When English speakers first start learning Irish, they often find the grammar more than a bit perplexing.
Even though Irish is, in many ways, much more regular than English, it works in ways that are so different from English it can be a bit challenging to wrap your head around at first.
In this article, we’re going to talk a bit about some of the more interesting features of the Irish language that differ from what most English speakers may be used to.
Action! The verb comes first.
Irish is what’s known as a “VSO” (verb-subject-object) language. In other words, the verb usually comes first in a simple sentence. By contrast, English is an SVO language.
Consider the English sentence “The dog ate the food.” In that sentence, we have:
Subject: The dog
Object: the food
The equivalent sentence in Irish is D’ith an madra an bia:
Verb: D’ith: Ate
Subject: an madra: the dog
Object: an bia: the food
Jumped the fox brown quick over the dog lazy
Another difference between Irish and English (though one that Irish does share with French and Spanish) is that adjectives follow the nouns they modify.
For example, in English, we might say “The little dog ate the food.” “Little” is an adjective modifying the noun “dog.” In Irish, however, we’d say:
D’ith an madra beag an bia.
Beag (little) is an adjective modifying the noun madra (dog).
In addition, in Irish one never inserts “and” between adjectives modifying the same noun. So while, in English, you might say:
The man is tall and handsome.
In Irish you’d have:
Tá an fear ard dáthúil (literally “Is the man tall handsome”).
Is it “yes” or is it “no?”
Catching that verb as it flies past at the beginning of the sentence is important when someone asks you a question, for a reason other than what you might expect: Irish has no words for “yes” and “no.”
If someone asks you a question that would normally be answered with “yes” or “no,” you reply by restating the verb used to ask the question in either its positive or negative form. For example, if asked:
Ar ith an madra an bia? Did the dog eat the food?
You would answer:
D’ith: Yes (literally “ate”)
Níor ith: No (literally “didn’t eat”)
As with most European languages, all nouns in Irish are either grammatically masculine or grammatically feminine.
We say “grammatically” masculine or feminine because grammatical gender doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with actual sex. For example, the Irish word cailín (girl) is grammatically masculine, and the Irish word stáil (stallion) is grammatically feminine.
Gender affects how the noun will behave in certain grammatical situations, as well as the effect it will have on the words around it.
The concept of grammatical gender isn’t particularly unusual (in fact, English is a bit unusual in that it doesn’t have it), but determining grammatical gender in Irish can be fairly complicated (and in a few cases, gender can vary depending on the dialect!)
By the way, common sense prevails when speaking about individual girls or stallions (or, as I used to tell my class, sex trumps gender). If you’re talking about a particular girl or stallion, you use pronouns appropriate to her or his sex, not grammatical gender.
To be or not to be
One very significant way in which Irish varies from English is that it has two different ways of expressing the verb “to be,” and they’re not interchangeable.
One way, using the verb bí (present tense tá) is used when you’re speaking of something or someone’s state or condition, describing its appearance, or talking about what it’s doing:
Tá an madra ag ithe: The dog is eating.
Tá an madra beag: The dog is little.
The other, using the funny little semi-verb is (known in grammatical terms as the copula) is used when you’re talking about what something or someone is as opposed to what it is like or what it is doing:
Is madra beag é sin: That is a little dog.
His, hers, theirs
Another interesting feature of the Irish language is it uses the same little word — a — for the possessive adjectives his, her, and their. What changes is the word that comes after a:
A athair: His father. A bhád: His boat.
A hathair: Her father. A bád: Her boat.
A n-athair: Their father. A mbád: Their boat.
We like to think of it as being efficient!
Which brings us to…
Ch, ch, ch, changes!
In English, we’re used to the ends of words changing (for example, adding an “s” to make something plural, or an apostrophe plus “s” to make it possessive). In Irish, the beginnings of words change as well, as in the example above.
The fancy grammatical term for this is “initial mutation,” and the ins and outs of it are too extensive to go into here (Bitesize subscribers can start to dig into it in Lesson: Initial Mutations).
To get an idea of just how involved these changes can be, check out our post on Finding Words in an Irish-English Dictionary!
And that’s not all!
To list the ways in which one language differs from another could take a book (or maybe a library). These are just a few of the differences between Irish and English that I find the most intriguing.
The important thing is, grammatical differences such as these don’t make Irish more difficult to learn than any other language.
The reality is that, once you wrap your mind around the fact that Irish just plain expresses things differently, you will actually find it very approachable. I can’t say “simple,” but then nothing about learning another language is truly “simple.”
But it is doable, and the more you learn about the unique features of the language, the more fascinating your study becomes!
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