A Matter of Irish Gender

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If you’ve ever studied a language other than English, you know that many languages have something called “grammatical gender.”

Irish is no exception.

It’s an important concept to get your head around, because a word’s gender tells you how it will behave when it comes in contact with other words.

Gender, not sex

First, some basic terminology: In Irish, we refer to words as being “masculine” or “feminine.” This sometimes results in confusion.

In fact, often on translation forums we’ll have people request something along the lines of “a feminine form of X, because I’m a girl.”

Here’s the deal: “Gender” is not the same thing as “sex.” In fact, even when you’re talking about living creatures, a word’s grammatical gender doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the actual sex of the person or animal being discussed. For example:

Cailín (KAL-een): “girl”: grammatically masculine

Stail (STA-il): “stallion”: grammatically feminine

That said, common sense rules the day when speaking of actual individuals. If you’re speaking of a particular girl, for example, (say, your sister), you refer to her as “her,” not as “him.”

And speaking of pronouns…

All nouns are either masculine or feminine

Unlike some languages, Irish has no “neuter” gender. Among other things, this means that there isn’t a pronoun in Irish that corresponds exactly to the English word “it.”

Because of this, you need to use the pronouns corresponding to he/she or him/her, even when speaking of inanimate objects. For example:

  • Is carr é: “It’s a car.” I use the masculine pronoun é (“he”), because carr (automobile) is grammatically masculine.
  • Is cláirseach í: It’s a harp.” I use the feminine pronoun í (“she”), because cláirseach (“harp”) is grammatically feminine.

Be careful when translating!

Did you notice something in the examples above? In the English, I used the neuter pronoun “it” to describe these inanimate objects, rather than directly translating the Irish é (“he”) or í (“she”).

Once again, common sense rules. Because we use “it” in English for inanimate objects, we do the same when translating from Irish to English.

Determining gender: first, the bad news

OK, up front, here’s the bad news: figuring out the gender of an Irish word isn’t as simple as it is in French or Spanish. Irish has a lot of different potential word-endings, which can make memorizing the various gender markers a bit of a challenge.

Generally speaking, it’s a good idea to note the gender of any new word when you learn the word. One easy way to do this is to attach an adjective to it. Since adjectives “lenite” after feminine nouns (i.e., the initial consonant gets a “softer” sound, denoted by a following “h”), doing this can give you a useful mnemonic.

For example:

Madra beag (MAD-ruh byug): Little dog (“madra” is masculine)

Cláirseach bheag (KLAR-shukh vyug): Little harp (“cláirseach” is feminine).

Now for the good news!

Before you get too worried, here’s lots of good news!

  • Any dictionary, even the most basic, will give you a word’s gender. If you make a habit of noting the gender when you learn the word, you’ll find yourself
  • There are more masculine nouns in Irish than feminine nouns. If worse comes to worse and you don’t know the gender of a particular noun, you’ll have a better-than-50% chance of getting it right if you guess masculine.
  • You will quickly memorize the genders of the words you use most frequently.
  • Even veteran Irish speakers get it wrong sometimes.
  • There are some basic guidelines that will help get you into the ballpark most of the time.

Those basic guidelines

There are exceptions to just about anything in Irish, but here are a few basic guidelines:

There is a very good chance a noun is feminine if:

  • It ends in -óg or -og (for example feadóg (whistle) or fuinneog (window).
  • It is a place name ending in -lann (for example bialann (restaurant) or leabharlann (library).
  • It is the name of a language (for example, Gaeilge (Irish) or Fraincis (French). Interestingly, one language name that ISN’T feminine is Béarla (English). The word for “language” — teanga — is feminine also.)
  • It is the name of a country (with significant exceptions, including Sasana (England) and Meiriceá (America).
  • It has more than one syllable and ends in -acht or -íocht (for example: éisteacht (hearing/listening) and ríocht (kingdom/realm).

One other little guideline:

  • Nouns are almost always masculine if they end in the diminutive suffix -ín or -án (even if the root word is feminine!).

No stress!

The bottom line is, even though gender does matter, it’s not something you need to stress too much over.

You will get it wrong sometimes. We all do. No one will get upset or laugh at you!

You will eventually start to develop a feel for the concept, especially when it comes to frequently used words.

Just think of it as an interesting twist in the journey of language learning!

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3 thoughts on “A Matter of Irish Gender”

  1. Is the word “tír”, although feminine, sometimes neutral.. people on islands off Donegal refer to the mainland as tír mór. It would be nice to have one exception

    1. Hi Arthur,

      Thank you for your comment.

      There are only two genders in Irish, masculine and feminine. Like a limited number of other Irish words, tír can be either of the genders. It is usually feminine but seems to be masculine in the Ulster dialect. Just at the end of its dictionary, there is the tiny note (Var:m) which means that it can also be masculine.

      Le meas,
      Siobhán

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