Old Irish language

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Old Irish (Goídelc)

Spoken in

Ireland , approx. 600–900 AD
speaker unknown, once maybe a few 100,000
Official status
Official language in not applicable
Language codes
ISO 639 -1


ISO 639 -2


ISO 639-3


As Old Irish (Old Irish. Goídelc in Modern Irish Sean-Ghaeilge , in English Old Irish ) is the level of proficiency in the Irish language indicated that with the use of literacy in Latin script begins and ends about the disintegration of the old Irish standardization. The more recent research puts the period between about 600 and 900 for Old Irish.


The immediate sources for Old Irish are quite sparse compared to Latin or Middle Irish , but are comprehensive enough to get a fairly good idea of ​​how the language works.

The vast majority of the direct evidence is made up of glosses that have been inserted as comments or translations in the margin or between lines of manuscripts created on the continent . The most extensive and best known are the gloss collections, which are now kept in St. Gallen , Würzburg and Milan and which are also cited from these locations. Other important glosses are u. a. kept in Turin , Karlsruhe and Paris . The glosses themselves date from the 8th and 9th centuries , with the Würzburg glosses being the oldest.

Furthermore, a few poems and other short texts have survived, also mostly on the margins of larger texts. The earliest evidence is the Amra Cholm Cille , a song of praise to the founder of Iona Monastery , Columcille, who died in 597 . The short poem must have been written soon after the sung's death, around 600. Somewhat better known than Amra Cholm Cille is the poem Messe ocus Pangur Bán , which was probably composed in the 9th century in southern Germany . In it, a monk sings about the intimate togetherness between himself and his white cat Pangur.

The much larger part of the sources for the old Irish, however, are evidence from later times, from around the 10th to the 16th century . Copying old manuscripts was one of the main tasks in the scriptoria of medieval monasteries . The scribes proceeded differently; In some cases older texts were copied meticulously, in some cases they were edited to varying degrees, i. In other words, they have been adapted to modern usage in terms of language and content or alleged errors in the old manuscripts have been eliminated. For modern researchers, the actual transmission of a text that consists of several “time layers” is often very difficult to reconstruct. Such texts very often contain a mixture of Middle Irish and Old Irish passages, in which the Old Irish parts, however, have passed through the hands of later editors and may have been changed. In the philological and textual criticism is therefore always extreme caution, as it rarely is "pure" Old Irish. Due to the wealth of such texts (Irish offers the most extensive secular text corpus of early medieval Western Europe ), comprehensive statements about the grammar , phonology and vocabulary of Old Irish are possible through comparisons . In addition, some types of text , especially legal texts , have apparently been changed far less than others. Because of the very old age of many legal texts (including the Senchus Már collection from around the 7th century ), they form an essential source for the study of Old Irish (and early Irish society ) despite their mostly later year of recording .

Basic features

Like many other older Indo-European languages , Old Irish was an extremely inflexible language. In particular the verbal system with its completely double system of independent and dependent forms as well as its wealth of suppletive stems offered a very confusing variety of forms. But most of the other parts of speech were also richly inflected. The basic sentence type was VSO (Verb- Subject - Object ). In the poetry in particular, certain variants were possible, which later mainly developed into means of topicalization .

Old Irish was also a complex language from a phonological point of view, as it was here for the first time (a result of developments in archaic Irish before 600) features such as palatalization , initial mutations and new sounds created by mutation, syncope and apocope as well as simplification.

The vocabulary of Old Irish is mainly of Gaelic origin, but is interspersed with Latin and British (mostly probably Welsh ) words. Obviously, the Latin part of the lexicon often refers to terms from the church area ( bendacht < benedictum "blessing"; ecl (a) is < ecclesia "church"; o (i) frend < offerendum "mass", ifernn < infernum "hell") . The fact that part of the ecclesiastical vocabulary shows traces of British or British Vulgar Latin indicates that at least part of the Christianization was carried out by the British. It is known from his own writings that Patrick was actually British.



The reconstructed consonant inventory of Old Irish is shown in the following table. / N /, / Nʲ /, / L /, / Lʲ /, / R /, / Rʲ / represent Fortes , the exact articulation of which is unknown, but which were probably longer, more tense and generally articulated with more pressure than their Lenis - Counterparts / n /, / nʲ /, / l /, / lʲ /, / r /, / rʲ / .

