May 4, 2013 | Irish

An Initial Look at Irish Grammar

Oh. My. God.

Today I began reading Essential Irish Grammar, by Éamonn Ó Dónaill, and I am in shock.

I am seeing things I have never seen before in my entire life.

Everything started out promisingly, when I was told that the letters of the basic Irish alphabet are as follows: a, b, c, d, e, f, g, h, i, l, m, n, o, p, r, s, t, and u. I counted. That’s only 18. Fab!

Irish Grammar: Cool, Yet Shocking!

Irish Grammar: Cool, Yet Shocking!

Then things quickly got more complicated. First of all, this is the first I have heard of grammatical phenomena called “lenition” and “eclipsis.” They involve changes to the beginnings of words, precipitated by a preceding word. The nature of that preceding word was unfortunately not clarified in this book before I started being taught that with lenition, d becomes dhb becomes bh, and becomes gh (for example), while eclipsis leads to mysterious happenings such as f becoming bhf (!), p becoming bp, and g becoming ng

In the first exercise in Chapter 1, I was given a series of place names after the preposition (in), and had to figure out whether eclipsis was necessary, and if so, what the consequences of it would be. For example, i plus Páras (in Paris) becomes i bPáras. I’m not even kidding—that’s what the eclipsis and capitalization are supposed to look like!

Next I was informed that t can be placed before an initial vowel. Why I would want to place it there was unclear. “It is followed by a hyphen,” I was told, “except when the vowel is a capital letter.” I was also provided with examples such as t-a, t-i, and tA, none of which was illuminating.

Another novelty: before this week I had never heard of broad and slender consonants. That terminology initially made me picture letters with different metabolisms, lounging against walls. This image is not productive from a linguistic point of view.

“Irish has many more consonant sounds than other languages such as English,” writes Ó Dónaill. “In Irish, each consonant has a broad and a slender value. In spoken language, failure to distinguish between the two types of consonant can change the meaning of a word.”



Ah, yes, a source of constant anxiety for language learners: the fear that a misplaced sound will change an innocent word like “parsnip” into an insult or a sex organ.

I do not yet know what the oral consequences of these slim and gluttonous consonants are, so more on that another time.

One thing I am happy about: “yes” and “no” work like they do in Chinese. As with Mandarin, the Irish language does not have equivalents for those words. If you want to answer affirmatively, you repeat the verb from the question. If you want to answer in the negative, you use the negative of the verb.

The difference between Chinese and Irish is that Chinese is, well, easier—Mandarin verb forms don’t change! I am looking at some examples in this Irish book, and the verbs change so much that I am not actually clear on which words are the verbs, but I think bhfaca must be “see” in the question An bhfaca tú Doireann inné? (Did you see Doireann yesterday?”), and then Chonaic (“saw”) is the affirmative response and Ní fhaca is the negative (i.e., “didn’t see”).

So bhfaca and chonaic and fhaca are all from the same verb?!

Scared. (By the way, I typed An bhfaca tu doireann inne into Google Translate, with no accents and no question mark, and Google offered this translation: “Did you gut Doireann.”)

The writer notes, “The same system is used in Hiberno-English,” i.e., Irish English. He gives this example:

  • Were you home at the weekend?
  • I was.

Even here in New York, I have in recent years observed people doing this kind of thing much more than I remember from the past. It seems to me that young American men sometimes use it as a method of flirting. For example, picture a woman at a party. She asks a well-constructed man standing near her, “Are you an athlete?” 

  • He answers, “I am.”
  • “Do you live in New York?”
  • “I do.”
  • “Are you here alone?”
  • “I am.”

You can see where that is leading.

All nouns in Irish are masculine or feminine. As is often the case with various languages, you cannot count on there being a logical correlation between the nature of the noun and its gender. Cailín (“girl” in Irish) is a masculine noun. In German the word for “girl” is neuter: das Mädchen.

Why is “girl” gender so odd? I don’t recall “boy” ever being anything but masculine. Can anyone name a language where boys, too, defy grammatical expectations?

Coming soon: Irish word order. Which is, from this English speaker’s point of view, rather brain- and tongue-twisting.

