Irish: Lesson Twelve

Motion / Location

There are two Irish words for "in" and and two for "out", corresponding to the distinction in English between "inwards" and "inside" and "outwards" and "outside", respectively. One describes the motion of going in or out, and the other describes the location of being in or out:

amach -- out [motion]      isteach -- in [motion]
amuigh -- out [location]      istigh -- in [location]

For example:

  Amach leat! -- Get out! Out with you!
but: Tá sé amuigh. -- He's out.
  Rith isteach. -- Run inside.
but: Fan istigh. -- Stay inside.

A similar distinction holds for "up" and "down":

suas -- up [motion] síos -- down [motion]
thuas -- up [location] thíos -- down [location]


  ag dul suas an staighre -- going up the stair
but: thuas i gcrann -- up in a tree
  ag teacht síos an rathad -- coming down the road
but: thíos ar lár -- down on the ground

In addition to these, there are also the specialized words "anuas" and "aníos". Anuas means "down (from above)" and aníos means "up (from below)":

Tar anuas! -- Come down! (tar, "come" [irreg.])
Fás aníos! -- Grow up!

The Case System

In the last lesson it was shown how a thing or person that was being directly addressed was said to be in the "vocative case" and underwent a spelling change. Standard Irish has three cases -- the nominative, or default, case, the vocative, and the genitive, which we'll look at in a moment. There is also an important case used in the dialects of Irish and in pre-Standard writing called the dative case, which dealt with nouns that followed prepositions. When we eclipse nouns that come after "ag an" or "ar an" (e.g. ag an mbanc, "at the bank", etc.), that is a remnant of the dative case. But in Standard Irish this case doesn't officially exist, so we'll leave it aside for now.

The genitive case has a number of different functions, but the most common is to show possession by something of something else. It is often used where in English the word "of" would be found, or where a noun would take apostrophe plus "s". For instance, if the English sentences "a glass of beer", "the king's men", or even "straw man" were translated into Irish, the words "beer", "king", and "straw" would be in the genitive case ("straw man" is also "man of straw"). Now, finding the way in which a noun changes from the nominative to the genitive in Irish is one of the great difficulties in that language's grammar, along with finding out how to turn a singular noun into a plural. There are a number of different methods that are used. As a defensive measure grammarians have come up with the idea of "declensions", groups of nouns that are roughly similar in the way they form the genitive, the vocative, and the plural. There are five declensions and they may make the necessary changes a little clearer.

The First Declension

i) Genitive

Nouns of the first declension are all masculine and all end with a broad vowel (a, o, or u). This includes most names of men in Irish, such as Ciarán, Micheál, Peadar, Séamas, Seán, etc., as well as a great number of common masculine nouns for objects. Nouns in this declension form their genitive case the same way as they do their vocative -- by the process called "slenderization", which is either adding a slender vowel (e or i) to the noun, or changing broad vowels in the noun into slender ones. Last lesson we saw how someone named "Seán" would be addressed as "a Sheáin" and someone named "Breandán" as "a Bhreandáin". These are examples of slenderization, because the slender vowel "i" is being added to the names. We do the same to first declension nouns in the genitive:

Nominative: Seán -- Sean
Genitive: Sheáin -- Sean's [or] of Sean
Example:: teach Sheáin -- Sean's house

Nominative: cat -- cat
Genitive: cait -- cat's [or] of a cat
Example: eireaball cait -- tail of a cat
(eireaball [m.], "tail")

Nominative: eolas -- information
Genitive: eolais -- (of) information
Example: píosa eolais -- a piece of information

Nominative: leabhar -- book
Genitive: leabhair -- book's [or] of a book
Example: cumhdach leabhair -- a book's cover
(cumhdach [m.], "cover, wrapper")

However, as mentioned earlier some words instead of simply adding "i" change one or more of their vowels to "i":

Nominative: fear -- man
Genitive: fir -- man's [or] of a man
Example: hata fir -- a man's hat

Nominative: mac -- son
Genitive: mic -- son's [or] of a son
Example: oidhreacht mic -- a son's inheritance
(oidhreacht [f.], "inheritance")

Nominative: páipéar -- paper
Genitive: páipéir -- of paper
Example: leathanach páipéir -- a sheet of paper

