This post first appeared on my Tumblr blog in September, 2016.
People who have never studied a language other than English seem to find the concept of grammatical gender confusing.
We frequently get requests on the Irish Language Forum from translation seekers who want the “female” [sic] form of “musician” or “poet” or some similar noun, and who are very confused when we tell them that the same noun would be used to describe anyone, regardless of sex.
I’ve wanted for some time to write something addressing the concept of grammatical gender in Irish, and I’m feeling “explainy” today (thank you for that term, mhwombat!), so here goes!
Not All That Surprising
As English lacks the concept of grammatical gender (we’ll get to learning more about this in a second), it’s not too surprising that English speakers should be confused when they encounter this concept in other languages.
And there certainly are languages in which different terms are used when speaking of or to males as opposed to females (and the reverse is also true, of course).
Even Irish has a few terms that are applied only to one sex or the other, for example:
Seanduine: This literally means “old person,” but is only used when speaking of men, and is translated as “old man.”
Amadán: “Fool” when speaking of or to a man.
Óinseach: “Fool” when speaking of or to a woman.
For the most part, however, “gender” in language has nothing to do with biological sex. In fact, some Irish words that you’d assume would be masculine (stail , for example: “stallion”) are actually grammatically feminine, and vice versa.
What is “Grammatical Gender”?
In grammar, we use the concept of gender to describe how a word will behave in certain grammatical circumstances, as well as the effect(s) it might have on the words around it, particularly adjectives.
Some languages have multiple grammatical genders. Irish only has two: masculine and feminine.
You need to know the gender of a noun in Irish to know what will happen with it after the definite article* (the equivalent of “the” in English, such as “the man” or “the car”).
You also have to know a noun’s gender know how it will affect any adjectives used to describe it, as well as to determine what pronouns to use to take its place (Irish has no neuter gender, so everything, from the bicycle in the garage to the shop down the road is either “he” or “she”).
Getting it Right From the Start
The nominative singular definite article an (”the”) is a useful tool for determining gender because masculine and feminine nouns behave differently with the article. When I give vocabulary words to my students, I always pair them with the definite article, and I encourage them to do the same with any words they learn on their own.
It’s really good practice, whenever you encounter a new noun, to look it up in the dictionary to determine its gender and then memorize it with the article.
Here’s how pairing nouns with the definite article is useful (Note: This is for nouns in the nominative case only. As this is the basic form of a noun as it’s listed in the dictionary, it’s the most useful for this kind of memorization):
IF THE NOUN IS MASCULINE and begins with a consonant, the consonant is unaffected by the article:
An seanduine – The old man
An carr – The car
IF THE NOUN IS MASCULINE and begins with a vowel, “t-” is prefixed to the beginning of the word:
An t-amadán – The foolish man
An t-asal – The donkey
IF THE NOUN IS FEMININE and begins with a lenitable consonant other than “s,” it is lenited:
An bhean – The woman
An chláirseach – The harp
IF THE NOUN IS FEMININE and begins with a vowel, the vowel is unaffected by the article:
An óinseach – The foolish woman
An oíche – The night
IF THE NOUN IS FEMININE and begins with an “s,” “t” (without a hyphen) is prefixed to the beginning of the word:
An tsráid – The street
An tSeisreach – The Plow (aka “The Big Dipper” or “Ursa Major”)
The above works well enough to begin with, but as you advance you’re going to encounter new words without the article, and you’re not going to have time to look them up in a dictionary to find out their gender.
There’s also the issue of initial consonants that can’t be lenited. “L,” “M,” “N,” “R,” and (when it occurs) “V” can’t be lenited. Neither can the combinations “Sc,” Sm,” Sp,” and “St.”** Pairing these with the definite article won’t help you remember if they’re masculine or feminine.
When you run into such words, these basic guidelines are helpful:
Words are typically masculine if…
- They end with a broad consonant (béal – mouth, féar – grass/hay)
- They are occupational words ending in – óir/-oir, – éir/-eir or -úir/-uir (ceoltóir – musician, báicéir – baker, dochtúir – doctor).
- They are single-syllable words ending in -eacht or -acht (ceacht – lesson, fuacht – cold (temperature)).
- They end with the diminutive suffixes -ín or -án (cailín – girl/young woman.Yes, this word is actually masculine)
- They end with -ste (páiste – child, coiste – committee)
In addition, words are typically masculine if they are loan words from another language (vóta – vote), and they’re always treated as masculine if they’re foreign words that haven’t been “Gaelisized” (”bicycle,” for example).
An added bonus: There are more masculine words in Irish than feminine ones, so if you really do have to make a wild-ass guess, guess masculine. You have a fair chance of being right!
Words are typically feminine if…
- They end with a slender consonant (barúil – opinion, uirlis – instrument)
- They are multi-syllable words ending in -eacht, -acht, or -íocht (gluaiseacht – movement, beannacht – blessing, filíocht – poetry)
- They are place/location names that end with -lann (leabharlann– library, otharlann – hospital/infirmary).
- They end with -eog or -óg (brídeog – bride, feadóg – whistle).
- They end with -chan (athbheochan – revival).
An added bonus: The names of most countries, languages, and rivers are feminine.
Compound nouns are words that are made by combining two nouns (for example, in English we take the nouns “light” and “house” and put them together as “lighthouse”).
In Irish, compound nouns always take the gender of the SECOND noun:
Sráid – street (feminine)
Baile – town (masculine)
Sráidbhaile – village (masculine)
There are exceptions to grammar rules in most languages, and Irish is no exception (see what I did there?).
There are some words in Irish that, given the guidelines above, you’d assume to be feminine, but that are actually masculine (and vice versa).
For example, even though most country and language names are feminine, Sasana (England), Ceanada (Canada), Meiriceá (America), Meicsiceo (México), and Béarla (the English language) are all masculine. The two-syllable word bunreacht (constitution) is also masculine.
On the flipside, the words méar (finger), and timpiste (accident), which you might assume to be masculine, are actually feminine.
These aren’t the only ones, of course.There are a few exceptions in most of the categories above, and you’ll just have to memorize them.
And About Those Pronouns
Generally speaking, you use the pronoun appropriate to a word’s grammatical gender. For example, if I’m speaking about my harp (cláirseach) I use feminine pronouns because “cláirseach” is feminine:
Cá bhfuil do chláirseach? Where is your harp?
Tá sí sa charr. It (literally “she”) is in the car
But if I’m speaking of my car (carr), which is masculine, I use masculine pronouns:
Cá bhfuil do charr? Where is your car?
Tá sé sa gharáiste. It (literally “he”) is in the garage.
Common sense prevails, though, when you’re speaking of living creatures:
Is í mo chailín. She is my girl (even though “cailín” is masculine)
Don’t Worry! You’ll Get Used to It!
The good thing is, the more speaking and listening you do, the more comfortable you’ll be navigating the gender minefield. You may make the occasional mistake, but that’s OK. We all do (even some native speakers!).
Hope this helps! Happy gendering!
* Irish does not have an indefinite article, i.e., the equivalent of “a/an” in English.
** An easy mnemonic for remembering which “s” words can’t be lenited is “Scallions Smell Spicy in Stew.”
In addition to being “The Geeky Gaeilgeoir,” Audrey Nickel is the author of The Irish Gaelic Tattoo Handbook,” published by Bradan Press, Nova Scotia, Canada. For information about the book, including where to buy it, please visit http://www.bradanpress.com/irish-tattoo-handbook/