If you’ve never studied an inflected language such as Irish before, the word “case” may be somewhat baffling. It’s not something we encounter a lot when speaking of English grammar.
Even the dictionary definition can sound a bit baffling:
case noun \ˈkās\ a: an inflectional form of a noun, pronoun, or adjective indicating its grammatical relation to other words b: such a relation whether indicated by inflection or not (Source: Merriam-Webster Unabridged Dictionary).
As far as Irish is concerned, perhaps the best way to describe “case” is by saying that certain types of words can change in spelling and pronunciation depending on how they’re used in a sentence.
What is the vocative case?
For many learners of Irish, the first encounter with the concept of grammatical case happens in their very first conversational lesson, when they’re asked to address someone.
In English, of course, that’s pretty simple. You just say the person’s name, nickname, or title:
“Would you like a cookie, sweetie?”
“It’s nice to meet you, John!”
“Waiter, I’d like to see a menu.”
In Irish, however, it’s a little bit different. You can’t just say the person’s name, nickname, or title. Instead, you must put it in the vocative case.
The word “vocative” comes from the Latin vocare, meaning “to call.”
Forming the vocative
Fortunately, the vocative is one of the easiest grammatical cases in Irish to learn to form. If you’re already a Bitesize subscriber, you might want to try this lesson on the vocative case, with full audio.
If you haven’t signed up for Bitesize yet, here’s a basic explanation:
Start with the vocative particle
You start by putting the letter “a” in front of the name. This little letter has a name that’s a bit of a mouthful. We call it “the vocative particle.”
English actually has a vocative particle of its own, though we don’t really use it outside of poetry, prayers, songs and such. Our vocative particle is “O”:
“O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?”
“O God our help in ages past, our hope for years to come…”
“A” plays the same role in Irish as “O” does in English. Unlike in English, however, in Irish we always use the vocative particle in direct address…it’s not just something one does for poetic effect.
What comes next?
What happens to the word following the vocative particle depends on several factors:
- Is the name actually in Irish?
- Does it begin with a consonant or a vowel?
- Is it a male name or a female name?
- Does it end with a “slender” consonant or a “broad” consonant? (We’ll define these terms a little further on.)
If the name isn’t Irish:
If the person you’re speaking to has a name that isn’t Irish, all you do is put the vocative particle in front of it. Nothing else changes:
“Ar mhaith leat briosca, a Jennie?” Would you like a cookie/biscuit, Jennie?
“Tá sé go deas bualadh leat, a Harold.” It’s nice to meet you, Harold.
This may feel a bit awkward and contrived at first, but you’ll be surprised at just how quickly it becomes second nature!
If the name is Irish:
If the name is an Irish one, however, things get a bit more complicated:
If the name begins with a consonant (other than l, n, r, or the combinations sc, sm, sp, or st) the initial consonant must be “lenited.” This is a softening in pronunciation that’s represented in writing by putting an “h” after the initial consonant.
Máire (MOY-ruh) becomes a Mháire (uh WOY-ruh)
Sorcha (SUR-uh-khuh) becomes a Shorcha (uh HUR-uh-khuh)
Ar mhaith leat briosca, a Mháire? Would you like a cookie/biscuit, Máire?
Tá sé go deas bualadh leat, a Shorcha. It’s nice to meet you, Sorcha.
If the name is a woman’s name, there’s no further change. It’s a little different for the men, however.
If the name is a man’s name and ends in a broad consonant (that is, if the final consonant is preceeded by the letters “a,” “o,” or “u”), the letter “i” is inserted before that consonant. This is referred to as “slenderizing the ending.”
Seán (shawn) becomes a Sheáin (uh HYAN)
Séamas (SHAY-muss) becomes a Shéamais (uh HAY-mish)
Go raibh maith agat, a Sheáin. Thank you, Seán.
Tá fáilte romhat, a Shéamais. You’re welcome, Séamas.
This, admittedly, takes a bit of getting used to. We English speakers are not accustomed to personal names changing so radically, and it can be disorienting at first.
Names beginning with vowels
If the name begins with a vowel there’s no change to the beginning of the name, but a man’s name ending in a broad consonant will still have the “i” inserted.
Áine (AWN-yeh) becomes a Áine (uh AWN-yeh)
Eoin (OH-in) becomes a Eoin (uh OH-in)
Aodán (AY-dahn) becomes a Aodáin (uh AY-dah-in)
Ar mhaith leat cupán tae, a Áine? Would you like a cup of tea, Áine?
Níor mhaith, a Eoin, go raibh maith agat. No thank you, Eoin.
A Aodáin, suigh in aice liom le do thoil. Aodán, sit next to me please.
What about titles and terms of endearment?
Titles (such as “doctor,” “waiter,” etc.) and terms of endearment (“darling,” “sweetheart,” etc.) follow the same general patterns as names.
The only difference is there is no change to the end of the word, no matter what kind of consonant it ends with.
Freastalaí (FRASS-tuh-lee) “Waiter” becomes a fhreastalaí (uh RASS-tuh-lee).
Muirnín (MWUR-neen) “Darling” becomes a mhuirnín (uh WUR-neen).
A fhreastalaí, ba mhaith liom biachlár a fheiceáil le do thoil. Waiter, I’d like to see a menu please.
Tá grá agam duit, a mhuirnín. I love you, darling.
Easier than you may think
Getting used to using the vocative case can be challenging at first, but you’ll be surprised at just how quickly you get used to it.
It’s used so often in conversation, before you know it you’ll be doing it instinctively. And you’ll know you’ve really internalized it when you find yourself doing it even when you’re speaking English! (yes, I have!).
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