“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/

 

The Modest Preposition

The humble preposition plays a vital role in the Irish language

A while back, I wrote a Facebook post lamenting the loss of the preposition “from” in the phrase “to graduate from college.” Apparently, in increasingly common usage, one no longer graduates from college, one “graduates college.” (There are lots of reasons why this oddly truncated phrase doesn’t work, which I’ll let Grammar Girl describe in detail. To me it’s like fingernails on a chalkboard.).

This led to a discussion about prepositions in general, with predictable side trips into regionalisms/colloquialisms, prescriptivism vs. descriptivism, language evolution (or devolution), etc., but what it all boiled down to was that prepositions are little words and, in English at least, are sometimes easily tossed aside.

(That said, I’ll challenge anyone who defends “graduate college” to explain why he doesn’t also “go school” or “sleep night”).

Me being me (yes, the geek is back!), this got me thinking about the vital role the humble preposition plays in the Irish language.

Little Word, Big Job

First let’s talk about the basic function of a preposition. Here’s what Merriam-Webster has to say about it:

Prepositions show direction, location, or time, or introduce an object. They are usually followed by an object—a noun, noun phrase, or pronoun. The most common prepositions are little and very common:

at, by, for, from, in, of, on, to, with

Further…

Prepositions typically show how the noun, noun phrase, or pronoun is related to another word in the sentence.

a friend of mine

the dress with the stripes

hit by a ball

no one except me

That’s a lot of work for a bunch of small words!

And how they work can vary greatly from country to country and from region to region, as this article demonstrates:

Prepositions: The super-handy and horribly confusing widgets of language, by James Harbeck.

Still, useful and perplexing as they are in English, prepositions take on a whole new job when it comes to Irish. They can take the place of verbs.

Let me explain

Perhaps the above needs a little explanation. It’s not that Irish doesn’t have verbs. Irish has plenty of verbs, and conjugating them drives new learners crazy (Though I’m not sure why. Irish verb construction is really very simple. More on that in another post).

English, however, is much more reliant on verbs to convey meaning. We have a dedicated verb for just about every conceivable action. Give us a concept and we can verb it (see what I did there?).

Irish, on the other hand, often favors a preposition, supported by some form of the verb “to be” to convey the same concepts. For example, in English we have (verbs in bold):

  • Seán has a new car
  • Máire is sick
  • Gráinne loves chocolate
  • Síle loves Sinéad
  • Éamonn hates tomatoes

The same sentences in Irish (verbs underlined; prepositions in bold):

  • carr nua ag Seán. (Literally “Is car new at Seán”)
  • tinneas ar Mháire (Literally “Is sickness on Máire”)
  • Is maith le Gráinne seacláid (Literally “Is good with Gráinne chocolate”)
  • grá ag Síle do Shinéad (Literally “Is love at Síle for Sinéad”)
  • Is fuath le Éamonn trátaí (Literally “Is hatred with Éamonn tomatoes”)

“Tá” and “Is” are both words that correspond to the verb “to be” in English (they’re not used interchangeably, but that also is a subject for another post…or maybe a book…or perhaps a small library).

But wait…there’s more!

An interesting thing about Irish prepositions (and a feature of Celtic languages in general) is that they have a special affinity with another class of small words that begins with “P” — pronouns. Irish conjugates prepositions by joining them with pronouns, in a form that is formally called a “prepositional pronoun.”

Knowing how prepositional pronouns work is integral to learning and speaking Irish (unless you want to sound like Tarzan).

Meet the pronouns

You probably remember from school that a pronoun is a word that takes the place of a noun (which saves us from having to say such things as “Audrey drives Audrey’s car to Audrey’s office every morning. Audrey gets out of Audrey’s car and unlocks the door to Audrey’s office and then goes to Audrey’s desk and checks Audrey’s email” which would be a pretty tedious and cumbersome way to talk, you have to admit).

These are the pronouns in English:

I/me
You
He/him
She/her
We/us
They/them
It

These are the pronouns in Irish:


Tú/thú
Sé/é
Sí/í
Muid or sinn (“sinn” is primarily used in Munster)
Sibh
Siad/iad

Because all nouns in Irish, animate or inanimate, have grammatical gender, Irish doesn’t have an equivalent of the neuter inanimate pronoun “it.” Also, unlike contemporary English, Irish has singular and plural forms of “you”: tú/thú for singular and sibh for plural.

