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Finding Words in an Irish-English Dictionary

It’s happened to every Irish learner at some point or another:

There you are, attempting to read something in Irish, and all of a sudden you encounter a word you don’t recognize. You try to figure it out from context, but it just isn’t working, so you resort to looking it up in the dictionary.

There’s only one problem: You can’t find it! (The word, that is. If you’ve lost your dictionary, I’m afraid I can’t help you, other than to give you a link to my favorite bookshop!)

The Challenge

The challenge with finding specific words in an Irish-English dictionary is that, compared with English, Irish is very inflected (i.e., words change form depending on how they’re used in a sentence).

In English, we’re accustomed to the ends of words changing (adding an “s” to make a plural, for example), and we have a fair few irregular words, but generally speaking, the beginnings of our words don’t change much, if at all.

In Irish, however, the beginnings of words can change quite significantly (if you’re already using Bitesize, you’ve probably already encountered this in Lesson: Initial Mutations).

In addition, Irish has types of words that English doesn’t have, such as prepositional pronouns. These are listed in the dictionary under their root preposition , but you have to know what that is, and it’s not always all that easy to tell.

So, what’s a learner to do?

A few years ago, I put together some basic guidelines for using an Irish-English dictionary for a class I taught in Capitola, California. Over the years I’ve added to it, as questions have come up in classes or on-line.

It won’t necessarily help in all situations (for example, if you have a small, pocket-sized dictionary, it may be the word you’re looking for isn’t in there in any form).

Still, it will probably be helpful in 90% of those cases where you’re just not sure how to find the meaning of a particular word.

So, without further ado, here is (drumroll please)…

Audrey’s Guide to Using an Irish-English Dictionary

Words are listed in an Irish-English dictionary under their root forms. This is a guide to figuring out what those root forms might be.

Bear in mind that you may have to try a couple of these steps before you find the word you’re looking for and its meaning. It may seem awkward at first, but the more familiar you become with the language, the easier it will be.

Does the word you’re looking for begin with an “h” or an “n-“? 

Remove that letter, and see if you can find it now.

Does the word begin with “ts”?

Remove the “t” and see if that helps.

Does the word begin with “m” or “d” followed by an apostrophe?

Remove the initial letter and the apostrophe. Does that help? HINT: if you’re now left with a word beginning with “fh,” you’ll want to remove the “h” as well…see below.

Does the word begin with a consonant followed by an “h”?

Try removing the “h.”

Does the word begin with a seemingly unpronounceable consonant combination (mb, gc, nd, bhf, ng, bp, ts, or dt)?

Try removing the first letter (or, in the case of “bhf,” the first two letters). Any luck?

Does the word have a “slender” ending? (i.e., does it end in a consonant preceded by an “i” or “e”?)

Try making it “broad” by removing the “i” or “e.”

Does the word have a “broad” ending? (i.e., a consonant preceeded by an a, o, or u?)

Try making it “slender” by inserting an “i” before the final consonant.

Does the word end in one of the plural suffixes, such as “-í,” “-acha,” “-eacha,” or “-a”?

Try removing the ending.

Does the word end with a diminutive suffix (“-ín” or “-án”)? 

Try removing the suffix.  You may have to change the ending of the new word to either a broad or slender one as well.

Does the word have a prefix, such as “ró-“ or “an-” or “sean-“?

Try removing the prefix. You may want to look up the prefix separately.

Is it a really short word?

Try looking it up under just the first two letters.

A dictionary won’t list the prepositional pronoun “agat,” for example, but it will list “ag”, which means “at”…and a really good dictionary will also tell you under that listing that “agat” is the form of that word that means “at-you,” and that it can be used to mean “you have.”

If the above doesn’t work

There may be a grammar section, either in the middle or at the end of the dictionary, that lists the prepositions and their pronoun forms.

If you’re looking for “uirthi,” for example, you’ll find it in that section listed under “ar” (it literally means “on-her”). You can then look up “ar” in the main part of the dictionary to work out what it means in context.

Does it look somewhat like another word listed near where you would expect to find it?

For example, a dictionary won’t have the word “éirím” listed, but it will have “éirigh” (to rise, become, arise, grow, succeed).  In context, you may be able to figure out that “éirím” must be the first-person singular of “éirigh.”

Likewise, a dictionary won’t list “tsléibhe,” but when you remove the “t,” you see that it looks a bit like sliabh”  (mountain).  Sure enough…“an tsléibhe” means “of the mountain.”

Is it preceded by the pronoun “ag” or the word “a”?

If so, it may be a verbal noun construction.

In Irish, “ag” plus a verbal noun is the equivalent of an “-ing” ending in English…for example “ag caoineadh”  (crying) or “ag siúl” (walking).

A” + a verbal noun is equivalent to an infinitive (the “to” form of a verb).

See if you can find a verb in the dictionary that looks similar to the word you’re trying to find (for example, the root form of “caoineadh” is “caoin,” and the root form of “siúl” is “siúil”).

If you can find one, see if using that word, either with an “-ing” ending or as an infinitive makes sense in context.

Is it near the beginning of a sentence, or some other place where you would expect to find a verb…but you can’t find anything like it?

If so, it may be a form of one of the 11 irregular verbs, which change much more radically than the regular verbs, to the point where you will only be able to identify them with practice.

For example, the root form of “” is “.”  The past tense is “bhí,” and the future tense is “beidh.” You’re not going to know that without lots of practice using irregular verbs.

That said, the grammar section of many dictionaries will list the 11 irregulars, and in some cases may give the inflected forms…it’s worth checking.

What if I understand all the words, but still don’t get the meaning?

Irish is full of idioms that we don’t have in English.  Thus, even when you’ve translated all the words correctly, you may not think you’re getting much sense.

For example, if one wants to say “it is raining” in Irish, one might say “tá sé ag cur báistí.”

Looking at all those words individually, you might come up with “it is at to sow/place of rain,” which may not seem to make sense…unless you look at the context and realize that it’s just a way of saying “it’s raining.”

In general, you want to avoid too much literal translation (we’ll get into the reasons for that more in a later post), but sometimes, when all else fails, it can help you figure out what is meant.

Don’t get overwhelmed!

This may seem a bit overwhelming at first, but in reality, by the time you’re reading even very simple books or articles, you’ll be able to figure a lot out simply from the context.

The main thing is to enjoy reading. See how much you can get from a paragraph or a page before you turn to the dictionary. The more reading you do, the easier that will be.

Still when you really need it, it’s nice to know how to make your Irish-English dictionary work for you!

Did you find this helpful?

Have you struggled with looking up words in your Irish-English dictionary? Did this article help? Let us know your thoughts below.

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