May 4, 2013 | Irish
An Initial Look at Irish Grammar
Oh. My. God.
Today I began reading Essential Irish Grammar, by Éamonn Ó Dónaill, and I am in shock.
I am seeing things I have never seen before in my entire life.
Everything started out promisingly, when I was told that the letters of the basic Irish alphabet are as follows: a, b, c, d, e, f, g, h, i, l, m, n, o, p, r, s, t, and u. I counted. That’s only 18. Fab!
Irish Grammar: Cool, Yet Shocking!
Then things quickly got more complicated. First of all, this is the first I have heard of grammatical phenomena called “lenition” and “eclipsis.” They involve changes to the beginnings of words, precipitated by a preceding word. The nature of that preceding word was unfortunately not clarified in this book before I started being taught that with lenition, d becomes dh, b becomes bh, and g becomes gh (for example), while eclipsis leads to mysterious happenings such as f becoming bhf (!), p becoming bp, and g becoming ng.
In the first exercise in Chapter 1, I was given a series of place names after the preposition i (in), and had to figure out whether eclipsis was necessary, and if so, what the consequences of it would be. For example, i plus Páras (in Paris) becomes i bPáras. I’m not even kidding—that’s what the eclipsis and capitalization are supposed to look like!
Next I was informed that t can be placed before an initial vowel. Why I would want to place it there was unclear. “It is followed by a hyphen,” I was told, “except when the vowel is a capital letter.” I was also provided with examples such as t-a, t-i, and tA, none of which was illuminating.
Another novelty: before this week I had never heard of broad and slender consonants. That terminology initially made me picture letters with different metabolisms, lounging against walls. This image is not productive from a linguistic point of view.
“Irish has many more consonant sounds than other languages such as English,” writes Ó Dónaill. “In Irish, each consonant has a broad and a slender value. In spoken language, failure to distinguish between the two types of consonant can change the meaning of a word.”
Ah, yes, a source of constant anxiety for language learners: the fear that a misplaced sound will change an innocent word like “parsnip” into an insult or a sex organ.
I do not yet know what the oral consequences of these slim and gluttonous consonants are, so more on that another time.
One thing I am happy about: “yes” and “no” work like they do in Chinese. As with Mandarin, the Irish language does not have equivalents for those words. If you want to answer affirmatively, you repeat the verb from the question. If you want to answer in the negative, you use the negative of the verb.
The difference between Chinese and Irish is that Chinese is, well, easier—Mandarin verb forms don’t change! I am looking at some examples in this Irish book, and the verbs change so much that I am not actually clear on which words are the verbs, but I think bhfaca must be “see” in the question An bhfaca tú Doireann inné? (Did you see Doireann yesterday?”), and then Chonaic (“saw”) is the affirmative response and Ní fhaca is the negative (i.e., “didn’t see”).
So bhfaca and chonaic and fhaca are all from the same verb?!
Scared. (By the way, I typed An bhfaca tu doireann inne into Google Translate, with no accents and no question mark, and Google offered this translation: “Did you gut Doireann.”)
The writer notes, “The same system is used in Hiberno-English,” i.e., Irish English. He gives this example:
- Were you home at the weekend?
- I was.
Even here in New York, I have in recent years observed people doing this kind of thing much more than I remember from the past. It seems to me that young American men sometimes use it as a method of flirting. For example, picture a woman at a party. She asks a well-constructed man standing near her, “Are you an athlete?”
- He answers, “I am.”
- “Do you live in New York?”
- “I do.”
- “Are you here alone?”
- “I am.”
You can see where that is leading.
All nouns in Irish are masculine or feminine. As is often the case with various languages, you cannot count on there being a logical correlation between the nature of the noun and its gender. Cailín (“girl” in Irish) is a masculine noun. In German the word for “girl” is neuter: das Mädchen.
Why is “girl” gender so odd? I don’t recall “boy” ever being anything but masculine. Can anyone name a language where boys, too, defy grammatical expectations?
Coming soon: Irish word order. Which is, from this English speaker’s point of view, rather brain- and tongue-twisting.