Putting it all together

In Irish, you can’t just put a pronoun next to a preposition. You must combine the two into a “prepositional pronoun.” For example, you can’t say:

Ag mé

You have to say:

Agam

Here’s the full conjugation of “ag” (“at):

Agam (“at me”)
Agat (“at you” – singular)
Aige (“at him”)
Aici (“at her”)
Againn (“at us”)
Agaibh (“at you” – plural)
Acu (“at them”)

Here are the sentences I used earlier, each with one noun replaced with a prepositional pronoun:

  • carr nua aige(Literally “Is car new at him,” i.e., “He has a new car”)
  • tinneas uirthi (Literally “Is sickness on her,” i.e., “She is sick”)
  • Is maith léi seacláid (Literally “Is good with her chocolate,” i.e., “She likes chocolate”)
  • grá ag Síle di (Literally “Is love at Síle for her,”i.e., “Síle loves her”)
  • Is fuath leis trátaí (Literally “Is hatred with him tomatoes,” i.e., “He hates tomatoes”)

What this all comes down to is that, when translating many common phrases from English to Irish, you need to know at least three things:

1) Is this an instance that requires a preposition rather than a dedicated verb?
2) If so, which preposition is required?
3) If I want to use a pronoun, how does that pronoun combine with the preposition?

(There are actually a few more things you have to know, such as “how does the preposition affect a word that follows it?” but we’ll deal with that somewhere/time down the road).

Bad news for wannabe translators

There are myriad reasons why a person who isn’t reasonably fluent in Irish (or in any other language not their own) shouldn’t attempt translations for anything permanent or public. This is one of the biggies. Idioms involving prepositions and prepositional pronouns are integral to the language. There’s just no getting around that. And if you don’t know how to use them, you’re going to get it wrong — guaranteed.

And if I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a hundred times YOU CANNOT RELY ON GOOGLE TRANSLATE. Seriously. Just don’t. If you need an example or two of how just how badly Google handles Irish, check out this post I wrote for Bitesize Irish a few years back:

Bitesize Irish – Irish Translators

I’m sorry to say it hasn’t improved much in the intervening seven-plus years.

Translator’s bane, learner’s boon

If you’re learning Irish, or contemplating doing so (maybe as a New Year’s resolution!), this may seem a bit daunting. Don’t let it worry you.

The fact that these idioms are so integral to Irish means that you will begin encountering them from your earliest lessons, and the more common ones will become familiar very, very quickly. These include the kinds of sentences you will use over and over again, such as:

  • Those involving possessions
  • Those involving physical attributes
  • Those involving desires, likes, and dislikes
  • Those involving health/physical condition

It won’t take you long to begin to get a feel for the patterns. And when you need help, this is one case in which your favorite dictionary can be really useful.

Most dictionaries, whether print or on-line, have extensive entries on prepositions, which will not only give you the prepositional pronoun forms, but lots of examples of usage. Here’s an example from Teanglann.ie:

Ag (at) in Foclóir Gaeilge-Béarla

You’ll get it — I promise! And faster than you might think.

The Geek is back!

You may have noticed that I haven’t been around for a while (You have noticed, haven’t you? Please tell me you noticed! Actually, if you haven’t, don’t tell me!). Adjusting to working full time after 20+ years of working from home, as well as dealing with some health issues, put a cramp in my style for a bit.

I’m back now, though, and I made two resolutions for 2020:

  1. To get this post finished and posted by the end of New Year’s Day (nailed it!)
  2. To write more frequently in 2020 (I’m aiming for publishing fortnightly, if possible. Hold me to it!)

If you think of something you’d like me to write about regarding Irish and/or translation, please let me know! You can say it in the comments below or message me via WordPress.

Athbhliain faoi rath is faoi mhaise daoibh! (A lovely and prosperous New Year to you all!)

Le meas, GG


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/

Oh, What an Idiom!

Translation is both an art and a science, and it takes more than you might realize to get a correct translation.

dul gorm censored (1)

Definition of idiom (Thank you, Webster!)

1an expression in the usage of a language that is peculiar to itself, either grammatically (such as no, it wasn’t me) or in having a meaning that cannot be derived from the conjoined meanings of its elements (such as ride herd on for “supervise”).

2athe language peculiar to a people or to a district, community, or class :DIALECT

bthe syntacticalgrammatical, or structural form peculiar to a language.

