The Definite Article in Irish – Part 1

The definite article (the equivalent of “the”) in Irish is a fascinating subject. Seriously.

You wouldn’t think so, would you? Such a tiny word, and yet so essential! Can you imagine speaking English without the word “the”?

So, for this week and next week, how about a little hard-core grammar?

Very different from English

In Irish, not only is the definite article used more widely than in English, it’s used in different ways (and often takes a different place in a sentence or phrase than you might expect).

It can take on a different form, depending on the gender, case, and number of the noun that follows it…and it can affect the spelling of the word that follows it as well (You can read more about this in our blog post Irish Gaelic Grammar. Bitesize subscribers can delve into it even more deeply in Lesson: Initial Mutations.)

To make things even more interesting, the definite article often combines with words near it to make very different looking and sounding words…something that takes some getting used to when you first start learning!

(Bitesize Irish Gaelic subscribers can explore these things in more depth in Lesson: The Definite Article).

Wait! What about the indefinite article?

In English, we have both the definite article “the”:

The dog

The owl

And the indefinite article “a/an”:

A dog

An owl

Irish doesn’t have an indefinite article. So:

Madra can mean “dog” or “a dog” depending on context.

Ulchabhán, likewise, can mean “owl” or “an owl.”

So what is the definite article in Irish?

As I mentioned earlier, the definite article in Irish takes on different forms, depending on how it’s used. To go into this in much depth would take several chapters of a grammar book!

In this short article, we’ll just take a look at the form the definite article takes with nouns in the nominative and genitive cases. Next week, we’ll take a look at  how it can combine with other words, and a few ways in which it is used in Irish that differs from English usage.

In the nominative case

In the nominative case (which is the case used for the subject of a sentence):

  • The definite article is an (“un”) in front of all singular nouns and na (“nuh”) in front of all plural nouns.
  • In the nominative, an will cause changes to the beginning of most feminine nouns (particularly a softening of the initial sound represented by writing a an “h” after it, or prefixing “t” to most words that begin with “s”).
  • An doesn’t change the beginning of masculine nouns that start with consonants, but prefixes “t-” to masculine nouns beginning with a vowel.
  • Regardless of gender, na causes no change to the beginning of a word beginning with a consonant in the nominative, but prefixes “h” to words that begin with vowels.

Madra (MAD-ruh): Dog (masculine). An madra (un MAD-ruh): The dog.

Asal (ASS-ul): Donkey (masculine). An t-asal (un TASS-ul): The donkey.

Sagart (SAG-urt): Priest (masculine). An sagart (un SAG-urt): The priest.

Feadóg (FAD-ohg): Whistle (feminine). An fheadóg (un AD-ohg): The whistle.

Sráid (srahj): Street (feminine). An tsráid (un TRAHJ): The street.

Capaill (KAP-il): Horses. Na capaill (nuh KAP-il): The horses.

Ulchabháin (UL-khuh-wah-in): Owls. Na hulchabháin (nuh HUL-khuh-wah-in): The owls.

So, that’s the nominative. The genitive is a little bit different.

In the genitive case

In the genitive case (sometimes also called “the possessive case”), the definite article works a bit differently. In fact, you might even call it topsy turvy!

(If you need a bit more background on the genitive case, see our blog post The Genitive in Irish GrammarBitesize subscribers can delve even deeper, with full audio, in several lessons, especially Nouns: The Genitive Case — Part 1 and Nouns: The Genitive Case — Part 2)

In the genitive:

  • The definite article is an (“un”) in front of masculine singular nouns ONLY. In front of feminine singular nouns and all plural nouns, it’s na (“nuh”) .
  • An will cause changes (particularly a softening of the initial sound represented by an “h” after the consonant or prefixing “t” to most words that begin with “s”) to most masculine genitive nouns beginning with consonants, but doesn’t change the beginnings of those that start with vowels.
  • Na doesn’t affect the initial sound of feminine singular nouns beginning with a consonant, but prefixes “h” to those that begin with a vowel.
  • Na causes a change called “eclipsis” to the beginning of plural genitive nouns beginning with most consonants, and prefixes “n-” to those that begin with a vowel.

(Note: There may be other spelling changes to these words in the genitive as well, but those are caused by the case, not by the presence of the definite article).

An Madra (un MAD-ruh): The dog (masculine), but Bia an mhadra (BEE-uh un WAD-ruh): The dog’s food.

An t-asal (un TASS-ul): The donkey (masculine), but Stábla an asail (STAH-bluh un ASS-il): The donkey’s stable.