Comments (9)

Diane • Posted on Thu, May 09, 2013 - 8:08 am EST

Heh.  Told you so.  :-)  See my comment on your December 2nd 2012 post on Mandarin:

In Welsh, which is a Celtic cousin of Irish, the English term for the system of letter changes is ‘mutation.’  The word cath can become gath, nghath, or chath, depending on what’s happening grammatically around it.  So, for instance:
cath - a cat
y gath - the cat
fy nghath i - my cat
ei chath hi - her cat
There are a wide (wide, wide) range of other things that can trigger mutations, of which by far the most common is the ‘soft mutation’ (cath -> gath).

The letters affected by mutation in Welsh are c, t, p, g, d, b, ll, m, and rh.  As you’ve said, it’s not a one-to-one mapping.  Both b and m can turn into f (the Welsh way to write the ‘v’ sound). 

A couple of tips that help in Welsh, so maybe in Irish:

- Realize that the letter changes are actually there to *help*—they signal what’s going on grammatically, and often are written representations of how we blur words in speech.  We do it in English without noticing.  Say ‘in Minnesota.’  Did you really pronounce that ‘n’, or say something more like ‘im Minnesota’?

- Letter changes complicate using a dictionary.  For Welsh, there’s a terrific online one called which, lets you type in the ending of a word.  Worth seeing if there’s something similar for Irish.

- At least in Welsh, messing up a letter change is usually not going to make you incomprehensible, so you can relax. And native speakers get ‘em wrong sometimes, too.

- Welsh doesn’t have an equivalent to the broad and slender consonants thing.  That sounds fascinating.

- Word order.  VSO, like Welsh?  Once you get used to it, it’s fun—and because once past the basics you can mess with word order to emphasize different aspects of a sentence, it made me notice the limitations of everyday English. 

Looking forward to reading more about your Irish experience!  (And…when you’re done with this all, and want a good free online all-audio Welsh course with a discussion forum, I can point you to one.)

Ellen Jovin • Posted on Fri, May 10, 2013 - 8:47 am EST

Are you referring to It looks great! Kind of made me want to study Welsh. ;)

This piece of your comment was especially helpful (kind of calming): “Realize that the letter changes are actually there to *help*—they signal what’s going on grammatically, and often are written representations of how we blur words in speech.”

And yes indeed, I am experiencing that same verb-subject-object word order. It is so funny to my brain! But kind of poetic.

One of my grammar books has been giving me intermittent advice on using a dictionary (for Irish, the Foclóir Gaeilge-Béarla). I don’t remember ever getting so much dictionary advice for a language, but I can see why it’s necessary, given all the letter mutations. Thank you for the Welsh dictionary tip. I think I need to add a section on my website where I can collect helpful resources like that for languages I haven’t yet tried myself.

Diane • Posted on Sat, May 11, 2013 - 10:09 am EST

Yes, that’s right: the online all-audio course I used is —I didn’t give the name before because I’d mentioned it in the comment I wrote on your December post, and I didn’t want you to feel like I was spam-advertising for SSIW on your blog.  But since you asked for more info about the courses, I’m happy to give it, because I think they’re great.  :-)

The first course they’ve put out, and still by far the most developed, is Say Something in Welsh.  Think Pimsleur or Michael Thomas, but with differences—for ex., not tourist-focused, requiring more concentration (don’t try to do a new SSIW lesson while driving, seriously), and with you spending more time speaking than in MT. 

It’s downloadable audio, reading/writing discouraged (I’ll explain later)—first course of 25 half-hour lessons + 10 half-hour vocab units + weekly speaking & listening practices completely free, later courses (daily practices, plus equally-long Course 2 already finished, plus similar Course 3 more than halfway released) available for subscription fee of about $5-6 / month. 

There’s also a discussion forum for the Welsh course (free).  You can see, for instance, where I posted yesterday about your blog and Talk Irish, since many learners are interested in multiple languages:

Right now the forum is on a different page from the actual place to sign up for, and access, the courses (growing pains).  To reach the courses, go to the ‘new site’:
(That page is also reachable near the top of the forum page.)

On that ‘new site’ for signups, you’ll see “Other courses”.  Right now there are courses of various lengths for Dutch, Spanish, and Cornish, all free.  Same idea—all speaking and listening.