It’s not a bug, it’s a feature

Idioms are so much a part of our language — of ANY language — that it can be hard for learners or translation seekers to understand that they may not make sense when translated directly into another language.

We deal with idioms day after day, though we may not be aware of them. Consider these:

  • You take a bath
  • You make money
  • It’s raining cats and dogs

You don’t think about these phrases…they’re just part of how you speak. To you they sound perfectly logical. But imagine how they sound to a learner of your language:

  • You’re removing a bathtub from one place to another
  • You’re printing your own money
  • Dogs and cats are literally falling from the sky

A challenge for would-be translators

Many pitfalls await for people who try to do their own translations without actually knowing the language into which they’re translating. Assuming that idioms can translate literally across languages is one of the most common.

While this can be true for any language, the further you get from familiar English structures and culture, the less likely it is that your idiom will make any sense at all once “translated.”

This is what happened with the shirt on the poor fellow in the photo above (His face and his Twitter handle are obscured to save him from embarrassment, as I doubt he’s the originator of this mistake. It’s been going around the internet for quite a while. He looks sad because he’s just learned that his shirt is wrong).

Whoever “translated” the words on his shirt assumed that the common American English slogan “Go [sports team]” could be expressed literally in Irish.

By now, I probably don’t have to tell you that this is not the case.

Just go

There are two problems here, and the first (and most fundamental) issue is one of idiom.

What the shirt is intended to say is “Go Blue” — a slogan you’ll hear shouted enthusiastically at games by students and alumni of the University of Michigan (whose color is, of course, blue).

Irish has a couple of words that mean “go,” depending on context. The one used here is the verb téigh (Yes, I know that nothing on that shirt looks like “téigh.” More on that in a moment). Another common one is imigh.

Between the two of them, they encompass most of the usual uses of “go” (téigh is more of a general-use “go,” while imigh is more “go” as in “leave/depart”): “Go home,” “Go away,” “Let’s go to grandma’s,” “The road goes ever on,” “Does this bus go to Dublin?” “I go to work every day,” etc., etc.

And, of course, there’s always this one:

an bhfuil cead agam 2

Neither of them, however, is used as a rallying cry.

When you want to express something like this in Irish, you use the word abú, which means, roughly, “onward.” And it comes AFTER whatever you’re cheering for.

GORM ABÚ!!!! GO BLUE!!!!

A matter of grammar

The other issue with this “translation” is that, even if “Go Blue” could have been rendered using the verb téigh, the “translator” chose the wrong form of the verb.

Dul is a form known as the “verbal noun,” which, depending on context, corresponds to the infinitive (“to go”) or the present participle (“going”).

Ba mhaith liom dul abhaile: I would like to go home.

Tá mé ag dul abhaile: I am going home.

What was wanted is the imperative — the form of the verb that is used for giving an order or direction.

In Irish, the root form of the verb is the singular imperative, so to tell one person or entity to “go,” you’d simply use téigh.  For multiple people or entities, you’d use téigí. A sports team is a singular entity, so even if this could have been translated literally, the verb form should have been téigh, not dul.

Téigh abhaile: Go home.

The point of all of this

The point of this (and of other similar posts in this blog) isn’t to ridicule the University of Michigan or other groups/individuals who make these very public mistakes. It’s to emphasize the fact that, if you don’t speak a language, you can’t translate into it. You can’t even verify a translation given to you by someone else.

That’s why you absolutely must verify your sources. Check, re-check, and then check again. Even if you get a translation from a close friend or family member, get it verified. Get a minimum of three RELIABLE sources in agreement before proceeding.

Translation is both an art and a science, and it takes more than you might realize to get a correct translation.

New year, new price

Inflation affects the best of us…even translators. The price for both The Irish Gaelic Tattoo Handbook and The Scottish Gaelic Tattoo Handbook will be going up sometime this month. If you’ve been thinking about buying a copy of one or both of them, act now! Both books are available from Amazon and from Barnes & Noble, or from your local bookstore via special order.


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/

 

An Modh Coinníollach, or The Monster of What May (or May Not) Be

Don’t be afraid of the dark…or of the modh coinníollach!

Dá mbeinn chomh saibhir is a bhí mé anuraidh
Thógfainn tigh mór ar an chnoc údai thall,
Fíon agus ór ‘siad a bhéarfainn do mo stór,
Is bheinn ag gabháil ceoil le mo chailín rua.

