Irish: Lesson Six

The "Copula"

In English, forms of the verb "to be" are used both to join a noun with an adjective ("I was sick", "you're lucky", "it won't be easy" etc.) and to join a noun with another noun ("He is the King", "we were volunteers", "I'm Neil", etc.) But in Irish, only the task of joining a noun to an adjective is usually assigned to the verb "tá" and its various forms. Most of the time when we want to join a noun to a noun, to say that Thing A is Thing B, we use a different verb, called a "copula". A sentence containing a copula also consists of a subject (Thing A) and a predicate (Thing B):

Subject Copula Predicate
Liam  is  a man.
am  Neil.
Aoife and Bríd  are  young girls.
Cormac  was  a king.
That  is  a book? (i.e. "is that a book?")

There are two fundamental kinds of copula sentence in Irish, sentences of "classification" which tell you what a person or a thing is ("Seán is a poet", "that is a house") and sentences of "identification" which tell you who or which a person or thing is ("Seán is the doctor", "I am Máiréad"). Both kinds of sentence use the same form of the verb, but they have different word order. At first there might not seem to be much distinction between "Seán is a poet" and "Seán is the doctor", but in the former sentence we are starting with Seán as a topic of conversation and trying to find out more about him (e.g. what he is), and in the latter we are starting with "doctor" and trying to find out more about this doctor (e.g. who he is). Identification sentences are usually concerned with more specific things than classification sentences are, but in general the distinction is not always clear-cut and it is mainly used in grammars for convenience.

The present tense, affirmative form of the copula in Irish is, coincidentally enough, spelled "is". Because it is a verb, it always comes first in a sentence. When the third-person personal pronouns (sé, sí, and siad) are used with "is", they drop the "s" and become é, í, and iad respectively.

i) Classification

The word order in a "classification" is as follows:

Copula Predicate Subject Classification Sentence
Is  fear  Liam.  "Liam is a man".
Is  leabhar  é sin.  "That is a book".
Is  peann  é seo.  "This is a pen."
Is  cailín óg  Máire.  "Mary is a young girl."
Is  Éireannach  mé.  "I am an Irishman."
Is  múinteoir  tú.  "You are a teacher."
Is  dochtúir  é.  "He is a doctor."
Is  Meiriceánach  í.  "She is an American."
Is  ollamh  í.  "She is a professor." [etc.]

To make a negative statement, "ní" is used in the place of "is":


Ní  leabhar  é.  "It is not a book."
Ní  peann  é seo.  "This is not a pen."
Ní  cailín óg  Máire.  "Mary is not a young girl."

To ask a positive question, "is" is replaced by "an". For a negative question, "nach" is used:


An  leabhar  é sin?  "Is that a book?"
An  múinteoir  tú?  "Are you a teacher?"
Nach  dochtúir  é?  "Isn't he a doctor?"

The yes answer to a classification question is "Is ea." The no answer is "Ní hea".

ii) Identification

In identification sentences both the predicate is always a definite noun (preceded by the article) or a proper name, and the subject is either a definite noun or a pronoun.

Copula Subject Predicate Identification sentence
Is  mise  Niall.  "I am Neil."
Is  tusa  Peadar.  "You are Peter." 
Is  tusa  mo leannán.  "You are my sweetheart."
Is  sinne  Seán agus Séamas.  "We are Sean and Seamas."
Is  sibhse  Aoife agus Máire.  "You are Aoife and Mary."

Note that the emphatic form is much more common when the subject is a first- or second-person pronoun. (Emphatic pronouns were covered in Lesson Four).

In identification sentences using the third person, a personal pronoun is always inserted after "is", even though there is already a subject in the sentence.


Copula Subject Predicate Identification sentence
Is  é Seán  an dochtúir  "Sean is the doctor."
Is  é Liam  é  "He is Liam."
Is  í Síle  í.  "She is Sheila."
Is  iad Liam agus Síle  iad.  "They are Liam and Sheila."
Is  é an t-uachtarán  an ceannaire.  "The President is the leader."
Is  é  do bheatha.  "It's your life."

As with classification sentences, negative identification sentences use "ní" --


Copula Subject Predicate Identification sentence
Ní  tusa  an duine.  "You are not the man."

-- positive questions begin with "an...?" and negative questions begin with "nach...?" When "ní" comes before a third-person pronoun (é, í, or iad), "h" is added to the pronoun. For example, answering the question


Copula Subject Predicate Identification sentence
An  é sin  an teach?  "Is that the house?"

You can answer "yes" by saying "Is é" or "no" by saying "Ní hé." If "teach" were a feminine noun you would answer "yes" by saying "Is í" and "no" by saying "Ní hí."

More direct questions using the identification sentence can be asked using the word "cé...?" meaning "who...?", which also puts "h" before a third-person pronoun:


Cé tusa? [or] Cé hé tusa?  Who are you?
Cé hé an rí?  Who is the king?
Cé hí?  Who is she?
Cé sibhse? [or] Cé hiad sibhse?  Who are you [plural]?
Cé hé mise?  Who am I?
Cé hiadsan?  Who are they?
Cé hí an bhean sin?  Who is that woman?
Cé hé sin? [or] Cé sin?  Who is that?

iii) Copula with an Adjective

I said before that "tá" is for joining a noun to an adjective and "is" for joining a noun to a noun, and that is generally true. However, the copula can be used to join a noun with an adjective in cases where heavy emphasis is required, or where attention needs to be drawn to the sentence. Used in these sentences, the adjectives have a greater sense of permanency and importance that they would in a "tá" sentence. Think of the difference between the straightforward English sentence "the night is dark", which is merely descriptive (and which would be a "tá" sentence in Irish), and the more poetic and forceful "dark is the night" (which would be a copula sentence in Irish). Technically these are classification sentences, except that the noun in the Predicate is replaced by an adjective:

Copula Predicate Subject Sentence
Is  dorcha  an oíche  "The night is dark."
An  deas  é?  "Is it nice?"
fíor  sin.  "That is not true."
Nach  leor  seo?  "Isn't this enough?"

Some proverbs, and other statements to which you're expected to pay particular attention, use this form:


Copula Predicate Subject Sentence
"Is  binn  béal ina thost."  "Sweet is a silent mouth."
"Is  mór  an trua."  "It's a great pity."
"Is  bocht  an scéal."  "It's bad news."
[lit: "it's a poor story"]

Sometimes a third-person pronoun is added after the subject. This pronoun is the same number and gender as the subject:


Copula Predicate Subject Sentence
Is  breá  an lá é.  "It's a fine day."
Is  breá  an oíche í.  "It's a fine night."

To finish up, I'll give a few copula sentences extracted from Brendan Behan's play "An Giall" -- see if you can translate them.

"An Garda é?"  ("Garda" [m.], Irish policeman)
"Nach fear bocht bacach mé?"  ("bacach", lame)
"Nach tusa atá spleodrach?"  ("spleodrach", boisterous)
"Is duine uasal é."  ("uasal", noble, well-born)
"Is é sin an Fhraincis."  ("Fraincis" [f.], the French language)
"Is mairg bás gan bheannacht."  ("mairg" [f.], a sorrow; "bás" [m.],
death; "gan", without;
"beannacht" [f.], blessing;
Irish proverb) 

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