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The Problem of Being (In Irish Gaelic!)

Hi! I’m Audrey, and I’ll be your writer today! What is your name? I’m so happy to meet you! I’m from California. Where are you from?

Can you imagine trying to talk without using some form of the verb “to be?” Pretty near impossible, isn’t it? Just look at how often some form of “to be” appears in the above paragraph!

I’m (I am)

I’ll be (I will be)

Is

Are

So it’s not too suprising that “to be” is one of the first verbs you encounter when you learn a new language. There’s a slight problem, though, when you’re learning Irish. It has two of them.

“To Be”…Two Be’s!”

That’s right. Irish has two completely different, unrelated, and non-interchangeable ways to say “be,” depending on how you’re using it. To make things even more interesting, in a language that only has 11 irregular verbs, the most irregular is also (you guessed it!) the most commonly encountered form of “to be.”

(Way to hit you with the tough stuff right off the bat, eh? You know what they say about eating a live toad first thing in the morning, right?)

Here’s the good news, though: because the various forms of “be” are among the most common words in any language, you’ll actually get the patterns sorted very quickly.

Let’s jump right in! To keep things simple, we’ll just look at the simple, present-tense, forms here. If you’re a Bitesize member and you’d like to delve a bit more deeply, check out our lessons on Irregular Verbs: Bí (Be) – Part 1 and Irregular Verbs: Bí (Be) – Part 2.

Be Bí

Almost certainly one of the first words you’ll encounter in Irish is tá: The present-tense declarative form of the verb bí.

The conjugation for is:

Tá mé (taw may) or im (TAW-im): I am

Tá tú (taw too): You are (singular)

Tá sé (taw shay): He/it is

Tá sí (taw shee): She/it is

Tá muid or Táimid (taw mwij): We are

Tá sibh (taw shiv): You are (plural)

Tá siad (taw SHEE-ud): They are

What is “tá” used for?

 

Tá can be used for most of the things for which you’d use a form of “be” in English:

Talking about a person or thing’s state or condition:

Tá mé tinn (taw may chin): I am sick.

Tá Seán ina chodladh (taw shawn in uh KHUH-loo): Seán is asleep.

Talking about a person or thing’s position or location:

Tá an peann ar an úrlár (taw un pan air un OOR-lawr): The pen is on the floor.

Tá Máire thuas staighre (taw MOY-uh HOO-uss STY-ruh): Máire is upstairs.

Describing a person or thing’s appearance or characteristics*:

Tá an cat sin dubh (taw un kat shin doo): That cat is black.

Tá an pláta seo salach (taw un PLAW-tuh shah SAL-ukh): This plate is dirty.

Tá an cailín sin go hálainn (taw un KAL-een shin guh HAW-lin): That girl is beautiful.

* Here’s a caveat: You can use  to say something like “That girl is beautiful” but to say “That is a beautiful girl” or “That is a black cat.” More on this in a moment.

Saying what something or someone is doing:

Tá mé ag scríobh (taw may egg SHKREE-uv): I am writing.

Tá siad ag rith (taw SHEE-ud egg ree): They are running.

There are some other uses for tá, including certain set phrases and describing a newly acquired or transitional state, but those are beyond the scope of this post. We’ll go into those another time.

For saying what something “is,” use “is”

The second approach to “being” that Irish has is a little semi-verb known as “the copula”: is (pronounced “iss,” as in “hiss,” not “iz” as in the English “is”).

The basic conjugation for is is:

Is _____ mé (iss _____ may): I am _____

Is _____ thú (iss _____ hoo): You are _____ (singular)

Is _____ é (iss _____ ay): He/it is _____

Is _____ í (iss _____ ee): She/it is _____

Is _____ muid (iss _____ mwij): We are _____

Is _____ sibh (iss _____ shiv): You are _____ (plural)

Is _____ iad (iss _____ EE-ud): They are _____

What is is used for?

 

It’s pretty simple, really. You use is when you want to say what something or someone IS.

Is bean mé (iss ban may): I am a woman.

Is madadh é Wiley (iss MAD-oo ay Wiley): Wiley is a dog.

Is bialann í sin (iss BEE-uh-lahn ee shin): That is a restaurant.

You can use is to describe someone, but there’s a subtle difference between this usage and :

Is fear dáthúil é Seán (iss far DAH-hool ay Shawn): Seán is a handsome man.

As opposed to:

Tá Seán dáthúil (taw Shawn DAH-hool): Seán is handsome.

The first example says what Seán IS (i.e., he is “a handsome man”), while the second says what he is LIKE (i.e., he is “handsome”). It’s a subtle distinction, but an important one in Irish!

As with tá, there are other uses for is, including certain set phrases, but we won’t go into those today.

Avoid the infamous TSF!

Occasionally on internet discussion boards you’ll hear something described as “a TSF error.” TSF stands for tá sé fear (“he is a man”): an inappropriate use of because can’t be used in this way to say what something or someone IS. It should be is fear é. As you get into more complicated structures, this kind of mistake gets easier to make.

How am I ever going to remember all this?

People have come up with various ways to make the tá/is distinction clear to learners. Here’s the one that’s worked best for me:

  • If, in English, the “be” word would be followed by an adjective (“handsome,” “tall,” “fast,” “sick,” etc.), by an action (“sitting,” “running,” etc.) or by a location/position (“at home,” “on the table,” etc.) you need .
  • If, in English, the “be” word would be followed by a noun (“man,” “writer,” “cat,” etc.) you need is.