Old Irish consonants
  labial dental alveolar velar glottal
Plosives velarized p b t d k g  
Nasals velarized m N n ŋ  
palatalized ŋʲ  
Fricatives velarized f v θ ð s x ɣ H
palatalized θʲ ðʲ ɣʲ H
Nasal fricatives velarized        
palatalized ṽʲ        
Approximants velarized   R r    
Lateral velarized   L l    

Some details of Old Irish phonetics are still unknown. / s / might [⁠ ɕ ⁠] or [⁠ ʃ ⁠] have been spoken, as in today's Irish . / h / could / ⁠ h ⁠ / and / or / X / pose. / N / and / l / could [⁠ ɲ ⁠] or [⁠ ʎ ⁠] be. The difference between / R (ʲ) / and / r (ʲ) / may have been that between a vibrant and a flap .


The reconstructed inventory of the old Irish vowels consists of 5 short and 5 long monophthongs and 12 diphthongs :

Old Irish monophthongs
  front central back
long short long short long short
closed i   u
medium e   O O
open   a  

The distribution of short vowels in unstressed syllables is a bit complicated. All short vowels can be written in an unstressed open syllable after a velarized or palatalized consonant. The front vowels / ⁠ e ⁠ / and / ⁠ i ⁠ / after velarisiertem consonants usually ae or ai written what might indicate a retracted tongue root here about [⁠ ɘ ⁠] or [⁠ ɨ ⁠] . All ten possibilities are illustrated here with examples.

Unstressed vowels in the final
marba / ˈmarv a / 'I kill' (1st person singular subjunctive ) léicea / ˈLʲeːgʲ a / 'I leave' (1st P. Sg. conj.)
marbae / ˈmarv e / 'du kötest' (2. P. Sg. conj.) léice / ˈLʲeːgʲ e / 'you leave' (2nd P. Sg. conj.)
marbai / ˈmarv i / 'you kill' (2nd P. Sg. indicative ) léici / ˈLʲeːgʲ i / 'you leave' (2nd P. Sg. Ind.)
súlo / ˈsuːl o / 'eye' ( genitive ) doirseo / ˈdoRʲsʲ o / 'door' (Gen.)
marbu / ˈmarv u / 'I kill' (1st P. Sg. Ind.) léiciu / ˈLʲe: gʲ u / 'I am leaving' (1st P. Sg. Ind.)

In unstressed closed syllables , the vowel quality of the short vowels depends on the surrounding consonants and is usually predictable. Between velarisierten consonant vowel is / ⁠ a ⁠ / as in Digal / dʲiːɣ a l / , Revenge ( nominative ). Between palatalisiertem and velarisiertem consonants / ⁠ e ⁠ / , as in dliged / dʲlʲiɣʲ e ð / , law, law '(nom.). Before palatalisiertem consonants / ⁠ i ⁠ / , as in dígail / dʲiːɣ i l / revenge ' acc. And dligid / dʲlʲiɣʲ i d / , Right, Law' Gen.

Notwithstanding stands to this rule / ⁠ u ⁠ / when the following syllable in Urkeltischen (urkelt.) A long ¾ contained (example: dligud / dʲlʲiɣ u ð / , rights, laws' Dat. To urkelt *. Dligitū- ). Next to it is often / ⁠ o ⁠ / or / ⁠ u ⁠ / after velarisiertem labial (example: Lebor / Lev o r / , Book '; domun / Dov u n / ' world ').

The inventory of the old Irish diphthongs is shown in the following table:

Diphthongs of Old Irish
Long (bimora) Short (monomoric)
ai ia ui   ouch ĭu ău
oi among others iu eu ou ĕu  


As with most medieval languages, the orthography of Old Irish was not fixed, so that the following explanations are to be understood as generalizations. Individual manuscripts can differ greatly from the principles described here.

The Old Irish alphabet consists of the following 18 letters from the Latin alphabet : a, b, c, d, e, f, g, h, i, l, m, n, o, p, r, s, t, u.

In addition, the acute and a point written above the letter are used.

  • The acute indicates a long vowel: á , é , í , ó , ú are long vowels
  • The overlined point indicates the leaning of f or s : is mute, is spoken as / ⁠ h ⁠ /
  • The period is sometimes used over m or n to denote nasalization : , .

