May 26, 2013 | Irish

Be Brave, O Readers of Irish Grammar Books

I can't help laughing at some of the explanations I am coming across.

New York has many, many Irish bars. Two days ago I walked into one in my neighborhood, Malachy’s, told the bartender I was studying Irish, and asked whether any Irish speakers hang out there. I need conversation.

Malachy's, Upper West Side

Malachy’s, West 72nd Street

He replied, “You mean Gaelic?”

I have gotten that question a lot since I started this Irish unit.

Gaelic is an acceptable term, but as I mentioned in a previous entry, it can mean Scottish Gaelic or Irish Gaelic (technically Manx as well), and if you were in Europe, I believe Gaelic would mostly be understood to mean the Scottish variety of Gaelic. Which I don’t mean.

You can say Irish Gaelic to be clearer, but people in Ireland usually say Irish. I like Irish. It is one word.

So, back to Irish. I love grammar. I think that is kind of obvious at this point.

Strangely, my experiences with Irish are reminding me a little bit of my experiences with Polish and Russian. Polish has seven cases, and Russian six, and with those languages I spent a lot of time on nouns and modifiers before I ever got to verbs. In fact, I spent hours and hours going through tables and lists for the precise combination of declension rules that applied to whatever phrases and sentences I happened to be working on.

The same thing here. The nature of word transformations in Irish is different from those in Polish and Russian—but they are still numerous, and as a result, my Irish experiences have been heavily noun- and adjective-related to date.

I remain woefully deficient in the art of Irish verbs. In Essential Irish Grammar by Éamonn Ó Dónaill, you don’t even get to a chapter on verbs until page 70. And I am not there.

I would like to share with you a few quotations from pre-verb grammatical lessons I am trying to absorb. Some of them can be a little hard on the mental motors. 

From Essential Irish Grammar, in a chapter on adjectives:

  • Adjectives are lenited when they qualify nouns that are feminine, singular and in the nominative, accusative, dative and vocative cases.
  • Adjectives are also lenited when they qualify nouns that are masculine, singular and in the genitive and vocative cases.
  • An adjective qualifying a weak-plural noun has the same form for all the cases in the plural except the genitive, which has the same form as the nominative/accusative singular.

It’s not that I can’t understand those sentences; it’s that I can’t remember them. 

In Basic Irish: A Grammar and Workbook by Nancy Stenson, only in Unit 11 are you finally taught the present tense of regular verbs. That is page 83! I am not there yet.

A healthy chunk of the pages leading up to that are devoted to noun forms. Here are some sentences from Unit 6, on noun classes and cases: 

  • An doesn’t change the form of masculine genitive nouns, but prefixes before s and lenites other consonants (except td). But t- is not prefixed to vowels in the genitive case.
  • In the genitive plural, all nouns are eclipsed after na (with n- before vowels).
  • In the first declension, the genitive plural is the same as the common singular; whereas the genitive singular slenderizes a final consonant, in the genitive plural it remains broad.

There’s nothing technically wrong with any of those sentences, I don’t believe. It’s just that they accumulate and make little piles of grammatical doo-doo in my head.

I need to go find myself some Irish speakers!

Comments (8)

Farschied • Posted on Mon, May 27, 2013 - 1:41 pm EST

If the “Who knows? • Sep ‘13…” part of your schedule was to learn Farsi I would be the first Farsi speaker to help you out! ;)

Ellen Jovin • Posted on Mon, May 27, 2013 - 1:46 pm EST

Thank you, Farschied. :)

Diane • Posted on Wed, May 29, 2013 - 6:54 am EST

Have you tried something like Routledge’s Colloquial Irish?  I would think that trying to learn the lenition and mutation rules by themselves would be a lot harder than learning how to create sentences within a structured course that gives a bit of verb stuff, a bit of noun stuff, season liightly with paprika, etc.  Just curious.

By the way, I’ve decided that for me, for a reference grammar, nothing beats the Routledge Modern XYZ series.  ‘Modern Welsh’ by Gareth King is the one indispensable Welsh book, and I’ve just gotten ‘Modern Spanish Grammar,’ 2nd ed., by Juan Kattan-Ibarra and Christopher J. Pountain, and I’m sighing with relief.  These books are so intelligent (substantive without unnecessary technical terminology), and easy to look at (good design!), and have all the little bits of detail about the language that I lust for.  Wonder if there’s one for Irish?

Ellen Jovin • Posted on Wed, May 29, 2013 - 12:24 pm EST

Diane, I can’t believe I missed the colloquial Irish book! I searched the Routledge website on “Irish grammar,” which didn’t bring that one up. I think I am going to try it out—thank you for the suggestion—but I suspect I will remain more partial to the technical grammar approach. I usually don’t do well with paprika. ;)

I have tried various books from various Routledge series: Grammar Workbooks, Essential Grammars, Modern Grammars, Modern Grammar Workbooks, and maybe something else I am forgetting now. I have found the flavor/style similar across these series. “Intelligent” is the right word to use to describe them. I also think they are very reliable, but sometimes a little tricky for newcomers to a language. I would like to examine a lot more of them in the future.

A note to other readers generally: the sheer number of Routledge language series is a little overwhelming, but if you are interested in exploring them, you can visit here:

A more practical way to visit the Routledge site, however, is probably to go to click, the Languages button just to the right of the Feature button, and then select your language of choice. Make sure you then click through the buttons along the top to get to all the resources for that language: Textbooks, Colloquials, Grammars, Dictionaries, and Reference. (I didn’t! That’s how I missed that Irish book!)

Thank you, Diane.

Gus • Posted on Wed, May 29, 2013 - 9:48 pm EST

Hi Ellen,
There’s a great documentary called, “In the Name of the Fada” by NYC comedian Des Bishop who went to the Connemara’s Gaeltacht to study Irish for a year. You can find it on youtube and here on RTE:
Think you’ll really like it.

Ellen Jovin • Posted on Wed, May 29, 2013 - 10:11 pm EST

Merely reading the title makes me laugh. I will check it out. Thank you, Gus.

Diane • Posted on Thu, May 30, 2013 - 6:21 am EST

I’ve heard about that documentary but never seen it.  Looks like it’s viewable here on YouTube:

Robert • Posted on Sun, June 30, 2013 - 1:29 pm EST

What we really need is to petition Pimsleur to expand their Irish program!!!

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