The Monster in the Living Room

I just have to say it. Ever since I started learning Irish, I’ve heard people speak with dread and loathing of the modh coinníollach (pronounced, roughly “mohg kun-EE-lukh”).

“It’s too difficult!” “I’ll NEVER get it!” “Why do we have to have this in the language?” “Can’t we just get rid of it?” (this latter group usually wants to do away with the tuiseal ginideach — the genitive case — as well).

As I’m sure you can imagine, by the time I was an advanced student, I’d built the modh coinníollach up into a terrible monster in my mind!

And I wasn’t alone! I’ve even seen an entire class of advanced students turn white as sheets when the teacher suggested doing a drill on the modh coinníollach. I swear, you’d have thought he’d asked us to rappel down Sliabh Liag using dental floss!

Irish-American comedian Des Bishop had a similar experience:

Des Bishop on An Modh Coinníollach

Meet the Monster

So what is this terrible thing that has been terrorizing Irish students for generations? Well, if you listened to the above video (And you should. Des Bishop is hilarious!), you already know: It’s simply the conditional mode of a verb. 

Furthermore, if you’re a student of Irish, it’s likely that you’ve been using the modh coinníollach from some of your earliest lessons.  Does any of this sound familiar?

Cad é ba mhaith leat?: What would you like?

Ar mhaith leat cupán tae?: Would you like a cup of tea?

Ba mhaith.:  Yes (“I would”)

Níor mhaith: No (“I wouldn’t”) 

Ba, ar, and níor are, in this case, conditional forms of the copula is.

In my case, I’d unknowingly encountered the modh coinníollach even before I started seriously studying Irish, in one of my favorite songs: An Cailín Rua (“The Red-Haired Girl”), the last verse of which is at the beginning of this post:

If I were (dá mbeinn) as wealthy as I was last year,

I would build (thógfainn) a big house on the hill over yonder,

Wine and gold I would give (bhéarfainn) to my love,

And I would be (bheinn) making music with my red-haired girl.

Are you seeing a pattern here?

A Matter of Condition

I suspect one reason the modh coinníollach worries people is that they’re not sure how or when to use it.

Formal grammar terminology can be intimidating if you’re not familiar with it (and sometimes even if you are!). And modh coinníollach” certainly is a mouthful, even in English (“conditional mode/mood”).

But it’s really not all that bad. Let’s break it down:

Modh = “Mode” or “Mood”:  A distinctive form, or set of forms, of a verb.

Coinníollach = “Conditional”: Something that is dependent on certain conditions.

So, put reasonably simply (or hilariously, if you listen to Des Bishop’s monologue), the modh coinníollach is a verb form you use when you’re talking about something that might or might not happen, depending on other factors (“conditions”):

“If I were rich, I would buy a Ferrari.”

“If I had the time, I would write more blog posts.”

“If it weren’t raining, I would go for a walk.”

The first part of the sentences above tells you what would need to happen (more money, more time, no rain) to make the second part happen (buying a Ferrari, writing more blog posts, going for a walk).

Of course, you can also flip such conditional sentences around:

“I would buy a Ferrari, if I were rich.”

“I would write more blog posts, if I had the time.”

“I would go for a walk, if it weren’t raining.”

Shoulda, Woulda, Coulda

Another way to keep track of when to use the modh coinníollach, at least if English is your first language, is to link it in your mind with certain English words:

Should

Would

Could

Were (Not as in the past tense — “the boys were playing” — but in the subjunctive — “If I were rich.”).

Don’t be intimidated!

But perhaps the issue isn’t so much knowing when to use the modh coinníollach as knowing how to form it.

The thing is, it really isn’t difficult. It’s certainly no more difficult than other Irish verb forms (which, because of the relative lack of irregular verbs in Irish – there are only 11 – aren’t all that difficult at all).

If you can learn the future and past tenses, you can learn the modh coinníollach, and I’m going to give you some basics to get you started.

Days of future past

With a nod to The Moody Blues*, then, let’s get started.

(*And yes…I know the name of the CD is actually “Days of Future Passed.” But this always pops into my head when I think about the modh coinníollach – you’ll see why in a moment – so I think the band will allow me a little leeway).

If you know how to form the past tense and the future tense of regular Irish verbs, you’re more than halfway to knowing how to form verbs in the conditional mode.

