Thursday, 7 March 1946
Dáil Éireann Debate
Mr. Dillon: asked the Taoiseach if he will establish a commission of scholars to hear evidence from interested persons as to the unsatisfactory character of the standard spelling used in the Bunreacht, and to make recommendations for revision of this publication.
I do not agree that the standard spelling is unsatisfactory and I do not think any good purpose would be served by setting up the commission suggested. This standard spelling was the result of several years' examination of the question. In 1941, I set up a committee to examine the whole problem of Irish spelling and to make recommendations for a system as simple as possible and suitable for adoption as a standard for general use. This committee found itself unable to make progress. I then entrusted the task to the chief translator on the Oireachtas Staff and, after his death, to his successor who, with the assistance of the whole translation section, reexamined the question in the greatest detail and, after some years of study, finally submitted the recommendations now incorporated in the booklet published under the title Litriú na Gaeilge: An Caighdeán Oifigiúil.
The Deputy is aware that the translation section is staffed by competent scholars—native speakers and others —whose daily work for very many  years has been the solution of Irish language problems and who are familiar with the vocabulary and the pronunciation of native speakers in the Gaeltacht areas. They consulted a number of native speakers of the different dialects and had before them also the opinions of eminent scholars of the Irish language—university professors and others—on the relevant problems of spelling and phonetics.
The task set them was an extremely difficult one. In making a choice of a standard form of spelling for any word they had to bear in mind the historical aspect, current usage, the various dialectal pronunciations, and the desirability of uniformity and of omitting letters which had ceased to be pronounced or were not pronounced in any of the main or subordinate dialects. Their final decisions had to be based on an impartial and well-balanced judgment as to the weight to be given to the several, often conflicting, considerations. From all the opinions I have heard or seen expressed on their work, I am satisfied that it has been exceptionally well done and it has secured a far more widespread approval than I had thought possible, in view of all the difficulties. Where there has been adverse criticism, the critics have in no case faced up to the problems to be solved. It is obvious that no one standard spelling can adequately represent phonetically a word pronounced differently in the different dialects. While it is desirable that a system of spelling should be phonetic where that is possible, it is clearly not possible in the case of words with wide dialectal difference of pronunciation.
The principles acted upon by the chief translator and his staff in arriving at the standard adopted are clearly set out in the introduction and the notes in the booklet to which I have referred. I think the chief translator and his staff proceeded in an eminently reasonable manner. I do not think that any commission would so improve upon their work as to win any wider measure of acceptance for it or make it more satisfactory. Time is of importance in the matter. Books are being published, children are being  taught every day. Grammars, dictionaries and text books are needed. A uniform standard of spelling is urgent as well as vital. The translation staff will examine with care any criticisms they may receive with a view to improving their work. If I get any such criticisms, I will pass them on but we want criticisms that will be constructive and not merely destructive. Purely destructive criticism is easy, particularly in this case, for, as I have said, a spelling that will phonetically represent a word in one dialect will not do so in others, and those who speak those dialects will have cause for complaint.
I might perhaps add that in the edition of the Bunreacht to which I have referred, the -aibh form of the dative-plural, although not in accordance with the new standard, has been retained solely because of certain legal considerations. I am now inclined to the view that we were too meticulous in this matter.
Mr. Dillon: If the Taoiseach agrees with me that his approach to the science of linguistics and etymology in setting up a body of civil servants to prepare the litriú is, to say the least, revolutionary, will he not think it desirable to establish a standing commission, analogous to that established by the Academie Francaise, to supervise the spelling and etymology of our own language before whom representations may be laid by interested parties, from time to time, with a view to having its work reviewed and improved if opportunity offers? Surely no valid objection could be made to that course and it would meet the views of persons, who are scarce enough in this country, God knows, who love the language for the language's sake and not for what they hope to get out of it.
The Taoiseach: That may come in the future, but I have had some experience of the efforts made to get a standard system of spelling and I despaired of anything being done in that particular way. It was because I despaired of it being done in that way that I decided to give the task to a staff who are, I think, quite competent—as  competent as any other group you will get. Day in and day out, they are wrestling with these problems. Time is the essence of the matter and it is necessary to get ahead. The establishment of an academy such as the Deputy suggests may come later on. We must get going at the moment.
Mr. Dillon: The Taoiseach has got what he wants—the litriú. Is it not reasonable to ask on behalf of those others who love the language—the Taoiseach is not the only person who loves it—that some body of scholars, as distinguished from zealous and public-spirited servants, should be set up to whom those persons can make their submissions with a view to preserving the integrity of the language they love rather than subserving the general policy of the Government in respect of the language of the country. There is surely an academic, a linguistic and an etymological side to this which appeals deeply to scholars who have devoted their whole lives to the language.
The Taoiseach: Attention has been given to that side in the work of the translation staff. If we want to have an academy we can have it later. I do not think the time is quite ripe for it yet. At the moment the most important consideration is that books are being published and that every day we allow to pass sets up new vested interests in the existing forms and makes change much more difficult later on.
General Mulcahy: In view of the fact that the Taoiseach said that the matter is in the hands of the translation staff, are we to understand that persons interested in the matter who wish to make formal representations to the translation staff on any aspect of Irish spelling can do so?
The Taoiseach: Exactly, that is the position. I have already indicated that any criticism sent on to me will be  passed on to them and will be given full consideration. I know that the desire of those who are engaged in the work is to try to get a solution for the conflicting views and the conflicting interests of those who have written books and of the different dialects. The staff will be quite ready to consider any suggestions but, as I have said, dictionaries and grammars have to be prepared and there must be a time limit, beyond which we cannot go, for suggestions, for the work is urgent. Once you have published dictionaries it is quite clear that it becomes more difficult to make changes.
General Mulcahy: Something is being attempted from the Taoiseach's point of view through the translation staff. In view of the fact that the staff are not generally accessible, and with a view to inviting people to make representations to the translation staff in this matter, would the Taoiseach consider whether copies of any suggestions made to the translation staff might not be filed for reference in the National Library so that people interested in the development of the language would have access in the National Library to such suggestions?
The Taoiseach: I shall certainly consider that, but suggestions may have been furnished confidentially up to the present. Many persons who send letters may not wish to see them put on record where everybody would see them but I shall see what can be done in the matter. Perhaps extracts may be given from them. The position is that if criticisms are sent along to me or to the translation staff—and I have already urged very strongly that such criticism should be constructive—they  will be considered. I shall see whether the other suggestion made by Deputy Mulcahy can be adopted. There are difficulties which I see at once in the publication of criticisms that have been forwarded.
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