A reply to Mona

A “strange woman” (her words!) called Mona kindly emailed me in March with comments and corrections on my earlier posts, and in my usual dilatory way I’ve only just got around to emailing her in reply. She couldn’t post her comment originally as I’d not set the blog prefs to allow comments, but I’ve now posted her message as a comment to the post on useful phrases below. She brings up a number of interesting points, and I thought that my reply to her points might be of interest to anyone reading this blog so I’ve quoted it below, and would welcome debate on these points if anyone can be arsed to write in. Plus it took me over half an hour to write so I thought I might as well share that effort with the Whole Wide World 🙂

Hi a Mhona

It was a good few months back, but you emailed me about my Gaelic blog at http://www.fredriley.org.uk/weblog/gaelic.html pointing out some depressingly obvious mistakes – your message is below. I’ve been meaning to get around to replying properly but just haven’t, well, got round to it – same as with my blog, which needs updating. Thanks for the detailed comeback, which was read and appreciated. I’ve now changed the blog settings so that comments are allowed and I’ve posted your comment to my post on stock phrases.

I’ll quibble with a few of your points below, but on your more general criticism of An Cursa Inntrigidh you sort of have a point. You wrote:

> I find it amazing that Cùrsa Inntrigidh does not explain these grammatical patterns well. I got the impression that you are a bit confused with the dative and genitive and vocative case (they are three different things!).

The trouble with the course is that it falls uncomfortably between two stools. It’s supposed to be a foundation course for a degree in Gaelic at SMO, hence its name, and thus needs to be quite academic. On the other hand, SMO also pushes it as a ‘beginners Gaelic’ course for anyone who wants to learn the language, and the majority of course punters, and thus the majority of the income from it for SMO (and I suspect it’s a decent income stream for them), are general learners like myself with no intention of doing a degree – for us ‘non-academic’ punters the course needs to be communicative and user-friendly.

(As it happens I’ve a moderately academic background, having worked in universities since 1992, albeit as an e-learning techie. During this time I worked in the languages field, and learnt Italian to a decent level, taking undergraduate courses in the language. I mention this to point out that I’m not unfamiliar with language learning pedagogy and methodology, although I’m still primarily a computer techie so a long, long way away from being any kind of linguist.)

So the course tries to satisfy both ‘traditional’ and communicative models of language learning, and IMO fails at both, though fails honourably. We did cover quite a bit of grammar in the workbooks, and our phone tutor kept banging grammar points into us, but even for a para-linguist like myself the grammar was off-putting, not to say damned hard, and it was important to keep emphasis on communication and colloquial speech so as to retain the other students. For all that, I’m quite a believer in the communicative approach, as the learner herself abstracts the linguistic rules from practicing the language – this is the essence of immersive courses which are often very successful (do you know of Finlay Macleod’s TIP courses?) in bringing complete beginners up to linguistic competency. I know from my own experience that rule memorisation often fails as, in normal speech, you just don’t get time to painstakingly put together speech by assembling rule-based fragments – language isn’t a Meccano set. Whilst I was taught rules in Italian, in the end I learnt them from continual exposure to the language, as did my sister who speaks it fluently (though pretty ungrammatically, sadly) despite never having been formally taught.

Having said that, grammar has to come into it at some point, particularly in an academic course, and Cursa Inntrigidh does try to instil grammar points into students. The genitive, dative and whatnot cases are repeatedly mentioned, but were never accurately defined, if I remember rightly. There was the occasional grammatical table with genitive and dative cases, but unless you actually know what the cases are for this is of little use. Only now, after some exposure to Gaelic, do I realise that the whole point of the genitive is to indicate ‘being of’ something, a lesson brought home to me more by OS maps than anything else. I’m still in the dark about what the dative is, and why it’s used. As for the vocative case, I wouldn’t know that if it bit me on mo thoin.

I’m sorry I screwed up on the definite articles – I really should have known better than to put language points into a blog when I’m a basic learner myself. From now on I’ll keep the blog more generalist and anecdotal, and only refer to language points when I’m 99% sure that I’ve got it right.

Ok, time for the minor quibbles:

> I would have written this as a comment to your blog, but unfortunately it was not accessible.
> “How do you say that in English?” should rather be: “Ciamar a chanas tu sin ‘sa Bheurla?” or: “Ciamar a chanar sin ‘sa Bheurla?”

