When my husband and I were dating he sent me a card. On the front it said:
In! On! Over! Under! Between! Around! Through!
Inside it said:
You’ve just been prepositioned.
(He has a funny sense of humor, my husband.)
Important little words
If you studied grammar in school, you probably remember that prepositions are (usually) little words that describe such things as position or location:
The dog is in the yard.
Put the letter on the table.
Drive around the block.
As indispensible as they are in English, prepositions play an even more vital role in Irish. In addition to their usual function, in Irish, prepositions combine with pronouns to take on the jobs that, in English, are usually handled by verbs.
The Prepositional Pronoun
The prepositional pronoun is a construction we don’t have in English.
You may recall from that grammar class that “pronouns” are words that take the place of a noun: Words such as I/me, you, he/him, she/her, us/we, etc.
In Irish, the pronouns are:
Tú: You (singular)
Sibh: You (plural)
* Because all nouns in Irish are either grammatically feminine or grammatically masculine, sé/é and sí/í are also used, with inanimate objects, to mean “it.” Which is used depends on the grammatical gender of the object.
** “Sinn” is most commonly used in the Munster dialect. In other dialects, “muid” is more common. “Sinn,” however, is the basis for the double-n pattern in prepositional pronouns, as you’ll see below.
Combining prepositions with pronouns
Let’s take a look at how these pronouns combine with one of the most commonly used Irish prepositions: Do (to/for):
Do + Mé = Dom: To-me
Do + Tú = Duit: To-you
Do + Sé = Dó: To-him/it
Do + Sí = Di: To-her/it
Do + Sinn = Dúinn: To-us
Do + Sibh = Daoibh: To-you (plural)
Do + Siad = Dóibh: To-them
Here’s how it works with another common pronoun: Ar (on):
Ar + Mé = Orm: On-me
Ar + Tú = Ort: On-you
Ar + Sé = Air: On-him/it
Ar + Sí = Uirthi: On-her/it
Ar + Sinn = Orainn: On-us
Ar + Sibh = Oraibh: On-you (plural)
Ar + Siad = Orthu: On-them
Other prepositions combine with pronouns in a similar pattern, which is generally quite regular.
So Why Does it Matter?
It matters because Irish uses these prepositions and prepositional pronouns to express things that, in English, would require verbs.
In English, if we own something, we say we “have” it.
In Irish, if we own something, we say it is “at” us. The Irish preposition for “at” is ag:
English: I have a car.
Irish: Tá carr agam. Literally “Is car at-me.”
We can also use “ag/at” to indicate that we are entertaining a particular thought toward another person. For example:
English: I love you.
Irish: Tá grá agam duit. Literally “Is love at-me to-you.”
Physical features and emotions
In English, we say we “have” certain features (red hair, a big nose, etc.) In Irish, these features are “on” us. The Irish preposition for “on” is “ar”:
English: Seán has red hair.
Irish: Tá gruaig rua ar Seán. Literally: “Is hair red on Seán.” (Note: In Irish, adjectives follow the nouns they modify, so we say “gruaig rua” — literally “hair red” — rather than “rua gruaig.”
English: I am sorry.
Irish: Tá brón orm. Literally “Is sorrow on-me.”
What this means for translation
We see this pattern happen over and over in Irish, which is one reason that direct, word-for-word, translations between English and Irish are often impossible.
The use of prepositions is a fundamental difference between the languages, and one of the main reasons why Irish virtually always expresses things somewhat differently than we would in English.
What this means for learners
For people who are learning Irish, this practice can, initially, seem quite confusing and awkward. Remembering which preposition is used for the meaning you want can be a daunting prospect!
With patience, exposure, and most importantly, PRACTICE, however, the system will soon come to feel quite natural.
You’ll know you’re really getting the hang of it when you find these constructions creeping into your English: “My, he’s got red hair on him, hasn’t he?”
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