Last month, the Republic of Ireland held a pair of referendums/referenda (Would you prefer a pseudo-Latin word with an English pluralisation or with a pseudo-Latin pluralisation?) on whether to amend the constitution to abolish Seanad Éireann (Senate of Ireland) on the one hand and whether to establish a Court of Appeal and make other changes to the courts-system on the other. These were held on the 4th of October 2013 and when the dust cleared, it was revealed that voters had rejected the proposal to abolish the Seanad and accepted the proposal to establish a permanent, constitutionally-mandated Court of Appeal and make several other changes to the courts-system.
I voted to reject both proposals but that’s neither here nor there as this article isn’t about the Irish political system as such. This article is about the wording of the information booklet sent out by the Referendum Commission, specifically the difference between one particular sentence in the English and Irish versions of the booklet‘s explanation of the proposal regarding the Seanad and how that illuminates a wider linguistic issue in the Irish language and languages more generally. The content of the booklet is available online here.
It’s worth noting that the Republic of Ireland is an officially bilingual state with Irish as the primary official language (though, in practice, this primacy is all but ignored). In Bunreacht na hÉireann (Constitution of Ireland), the Irish version of the text takes precedence over the English in the case of a conflict. So, on to the statement in question!
The Irish version reads:
“Is é nó is í an Leas-Cheann Comhairle (Leas Cathaoirleach na Dála) a bheidh ar an gCoimisiún in ionad Chathaoirleach an tSeanaid.”
Whereas, the English version reads:
“The Presidential Commission will include the Leas-Cheann Comhairle (Deputy Chairman of the Dáil) instead of the Cathaoirleach of the Seanad.”
A more direct (and by direct, I mean word-for-word) translation of the Irish would be something like “It is he or she, the Deputy-Head Counsel (Deputy Chairperson of the Dáil) that will be on the Commission instead of the Chairperson of the Senate.”
That’s just my translation and there are a few things to bear in mind about it.
Firstly, I don’t think that direct translations are necessarily the way to go in something like this; obviously, clarity of information rather than semantic pedantry is the purpose of an information booklet.
Secondly, there’s no ‘it’ in Irish, there is only ‘he’ (é) or ‘she’ (í); I translated Irish “Is” as English “It is” to adhere as closely as possible to English syntax where ‘is’ rarely (if ever) appears at the beginning of a sentence unless the sentence is a question.
Thirdly, I translated “Cheann Comhairle” directly as “Head Counsel” but the title is Irish and is usually not translated even in English-language discourse (like the actual English version above my translation).
Fourthly, I translated “Cathaoirleach” as chairperson whereas the actual English version uses “Chairman”. Cathaoir translates as chair, the seat, while cathaoirleach adds a suffix that indicates someone or something that is of the preceding word, so Chair (as in person chairing), chairman (sex/gender-neutral usage of man), chairperson (which I used) or even chair-dweller would all be reasonable translation. A good approximation might be ‘chairling’ (like yearling) but that’s a neologism coined by me just now, not a recognised term (maybe it’ll catch on after this article).
My more direct translation aside, there are a few differences in the information actually conveyed in the statements. For one thing, the Irish is content to refer to “an gCoimisiúin” (the Commission), as the Presidential commission is referred to in a previous sentence, while the English clarifies that it is “the Presidential Commission” that is being spoken of. Much more interesting (to me) is that the English version chose to construct the sentence in such a way as to avoid saying ‘he or she’ anywhere in the sentence while the Irish made the possibility of a he or a she explicit.
The Irish version could have been: “Beidh an Leas-Cheann Comhairle (Leas Cathaoirleach na Dála) ar an gCoimisiún in ionad Chathaoirleach an tSeanaid” (The Deputy-Head Counsel will be on the commission instead of the Chairperson of the Seanad). This is my own wording here again, where opening with “Beidh” (which approximates as ‘will be’) makes “he or she” unnecessary.
The most likely explanation for the difference in construction is probably separate people working on each version of the text or even the same person choosing to construct the sentence in whatever way seemed most natural rather than focusing on parity between texts. I suppose it’s possible to make something of the use of “Chairman” rather than Chairperson combined with a lack of “he or she” in the English version and claim an assumption that the Chairperson would be male but I mention that only because I thought of it, not because I think it’s likely.
Anyway, as I mentioned earlier, Irish has no ‘it’; all nouns have a gender and are referred to with ‘é’ or ‘í’ (‘he’ or ‘she’), and change in different grammatical contexts depending on what gender they are.
Along with masculine and feminine, there was once a neuter gender in Irish (as there still is in German) but no longer; most nouns are masculine but some are feminine. There’s little rhyme or reason to which nouns get which gender either. Cathaoirleach (chairperson), which can be a man or a woman, is masculine. Comhairle (council/counsel), which can also be a man or a woman, is feminine. Cailín (girl), which is female by definition, is masculine.
Gender is a fundamental feature of the Irish language in a way that is not remotely equivalent with English. Gender in English is largely restricted to ‘he’ for male, ‘she’ for female, ‘it’ for anything else (unless you’re being metaphorical, as in “she’s a cruel mistress” in referring to the sea) and gender-specific words like ‘actress’ (which seem to be on the way out anyway).
Old English once had masculine, feminine and neuter but there was a gradual move away from gendered morphology and Modern English has little more than the fossils I mentioned above. Irish as I mentioned has discarded the neuter and most words are masculine so it would be natural to assume that the feminine gender will eventually disappear from Irish grammar except in the case of ‘é’ and ‘í’ (perhaps even them too), thus making the masculine no longer masculine but universal (the universalization of masculinity may be taking place in other languages like Hebrew too).
One complication to any such change in Irish is An Caighdeán Oifigiúil na Gaeilge (The Official Standard of Irish) which could either hasten or slow the process considerably due to the fact sway this has in all official Irish-language communication (Irish is a minority language and official communications therefore hold an influence over the language that can’t be easily subverted).
What does everyone else think? Is this interesting? Is it important? Have I missed anything? Have I got anything wrong? Can you add to the conversation?