When you’re learning a new language, often one of the first things you learn to do is count.
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!
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 subscriber, 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 subscriber, 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
Dó (Doh): Two
Trí (Tree): Three
Ceathair (KYA-hir): Four
Cúig (KOO-ig): Five
Sé (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
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 “dó” (two) changes to “dhá” (ggah, where the double g represents a gargling sound).
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 subscribers 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
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!