Two “To Be’s” (and They Aren’t Synonyms)Irish has two verbs that correspond to the English “to be” — bí (the present tense, tá, is more commonly encountered by beginners, so I’ll use that to refer to this verb from here on out) and “the copula” — is (pronounced to rhyme with “kiss,’ not as “iz” or “ish”). The thing is, they aren’t interchangeable. Each has its own function, and using one when the other is called for is a serious grammar mistake (often referred to by learners as a “tá sé fear” error — TSF for short — for reasons that will, hopefully, become clear further on). Figuring out when to use the copula and when to use tá can drive beginners a little bit crazy, and the way it’s usually taught doesn’t often help. We’ll talk about that in a second, but first…
What’s a copula?“Copula” may sound a little like some kind of disease, but it’s actually just a grammatical term for what is sometimes called a “linking verb.” Here’s what Webster has to say about it:
It is related to the words “couple” and — yes — “copulate.” In Irish, “is” is the only copula, and it has a very specialized function, as we’ll see here in a bit. It’s really not as scary as it seems at first. (But if you want to refer to it as “that copulating copula,” be my guest. It’s been called worse.)
Definition of linking verb: a word or expression (such as a form of be, become, feel, or seem) that links a subject with its predicate
Permanent vs. ImpermanentTypically, when new learners are first introduced to this concept, they are told to use is when talking about things that are permanent and tá when talking about things that are impermanent. Unfortunately, this explanation breaks down pretty quickly. I was chatting with an advanced beginner at the San Francisco Deireadh Seachtaine Gaeltachta (Irish immersion weekend) some years back, when the subject of vegetarianism came up. I gave her the word for vegetarian (feoilséantóir — literally “meat denier”) and asked if she could use it in a sentence (always teaching!). She hesitated for a second and then said “I guess it would be “Tá mé feoilséantóir,” because I haven’t always been a vegetarian and I might not be one forever, so it’s not a permanent state.” Unfortunately, the practice of teaching the copula as something used to indicate a permanent state is a set-up for exactly this kind of mistake. You can’t say “Tá mé feoilséantóir.” It’s a TSF error. You say “Is feoilséantóir mé.” (I do have to say, for the record, that there ARE times when you would use “ta” to describe a new, transitory, or future state, but that requires a special construction using “i” — “in” — that I won’t go into here. Maybe in a later post.) When you think about it, there is very little about people, animals, or things that is truly permanent. “The tree is tall” — until it’s been topped. “John is alive” — until he’s dead. In addition there are things that are, more or less, permanent — for example “She is smart” or “Donegal is beautiful” (it is!) — for which we wouldn’t use the copula, at least not in this kind of simple construction. So clearly this isn’t a very useful distinction.
Nouns vs. AdjectivesAt one point, when I was an intermediate learner, I overheard a teacher working with beginners offering this distinction:
“Use is when describing something using a noun. Use tá when describing something using an adjective.”This distinction actually worked pretty well for me for quite a while, because it’s more or less true: If you want to say “X is [noun]” you use the copula and if you want to say “X is [adjective]” you use tá. Easy peasy, right? It broke down in practice, however, when I started teaching beginners myself. Aside from the fact that I often had to explain the grammatical terms, there are too many instances for which this distinction is just too broad. For example, what if you have a sentence that includes both a noun AND an adjective (“He is a tall man,” for example)? What about tá sentences that don’t include an adjective (“Tá an madadh ag ithe”: The dog is eating. “Tá an pláta ar an tábla“: the plate is on the table”)? Maybe they even include an adverb (“Tá an madadh ag ithe go mall”: The dog is eating slowly)! And what about those “is” idioms indicating likes and preferences that are often among the first phrases we learn (“Is maith liom tae”: I like tea. “Is breá liom fíon dearg”: I love red wine)? In this case, there are adjectives (“maith”: “good” and “breá“: “fine”) directly following the copula.
Tell it Like it is (or Tell Us What it is)Here’s the method I finally settled on for teaching about the difference, and it holds up pretty well:
- If you want to say something ABOUT something or someone, use tá.
- If you want to say WHAT something or someone IS, use the copula.
Is that all there is to it?Of course, this isn’t the entire story. For instance, both verbs have negative forms, interrogative forms, a past tense, and a conditional mode. Tá also has a continuous mode and a future tense (Is doesn’t need a conditional mode, and doesn’t have a future tense, which is when that special construction using “in” that I mentioned above will come in handy). But this WILL help you sort out the basic nuts and bolts of when to use tá and when to use the copula, and will help you build the foundation upon which everything else having to do with the verb “to be” in Irish will be built. With enough practice, you’ll soon be copulating with the best of them! (Oh, stop rolling your eyes!)
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/
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