An sagart (un SAG-urt): The priest (masculine), but Teach an tsagairt (chakh un TAG-urch): The priest’s house.

An fheadóg (un AD-ohg): The whistle (feminine), but Fuaim na feadóige (FOO-im nuh FAD-oy-geh): Sound of the whistle.

An tsráid (un TRAHJ): The street (feminine), but Lár na sráide (lahr nuh SRAH-jeh): Middle of the street.

An oíche (un EE-hyeh): The night (feminine), but Dorchadas na hoíche (DUR-uh-khuh-duss na HEE-hyeh): Dark of the night.

Na capaill (nuh KAP-il): The horses, but Féar na gcapall (Fayr na GAP-ul): The horses’ hay.

Na hulchabháin (nuh HUL-khuh-wah-in): The owls, but Neadacha na n-ulchabhán (Nyad-uh-khuh nuh NUL-khuh-wah-in): The owls’ nests.

Is your head spinning yet?

Fortunately, these are the most radical changes caused by the definite article in Irish, so if you can get your head around them, you’ll be well on your way!

Coming next week: A look at how the definite article itself can change with combined with other words, and some instances in which it is used differently in Irish than in English.

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  1. Eoin says:

    So, what’s that little two-letter word in Irish you should remember from this article…?

  2. Joan Linnehan says:

    Thank you, Eoin, for your excellent explanations. You’re a great teacher!
    We don’t get that much explanation in some of the language books.
    Go raibh maith agat, mo chara.

  3. patrick mc nally says:

    Yes, this post helps me a lot. Many thanks. In English we have the word WOMAN .in Irish it is BEAN. We have THE WOMAN and in Irish it is AN BHEAN. Genitive singular IT IS A WOMAN’S SHOP. in Irish it is TA SE SIOPA NA MNA. Genitive plural IT IS WOMENS’ FOOTBALL. and in Irish we have TA SE PEIL NA MBAN. Slan agus Beannacht. Padraig.

    • Audrey Nickel says:

      You can’t use “Tá” in those cases, Pádraig. You need “Is.” You also wouldn’t use the definite article in the first example, as it’s “a” woman’s shop, not “the” woman’s shop:

      “Is siopa mná é”
      “Is peil na mban í” (“peil” is grammatically feminine, so it takes “í,” not “é”)

      You might want to take a look at this post, which discusses the difference between “Tá” and “Is”:

  4. patrick mc nally says:

    Thanks for the correction Audrey. I will have to put a lot of practice into using the copula until I get it right. Good help from you many thanks. Padraig.

  5. patrick mc nally says:

    So i have to remember TWO little two letter words when using the Genitive Case in Irish. The Copula ” Is ” and the Definate Article ” An “. Go raibh maith agaibh Audrey agus Eoin.Padraig.

    • Audrey Nickel says:

      Getting “tá” and “is” sorted is a big challenge for many Irish learners. A good rule of thumb to start with is if the word that follows “is” in the English sentence is an adjective that isn’t modifying a noun (“he is big,” “she is sick,” etc.) you want “tá.” If the word that follows “is” in the English sentence is a noun (“she is a teacher”) or an adjective modifying a noun (“Seán is a tall man”) you want “is.”

      By the way, one way I’ve helped my students with this is to play “20 Questions” (a game that mhwombat introduced at IGTF years ago). It doesn’t take many rounds of the game to start to see the pattern. If any of you out there are leading study groups, I could send you the information…I’ve got it set up so it can be played by absolute beginners who have very little vocabulary.

  6. patrick mc nally says:

    Regarding using the Negative form of the Copula Ni, Audrey. It should be Ni siopa mna e. When using this Negative of the copula are any initial consonants of following nouns aspirated?. A noun beginning with a vowel mar shampla, “Ni iontas ar bith ” It is no wonder,no need to prefix a letter between Ni and iontas?. I would be grateful if you could help me here. PS. Sorry about no fadas can’t get them on this smartphone.Padraig

    • Audrey Nickel says:

      Hi Patrick.

      “Ní” does not cause lenition/aspiration.

      It prefixes “h” to the pronouns “é,” “í,” “iad,” and “ea” and to adjectives that begin with a vowel.

      Re fadas…usually on a smart phone you can get accents by holding down the letter. A list of accented letters then appear above the keyboard, and you just slide your finger to the one you want. For example, to get “é,” hold down “e,” then, when you see the list, slide your finger up to “é.” This works with all Androids and iPhones, as far as I know (I don’t know about Blackberry).

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