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We’ve done good and better…here’s the best!


On June 22, we discussed the use and formation of the comparative in Irish. In this post, we’ll talk about the comparative’s big brother, the superlative.

Here’s how Wikipedia defines the superlative:

In grammar, the superlative is the form of an adverb or adjective that expresses a degree of the adverb or adjective being used that is greater than any other possible degree of the given descriptor. English superlatives are typically formed with the suffix -est (e.g. healthiestweakest) or the word most (most recentmost interesting).

A handy construction to know

The superlative is a construction we use a lot, in any language:

  • I’m the oldest person in my family.
  • Is John the smartest boy in school?
  • She is the most beautiful girl in Ireland.

In English, as you can see, superlatives frequently end in the suffix “-est.” It’s a construction you probably use several times a day without thinking about it.

Irish has a similar system

In Irish, instead of adding a suffix (ending) to an adjective to make it comparative, you add a prefix (in this case, a short word that comes before the adjective). With comparatives (the equivalent of “better,” “stronger,” “faster,” etc.) we used níos (pronounced NEE-uss).

For superlatives (the equivalent of “best,” “strongest,” “fastest,” etc.) we use is (pronounced Iss).

IMPORTANT NOTE: This is not the same as the copula is, which is one of the ways to say “to be” in Irish. When the copula is meant, the word is will come at the beginning of the sentence. When the superlative is meant, it will come right before an adjective.

Not quite THAT simple!

There’s a little more to it than that, however. You also have to use a special form of the adjective. In most cases, that will be the genitive feminine form of the adjective.

For example, álainn (AH-lin) — “beautiful” –has the genitive feminine form áille (AH-lyeh). So, if you want to say “most beautiful” you would say is áille (iss AH-lyeh).


Some adjectives have special comparative forms (which are used for both the comparative and the superlative) that are different than their genitive feminine forms. As you might expect, these are some of the more commonly used adjectives, such as “good” and “bad,” or “big” and “small.”

For example, the word for “good” is maith (pronounced “my” or “mah,” depending on dialect). Its genitive feminine form is maithe, but its comparative form is fearr (far). So if you want to say “better,” you say níos fearr (NEE-iss far).

If you’ve already learned these for the comparatives, you’re ahead of the game! Just use is as the prefix instead of níos and you’ve gone from “better” to “best”!

So, following that formula, “best” would be is fearr (iss far)>


Still, not as difficult as you might think

As with comparatives, you hear superlatives often enough that it doesn’t take much time at all to learn them. Don’t stress about them, but keep your ears open for that little word is occurring in front of an adjective…that’s your clue that you’re dealing with a superlative.

As far as finding them goes, any good Irish-English dictionary will give you the comparative forms.

Here are some of the most commonly encountered:

Mór (Mohr) = “Big.” Níos mó (NEE-us moh) = “Bigger.” Is mó (iss moh) = “Biggest.”

Beag (Byug) = “Small.” Níos lú (NEE-us loo) = “Smaller.” Is lú (iss loo) = “Smallest.”

Maith (My/Mah) = “Good.” Níos fearr (NEE-us far) = “Better.” Is fearr (iss far) = “Best.”

Olc (Ulk) = “Bad.” Níos measa (NEE-us MASS-uh) = “Worse.” Is measa (iss MASS-uh) = “Worst.”

Ard (Ahrd) = “Tall/High.” Níos Airde (NEE-us AHR-jeh) = “Taller/Higher.” Is airde (iss AHR-jeh) = “Tallest/Highest.”

Gearr (Gyar) = “Short/Near.” Níos Giorra (NEE-us GYO-ruh) = “Shorter/Nearer.” Is Giorra (iss GYO-ruh) = “Shortest/Nearest.”

Sean (Shan) = “Old.” Níos sine (NEE-us SHIN-eh) = “Older.” Is sine (iss SHIN-eh) = “Oldest.”

