Ireland Feature

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Language Do's and Taboos

In the old days, Ireland's native language was called Gaelic and some people chuckled that it was the world's most perfect medium for prayers, curses, and lovemaking.

These days, Gaelic is called Irish and no one is joking any longer.

In March 2005, legislation was passed to restore the sovereignty of Irish, originally a Celtic language related to Scots Gaelic, Breton, and Welsh, as Ireland's official national language.

English is technically the second language of the country but it is, in fact, the everyday tongue of 95% of the population.

However, the western coastlands of Ireland are still home to the Gaeltacht (pronounced gale-taukt).

These Irish-speaking communities are found mainly in sparsely populated rural areas along the western seaboard, on some islands, and in pockets in West Cork and County Waterford.

Travelers to these western seaboard regions in counties Donegal and Galway should note that new laws have mandated Irish as the sole language for signage.

In these Gaeltacht areas, English is now outlawed on road signs and official maps.

As the Associated Press reported, "Locals concede the switch will confuse foreigners in an area that depends heavily on tourism, but they say it's the price of patriotism."

The Gaeltacht includes some big tourist destinations.

For instance, if travelers are in Killarney and now wish to go to Dingle, they will have to follow signposts that say "An Daingean," which is Dingle in Irish.

Other instances include: Oileáin Árainn (Aran Islands); Corca Dhuibne (Dingle Peninsula); and Arainn Mhor (Aranmore Island).

As this changeover affects more than 2,000 other place-names, have an updated or Irish-friendly map if touring these Gaeltacht regions.

Don't rely on official Ordnance Survey maps, which can now print only Irish place-names in these areas.

This is even in cases where the English versions remain popular in local parlance (many hotels will retain their English names, such as the Dingle Bay Hotel).

Main place-names are given in both Irish and English in this guidebook for the affected regions.

Outside these Gaeltacht areas, Ireland remains officially bilingual in its road signs.

With just 55,000 native Irish speakers in a population of 4 million, a major national debate has sprung up, with local councils and tourist authorities beginning to protest the new laws.

Follow the debate by searching online for "Official Languages Act 2003."

Of course, some basic Irish vocabulary certainly wouldn't hurt: fir (men) and mná (women) should prove useful when using public restrooms.

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