“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


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:


These are the pronouns in Irish:

Muid or sinn (“sinn” is primarily used in Munster)

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:


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”). Or, if you want to replace both nouns: Tá grá aici di (Literally “Is love at her for 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/


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:




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:





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

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!

Some time in the future (when I have time to sit down and write again) 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/


Even Racists Got the Blues

Most of the time, I feel a little bit sorry for people who make horrendous translation mistakes. This is not one of those times.


Dear friends,

Since this post was published, three years ago, so many more lives have been lost to racism in this country, most recently that of George Floyd. I’m asking you, if you’ve found anything of value in this post, to please consider making a donation to Black Lives Matter. If you’re not able to donate, please do what you can. March. Speak up. Speak out. Be a witness. Be the change.

Le meas,
Black Lives Matter

OK…I have to say that, most of the time, I feel a little bit sorry for people who make horrendous translation mistakes. This is not one of those times.

This pic came across my desk about nine months ago, and it may just be the worst example of a self-translation disaster I’ve ever seen. 

In fact, it’s so bad, and so out of context, that most of my Irish-speaking friends had no idea what this person was trying to say with those three Irish words: “Gorm Chónaí Ábhar.” It’s beyond gibberish. It even took me a few minutes.

The sad thing is, in order to “get it,” you need to be familiar not only with the ways in which people make translation mistakes (which are legion), but also with a particularly unpleasant segment of U.S. politics.

What this person was trying to say, with this mess of a translation on his t-shirt, is “Blue Lives Matter.”

A Little Background

For the sake of those who don’t live in the U.S. (and without delving too deeply into the dark underbelly of American politics), suffice it to say that the slogan “Blue Lives Matter” arose in opposition to the “Black Lives Matter” movement.

The “Black Lives Matter” movement arose in response to the disproportionate degree of police brutality directed at people of color in the U.S., particularly toward African Americans.  I’ll leave it to you to decide what would motivate someone to oppose such a movement. The term I prefer can be found in your Irish dictionary under “C.”

So no…I’m not very sorry for this person (I am, however, very sorry at the assault upon the Irish language!).

Beyond philosophy, then, what exactly is wrong with this translation? Well, let’s start with how the “translator” went about it:

Sometimes the Dictionary is NOT Your Friend

I’m often baffled by the number of people who seem to think that you can translate from one language to another simply by pulling the words of one language from a dictionary and plugging them into the syntax of the other. It just doesn’t work that way, friends. Repeat after me: “Languages are not codes for one another.”

That’s exactly what happened here, though. Someone either found a dictionary or searched the internet for the three words “blue,” “lives,” and “matter,” and stuck them together as if they were English. Oy. Dia sábháil (that’s Ulster Irish for “oy”).

Irish syntax is very, very (very!) different from English. For one thing, the verb comes first in the sentence. For another, adjectives follow the nouns they modify. So even if you COULD render this phrase with these three simple words, you’d need “Matter Lives Blue.”

Unfortunately, however, you can’t fix this phrase simply by reordering the words, because, among other things…

Idiom Also Matters

An idiom is an expression particular to a particular language or region. For example, in English, when we say that something “matters,” we mean that it has worth and/or that it makes a difference.

It doesn’t necessarily work that way in other languages. In Irish, we’d have to get more specific. We might say something like Tá fiúntas i _____ (“There is worth/value in _____”) or Tá ________ tábhachtach (“______ is/are important”).

To make matters worse, though (there’s another idiom for you!), whoever made this “translation” apparently forgot that the word “matter” in English can have several meanings. In this case, the word he or she chose — ábhar — means “matter” as in “subject matter.” It’s a noun. Oops!

So Does Pronunciation

Another thing this poor “translator” apparently forgot is that the word “lives” in English can be pronounced to rhyme with “gives” or with “hives,” and that the meaning changes accordingly.

What was wanted here, of course, is “lives” as rhymes with “hives.” Three guesses as to which one the “translator” chose. Yep. Wrong one.

The word cónaí in Irish (which in certain grammatical circumstances inflects to chónaí) means “dwelling.” When we want to say that we live somewhere, we literally say “Am I in my dwelling in _________.”

Tá mé i mo chónaí i nDún na nGall: “I live in Donegal.”

Tá Seán ina chónaí i nGaillimh: “Seán lives in Galway.”

To toss another problem onto the pile, in Irish, we probably wouldn’t use the equivalent of the English “life/lives (rhymes with ‘hives’)” to mean “people”. We’d most likely just use daoine: “people.” There’s that “idiom” problem again.

And Then There’s Gorm

The funny thing here is, the Irish word gorm actually does mean “blue” in most contexts. Just not in this manner, and definitely not in this context.

When color is used to describe a person in Irish, it typically refers to hair color. For example An bhean rua: The red-haired woman.

There are exceptions, of course: For example, Na fir bhuí (“The orange/yellow men”) is used to refer to members of the Orange Order because of the color of their sashes. But “blue/gorm” would not be used to refer to police officers as a group. That’s an American thing.

All that having been said, though, here’s the lovely, delicious irony: When the word gorm is used in reference to people, guess what it means?

It means “Black.”

People of African descent, or with similarly dark skin, are described as “blue” in Irish (most likely because dubh (“black”) and dorcha (“dark”) have negative connotations in the language and donn (“brown”) would be understood to refer to hair color).

That’s right. At the end of the day, allowing for grammatical travesties (of which there are many) and horrendous word choices, what this person’s shirt says is “Black Lives Matter.”

Somehow that makes me strangely happy.

Update 9/24/2020: I just came across this excellent article by Clare Healy on Black Lives Matter and the Irish language. Highly recommended!

The Irish for Black Lives Matter

Featured image © 2016 by Karen Reshkin. Used with permission. Karen took this picture at the 2016 Milwaukee Irish Fest. Please visit her Irish-learning website A Clever Sheep (www.acleversheep.net)

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/


Making Sense of Irish Gender

People who have never studied a language other than English seem to find the concept of grammatical gender confusing.

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”)

Basic Guidelines

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,” “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

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)

Combines with…

Baile – town (masculine)

To become…

Sráidbhaile – village (masculine)

Exceptions Exceptions!

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!

Beirigí bua!


* 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/