While there are exceptions, in general this simple rule will help you navigate the “problem of being” in Irish safely and accurately!

Did you find this post helpful?

Let us know your thoughts in the “comments” section below!

 

 

17 thoughts on “The Problem of Being (In Irish Gaelic!)”

  1. So, if Shakespeare had been Irish would he have written
    A bheith nó gan a bheith sin é an cheist
    nó,
    Tá nó Is, sin é an cheist?

    Le meas,
    Gearóid

  2. patrick mc nally

    I was surfing the internet today and came across this expression. To be or not to be. Given i nGaeilge as, “Bheith ann nó gan bheith ann.” So just add. “Sin ê an cheist” and we seem to have that quote from Shakespeare. Pádraig

  3. All the pronunciations are wrong,
    Also you don’t say i nGaeilge (inside Irish)
    You say: as Gaeilge
    To be or not to be: a bheith nó nach bhfuil a bheith
    Your Native Irish speaker, Cillín

    1. Hi Cillín,

      Thank you for your comment.

      Though I don’t pronounce many words as they have been transcribed in the approximate pronunciations above, I can’t find fault with them. Pronunciations vary quite a lot from dialect to dialect and accent to accent.

      The phrase “i nGaeilge” is acceptable, though I’m aware that it’s not present in every dialect. A quick search of http://www.teanglann.ie will bring up entries containing “i nGaeilge” in all three dictionaries on the site.

      Mise le meas,
      Siobhán

  4. Ah, this was so very helpful. I had been searching for a clear, concise differentiation between the “tá” form and the “bí” form, and this is the only one I have found, and it is exactly as clear and concise as I would wish it!

  5. Hello everyone 🙂
    First of all: Thank you very, very much for this post, it is very well written and understandable 🙂
    I’ve got a question, maybe someone here can help me. I’d like to say to my girlfriend: “You are my kitten.” (I always call her kitten/kitty^^) in Gaelic.
    Kitten is “puisín”, right?
    So would it be: “Is mo puisín thú.”?
    Another question: I’ve found the expression “Mo ghrá thu” (as “I love you” or literally “You are my love”). I guess it is correct (there’s even songs with this expression in it) but I’m wondering why the verb “is” is missing here. Shouldn’t it be “Is mo ghrá thu”? Or is it possible to leave the verb out in certain cases?
    Le meas,
    Florian

    1. Hi Florian,
      Thanks so much for your comment and questions!
      You can use either puisín or piscín as your translation for kitten (I’d use piscín but it’s up to you!)
      The copula “Is” is a very complex grammar phenomenon and explaining its intricacies in one post or comment would be impossible.
      To say “you are my kitten”, you would say: “Is tú/tusa mo phuisín”. When using a personal pronoun (tú) and saying [You are the/my X], the word order is a different to when you are saying [He is a man].

      With regards “Mo ghrá thú” – in this instance the copula is implied even if you can’t see it!

      If you’d like to find out more, send an email to info@bitesize.irish.

      I hope this helps!
      Gabrielle

  6. Seán G. O'Meallóin

    I wish teachers and native speakers of Irish would explain and translate “Irish” word for word directly to “English” so we learners would know what the individual Irish words are. then we learners could work out the english translations which are generally only equivilents and not verbatum translations.

    1. Hi Seán,

      Thanks for your comment. I understand where you’re coming from, but there are difficulties with it too.
      If we translate verbatum, the sentences won’t make sense as the sentence structure is completely different.

      Have you been learning Irish for a while?
      – Gabrielle

  7. Thank you for the helpful article.

    How would you ask if someone is a certain state?

    For example:

    Is Seán asleep?
    Or
    Is Sean handsome?

    1. Hi Lee,

      To ask if someone is a certain state, you would use the verb bí:

      An bhfuil Seán ina chodladh?
      An bhfuil Seán dathúil?

      The answer is “Tá”.

      Does that make sense?

      Gabrielle

  8. I have a question about the suggestion that tá can’t be used in a way to say what something or someone IS. If, in English, the “be” word would be followed by a noun (“man,” “writer,” “cat,” etc.) you need is. Are you saying that Tá oíche dheas ann is incorrect?

  9. Still a little confusing I’m afraid. I’m not so sure it wouldn’t be easier to just learn the phrases and forget the rules. The fact that tá sé oíche dheas is wrong was never an issue. The use of the word “ann” wasn’t really addressed though, and I believe it allows you to say things differently and correctly. I’m not expert at this, I’m merely trying to figure it all out, but in my previous post example the addition of the word ann allows you to skip using is, although I think is oíche dheas í says the same thing . Saying tá an spéir gorm, while using the adjective gorm, I also don’t believe that the noun rule would apply. In addition, I think tá Aisling ann is correct, as well as tá an meán fómhair. All these variations are making my brain freeze. Maybe I’m making it too intense, but I’m looking for a way to get it right and maintain my sanity at the same time.

    1. Hi Chuck,

      ‘Ann’ was not addressed in the blog post above to explain the differentiation between ‘bí’ and ‘is’ in the simplest way. Once people understand the difference, then we branch into ‘tá x ann’.

      Tá oíche dheas ann or tá lá gréine ann is a structure usually used for describing the weather. And yes you are correct ‘is oíche dheas í’ is the same as ‘tá oíche dheas ann’.

      Hopefully this all starts to make sense soon.

      Le meas,

      Aisling

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