A number of digraphs are also used:

  • the letter i after a vowel to indicate that the following consonant is palatalized: ai , ei , oi , ui ; ái , éi , ói , úi
  • the letter h after c , t , p to indicate a fricative: ch , th , ph
  • The diphthongs are also represented by digraphs: áe / , ía , , áu , óe / , úa , éu , óu , iu , au , eu

If no initial mutation has taken place, the consonant letters in the word-initial position have the following sound values, with the velarized variant in front of back vowels ( a , o , u ) and the palatalized in front of front vowels ( e , i ):

Although Old Irish both a sound / ⁠ h ⁠ / and a letter h has, there is no consistent relationship between the two. Words that start with a vowel are sometimes spelled with a silent word initial h , especially if they are very short (the preposition i "in" was sometimes written hi ) or if they require stress (the term for Ireland , Ériu , was sometimes written Hériu ). On the other hand, words that start with / h / are usually written without an h , e.g. B. a ór / a hoːr / "their gold". If sound and spelling correspond, then it is by chance, as in ní hed / Nʲiː heð / “it is not”.

After a vowel or after l , n , or r , the letters c, p, t can stand for both voiced and unvoiced plosives; they can also be written twice for both variants:

After the vowel, the letters b, d, g stand for the fricative / v, ð, ɣ / or their palatalized equivalents:

After m , b is a plosive, but after d , l and r a fricative:

After n and r , d is a plosive

After n , l and r , g is usually a plosive, but in some words also a fricative:

After vowels, m is usually a fricative, but sometimes a (nasal) plosive and is often doubled in this case:

The digraphs ch , ph , th do not appear in the word initial position, except in lenization. The pronunciation is then / x /, / f /, / θ / .

The letters l , n and r are written twice, where they represent tense sonorants , and simply, where they represent unstrained sonorants . At the beginning of the word, however, tense sonorants are simply written.



The verb is the most complex part of Old Irish grammar. Historically, many old Irish verbs were created from complicated structures from a stem and several prefixes (up to 6 in a row), remotely comparable to German see / provide / provide / view etc. In addition, archaic Irish prevailed - and in the opinion of most researchers too in Old Irish - a very strong stress on the first syllable. In archaic Irish, this meant that words with at least three syllables were greatly shortened by syncope and apocope . In Old Irish, the accent on the first syllable may not have been as strongly accented, but it was still strong enough to "shrink" verbs that were preceded by a particle for negation or questioning purposes. For example, from

In the second example, due to the change in accent (and the therefore necessary stronger articulatory power for the first stem syllable), a form of the original preverb to- (here as ta- ) is used instead of the weakly articulated do- . This pattern of “absolute” and “dependent” (for compound verbs - as above, with a prefix - “deuterotonic” and “prototonic”) forms pervades the entire verbal system of Old Irish. Many New Irish verbs are derived from the prototonic forms, e.g. B. tabhair from air. (ni ·) tabair .

In addition, there is a large number of suppletive stems, i.e. stems within a paradigm that cannot be traced back to the same root (cf. German his / was / am ).

Object pronouns are incorporated into the interior of the verb form in Old Irish. This is traditionally referred to as "Infigierung", but to be more precise it is about pronominal clitics , i.e. words that are acoustically dependent (compare to the following examples the term infix used today in the article Infix (linguistics) ). - Examples:

  • carat 'they love' - nitcharat 'they don't love you' = ni - t - c (h) arat)
  • do · beir / doˈber '/ ' he / she / there is'> dom · beir / domˈver '/ ' he / she / there is me ', dot · beir / dodˈver' / 'he / she / there is you ', there · beir / daˈver '/ ' he / she / there is him ', there · beir / over' / 'he / she / there is them ' etc.

For simple verbs without a prefix, the meaningless prefix is prefixed and the dependent verb form is used for the purpose of incorporating the pronouns :

Old Irish still has many of the manifestations of the verb paradigms inherited from Indo-European . All verb forms are formed synthetically , i.e. In other words, the forms themselves contain the information on person, number, tense, mode and gender via suffix or sound change. Only in the tense do prefixes ( ro- in past tenses) play a role. The multitude of tenses , several modes and three genera ( active , passive , deponens ) is not fully occupied for every single verb and may never have been fully used.

Nouns and adjectives

In general, adjectives are placed after the associated nouns . Both parts of speech are usually divided into different classes similar to other Indo-European languages , which depend on the stem vowel of the root or the consonant formation of the cases. There are 13 classes of nouns (stems in -o- , -ā- , -io- , -iā- , -i- , -ī- , -u- , diphthong , guttural , dental , nasal, -r and - s ), only 5 classes of adjectives (stems in -o - / - ā- , -io / -iā- , -i- , -u- , consonant - the latter are grouped together because of fewer examples). The respective declination pattern depends on these classes .

