“I am,” or Copulating in Irish

If you’re new to Irish, you may be wondering if The Geeky Gaeilgeoir has been hacked by a porn site (Don’t worry. It hasn’t)

Ha ha…made you look! If you’re new to Irish, you may be wondering if The Geeky Gaeilgeoir has been hacked by a porn site (Don’t worry. It hasn’t). If you’ve been studying Irish for a while, you’re most likely either giggling or rolling your eyes (it’s an old, old joke). This post is not X-rated, or even R-rated (though some of the language I’ve heard from people trying to sort out this subject would definitely earn an R rating!). It has to do with one of the most fundamental aspects of Irish (or pretty much any language) — the correct use of what is, in English, the verb “To Be.”

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 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:

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
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.)

Permanent vs. Impermanent

Typically, 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. Adjectives

At 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  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 . 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.
You use tá say what something or someone is like: its appearance, its state or condition, its location, what it’s doing, etc. Some examples: Tá an madadh dubh: The dog is black. Tá an múinteoir ard dáthúil: The teacher is tall and handsome. Tá Máire sa chistin: Maire is in the kitchen. Tá na daoine ag rith: The people are running. You use is to say what someone or something IS. Some examples: Is madadh dubh é sin: That IS a black dog. Is cócaire í Máire: Máire IS a cook. Is é Seán an múinteoir: Seán IS the teacher. Is iad na daoine atá ag rith: They ARE the people who are running. (If you like grammatical terminology, these are called “identification” and “classification” sentences). You also use the copula in certain basic set phrases, mostly having to do with likes, dislikes, and preferences (there are a few others as well, but you’ll pick those up as you go along): Is maith liom: I like Is breá liom: I love (as in “I love New York,” not as in “I love you, my darling”) Is fearr liom: I prefer Is fuath liom: I hate Is cuma liom: I don’t care There are more of these set expressions, but these are the ones you’re most likely to encounter early on. It’s not really all that hard at all now, is it?

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/


9 thoughts on ““I am,” or Copulating in Irish”

  1. Thank you. The two forms of “to be” drove me crazy a few months back. It took me quite a while to get a good explanation between the two forms (the temporary/permanent explanation was an initial explanation offered to me). I eventually tracked down a couple of books on Irish Grammar and got to the About/What is explanation.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Is this not similar to Spanish and how they use “ser” and “estar”? Which I remember as being quite easy to get the hang of (but I never learned Spanish to any higher/more complicated level). I remember being taught it somewhat as your final suggestion.


      1. Thank you for replying! Perhaps it would be beneficial for teachers of Irish to learn from teachers of Spanish in this respect. I wonder if Irish here is encumbered with an idea that things have to be learned “the traditional way” 😉 despite it being rather obvious (going by your blog post) that it doesn’t really work.


  3. After googling a lot about the copula the past few months, I was glad I came across your post (after I read your post on the Modh Coinníollach last week, I knew it’d make sense!). My Irish teacher has a hard time explaining it to me (she’s a native speaker, and I’m learning Irish as a non-native English speaker), and your point of view offers a great alternative! One thing that remains unclear to me, is how to spot what’s subject and what’s predicate (apart from word order, then).
    To browse more through your blogs, “is smaoineamh maith é sin”!


    1. Hi Ireen,

      Subject and predicate remain in the same order they do in English…it’s really just the verb that moves to the front. The subject will usually come closest to the verb (in some cases separated from it by a comma) and the object will come later. The subject is what does the action and the object is the recipient of the action So, in the sentence “D’ith an madra an bia,” “madra” is the subject (the one doing the eating) and “bia” is the object (the thing being eaten).

      Glad you’re finding the blog helpful!


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