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Irish Terminology Planning

Helena Ní Ghearáin
(Language Update, Volume 4, Number 1, 2007, page 30)

Note: Although this article has been edited, the review committee has respected the author’s British spelling and usage.

Terminology planning in Irish comes under the rubric of language revitalisation and is engaged in order to modernise the language and facilitate its usage in modern society. Historically, and to a large extent still today, terminology planning in Irish is intertwined with translation; it is driven by the needs of translation and seen as a tool for effective translation. Reliance on terminology in English-Irish translation has been much criticised in the past. Ó Béarra (2006) points to the birth of a new Irish, one whose outstanding feature is the fact that the Irish speaker who does not speak English would not be able to understand it. Ó Canainn (1994: 12) sees as potentially dangerous the provision of new Irish terms which provide ready equivalents to English terms. He worries that the availability of these terms lulls translators into a false sense of security, tempting them to engage in translations which are beyond their linguistic ability. As we all know, it takes more than knowledge of terminology to engage in translation. However, given the fact that translators are probably the most prolific producers of written Irish today (aside from creative writing), and as translation activity increases in Ireland (with such recent measures as the passing of the Official Languages Act (2003) and the coming into force of Irish as an official working language of the EU in 2007), Ó Ruairc’s (1997: 1) statement that the development of the Irish language today rests largely with the translator does not seem so controversial. Following from this, we cannot but acknowledge the importance of effective terminology planning in Irish.

Official terminology planning can be said to have begun with the establishment of Rannóg an Aistriúcháin, the translation section of the Irish parliament, in 1922. This was the year that the Irish Free State was established, and it marked the beginning of an official governmental support for a language revival over twenty years in the making. Rannóg an Aistriúcháin was charged with the bilingual provision of all legislation passed by the legislature. In effect, this amounted to the translation of English-language legislation into Irish. It seems that translation was seen at the time as an efficient means of developing the corpus of the Irish language; a former president of Ireland recommended translation as a means of removing the "rust" from Irish, Irish having become rusty from being outside in the bad weather for too long (Ó Dálaigh, 1930, cited in Ó Cearúil 1999: 7). Due to the decline of Irish which began in the 16th century and which had almost resulted in a complete language shift to English by the end of the 19th century, the Irish language at this time was extremely marginalised, lacking suitable terminology and registers to deal with many domains and activities of contemporary Irish life. Two of these were law and education, which will be dealt with here.

In order for Rannóg an Aistriúcháin to translate legislation into Irish, it faced the challenge of developing a legal language in Irish, which in the early years entailed much basic terminology work such as coining new terms, standardising existing terms and differentiating between synonymous terms. Rannóg an Aistriúcháin has been credited with the development and modernisation of Irish for the needs of the 20th century, especially in the area of new terminology (Ó Riain, 1994: 78). However, despite this, Rannóg an Aistriúcháin has never provided a terminology service proper to the public. Only one dictionary of its terms was ever published (in 1959). Ó Ruairc (1997: 21) criticises the fact that Rannóg an Aistriúcháin never shared its terminology with the language community. Since 2003, the acts translated by the Rannóg have been available to read and search online at, which could be described as an indirect terminology service. However, it must be stated that Rannóg an Aistriúcháin is not a terminology agency. Terminology in this case is an activity in the realisation of an aim, i.e. translation (see Nahir, 2003: 433-444, for a discussion of aims and activities in language planning).

It was within the domain of education that the first official committee for Irish terminology was established. Shortcomings in Irish terminology in various subjects had come to light in the 1920s as Irish was being taught and promoted in the schools. The production of textbooks (by translating from English-language texts) was hindered and delayed by a lack of standardised Irish terminology and indeed a lack of basic terms. The first terminology committee for education was set up in 1927 and worked until 1939, when the outbreak of World War II caused transport difficulties (Ó Floinn, 1981: 8). This first committee provided nine specialist dictionaries for school subjects and aimed to provide terms by compounding and blending existing terms and term segments, reviving terms from Old and Middle Irish, and transliterating foreign terms where necessary. However, no strict rules were set down and judgements were made on each term on an individual basis (Ó Floinn, 1981: 9). From 1930 onwards, a number of mostly short-lived terminology committees were established to provide terminology for the various subjects taught in Irish, but terminology in education remained fraught with difficulties, most notably, an abundance of synonymous terms. For example, Ó hÓgáin (1983: 29) quotes nine Irish terms provided for "affair" in a dictionary of history terms in 1934 and three separate terms given for both "hematic" and "nerve" in a dictionary of health terminology in 1942. As Ó Ruairc (1993: 40) eloquently puts it: "Ba líonmhaire na leaganacha den fhocal ’crann’ na mar a bhí crainn sa Ghaeltacht" (there were more words for ’tree’ than there were trees in the Gaeltacht).

