Irish Lesson 1.

Eclipsis & Aspiration

You're going to meet these two unpleasant terms sooner or later so it's best to get them out of the way. Eclipsis and aspiration are two ways in which grammatical change is shown in Irish. In English, for example, the suffix "-ed" is appended to many verbs to indicate past time "walk --> walked", and the suffix "-s" is used to indicate the plural. In Irish, changes like these are made not to the ends of words but to the beginning -- this is a hallmark of all the Celtic languages. And these changes cause changes in pronunciation as well as changes to spelling, so it's best to discuss them now rather than later.

i) Aspiration (also known as Lenition)

In writing, aspirating a letter means that the letter "h" is placed after it if possible. Not all consonants can be aspirated in writing -- b, c, d, f, g, m, p, s, and t can be, but l, n, and r cannot. Placing an "h" after one of these letters can change its sound greatly.
Letter Aspirated Form Sounds like
bh  v, w
ch  ch as in "loch" 
dh  ["gh" as in ""ugh" before and after a broad vowel; like "y" before a slender vowel; silent after a slender vowel]
fh  [silent]
gh  ["gh" as in "ugh" before and after a broad vowel; like "y" before a slender vowel; silent after a slender vowel]
mh  v as in "van"
ph  f as in "fast"
sh  h as in "heat"
th  [h as in "heat"; generally silent at the end of a word]

One example of aspiration in Irish is to mark certain kinds of possession. For example, the word "mo" (my) causes aspiration on the following word. So if we take the word "cóta" (meaning "coat") and want to say "my coat", it would be "mo chóta". If we use the word "teach" meaning "house", "my house" would be "mo theach", etc.

ii) Eclipsis

Eclipsis works in a different way. An eclipsed consonant loses its sound to the letter placed in front of it.

Letter Eclipsed Form Sounds Like
mb  m as in "man"
gc  g as in "goat"
nd  n as in "not"
bhf  v as in "vet" [or w as in "wet"]
ng  n as in "not"
bp  b as in "bed"
dt  d as in "day"

This is less perverse than it looks. For instance, the word "i" means "in" in Irish and causes eclipsis on the following word. So if we take a place-name like "Béal Feirste" (Belfast) then "in Belfast" would be "i mBéal Feirste"; "in Toronto" would be "i dToronto". The former would be pronounced (roughly) "i mel fehrsht" and the latter "i doronto".

"To be" -- present tense

Irish, like Spanish, has two verbs to express the state of "being". The one we'll be starting with expresses the idea of temporary being, and is normally used to join a noun with an adjective. For instance, "John" is a noun and "ill" is an adjective, so this "temporary" form of the verb "to be" would be used to express "John is ill" in Irish.

Tá Seán tinn.  John is ill.

In common with the other Celtic languages Irish puts the verb at the beginning of the sentence. In this case, the verb is "tá". Unlike "is" in English, which can change to "am" or "are", "tá" here is invariable no matter which pronoun is placed after it:

tá mé I am
tá tú you are (singular, informal)
tá sé he is, it is
tá sí she is, it is
tá muid we are
tá sibh you are (plural; formal singular)
tá siad they are


1) In some dialects "táim" replaces "tá mé" and "táimid" replaces "tá muid".

2) "Sé" and "sí" mean "it" when they are replacing masculine and feminine nouns, respectively.

Some examples using the above pronouns:

Tá muid fuar.  We are cold.
Tá sé buí.  It is yellow.
Tá tú álainn.  You [singular] are beautiful.
Tá siad deas.  They are nice.
Tá sí maith.  She is good.
Tá sibh óg.  You [plural] are young.
Tá mé beag.  I am little.
Tá Niall sona.  Neil is happy.

Question form of "to be" in Present Tense

In many languages you can ask a question just by rearranging the words -- in English "John is ill" can be turned into "Is John ill?" or can even be turned into a question by keeping the word-order and changing only the intonation: "John is ill?" In Irish, though, a question word called "an" (which usually causes eclipsis on the next word) has to be put before the verb in order to ask a question. Now, as in most languages, the verb for "to be" in Irish is very irregular. You can't just put "an" in front of "tá"; you have to use an irregular form of "tá", which is "fuil". Since "an" causes eclipsis on "fuil", the result is "An bhfuil...?" "Is/are...?"

An bhfuil Seán tinn?  Is John ill?
An bhfuil siad álainn?  Are they beautiful?
An bhfuil mé deas?  Am I nice?

The answer to a question in Irish is not "yes" or "no" -- no simple equivalents to these exist in Irish -- but a restatement of the question in positive form. If the positive form is "tá" and the question form is "an bhfuil", a question like

An bhfuil Seán tinn?

can be answered

Tá.  Yes.

-- where "tá" literally means "is". It's a bit like answering the question "do you like Guinness?" by saying "I do". (In formerly Gaelic- speaking areas it's more common to hear a question in English answered with a restatement of the verb rather than with "yes" or "no").

Negative Form of "to be"

Now of course, if our favourite invalid is in fact shamming and is not really ill, the question "An bhfuil Seán tinn?" would require a negative answer. And this too would just be a restatement of the verb. The negative form of "tá" is "níl":

Níl tú álainn.  You are not beautiful.
Níl sí buí.  It is not yellow.[etc.]

So the question "an bhfuil Seán tinn?" can be answered: "Níl", no.

Negative Question Form

A negative question in Irish corresponds to the English questions "Isn't it...?" or "Doesn't it...?" The word that asks a negative question is "nach", which like "an" causes eclipsis on "fuil", giving us "Nach bhfuil...?"

Nach bhfuil Seán tinn?  Isn't John ill?
Nach bhfuil siad deas?  Aren't they nice?

As usual, the answer to these questions would be either "tá" (yes) or "níl" (no).

A Little Ending Vocabulary

anois  -- now
anseo  -- here
ansin  -- there
dearg  -- red
dona  -- bad
dubh  -- black
dorcha  -- dark
fliuch  -- wet
glan  -- clean
geal  -- bright
inné  -- yesterday
inniu  -- today
iontach  -- wonderful
lag  -- weak
láidir  -- strong
mór  -- big
seo  -- this
sin  -- that
te  -- hot
tirim  -- dry
tuirseach  -- tired

And some nouns... all of these are masculine, just to keep it simple for now:

baile  -- town
bord  -- table
buachaill  -- boy
ceol  -- music
fear  -- man
mac  -- son
teach  -- house
uisce  -- water

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