I’m learning Spanish right now.  I started with SSIS (Say Something in Spanish), of which 19 lessons are available, then did Michel Thomas Set #1, and now I’m at Pimsleur Course 2, Lesson 11.  I’m also working through Assimil, and Dorothy Richmond’s Spanish Verb Tenses book (at your excellent recommendation).  SSIS is more intellectually challenging—less repetitive than Pimsleur, more time spent on each new structure than the later bits of MT.

I’ll write as a comment on one of your later posts why I think not trying to read for a while with Welsh, and maybe Irish, is the way to go.

Faber McMullen • Posted on Sun, May 26, 2013 - 10:35 pm EST

I saw your post in ILF and came over here to check our your blog.  It is fun to see Irish from your fresh eyes.  I don’t know how it happens, but in time the urú and seimhiú (eclipse and lenition) become sort of intuitive indicators as you speak the language.  I am an intermediate speaker.  The great difficulty for me is that the language is spoken so differently from region to region.  I can understand Irish from a very limited area.  The other great difficulty is that there is almost no access to native speakers.  That is like nothing I’ve ever experienced in other language.  Tá súil agam go rachaidh tú ar agaidh leis an staidéar ar an nGaeilge.  ( Lit:  Is and eye at me that will go you face ward with the study on the Irish. ie… I hope you continue in your study of the Irish).  Slán agus ádh mór ort.  Le meas, Féabar MacMaoláín

Ellen Jovin • Posted on Sun, May 26, 2013 - 10:46 pm EST

Faber, well, I am glad to hear things became intuitive for you. I don’t know whether I will make it to an intuitive stage before I get to the end of my Irish unit, but it is fascinating to experience bits of a language from a totally unfamiliar language family.

On the “nGaeilge” appearing in your comment…when I first saw that kind of thing in print a few weeks ago, I couldn’t quite believe it. The sight of a lower-case letter tacked onto the front of a proper noun was really odd. It is less odd now. So I guess I am making progress.

Your comment on native speakers: definitely an issue! But I did find someone with some skills in my building, so I will be pestering him shortly.

Faber McMullen • Posted on Sun, May 26, 2013 - 11:00 pm EST

The other really really really different thing is the much smaller number of verbs to express predicate thoughts than are found in the other European languages.  For example: The old poem “May the road rise to meet you” doesn’t mean that at all.  It is a mis-translation.  In Irish, the poem starts   “Go neirigh an bóthar leat”  (Lit: That may rise the way/the road with you”.)  The verb “rise” + the prepositional pronoun “le” creates the predicate thought meaning “to succeed”.  There isn’t really a verb used that means “to succeed”.  Irish is FULL of those, so it uses about half the number of verbs. (approx) The translation of the statement should say “May you be successful on your way”.

John Burton • Posted on Wed, June 12, 2013 - 1:31 pm EST

I love the observation of the effect that the Irish grammar has on “Hiberno-English.”  Irish speakers of English have a definite “melody” to their speech, and it is interesting to think that this might come from the way Irish is constructed grammatically.  Even by those who do not speak Irish as native speakers, it still gets passed on.

Aodán Ó Sé • Posted on Sat, June 22, 2013 - 6:54 am EST

I’m a Gaeilge tutor for adults in Cork, Ireland. Here are a few helpful tips:
1. In Gaeilge there are 11 irregular verbs, in French and Spanish there are hundreds, so don’t panic, just learn them!.
2. Lenition (séimhiú) changes consonant sounds and is indicated by the letter h after the consonant eg B: an bád (pronounced un bawdh) = the boat. See an bhó (un voh) = the cow. Here the lenition tells us that bád is a masculine and bó a feminine noun
So when you learn a new noun put an (the article) before it and memorise the sound and thus the gender!
3. Gaeilge vowels are sounded richer and stronger than the equivalent sound in English. Thus Seán (say Shawn) is not pronounced “Shone”

Aodán Ó Sé • Posted on Sat, June 22, 2013 - 7:03 am EST

Re: The word cailín for girl being a masculine noun: the suffix ín indicates a diminutive, and all words ending in ín are masculine nouns eg garra a large garden, gairdín a little garden etc.
The origin of cailín is the word caille (a veil) worn by girls and young women. But cailleach means a (ggod or bad) witch or powerful fairy woman!

My own name Aodán (Aidan): án is a lso a diminutive suffix. Aodh is the Gaelic name Hugh, thus Aodhán is little Hugh.

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