The Vocative Case in Irish

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.

Fun Fact:

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.

For example:

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.

Men’s names

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.”

For example:

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.

For example:

Áine (AWN-yeh) becomes a Áine (uh AWN-yeh)

Eoin (OH-in) becomes a Eoin (uh OH-in)

But…

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.

For example:

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!).

Did you find this post helpful?

Were you confused by the vocative case before? Did this post help? Let us know your thoughts below.

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18 thoughts on “The Vocative Case in Irish”

  1. For me, as a new learner, I’m looking for a list somewhere of 20-30 names in Irish and their vocative counterparts. It feels odd to start out correspondence with “A chara” to someone I know and often see. Does anyone know where such a list might be found on the Web? Go raibh maith agaibh.

  2. Gingerale, if it’s any help, most names follow the same rule in the vocative:

    1) If it’s a foreign or Anglicized name, it isn’t changed in the vocative beyond the addition of the vocative particle.

    2) If it’s a Gaelic name and begins with a lenitable consonant, regardless of gender, you lenite it

    3) If it’s a Gaelic name and begins with a vowel, regardless of gender, there is no initial mutation

    4) If it is a masculine name that ends in a broad consonant, you slenderize it (so, for example, “Seán” becomes “A Sheáin.”

    There are a few names that behave in an irregular manner, for example “Micheál” becoming “a Mhichil,” but these aren’t necessarily consistent from region to region (for example, in parts of Ulster, you’d hear “a Mhicheáil). In addition, in some Gaeltachts, foreign names are lenited even though it’s not “technically” correct. Generally speaking, you’ll be OK following the rules above until you find out how a particular individual prefers his or her name in the vocative.

    As far as any kind of list goes, I’m not aware of one, and couldn’t find one with a quick search of the web. You might try asking at ILF (www.irishlanguageforum.com)…there are some people over there who keep pretty comprehensive notes on things, so someone there may be able to give you a list of the known irregulars.

    Hope this helps!

    1. Oh, one addition: If an Irish person normally uses an Anglicized or foreign name, it’s considered a bit rude to put it into its Gaelic counterpart without first ascertaining whether the individual actually uses or likes his Gaelic name (not all do). For example, if you’re writing to a man for whom the only name you know is “John,” you wouldn’t address him as “A Sheáin” or “A Eoin” without knowing that he actually uses either of these forms.

      Also, as far as the use of “a chara” goes in salutations, it is often used for people you don’t know in Irish. It’s a set thing, rather like addressing a letter in English to “Dear John” (even if you don’t actually know John and he isn’t particularly “dear” to you). It may seem a bit odd to you, but it’s used all the time unless one is being very formal.

      1. Hi Audrey,
        Pardon me for taking so long to write back with my thanks. I really appreciate your responses and this information is super-helpful to me.

  3. I was wondering if there were voactive forms of the personal pronouns, specifically tú and ibh/sibh… The others are not logical except maybe méi. On the other hand languages don’t tend to be 100% logical judging from experience

  4. In a letter the Irish “A chara” would be the equivalent to the English “Dear sir” salutation.

    But of course the nearest direct translation would be “O friend!”. I guess it comes from the same time as the “Friends, Romans, Countrymen” exhortation in Shakespeare. As the Irish language isn’t as informal as contemporary English.

    1. Hi Laura,

      Thank you for your comment.

      “Hi everybody” in Irish is “Dia daoibh” (Also said “Dia dhaoibh”)

      You could also say “Cén chaoi a bhfuil gach duine?” (Connacht) “Conas atá gach duine?” (Munster) or “Cad é mar atá gach duine?” all of which mean “How is everybody?”

      Le meas, (Sincerely,)
      Siobhán

  5. Hi Laura,

    Here’s are the general rules for the vocative case:

    **Singular**
    > 1st declension: vocative = genitive singular (e.g. fear – a fhir = man!)
    > 2nd -5th declension: vocative = nominative singular (e.g.: cailín – a chailín = girl!)
    following adjectives that are attributive are always lenited
    > after masculine nouns (1st -5th declension!) adjective form = genitive singular, (e.g.: a fhir mhóir = big man!)
    > after feminine nouns adjective form = nominative singular (a bhean mhór = big woman!)

    **Plural**
    > weak plural vocative = nominative singular + suffix a
    (e.g. a fheara! = Men!)
    > strong plural : vocative = nominative plural
    (e.g. a bhuachaillí = Boys!)
    > following adjectives remain always unlenited, the form is the same as the nominative plural, except in the case of weak plurals, where an “a” is added to end of the noun
    (e.g.: a fheara Gearmánacha! = German men!)
    > following other attributives remain as well unlenited
    (e.g. a fheara céile = Husbands!)

    I hope that helps! If you’ve got any other questions, don’t hesitate to ask.

    Le meas, (Sincerely,)
    Siobhán

  6. The only difference is there is no change to the end of the word, no matter what kind of consonant it ends with. Then you give 3 examples. 1) Freastalaí (FRASS-tuh-lee) “Waiter” becomes a fhreastalaí (uh RASS-tuh-lee). This doesn’t end with a consonant so there’s no change, right? So how is it an example.

    2. Below shows an ending consonant that is already slender, so what does this show?
    Muirnín (MWUR-neen) “Darling” becomes a mhuirnín (uh WUR-neen).

    3. A fhreastalaí, ba mhaith liom biachlár a fheiceáil le do thoil. Waiter, I’d like to see a menu please. Again, no ending consonant?

    4. Tá grá agam duit, a mhuirnín. I love you, darling. Again, a slender consonant. ??

    I seem to be very confused. Is there an example of a title or endearment that has a broad ending consonant that you would add the “a” and “h” but not slenderize the final consonant.

    1. Hi Amy,
      Thanks for your comment!

      An example of a broad-ending term of endearment would be “stór” which means love. In the vocative case it would be “A stór” or my love. The “st” doesn’t allow us to add a h.

      An example of a broad ending title would be “Taoiseach”, which means leader or chief (it’s also what we call our Prime Minister). To call on the Taoiseach you would say “A Thaoiseach”. This adds the h and also stays broad.

      If you’ve any other questions don’t hesitate to ask!

      Go raibh maith agat,
      Gabrielle

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