Irish Team Wins NAMES Best Article of the Year 2021 Award!



Each year, the editorial board of NAMES: A Journal of Onomastics selects the one article they feel exemplifies the best of research into names and naming.  Thanks to COVID, the deliberation process was somewhat delayed. However, the ANS is very happy to announce the 2021 winner of NAMES Best Article of the Year Award is "Developing the Gaois Linguistic Database of Irish-language Surnames" which appeared in volume 69, issue 1 of NAMES.  The superior piece of scholarship on Irish-language surname was co-authored by Limerick University’s Aengus O’ Fionnagáin, and Brian O’ Raghallaigh, Michal Boleslav Měchura, and Sophie Osborne of Dublin City University.  The team kindly agreed to give NAMES Editor-in-Chief, Professor I. M. Nick, an e-interview about their ground-breaking research into Irish surnames.

1.) Much has been written in governmental papers and academic publications about the importance of protecting indigenous languages.  Can you explain why this objective is so important?

Protecting indigenous languages is really important if we want to preserve links to our past and if we want to maintain linguistic diversity today and into the future. Cultural heritage is often only accessible through a community's indigenous language. Linguistic diversity is an important part of human culture, and an individual's right to express themselves in their first language is fundamental. Multilingualism is a way to maintain this diversity while bringing peoples of different cultures together. Given all of this, and given the spread of major languages such as English, it is seen as important to provide extra supports to indigenous language communities to help and encourage them to keep speaking their languages.

1.) What threats does the Irish language face today?

The Irish language suffered greatly due to the colonisation of Ireland by England, and is only spoken as a community language in a number of small areas in the west of Ireland collectively known as the Gaeltacht. It is taught in schools and spoken by a small minority throughout the country. According to 2022 census data, while the overall number of people who say they have Irish increased by +6.4% to 1,873,997 since the last census (2016), the number of daily speakers outside the education system has decreased by -2.5% to 71,968, and the number of Irish speakers in the Gaeltacht has reduced by -1.6% to 20,261, despite population increases. Worryingly, there are only about 7k families raising their children through Irish on the island of Ireland, i.e. roughly 16k children. While the language is reasonably well supported by legislation and policy both in Ireland and the EU, it is under threat in a number of areas. For example, in the education system, the number of teaching hours assigned to the learning of Irish in primary school has been reduced by 37% in the last 20 years, and in language technology, Irish still lags behind other better resourced languages.

2.) Can you explain briefly what the Goais Linguistic Database is and what information it provides users (both scientists and interested lay people)?

The Gaois Surnames Database is a linguistic database of Irish-language surnames. The database provides in-depth lexical and grammatical information regarding a selection of high-frequency surnames of Irish-language origin. Irish-language surnames in the database are arranged in clusters which contain their synonyms in Irish and their equivalents in English. Inflected forms of the Irish-language surnames are also given. The database currently comprises over 1,000 surname clusters. Population of the database was data-driven, and each cluster represents a surname of Irish-language origin that was registered four times or more to babies born in Ireland between 2016–20. The database is aimed at users who wish to either map a surname to its conventional/usual equivalent in the other language, or standardise a surname within the same language. We also aim to help users, both human and machine, to use and recognise Irish surnames in text and in speech in a way that is grammatically correct.

4.) If people would like to learn more about the history of their Irish surnames, what suggestions would you make?  Are there any special resources or references you would recommend?

The Gaois Surnames Database does not provide a comprehensive set of variant forms, provides only limited etymological information, and does not give information on the genealogical or geographic origins of Irish surnames. For this, see The Oxford Dictionary of Family Names of Ireland by Dr Kay Muhr and Dr Liam Ó hAisibéil published by Oxford University Press. Other useful resources include The Surnames of Ireland by Edward MacLysaght (Irish Academic Press) and Irish Names and Surnames [Sloinnte Gaedheal is Gall] by Patrick Woulfe. For information about Irish first names I would recommend Irish Names by Donnchadh Ó Corráin and Fidelma Maguire (The Lilliput Press).