The definite article of a masculine noun in the genitive case is still "an", but it aspirates the noun following (unless it begins with "d" or "t"), and adds "t" to a noun beginning with "s". Nouns beginning with d, t, l, n, r, or a vowel are unaffected by "an":

Nominative: an bád -- the boat
Genitive: an bháid -- of the boat
Example: ainm an bháid -- the name of the boat

Nominative: an sagart -- the priest
Genitive: an tsagairt -- of the priest
Example: teach an tsagairt -- the priest's house

Nominative: an naomh -- the saint
Genitive: an naoimh -- of the saint
Example: saol an naoimh -- the life of the saint

Note that in Irish when we have a sentence expressing "the X of the Y", for instance "the name of the boat" or "the life of the saint", the first noun never has an article, even if it does in English -- "name" and "life", respectively, are left indefinite.

ii) Plural

The nominative plurals of many, but not all, first declension nouns are the same as their genitive singular:

Nom. Sing.: cat -- cat
Gen. Sing.: cait -- of a cat
Nom. Plur.: cait -- cats

Nom. Sing.: ceann -- head
Gen. Sing.: cinn -- of a head
Nom. Plur.: cinn -- heads

However there are quite a few irregulars which form plurals by adding "a", "ta", "tha", "aí", "anna", or "ra", which is quite different from how they form their genitive, and these have to be memorized separately. A few common ones are given here.

cleas -- trick --> cleasa -- tricks
saol -- world --> saolta -- worlds
gaol -- relative --> gaolta -- relatives
scéal -- story --> scéalta -- stories
glór -- voice --> glórtha -- voices
samhradh -- summer --> samhraí -- summers
bealach -- way, road --> bealaí -- ways, roads
bás -- death --> básanna -- deaths
nós -- custom --> nósanna -- customs

Some of these nouns before they add a plural suffix lose their final vowel:

solas -- light --> soilse -- lights
uasal -- nobleman --> uaisle -- noblemen
briathar -- word --> briathra -- words

Second Declension

Nouns of the second declension are all feminine, with only three exceptions: im ("butter"), sliabh ("mountain"), and teach ("house"). The article before a feminine noun in the genitive case is "na"; this adds "h" to a noun beginning with a vowel.

The genitive singular in this declension is formed in one of three ways:

i) Adding -e to nouns ending in a slender vowel:

Nominative: coill -- forest
Genitive: coille -- of a forest

Nominative: súil -- eye
Genitive: súile -- of an eye

ii) Slenderizing and then adding -e to nouns ending in a broad vowel:

Nominative: bróg -- shoe
Genitive: bróige -- of a shoe

Nominative: lámh -- hand
Genitive: láimhe -- hand's

iii) Changing an ending "-ach" into "-aí" and "-each" into "-í":

Nominative: gealach -- moon
Genitive: gealaí -- moon's

Nominative: báisteach -- rain
Genitive: báistí -- rain's

Plurals are generally formed by adding "-a":

fuinneog -- window --> fuinneoga -- windows
long -- ship --> longa -- ships
clann -- family --> clanna -- families
póg -- kiss --> póga -- kisses
cloch -- stone --> clocha -- stones
gaoth -- wind --> gaotha -- winds
críoch -- end, limit --> críocha -- ends, limits

But there are the usual exceptions, for instance plurals ending in "-eanna" -- these are all of one syllable and end in a slender vowel:

áit -- place --> áiteanna -- places
fuaim -- sound --> fuaimeanna -- sounds
duais -- prize --> duaiseanna -- prizes

... or those ending in "-acha" or "-eacha":

craobh -- tree --> craobhacha -- trees
carraig -- rock --> carraigeacha -- rocks

... or in "-te", "-ta", or "-tha":

tonn -- wave --> tonnta -- waves
tír -- a land --> tíortha -- lands
gáir -- shout --> gártha -- shouts
coill -- forest --> coillte -- forests

A Consolation

The genitive case and, to a greater extent, the formation of plurals are indeed a wretched business in Irish, but when you start to read Irish you'll at least be able to recognize the word for what it is no matter what case it's in, and over time get used to seeing that word with its distinctive case-endings. A good dictionary, like the new Collins Gem Irish, lists the declension number after every noun and gives irregular genitive and plural forms in brackets, and in general attempts to make it easier to handle these things. So although we have another three declensions to learn, whatever grammar doesn't kill us can only make us stronger.

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