Saturday, March 10, 2007

Donna Wong's Learner's Guide to Irish

I figured here I'd put up some of my Amazon reviews about Irish-language books. Helping to spread the cupla focail. Maybe I can even figure out how to sub-divide the blog so as to keep them in their own sidebar? Well, I'll need expert advice. I told my spouse over at and about the most basic HTML the other day. I think she was surprised I knew anything, but teaching nearly a dozen years at a university made for and full of techies rubbed off a bit.
Here's the first book, the formidable but useful LGI, from a brave and talented and formidable scholar who learned Irish in the US of A, and then wrote a big book about how to do so, that is, if you love hundreds of examples of to me often recondite grammatical distinctions....

This book is not hardcover (despite Amazon's data) but spiral-bound, so it's more useful for readers. It's not cheap, but compared with poorly-made paperbacks on Irish grammar, LGI's worth the investment for the serious learner who's already worked through simpler explanations of how Irish works. This book, however, is not the right choice if you simply want to pick up pub phrases or survey the context for Irish. The small Hippocrene (Paul Dorris) Irish-English phrasebook- dictionary meets casual needs for the inquirer. An overview of the language is Darerca Ní Chartúir's 2002 guide; cogent background and short lessons are in "Beginner's Irish" by Gabriel Rosenstock. (These three books are reviewed by me on Amazon-- see my blog link to my reviews.) Tapes & booklets "Buntús Cainte," and Máiread Ní Ghrada's primer "Progress in Irish" are suitable for the uncertain or the curious. LGI suits instead committed "gaeilgoirí" -- those self-convicted as lifers!

Too often, hefty language texts are either doomed to spine-breaking and pages falling out if flimsy pulp paperbacks or too expensive and recondite in university- press hardcovers for the budget buyer or beginning reader. LGI in its attractive fonts and practical design fills a need for an explanation of the language aimed at foreign learners. LGI does not describe the history of Irish. It does not offer exercises. Neither does it serve as a phrasebook or a workbook per se. Donna Wong, an American professor who learned Irish at universities here, gives rather the first in-depth grammatical survey of the language meant for international students by an adult learner from outside of Ireland. Her approach is very academic. She organizes her main text by grammatical classifications. She recalls that she knew no technical linguistics or grammar when she began studying Modern Irish. I'd add that certainly she progressed rapidly and far! By courses, intensive tutors, visits to the Gaeltachtaí, and her own diligent study, she found herself "grappling with grammar until the fascination of what's difficult resolved into the elation of what made sense." (8) Dissatisfied with texts that taught her college-level learners too much or too little grammar, she made her own handouts and then this book, appealing to the intelligent newcomer rather than a linguist or a dilettante.

Having enjoyed her memorable chapter on Irish folklore in the recent "Cambridge History of Irish Literature" (also reviewed by me), I recognize in LGI Dr Wong's continued determination to energize what most of her scholarly predecessors often deadened. (What's up with her 'Táin Rúttapaca Cuailnge,' a creative and health- conscious retelling of the "Táin Bó Cualinge' according to the jacket blurb? [Dr. Wong, if you see this, tell me, as others out there on the Net I know also want to know!]) Welcome wit enlivens what as an instructor she knows may frustrate those who are-- as she once was-- a student, likely Americans with no daily connection to Irish outside classroom and textbook. (I add that LGI's published by Dublin-based Cois Life, a fine source for mostly Irish-language books, but is not likely to be stocked by foreign bookstores. Cois Life does have an internet store for mail order. [Here it is, bloggees-- 800 lb. elephant on the Web big ol' Amazon will delete such links, hmmm: ])

Does LGI make easy sense on the page? I'm not a linguist, but I do have a doctorate in English lit. Yet LGI at first overwhelmed me. She intends this book for those "with no prior knowledge of Modern Irish and minimal knowledge of English grammar" (9) as well as a reference for instructors and advance students. It does focus on grammar as the way into the language; compared with a purportedly introductory "self-tutor" such as Michael Ó Siadhail's formidable "Learning Irish," LGI takes its time with grammar and provides many more examples for each section. It's also written with far more awareness of its intended use in the classroom. LI teaches the Conamara "central" dialect in its Cois Fharraige form. LGI uses the "caighdean" standard Irish as taught in schools; dialectal differences diminish as only a few arise, largely in footnotes. Unlike LI, LGI's layout's much easier on the eye (although the pages are numbered in magenta- colored squares that are hard to read). Boldface, italics, and wide margins with readable type combined with the spiral binding result in this far more (than LI) reader- friendly text.

Part One shows spelling, how to consult three common dictionaries of Irish (a useful entry that no other comparable book offers), pre-verbal particles, verbs, and regular verbs. Terms such as "Syncopating Polysyllabics with Final -igh, Imperfect and Conditional" comprise subsections. Honestly, such terms once understood are not difficult, but the attention to this manner of presentation does show Dr Wong's predilection for an organization unlike other Irish-language textbooks. LGI does not present gradually longer conversations or vocabulary lists or sentences to translate. It's meant to supplement such introductory texts. The eleven irregular verbs and the substantive vs. copula follow. These last two categories challenge many English-speaking students. Dr Wong's careful chart comparing "is" to "bí" is the best I've seen to explain crucial contrasts for the "to be" verbs. Part Two explores the Copula, Verbal Nouns, Definite Articles, and Nouns (genitive, plurals, five declensions, irregular, mutations). Again Dr Wong presents many more examples than other books do, demonstrating the depth of LGI that may discourage some but encourage others.

Part Three looks at adjectives, pronouns, prepositions, independent vs. dependent clauses, "if" and "if not," syntax, numbers, interrogatives, lookalikes, and ends with footnotes. This variety proves her classroom testing of the contents-- numbering in Irish I find one of its most difficult aspects, and she takes pains to list in great detail all sorts of ways to number--even fractions such as 6/7 or 1.11-- a feature other books ignore. Lookalikes such as the three uses of "a" or the four types of "an" finally get detailed-- other books merely define each use but fail to clearly distinguish confusing instances of the same "particle" -- LGI tells you the differences and gives multiple examples of each use. Glossaries or dictionaries merely enumerate them. Too much information for casual learners, but LGI does meet a previously unfulfilled need for a non-technical, student-directed reference where non-fluent Irish learners can look up answers in a grammar not written entirely "as Gaeilge" (in Irish itself). This book pays back its purchase and I recommend it. )

1 comment:

pageturners said...

What an excellent review - informative, complete, friendly. Thank you! I'm rushing out to Siopa Leabhair to see if I can find a copy of the book.