Both nouns and adjectives have masculine , feminine and neutral forms and are fully declined according to case and number . The cases like the numbers are inherited from Indo-European: nominative , vocative , accusative , genitive , dative (the Irish order corresponds to the English). However, the dative is hardly available as an independent case, it is mostly used together with certain prepositions . Singular , plural and dual are used as numbers , whereby the dual is only preserved in remnants. The special thing about the Old Irish declination is probably that the inherited endings only partially appear as actual endings . Due to syncope and apocope in archaic Irish, the inherited changes have mostly been lost, but are still expressed in the quality of the final .

Example: fer / f´er / , 'man', mask. -O-Stamm, <urkelt. * wiros . Cf. Latin vir . n- merely indicates that the word following the noun in question is nasalized . The information on pronunciation is based on conclusions from language and language level comparison.

  Singular Plural dual
Nominative fer
/ f'er /
/ f´ir´ /
dá ḟer
/ daː he /
vocative á ḟir
/ a ir´ /
á ḟiru
/ a iru /
accusative far n-
/ f'er /
/ f´iru /
dá ḟer
/ daː he /
Genitive fir
/ f´ir´ /
far n-
/ f'er /
dá ḟer
/ daː he /
dative fiur
/ f´ir / od. / f´i u r /
/ f´eriv´ /
dib feraib
/ d'iv´ f´eriv´ /

This example clearly shows that the original suffixes such as * -i in the genitive, which are still easy to recognize in languages ​​such as Latin , are sometimes only preserved as reflexes in Old Irish (quality of the stem vowel, palatality of the final) . The ending - (a) ib in the dative plural is also a corresponding shortening from * -ibis ( e.g. * -ibis > * -ibih > * -ivih > * -ivi > -iv´ ). Similar to Latin, for example, the consonant stems concerned only appear in a few cases:

Example: tene / t'en´e / , 'fire', mask. Dental stem , <urkelt. * teφnet- .

  Singular Plural dual
Nominative tene
/ t'en´e /
/ t'en´ið´ /
dá thenid, dá thene
/ daː θ´en´ið´ /, / daː θ´en´e /
vocative - - -
accusative tenid n-
/ t'en´ið´ /
/ t'en´t'a /
dá thenid, dá thene
/ daː θ´en´ið´ /, / daː θ´en´e /
Genitive tened
/ t'en´eð /
tened n-
/ t'en´eð /
dá thened
/ daː θ´en´eð /
dative tenid
/ t'en´ið /, tein / t'en´ /
/ t'en´t'iv´ /
dib teintib
/ d'iv´ t'en´t'iv´ /

Other parts of speech

All other parts of speech common in Indo-European languages ​​are documented, articles , pronouns , prepositions , numerals , particles , adverbs , conjunctions , interjections .

Corresponding to the three genera , there are three fully flexed , the noun prefixed products, but these are collapsed in some case (nominative singular: mask. In , int ; fem. Ind , in , int ; neutr. A ). In some cases, however, apparently identical articles also differ by the initial mutation or non-mutation of the following noun. Demonstrative pronouns , on the other hand, are placed after the noun in addition to the article.

Since mainly synthetic verb forms are used that already contain information about the person, occurrences of personal pronouns are relatively rare. However, they can be used as emphasis, and in this case in several levels of emphasis : (emphasizes 'I, me')> measure (strongly emphasizes 'I, myself'). In the older language, object pronouns are suffixed (1st pl. Sg. Acc. Then -um : berthum / b´erθum / 'he / she / it carries me'). Later they are imaged (see above, “verbs”), whereby three different classes of infiged personal pronouns are used depending on the preposition / particle in front of it.

Most prepositions are simple and require the dative ( a 'from', di 'von', do 'zu', re 'vor') or the accusative ( cen 'without', eter 'between', la 'with') , in some cases both depending on the meaning (e.g. location / direction). As is usual in the island Celtic languages , they merge with personal pronouns to form the so-called "conjugated prepositions":

  • i 'in', indium 'in me', indiut 'in you', and 'in him, in', indi 'in her', indiunn 'in us', indib 'in you', indib 'in them'.

Over time, compound prepositions (made up of prepositions and nouns, cf. German based on , from an (der) hand ) come into greater use. These then usually require the genitive.

