Dialect in medieval Irish? Evidence from placenames

Studia Celtica FennicaDialect in medieval Irish? Evidence from placenames

By Kevin Murray

Studia Celtica Fennica, Vol.2 (2005)

Introduction: The question of dialect in medieval Irish (incorporating Old and Middle Irish; c. 600–1200 AD) has received much passing attention but very little direct study. It was only when T.F. O’Rahilly addressed the subject, with the publication of his Irish dialects past and present, that the first fullscale work on the topic incorporated evidence from medieval Irish. He concludes that we know very little about dialectal differences in medieval Irish and that it is ‘probably during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries that the formative period of our modern dialects is to be placed’. These conclusions anticipate most of the other work on the subject, which usually has two central theses, namely that any dialectal differences in medieval Irish were minor and have left no trace in the written sources and that Old Irish was such a uniform literary language that it tended to iron out possible traces of dialect.

In comparing the Senchas már with other law tracts of different provenance, D.A. Binchy notes that ‘one will search in vain for differences in style, composition or technical terminology’. He believes this to be the case because of regular interaction between the literati (including jurists) from all parts of medieval Ireland which helped keep the literary language free from dialect. He does argue, however, that a study of the later legal commentaries ‘may shed some light on the rise of dialects of spoken Irish’. Binchy does not explicitly state at what period in the compilation of these commentaries he expects the question of dialect to intrude, though he seems to rule out early Middle as well as Old Irish. A very conservative interpretation of Binchy’s views would lead one to a date of post1000 as the earliest time in which he believes dialectal evidence may begin to be found in the law tracts. However, this puts the possibility of finding written examples of dialect in Irish sources back before that which O’Rahilly was willing to allow.


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