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8 Fun Facts About the Irish Language

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You may hear an "Erin go bragh" and a "sláinte" or two this St. Patrick's Day, but even on the most Irish of holidays, we don't hear much of the Irish language—which is a shame! Irish is so different from English or any of the languages we usually study in school, and so much about it is rather interesting and cool. As we head towards St. Patrick's Day, here are a few fun facts about Irish.

1. The name of the language is "Irish."

Gaeilge is the name of the language in Irish, and Irish is the name of the language in English. Sometimes people will call it Irish Gaelic in order to make sure they aren't misunderstood to mean "Irish English" for Irish. They may also say Irish Gaelic to distinguish it from Gaelic, which means Scottish Gaelic, a related but different language.

2. There's no "yes" or "no" in Irish.

There are no words for "yes" or "no" in Irish, but that doesn't mean there's no way to answer a question. You communicate "yes" and "no" with a verb form. The answer to "did they sell the house?" would be "(they) sold " or "(they) didn't sell." In Irish:

Ar dhíol sian an teach?
Dhíol.
Níor dhíol.

3. Its word order is Verb Subject Object.

Sentences have Verb Subject Object order. So "I saw a bird" would be "Saw I a bird." "I always speak Irish" would be "Speak I Irish always." This word order is relatively rare—only 9 percent of the world's languages use it.

4. The words for numbers depend on whether you're counting humans or non-humans.

In addition to one set of numbers for doing arithmetic or referring to dates and times, Irish has a second set for counting humans and a third set for counting non-humans. Five children is "cúigear páiste," but five horses is "cúig chapall."

5. The beginning of the word changes depending on the grammatical environment.

What's the word for "woman"? Either "bean" (byan), "bhean" (vyan), or "mbean" (myan), depending whether it comes after certain possessive pronouns (my, your, his), or certain prepositions (under, before, on), or certain numbers, or a whole range of other conditions that determine which form of the word is correct. Most languages people study require them to learn different word endings, not beginnings. Irish requires…both. It's a bit of a challenge!

6. It only has 11 irregular verbs, though.

English has a lot more. More than 80, and that's just counting the commonly used ones…

7. It's left an imprint on the English spoken in Ireland.

English phrases in many parts of Ireland show a parallel structure with their counterparts in Irish. "I'm after eating my breakfast " (I just ate my breakfast), "I gave out about the terrible service" (I complained/told them off about the terrible service), and in some places, "He does be working every day."

8. It's possible (but not easy) to travel around Ireland only speaking Irish.

Filmmaker and native Irish speaker Manchán Magan made a documentary No Béarla (No English) in which he traveled through Ireland only speaking Irish, even when people demanded he switch to English. Shopkeepers told him to get lost, officials refused to help him, people on the street ignored him, but he kept at it and found willing speakers here and there. In any case, he survived the trip. Watch it here.

This post originally appeared in 2013.

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Bleat Along to Classic Holiday Tunes With This Goat Christmas Album
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Feeling a little Grinchy this month? The Sweden branch of ActionAid, an international charity dedicated to fighting global poverty, wants to goat—errr ... goad—you into the Christmas spirit with their animal-focused holiday album: All I Want for Christmas is a Goat.

Fittingly, it features the shriek-filled vocal stylings of a group of festive farm animals bleating out classics like “Jingle Bells,” “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” and “O Come All Ye Faithful.” The recording may sound like a silly novelty release, but there's a serious cause behind it: It’s intended to remind listeners how the animals benefit impoverished communities. Goats can live in arid nations that are too dry for farming, and they provide their owners with milk and wool. In fact, the only thing they can't seem to do is, well, sing. 

You can purchase All I Want for Christmas is a Goat on iTunes and Spotify, or listen to a few songs from its eight-track selection below.

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What Are the 12 Days of Christmas?
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Everyone knows to expect a partridge in a pear tree from your true love on the first day of Christmas ... But when is the first day of Christmas?

You'd think that the 12 days of Christmas would lead up to the big day—that's how countdowns work, as any year-end list would illustrate—but in Western Christianity, "Christmas" actually begins on December 25th and ends on January 5th. According to liturgy, the 12 days signify the time in between the birth of Christ and the night before Epiphany, which is the day the Magi visited bearing gifts. This is also called "Twelfth Night." (Epiphany is marked in most Western Christian traditions as happening on January 6th, and in some countries, the 12 days begin on December 26th.)

As for the ubiquitous song, it is said to be French in origin and was first printed in England in 1780. Rumors spread that it was a coded guide for Catholics who had to study their faith in secret in 16th-century England when Catholicism was against the law. According to the Christian Resource Institute, the legend is that "The 'true love' mentioned in the song is not an earthly suitor, but refers to God Himself. The 'me' who receives the presents refers to every baptized person who is part of the Christian Faith. Each of the 'days' represents some aspect of the Christian Faith that was important for children to learn."

In debunking that story, Snopes excerpted a 1998 email that lists what each object in the song supposedly symbolizes:

2 Turtle Doves = the Old and New Testaments
3 French Hens = Faith, Hope and Charity, the Theological Virtues
4 Calling Birds = the Four Gospels and/or the Four Evangelists
5 Golden Rings = the first Five Books of the Old Testament, the "Pentateuch", which gives the history of man's fall from grace.
6 Geese A-laying = the six days of creation
7 Swans A-swimming = the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, the seven sacraments
8 Maids A-milking = the eight beatitudes
9 Ladies Dancing = the nine Fruits of the Holy Spirit
10 Lords A-leaping = the ten commandments
11 Pipers Piping = the eleven faithful apostles
12 Drummers Drumming = the twelve points of doctrine in the Apostle's Creed

There is pretty much no historical evidence pointing to the song's secret history, although the arguments for the legend are compelling. In all likelihood, the song's "code" was invented retroactively.

Hidden meaning or not, one thing is definitely certain: You have "The Twelve Days of Christmas" stuck in your head right now.

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