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Counting in Irish

Counting in Irish

When you’re learning a new language, often one of the first things you learn to do is count.

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After all, counting is pretty simple, right? As easy as one-two-three?

Wait a minute…this is Irish we’re talking about! Maybe it’s not quite that simple after all!

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Three counting systems

In Irish, counting and numbering is a bit more complicated than it is in other languages. Irish has three different counting systems, and they’re not interchangeable.

In fact, you count differently in Irish depending on whether you’re counting things, counting people, or just counting on your fingers!

If you’re already a Bitesize Irish Gaelic member, you may have already encountered these counting systems in Lesson: Count from 1 to 10, Lesson: Numbers to 20, Lesson: Numbers to 19 followed by a noun, and Lesson: Counting people.

If you’re not yet a Bitesize member, here’s a little overview of the counting systems.

Uh One and Uh Two and Uh…

Counting in Irish may make you feel a bit like Lawrence Welk!

The basic cardinal numbers in Irish, from 0 to 10 are:

Náid (Nawj): Zero

Aon (Ayn): One

(Doh): Two

Trí (Tree): Three

Ceathair (KYA-hir): Four

Cúig (KOO-ig): Five

(Shay): Six

Seacht (Shakht): Seven

Ocht (Awkht): Eight

Naoi (Nee): Nine

Deich (Jeh): Ten

Pretty simple, right? But when you’re counting, or when you’re listing numbers (as in giving someone your phone number), you have to put the little word “a” (pronounced “uh”) in front of the number.

This causes a change to the numbers that begin with a vowel. You have to add an “h” between the “a” and the beginning of the word.

Aon becomes A hAon (uh hayn)

Ocht becomes A hOcht (uh hawkht)

So, taken all together, here’s how you count from zero to ten in Irish:

A Náid (uh nawj): Zero

A hAon (uh hayn): One

A Dó (uh doh): Two

A Trí (uh tree): Three

A Ceathair (uh KYA-hir): Four

A Cúig (uh KOO-ig): Five

A Sé (uh shay): Six

A Seacht (uh shakht): Seven

A hOcht (uh hawkht): Eight

A Naoi (uh nee): Nine

A Deich (uh jeh): Ten

Counting things

When you start counting things, rather than just listing numbers, it gets a bit more complicated.

To begin with, the “a” before the number drops off, so you’re back to the basic cardinal numbers again. This presents a little problem with “Aon” (One).

The problem with “one”

The problem is that “aon” also means “any” in Irish. If you just say “aon” followed by a noun, what you’re saying is “any ____,” not “one _____.

Because of this, you have to add the word “amháin” (“only”) after the noun. In fact, you can just add “amháin” without using “aon” at all!

Using the word “bád” (“boat”) as an example:

Aon bhád*: (Ayn wahd): Any boat

Aon bhád* amháin: (Ayn wahd uh-WAH-in): One boat

Bád amháin: (Bahd uh-WAH-in): One boat

* We’ll get to the reason for that “h” in just a minute.

A similar problem with zero

You can’t just say “zero ____” in Irish. Instead, you have to say “No ____ at all.”

Using bád again for an example:

Bád ar bith: (bahd air bee): [No] boat at all.

Two changes too

Another issue with counting things is that the word “” (two) changes to “dhá” (ggah, where the double g represents a gargling sound).

Initial mutations

Remember that I mentioned we’d get to that “h” (which turned “bád” to “bhád”) in just a minute? That’s another issue with counting things: The initial letter of the noun being counted can change after the number. This is called “initial mutation.”

The “h” is inserted following the numbers one through six if the noun begins with any consonant other than l, n, or, r.  This is called “lenition.”

Following the numbers seven through ten, instead of lenition, you get something called “eclipsis”: If the noun begins with any consonant other than l, m, n, r, or s, another letter or combination of letters is placed in front of it.

(This isn’t quite as complicated as it may seem, as the eclipsing letters are very regular. Bitesize members can learn more about this, and about lenition, in Lesson: Initial mutations).

A singular issue

Another way that counting things in Irish differs from counting things in English is that the singular form of the noun is used, even when you’re talking about multiple objects! So “two boats” is literally “two boat” in Irish.

Using “bád” as an example once again, here’s how you count boats from zero to ten:

Bád ar bith (Bahd air bee): No boats/Zero boats

Aon bhád amháin (Ayn wahd uh-WAH-in) or bád amháin (bahd uh-WAH-in): One boat

Dhá bhád (ggah wahd): Two boats

Trí bhád (tree wahd): Three boats

Ceithre bhád (KYEH-reh wahd): Four boats

Cúig bhád (KOO-ig wahd): Five boats

Sé bhád (shay wahd): Six boats

Seacht mbád (shakht mahd): Seven boats

Ocht mbád (okht mahd): Eight boats

Naoi mbád (nee mahd): Nine boats

Deich mbád (jeh mahd): Ten boats

Counting people

As you may suspect by now, there’s yet another system for counting people. You have to use a different set of numbers. These are called “the personal numbers.”

Zero and one

Zero and one are represented by the Irish word for “person”:  Duine (DIN-eh):

Duine ar bith (DIN-eh air bee): Zero/No person

Duine (DIN-eh): One person (note that you don’t have to use “amháin” here as you do after “aon” when counting things).