That sounds more colloquial and fluid – “how would you say X” sounds better, even in English, than “how do you say X?”. Trouble is, our phone tutor got us to use the phrase “ciamar a tha thu ag radh X ann am Beurla?” from the start and it stuck. I suspect he did this because he wanted to keep it simple and didn’t want to introduce the conditional, which I think doesn’t appear at all in Cursa Inntrigidh – I think it was only covered in Earann 4, which was an add-on to the course (now renamed An Cursa Adhartais).

> The phrase about the weather should be: “‘S e deagh/droch shìde a th’ ann, nach e?”

Again, this clashes with our tutor, who repeatedly used “tha” rather than “s e” when talking about weather, I think on the grounds that “s e” tends to be more to do with a quality integral to an object rather than a passing property, though I’m happy to be contradicted on this.

> There are some mistakes in the post about the articles as well:
> an ubhal ann an craobh -> an t-ubhal… (ubhal is masculine)

Now I’m going to blame Runrig for me getting this wrong 😉 – I was using the title of one of their albums, “An ubhal as airde” as a model.

> am bheinn anns an eilean -> a’ bheinn…
> an ubhal anns a’ chraobh -> an t-ubhal…

The definite article in Gaelic is one of the hardest I’ve ever come across, and I’ve studied Italian, French and Spanish, and know a little German. I thought Italian was awkward as it has six forms of “the”, but these are quite easy to remember if you figure that they’re there so’s to make the phrase sound better – for instance, “l’uomo” rather than “lo uomo” which is an awkward mouthful. The same as using “an” in English. However, I’m screwed if I can figure out a rationale for the different articles in Gaelic, and I’ve just resigned myself to memorising them as they occur – the permutations, as outlined in grammar books and dictionaries, are just too many to memorise and apply.

Mind you, my standard rule of Gaelic thumb – if in doubt, lenite – often seems to apply…

> Do you know this site: http://www.taic.btinternet.co.uk – It has some very good grammar overviews.

Yes, that is a very useful reference site, which I go to frequently. I’ll add it to the sidebar of this blog

> Cùm ort! 🙂

Tha mi a’ feuchainn, ach ‘s e cànan doirbh a th’ann, ceart gu leòr 😦

> Mona (an nighean neònach bho http://www.cailleachoidhche.blogspot.com)

Tapadh leatsa, a Mhona – cuiridh mi ceangal aig blog agad air a’ ‘sidebar’.



PS: As it’s taken me a good 30 mins to write this email, I thought I might post it to my blog in case it’s of interest to others.

Seachd: The Inaccessible Pinnacle, the Scottish Gaelic film – COMING SOON!

“Gaelic is set to make a cinematic comeback” The Times

Official site: http://www.seachd.com
Official blog: http://seachd.typepad.com


2 responses to “A reply to Mona

  1. (forgive the lack of fadas on this!)
    It’s interesting to know that An Cursa… has its problems, I started the course last year but could not continue due to lack of money but then found a local Irish class with a native teacher so started to pick up Irish instead.

    Although I had been warned against trying to learn both at once, it seemed a shame to let the Gaidhlig slide so I have tried to keep up with that a bit too.

    My phone tutor was Gillebride, he was really nice but as you said, for the sake of being general and easier to understand some things were lost.

    An example, ‘ta me tuirseach’ in Irish is taken to mean ‘I am tired’ but as my teacher was explaining to me, that is using Irish in an English way, the correct form (although ta me tuirseach is becoming more commonly used) is actually ‘ta tuirse orm’, ‘tiredness is on me’ THAT is a gaelic/Irish construction and is far ‘better’ Irish.

    I applied this idea to a phrase I learnt from An Cursa, namely ‘Tha mi duilich’ I looked in my modern recently bought Gaidhlig dictionary and found ‘sorry’ as ‘tha mi duilich’ but I happen also to have a 1973 hardback Gaidhlig dictionary and looking in that, I found that in fact it was originally ‘Is duilich leam’ which I think translates more as ‘sorrow is with me’, again, a far better Gaelic construction.

    I am lucky to have a Native Irish teacher, but I think that it’s unfortunate that for the sake of ease of learning, some of the beautiful expressions in Gaelic have been strangled, ‘on me’ ‘at me’ ‘with me’ are so much more evocative.

  2. Gaelic have been strangled, ‘on me’ ‘at me’ ‘with me’ are so much more evocative.

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