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)
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.
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 tá is:
Tá mé (taw may) or Táim (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 tá 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 tá:
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 tá because tá 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 tá.
- 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!
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