However, it was not until 1968 that an official agency was set up with responsibility for "the production of an authoritative standard terminology in Irish." An Coiste Téarmaíochta, the Irish Terminology Committee, remains the only agency specifically charged with the production of Irish terminology. Almost all members of An Coiste Téarmaíochta give their time and expertise voluntarily as resources are very limited (exceptions are the paid secretaries). The Committee’s output consists of specialist dictionaries (about twenty have been published since 1968 and these are mainly directed towards the education system although some have been produced for State bodies) and word lists and terminology for use in textbooks and exam papers. The Committee also provides a one-off query service to the public, the efficiency of which depends on current resources. There are no figures available on how much this service is used, although use has increased significantly in the last fifteen years, due to factors such as improved communication technology, the ever-increasing official status of Irish and resultant translation needs. Unlike in some other language situations, the Committee has no legal authority to enforce its decisions and recommendations. Language legislation thus far has not covered corpus planning.Footnote 1 Terms are primarily used and disseminated within the education system through educational materials.Footnote 2

As a result of limited resources, the methodology of An Coiste Téarmaíochta is more reactive than proactive, responding to terminology needs as they are brought to its attention by the State, public bodies, the education system and the public. However, as many basic domains lack up-to-date terminology, one could argue that predicting new terminology needs is of lesser importance in the Irish situation than in others. There is no terminological dictionary in Irish. Our last major English-Irish dictionary was published in 1959. Despite these shortcomings in the corpus of the language, Irish continues to flourish among non-native speakers, Irish-medium schools remain very popular, translation activity is becoming more standardised as it increasesFootnote 3 and awareness of the rights of bilingual speakers is growing. The new national terminology database for Irish,, represents an important new development in the area of terminology and online linguistic tools.


Daltún, Séamus, 1993. ’Scéal Rannóg an Aistriúcháin’. Teangeolas 17: 12-17.

Daltún, Séamus, 1965. ’Traduttore, traditore.’ An tUltach 42(3): 3-5).

Nahir, M., 2003. ’Language Planning Goals: A Classification’. In: C. B. Paulston and G. R. Tucker (eds), Sociolinguistics: The Essential Readings. Oxford: Blackwell, 423-448.

Ó Béarra, Feargal, 2006. ’An Nua-Ghaeilge agus an Ghaeilge Nua’, conference paper given at Dáil Thuamhan, Coláiste Mhuire gan Smál, Luimneach, 17-18 February 2006.

Ó Canainn, Aodh, 1994. ’Réamhaithriseoireacht, Athdhéanamhchas, Cainníochtaíocht agus Briseadh Gaoithe’. Comhar Samhain: 4-12.

Ó Cearúil, Micheál, 1999. Bunreacht na héireann. A Study of the Irish Text. Baile Átha Cliath: Oifig an tSoláthair.

Ó Floinn, Tomás, 1981. ’Scéal na Téarmaíochta sa Chóras Oideachais’. Teangeolas 12: 7-15.

Ó hÓgáin, éamonn, 1983. ’Téarmaí Teicniúla sa Ghaeilge: caighdeánú agus ceapadh le céad bliain anuas’. Teangeolas 17: 27-33.

Ó Riain, Seán, 1994. Pleanáil Teanga in éirinn 1919-1985. Baile Átha Cliath: Bord na Gaeilge.

Ó Ruairc, Maolmhaodhóg, 1993. ’Forbairt na Gaeilge – Caoga Bliain Amach’. Teangeolas 32: 35-44.

Ó Ruairc, Maolmhaodhóg, 1997. Aistrigh go Gaeilge: Treoirleabhar. Baile Átha Cliath: Cois Life Teoranta.

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