Óg (Ohg) = “Young.” Níos óige (NEE-us OY-gyeh) = “Younger.” Is óige (iss OY-gyeh) = “Youngest.”

Deas (Jass) = “Nice.” Níos deise (NEE-us JESH-eh) = “Nicer.” Is deise (iss JESH-eh) = “Nicest.”

Álainn (AH-lin) = “Beautiful.” Níos áille (NEE-us AH-lyeh) = “More beautiful.” Is áille (iss AH-lyeh) = “Most beautiful.”

Mall (Mahl) = “Slow.” Níos moille (NEE-us MWIL-yeh) = “Slower.” Is moille (iss MWIL-yeh) = “Slowest.”

Gasta (GASS-tuh) = “Fast.” Níos gasta (NEE-us GASS-tuh) = “Faster” Is gasta (iss GASS-tuh) = “Fastest.” (that’s an easy one!)

A few examples

Tá Seán óg, ach tá Máire níos óige, agus is Séamus an duine is óige sa chlann.  Seán is young, but Máire is younger, and Séamus is the youngest one in the family (i.e., among the siblings).

Is mise an duine is sine i mo chlannsa. I am the oldest one in my family (i.e., among my siblings).

Is í Sinéad an bhean is áille in Éirinn. Sinéad is the most beautiful woman in Ireland.

5 thoughts on “We’ve done good and better…here’s the best!”

  1. Patrick mc Nally

    Regarding stress in these sentences using the copula. Are the adjectives definately stressed?. Pádraig

    1. A Phádraig, what I take from it is an example like:

      Is mise an duine is airde (I’m the tallest person).

      This is related to the note above:

      > IMPORTANT NOTE: This is not the same as the copula is, which is one of the ways to say “to be” in Irish. When the copula is meant, the word is will come at the beginning of the sentence. When the superlative is meant, it will come right before an adjective.

      Does that help with your question? Do you have an example in mind?

  2. Patrick mc Nally

    Hi Eoin, I have been studying a bit about adjectives. Predicative and attributive adjectives. Mar shampla, “Is breá an fear é.” …….He is a FINE man. I think the emphasis is on the adjective “breá”. “Is FEAR breá é.”……..He is a fine MAN. The stress on the noun “fear”. Would this be correct.? Regarding using the superlative of the adjective with “Is” there may be no emphasis or stress here, i really don’t know……….Is mise an duine is airde. I would expect some stress on MISE and maybe that is the only place to get emphasis in this phrase. Pádraig.

  3. Patrick,

    As far as I know, and from what I’m hearing here in Gleann Fhinne, it really depends on what aspect of the sentence YOU want to emphasize. “Is BREÁ an fear é”: He’s a FINE man.” “Is FEAR breá é”: He’s a fine MAN” (as opposed to a boy, for example). But I’d think in everyday speech there’d tend to be greater emphasis on the adjective.

    As Eoin said, though, don’t confuse the “is” in the superlative adjective forms with the copula. In the sentences in the paragraph above, the “is” is the copula…it means “is.” In the superlative, the “is” that comes right before the adjective is a particle that means, essentially, “most.” For example, “is é an fear is fearr ” — He is the best man (or, if you would, “he is the most good man,” with “most” representing the second “is” in that sentence). In that sentence, I’d have the emphasis thus (using phonetics):

    shay un far is FAR

    Not sure if that helps or muddles things more…I think we may be talking about two different things here.

  4. Patrick mc Nally

    Hi Audrey, Yes, that makes it clearer for me. I see the point that it is up to the speaker to emphazise the right words in order to get the meaning across. This would come with practice in using and speaking the language. I understand the difference between the copula at the beginning of the sentence and the superlative form “is” before the adjective which as you explained can represent the word “most”. So “anois an rud is tábhachtaí cleachtadh.” Go raibh míle maith agaibh Audrey agus Eoin. Pádraig

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