be a bit more controversial.

A catch 22 situation can emerge – if the word sounds too close to the English word, such as fón for the phone, it is mocked for being unimaginative or derivative. But other, more defiantly Irish terms, such as guthán for the phone, are condemned for being wilfully obscure and not true to language use in Gaeltacht areas.

So what words do we use when we talk about technology in Irish?

Iarnród: In the 1840s, many Irish people blamed the introduction of the railroad to Ireland for causing the Great Famine.

Whatever about the logical basis of that theory, the railroad was the last major invention to be introduced, while Irish was still the most widely spoken language on this island.

Iarnród translates literally as iron roadstead – a roadstead being the pathway of a ship  rather than bóthar (road).

Citeal: Perhaps you think the Irish word for a kettle should sound very different from the English word, and you think that a word like citeal reflects badly on Irish. If so it is worth pointing out that this word is virtually the same in many Germanic and Latin languages.

You may have even seen the word túlán and wondered why we don’t just use that. But since túlán is an old word, it typically refers to kettle in its pre-electric sense, when water was boiled on the fire. Given how different that is from the yoke you make your tea with today, a distinct term is hardly unwarranted.

Grianghraf: The Irish word for photograph follows the literal meaning of the compound Greek term. Photo, meaning light and graph, meaning image.

A pleasant alliteration is achieved by using grian, the  word for the sun, rather than solas or another term for light.

The longest word in the Irish language is the word for aerial photography - aerghrianghrafadóireacht.

Féinín: Continuing on a photographic theme, féinín is the officially recognised Irish word for a selfie. There was some competition for that one,  the word feinphic was noted by DCU, in their terminology database in 2015.

Riomhaire: In medieval monasteries, the riomhaire was the monk who calculated the date on which Easter would fall each year. He literally was the computer, and that is where the Irish word for a computer comes from.

Perhaps unsurprisingly then Luch riomhaire is a computer mouse.

Riomhphost: The Irish for email. R-phost will do if you’re in a hurry.

Turscar: This is one of the many words in Irish for seaweed, but it refers specifically to the useless, dead seaweed that is abandoned on the shore by the receding tide.

So it is very fitting that this should be used as the Irish word for spam emails.

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About the author:

Darach Ó Séaghdha

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