First, change the beginning

For independent verb forms* in the modh coinníollach, the beginning of the word is the same as it is in the past tense. Let’s review those:

1. If it begins with a lenitable consonant, lenite it. Shín sí: “She stretched.”

2. If it begins with an unlenitable consonant, leave it alone: Lean sé: “He followed.

3. If it begins with a vowel, put “d’” in front of it. D’éirigh siad: “They arose/got up.”

4. If it begins with “f,” first you lenite it and then, because “fh” is silent, you also put “d’” in front of it. D’fhan sé: “He stayed.”

* Independent verb forms are those that don’t “depend” on a particle: “an,” “ar,” “nach,” etc. 

Next, broaden your future

The future tense of the verbs above are as follows:

Sínfidh

Leanfaidh

Éireoidh

Fanfaidh

To form the conditional mode, after you change the beginning, if necessary, you make those slender endings (i.e., “i” or “e”) broad:

Shínfeadh sí: She would stretch

Leanfadh sé: He would follow

D’éireodh siad: They would arise/get up

D’fhanfadh sé: He would stay.

Not too bad, is it?

Exceptions, Exceptions

One way in which the conditional mode differs from other verb forms is that the first- and second-person singular  are formed a little differently.

The first- and second-person singular forms in the modh coinníollach always incorporate the pronoun into the verb itself (if you speak a dialect that uses táim and táimid instead of tá mé and tá muid, you’re already familiar with this concept). Technically, these are referred to as “synthetic” verb forms.

For first-person singular, that means that the verb ends in “-inn” (Yeah, I know that seems a little odd.  If it helps you to remember, just pretend that “nn” is an “m.” It kind of looks like an “m” in sans serif fonts anyway.)

For second-person singular, that means the verb ends in “-fá.” I have no mnemonic for you for this one. It’s just one you’ll have to learn. But it’s unusual enough that it’s actually pretty easy to remember.

So, for the verbs we’ve been talking about:

Shínfinn: I would stretch.
Shínfeá: You would stretch.

Leanfainn: I would follow
Leanfá: You would follow

D’eireoinn: I would rise/get up
D’éireofá: You would rise/get up

D’fhanainn: I would stay
D’fhanfá

See how easy it is? Just follow the pattern!

It’s a bit of a struggle at first to remember not to add a pronoun after the word (for example, it’s just shínfinn, not shínfinn mé, because the pronoun is already incorporated into the ending), but it’s just a bit of practice…nothing insurmountable.

First- and third-person plural

First- and third-person plurals are also different, and require a little bit of memorization. The ending for first-person plural is “-mis.” For third-person plural, it’s “-dís.

Shínfimis: We would stretch
Shínfidís: They would stretch

Leanfaimis: We would follow
Leanfaidís: They would follow

D’éireoimis: We would arise/get up
D’éireoidís: They would arise/get up

D’fhanfaimis: We would stay
D’fhanfaidís: They  would stay

Again, these are synthetic verb forms, so don’t stick a pronoun on the end…it’s already there.

Is that all? Of course not!

Next week we’ll explore the negative and dependent forms of the conditional mode. In the meantime, spend some time practicing what I’ve given you here.

Really, the point of this post is not to make you an overnight expert, but to minimize the angst that seems to surround what really is a very basic and simple verb form.

Don’t shy away from it! It really is no more difficult than any other verb form. Why it’s developed its fearsome reputation I have no idea, but you’re doing yourself a disservice if you avoid it.

You would be much happier, and you could find yourself much more comfortable with conversational Irish, if only you would let go of your fear!

An modh coinníollach abú!

The featured picture at the top of this post was taken on midsummer eve in Ballyvaughan, Co. Clare. The cottage is in a little holiday village where I and some friends stayed for a week, making music and seeing the sights. © 2008, by Audrey Nickel.


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/

 

O Say, Can You Say…?

Irish pronunciation: You can learn it. You CAN crack the code. And I’m going to tell you how.

In the 14+ years I’ve been learning Irish, I’ve noticed that, among learners (including myself), there’s a particular pattern of what I call “freakoutage” — i.e., things that make you clutch your hair and moan “Oh no! I’ll never learn this!”