Of the numerals, only 'two', trí 'three' and cethir 'four' are declined, but these are separated according to gender. Different forms of inflection require lenition or nasalization of the counted word (see initial mutation ). The numerals cóic 'five' and 'six' also len, in the genitive they nasal (without special inflection). The numerals Secht , seven ' ocht , eight' and Noi , nine 'nasalieren the counted word.


The neutral sentence normally begins, as is usual in the island Celtic languages , with the verb. This is followed by the subject and then all the following parts of the sentence. Questions and negations are expressed with the help of particles . Even relative relations are characterized by particles, which are not always written (and probably not always spoken) were and then only by the mutation noticeable the following word. But even this mutation is only identified in some cases, and then not always clearly. When reading Old Irish, a certain experience with the grammatical structures or an expectation of the following content is very helpful.

Pronominal objects were normally inserted into the verb between the prefix and the root of the word after the early Irish (from approx. 750), as shown above in the “Verbs” section.

Long-term importance

Throughout the Middle Ages there were close economic and cultural contacts between Ireland and the neighboring regions, especially with the other British Isles , but also with Brittany . Through the expansion of parts of the Dál Riata to south-west Scotland and the settlement of Irish on the Isle of Man , the dates of which are controversial, but probably between the 5th and 7th centuries , Old Irish was brought into the colonization areas. There were also close ties to Wales , but Irish could not hold up there in the long term. In the north and west of Scotland and on Man, Irish established itself permanently and developed independently (possibly from around the 10th to 12th centuries ). A slowing factor in separating developments is the influence of the wandering poets ( filid ), who went about their work in Ireland as well as in Scotland and who contributed to the extensive and long-lasting standardization of at least the written language in both areas. On the other hand, the linguistic influence of the Vikings , which was much greater in Scotland and on Man, can be seen as the main element of divisive developments . The result of the permanent settlement of Scandinavians (which to this extent not held in Ireland) consisted of a hand, especially in a significant number of loan words as well as local and field names and also to simplify the grammatical structures in Scottish and Manx.

Therefore, some researchers assume a closer relationship between Scottish Gaelic and Manx as one of these languages ​​with Irish. Therefore, the "colonial languages" are sometimes summarized as "East Gaelic", with "West Gaelic" only including Irish. However, this subdivision is controversial, partly because it is based on subsequent external influences (Scandinavians in Scotland and on the Isle of Man) and not on internal language developments.

See also


  • Britta Sofie Irlinger: Abstracts with dental suffixes in Old Irish . University Press C. Winter, Heidelberg 2002.
  • Kim McCone: The Early Irish Verb . Department of Old Irish, St. Patrick's College, Maynooth 1987 (1997 revision). - Recent and summarizing insights into the most complex aspect of Old Irish.
  • Kim McCone: Towards a Relative Chronology of Ancient and Medieval Celtic Sound Change . Department of Old Irish, St. Patrick's College, Maynooth 1996.
  • Kim McCone: A First Old Irish Grammar and Reader. Including an Introduction to Middle Irish . Department of Old Irish, St. Patrick's College, Maynooth 2005.
  • E. Gordon Quinn (general ed.): The Dictionary of the Irish Language. Compact Edition . Dublin 1983. - The dictionary for Old Irish and Middle Irish was started in 1906 by Kuno Meyer and published in individual volumes from 1939 under the title Contributions to a Dictionary of the Irish Language .
  • David founder: Sengoídelc. Old Irish for Beginners . Syracuse University Press, Syracuse NY 2006. - Comprehensive textbook with 58 lessons, translation exercises, glossary and annotated texts from Old Irish literature.
  • Whitley Stokes, John Strachan (Eds.): Thesaurus Palaeohibernicus. A Collection of Old-Irish Glosses, Scholia, Prose, and Verse . Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, Dublin 1901–1903 (reprinted 1987). - Texts from all major sources.
  • John Strachan, Osborn Bergin: Old Irish Paradigms and Selections from the Old Irish Glosses . Dublin 1949. - Grammar tables and selection of glosses.
  • Rudolf Thurneysen : Handbuch des Altirischen. Grammar, texts and dictionary . Part I: grammar ; Part II: Texts with a dictionary . Universitätsverlag C. Winter, Heidelberg 1909. - The grammar that is still authoritative today.

Web links

Wiktionary: Old Irish  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations

Individual evidence

  1. David Stifter: Sengoidelc. Old Irish for beginners . Syracuse University Press, Syracuse NY 2006, p. 123
This version was added to the list of articles worth reading on January 5, 2006 .