Two through ten

Here’s how you number people from two to ten:

Beirt (birch): Two people/a pair

Triúr (troor): Three people/a trio

Ceathrar (KYA-hrur): Four people/a quartet

Cúigear (KOO-ig-ur): Five people/a quintet

Seisear (SHESH-ur): Six people/a sextet

Seachtar (SHAKH-tur): Seven people

Ochtar (AWKH-tur): Eight people

Naonúr (NEE-noor): Nine people

Deichniúr (JEH-noor): Ten people

These personal numbers are used even if there’s a noun involved.  For example, if you want to say “ten boys,” you’d say deichniúr buachaillí.  The personal numbers are followed by the genitive plural of the noun. Note that nouns following beirt are lenited (lenition), therefore “two women” is beirt bhan.

Sound complicated? Don’t worry!

These counting systems may seem confusing at first, but you’ll be surprised at how soon they become second nature!

Did you find this helpful?

Did you know all this about counting in Irish before? Have you struggled with these concepts at all? Did this article help you sort things out? Let us know your thoughts below!

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31 thoughts on “Counting in Irish”

  1. Go raibh maith agaibh. Very helpful post. Are personal numbers only for people? You wouldn’t use these for other living things, like cats, dogs, horses. It’’d just be sé madraí for example.

      1. Dia Dhuit, Emma
        I am a fifth year student and i am writing an essay on the modern problems of todays world.
        I have begun talking about the problem of homeless people in Ireland. I have come to a road block as i do not know how to write 11,754 as ghaeilge. I am confused as it is such a big number and I want to talk about how many people are homeless hence the big number.
        Any advice would be much appreciated.

        1. Haigh, Iarlaith.

          If you’re writing an essay, you would put in the number instead of the words themselves but if you wanted to read this number our loud you would say aon mhíle dhéag, seacht gcéad caoga a ceathair
          I hope this helps!

  2. Níl mé ach ag iarradh rá go bhfuil do leathanach anseo ar fheabhas! Déanann sibh rudaí casta éasca a thuiscint.
    Go raibh míle maith agaibh!

  3. I found this very useful. However, why do texts have triur dalta & not daltai. Should it not be the genitive pluraI? I would love to know the reason for this ?

      1. Dia dhuit Emma. Thank you for your reply. I can’t find where I found “triur dalta” now , In Fonn 3, Ardleibheal , page 359, the last sentence starts “Bhi cead dalta sa rang………” I definitely met triur dalta lately too . I also wouls love to know if the tuiseals are taught in schools nowadays at all. I did mu leaving cert in 1965 and only resumed lately. Thank you for your help.

        1. Dia dhuit, Moira.
          I don’t have fonn 3 myself unfortunately so I can’t check that!
          My secondary schooling was through English and after coming from an Irish-speaking primary school I might have had an advantage. Tuiseal Ginideach is studied to a certain degree and I would also say the Tuiseal Gairmeach. Again, a tight time-schedule and lots of material to cover doesn’t allow for in-depth study of all cases but the more important ones would be covered.
          Happy to hear you are returning to Gaeilge 🙂

          Le meas,

  4. Wow, this is amazing. It is so informative, easy to understand and well explained. Go raibh maith agat.

  5. Do the ordinal numbers behave the same as the cardinal numbers with respect to lenition/eclipsis in the 2-6, 7-10 numbers? A couple of examples might be useful there.

    1. This is volunteered from Audrey in our private Facebook group for members. Go raibh maith agat, a Audrey!

      No, they don’t. Taking examples from “Irish Grammer” by Éamonn Ó Dónaill:

      For most consonants, you get lenition after “céad” and no mutation after the rest of the ordinals. For example:

      An chéad bhliain
      An dara bliain
      An tríú bliain

      For consonants beginning with d, t, or s there’s no mutation at all:

      An chéad duine
      An dara teach
      An tríú séasúr

      For words beginning with vowels, there’s no mutation after “céad,” but “h” is prefixed after the rest of the ordinals:

      An chéad alt
      An dara halt
      An tríú halt

      1. tríú has two síntí fada: trÍÚ, not “triú” – “triú” would be pronounced “tchr’oo”, while it’s “tchr’ee-oo”.

  6. patrick mc nally

    In counting things I think CEITHRE is used before a NOUN. Beirt aspirates. Mar shampla Beirt Mhac ” two sons”. Padraig.

    1. You’re right, Patrick, and thanks for the heads up. I’ll change this in the copy, to make sure no one’s led astray.

  7. I’ve updated the bit on the personal numbers. I’ve always heard them used with singular nouns, so I was a bit taken aback the other day to see them used with plural nouns in a particular resource. It turns out that either is correct, but that using singular nouns is the official standard. Whichever you choose to use is fine, so long as you’re consistent.

    1. they are used with genitive plural nouns. Sometimes it looks like they are followed by the singular simply because nouns in the 1st and 2nd declension have the same form in the nominative singular and in the genitive plural. But if you word belongs to another declension group, you see the personal numbers are followed by the genitive plural. You say “triúr ban”, not *triúr bean… :p

  8. This is the most complete/comprehensive teaching tool that I have found. I have been dabbling in the Irish language for almost 3 years and have looked at many different teaching styles, but this one is exceptional.