It’s a very particular pattern, and it goes like this:

  • Freaking out about pronunciation
  • Freaking out about dialects
  • Freaking out about the use of tá vs. is.
  • Freaking out about how to answer “yes/no” questions
  • Freaking out about Irish verbs in general
  • Freaking out about certain verb forms

And it’s not just beginners! Far from it! In fact, I was once part of a class of advanced learners — people who can chat fairly comfortably on a wide variety of topics — who froze in wide-eyed, open-mouthed horror when the teacher cheerfully suggested “Let’s practice the modh coinníollach!

(The modh coinníolach is the conditional verb form — would, could, should, etc. — and for some reason that I really don’t understand it strikes terror into the hearts of Irish learners everywhere).

At some point I hope to talk about each of these in this blog, but for right now, let’s start with the most basic.

The elephant in the room: pronunciation

Once you’ve cracked the code, it can be hard to believe that you ever struggled with Irish pronunciation.

For an absolute beginner, however, the first time you look at an Irish word and then hear it pronounced (and realize that nothing that came out of the speaker’s mouth sounded remotely as you’d assumed it would), the prospect of actually learning to speak the language can seem pretty overwhelming.

The truth is that Irish spelling and pronunciation are surprisingly regular, particularly when compared with English (the language that gives us “through,” “though,” and “tough,” to name just a few of English’s inconsistencies!).

You can learn it. You CAN crack the code. And I’m going to tell you how.

First, forget all you think you know

Usually the first thing I hear when I pronounce an Irish word for someone is “How can that possibly make those sounds?” 

People tend to assume that letters have more or less absolute values, and that, perhaps with a few exceptions, they should sound more or less in one language as they do in another.

Language learners learn fairly quickly that that’s not always the case. Some letters and letter combinations in Irish sound like their counterparts in English, but many do not. Sometimes the difference is subtle and sometimes it’s quite marked.

Irish words also often seem to have more letters than they could possibly need.  One reason for this is an Irish spelling convention that dictates that a vowel on one side of a consonant or consonant combination must be matched with a vowel of the same type on the other side.

This rule is referred to as caol le caol agus leathan le leathan (“slender with slender and broad with broad”).  The “slender” vowels are i and e, and the broad vowels are a, o, and u. Often, when you find three vowels together in Irish, one of them is there simply to satisfy this spelling rule.

Add this to the fact that consonants and consonant combinations often make very different sounds to their counterparts in English, and you can find just about everything you know about spelling turned upside down.

If you go in without the expectation that things will “sound like they’re spelled” (a phrase I’ve come to hate, as they DO sound like they’re spelled…if you speak Irish! English is not the arbiter of the alphabet!), you’ll have an easier time right from the start.

Next: Forget Phonetics

It is so very tempting, when you hear an Irish word, to write it out using English phonics, or to ask the teacher to do so for you. So it may come as a surprise to you when I say that this is one of the WORST things you can do if you truly want to learn to read Irish as written.

There are a lot of reasons why writing things out “phonetically” is a bad idea. Here are just a few of them:

  • The sounds of Irish cannot be accurately represented by English phonics.* Consider the word gaoth (wind) for example. When people attempt to write it with English phonics, it usually gets set down as “gwee.” The problem is, while there is a sound in there that sounds a little like an English “w,” it’s not precisely equivalent. You can hear it pronounced in the three major dialects here:

    Gaoth
  • Phonetic renderings impose an extra step between your ear, your eye, your mind, and your mouth. When you use English phonics to describe Irish sounds, you’re not really learning to associate the sounds with the Irish spelling, which can make learning to read and pronounce Irish doubly difficult.
  • Phonetic renderings can quickly become a crutch. I’ve known several people who never have learned to pronounce Irish as written, even after years of study, because they haven’t been able wean themselves off their English phonetic renderings (and at least one guy who claims it’s “impossible” to learn how to pronounce Irish as written and is trying to promote a new, English-based Irish spelling system. How sad is that?).

* Someone here is bound to mention IPA. Yes, the International Phonetic Alphabet is capable of representing pretty much any sound. It also takes just about as much time to to learn as Irish phonics, and presents the same problem as using English phonetics when it comes to putting a barrier between you and the written language. Save the IPA for another day.

See it; hear it; say it

So how do you learn to pronounce written Irish? The answer is so simple you’re going to think I’m pulling your leg. So simple, and yet so vital:

  • You see the word or phrase
  • You listen to a recording of the word or phrase
  • You say the word or phrase

What you need to do is establish a link between the word as it appears, the word as it sounds, and the word as it’s said. There is absolutely no substitute for this kind of practice if you want to learn to read Irish as written.

Don’t sit there and think to yourself “How can this possibly be pronounced like that?” Just accept that it is and learn it. It really is just that simple, and you’ll be surprised at just how quickly it works.

Of course, there are details

They say the devil is in the details, and if you want this method to work well for you, you need to give that devil his due. If you go about this randomly, at best it will take much longer to learn and at worst you may find yourself so confused that you give up.

Here are a few words of advice:

  • If you don’t have a teacher, pick ONE self-teaching method that has both a written and an aural component and stick with that one until you’ve finished it. This is important advice for learning Irish in general, and especially important if you want to get a solid grasp on how to read it as written. Don’t worry about dialects at this point. You’re just trying to get the basics, without confusing yourself too much. Once you’ve got those down, you can adjust your pronunciation as needed. I list several good resources in my blog post “Beyond Duolingo.”
  • If you do have a teacher, ask him or her if you can make a recording of vocabulary words and phrases/sentences from the unit you’re working on.
  • For now, avoid YouTube “pronunciation” videos. Yes, all of them (unless, of course, they’re part of the self-teaching method you’re using or of the program your teacher is using). Some of them are good, some are “meh,” and some are outright horrible. You don’t want to confuse yourself, and you certainly don’t want to establish bad habits right from the start! Those videos can wait until you’re a little farther along.
  • Practice daily, or more frequently if possible. Spend at least a few minutes every day working with your recordings. Look at the word or phrase you’re learning while you play the recording and again while you try to emulate the recording. See it; hear it; say it. Some self-learning programs, such as “Enjoy Irish!,” even have apps available for your phone, so you can spend a few minutes practicing during your lunch break (or on the bus or train if you don’t mind people looking at you funny!).
  • Every so often, reverse the order: Look at the word or phrase first, try to say it, and then compare what you said to the recording. This will allow you to assess your progress. When you get to the point where you’re pronouncing things correctly most of the time, and it’s just a matter of refining pronunciation rather than trying to work out how all the letters sound, you’ll know you’ve cracked the code.

Practice makes perfect

It may be a cliché, but it’s true nevertheless. If you work like this a little each day, pronunciation of written Irish will come to you more quickly than you may have dreamed possible when you first began.

So what are you waiting for? Get out there, get a good learning method (if you don’t have one already) and start practicing!

And while you’re at it, don’t forget to have a wonderful St. Patrick’s Day! Lá ‘le Pádraig sona daoibh!

Happy Learning!

GG


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/

 

Irish Tattoos That Make Us Cringe

It’s March, and St. Patrick’s Day is in the air! To celebrate, my publisher and I have put up a “Bad Tattoo” post on Bored Panda.

It’s a promotion for the book, of course, but it’s also a great antidote for all the kitsch that comes our way at this time of year.

It may seem surprising, but reading and doing tattoo translations can actually be a good way to learn basic Irish-language concepts, including sentence structure, idiom, and the use of articles and the genitive case.

And if schadenfreude is your thing, looking at these particular tattoo “translations” will definitely scratch that itch!

Enjoy, and if you’re so inclined, please share! The world needs more exposure to Irish and fewer bad Irish tattoos!

Erin Go Wut?! Real-Life Irish Tattoos That Make Us Cringe

Happy March!

GG


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/

Welcome Springtime!

So you think “the first day of spring” is on the vernal equinox? Think again!

Lá fhéile Bríde sona daoibh! Happy St. Brighid’s Day to you all!

I had hoped to write a completely new post for this special day, but time got away from me. Maybe next year!

So in celebration of the REAL first day of spring (Think the “first day of spring” is on the vernal equinox? Think again!), here’s a link to a post I wrote for Lá Fhéile Bríde  for Bitesize Irish in 2013.

It includes some background on the woman (or women?) who Christians know as a saint and Pagans know as a goddess, as well as some things you can do to celebrate her feast day.

St. Brighid’s Day: Comes the Irish Springtime

And, thanks to the wonderful Irish singer Pádraigín Ní Uallacháin, here is a beautiful hymn to Brighid to brighten your day:

Gabhaim Molta Bríde

Wherever you are in this beautiful world, have a wonderful day! Bainigí sult as, agus Brat Bríde oraibh go léir! (Enjoy, and may Bríd’s cloak shelter you!)

GG.