May 11, 2013 | Irish

Some Weird Things in Irish

I have just four to discuss today, but I imagine more will pop up.

Here are a few weird things in Irish:

Weird Thing #1. On the eve of Mother’s Day, the word madra in Irish keeps throwing me. I keep thinking it is “mother,” but it is “dog.” Oops.

Weird Thing #2. Irish word order is a challenge. We almost always do subject-verb-object order in English. In Irish, it is verb-subject-object.

Talk Irish, Lesson 27: Some Fancy Sentence Structure

Talk Irish, Lesson 27: Some Fancy Sentence Structure

In the screen shown at left, from Lesson 27 in Talk Irish’s online coursechonaic means “taught,” an múinteoir means “the teacher,” and na ceachtanna means “the lessons.” Taught the teacher the lessons. Funny. [Addendum 5/26/13: Except that chonaic is not “taught.” Oops. See third comment at the bottom of this entry, the one from Cian.]

Weird Thing #3. There are so many pronunciation surprises, so I will pick just one that repeatedly strikes me: the treatment of c before the letter e.

For example, take ceachtanna, the word for “lessons.” My instinct, as an English speaker (and as a student of other languages, too), is to pronounce the as s, because it is followed by the letter e. But no! It is KACH-tuh-nuh. I want to say say-ACH-tuh-nuh. That’s wrong.

Weird Thing #4. Okay, so this is a pronunciation issue, too: I can’t believe what happens, auditorially speaking, to some of these consonants and consonant combinations. They mutate or even disappear!

In the sentence on the Talk Irish screen shown below left, which they translate as “Mammy made the tea at 4 o’clock,” the word ceathair is the “four.” But all that survives of all the consonants and accompanying vowels in that word, at least as far as I can hear it in the Talk Irish application, is something that sounds like kire (one syllable, long sound).

I went to Forvo and listened to the two pronunciations of ceathair available there. Both of them had vague consonants in the middle, but the three versions all sound quite different to me. Dialect and individual differences naturally affect linguistic outcomes.

Disappearing Consonants

Disappearing Consonants

More Disappearing Consonants

More Disappearing Consonants

In the final screen, above right, the pronunciation is given as nee waka may. There is no f sound whatsoever. It’s as though the fh got teleported somewhere else.

Is this an example of lenition? Does the consonant get softened so much it just goes away?

I am well aware that we have our own disappearing consonants in English, but I can’t think of examples with f in them, or th for that matter. I don’t think those are among our permitted quiet letters. We are more of a silent gh language, aren’t we? “Taught,” “though,” etc. And some silent b’s, as in “debt.” And I can’t think of what else right now.

Can anyone think of a silent or th in an English word? 

Comments (16)

Diane • Posted on Sun, May 12, 2013 - 7:56 am EST

No, but there’s ‘half’ (silent L), ‘colonel’ (invisible R, no middle L), there are some words where we pronounce ‘th’ as ‘t’ (though I can’t think of any right now)—and of course there’s the much-abused ‘often’, which in US English is supposed to be pronounced OFF-en.

Ellen Jovin • Posted on Sun, May 12, 2013 - 9:13 am EST

The “colonel” is a good one!

Cian Ó Cionnfhaolaidh • Posted on Sun, May 26, 2013 - 1:40 pm EST


Cian here, or An Cionnfhaolach. I am really enjoying your posts. You made a small mistake:

Chonaic means “saw” and not “thaught”.

Chonaic, traditionally speaking means “he saw”.

and in Old Irish:

ad-condairc was the preterite perfect:

So, he/she has seen

We no longer have the preterite perfect in modern Irish and “ad-condairc” became just the simple past tense meaning he/ she saw or Chonaic.

Coincidentally, the Old Irish version for he/she saw (i.e simple past is “co n-accae”, the “co” being a “mír” that brings about the “foirm spléach” in verbs, that’s why today we say “Ní fhaca/ Ní fheaca” as “Ni” is the “mír dhiúltach” and put verbs into the “foirm spléach” like “fhaca” (“faca being the foirm spléach of chonaic, “raibh” being the foirm spléach of bhí)-But lets not get into that right now. 

Chonaic an múinteoir na ceachtanna.

He the teacher saw the lessons.


“Saw he the teacher the lessons”

But translated as “The teacher saw the lessons”

In standard , Ulster and Connacht Irish you have what’s called the “Foirm Scartha” or the Analytical Form in use. That is where the person (the person doing the action is separated from the verb) 


Chonaic mé I saw
Chonaic tú You saw
Chonaic sé/ si He/ she saw
Chonaiceamar/ Chonaic muid We saw
Chonaic sibh Ye/ you (plural) saw
Chonaic siad They saw

The “pearsa(n)” or person is separated from the verb. This only came into Irish in the last 80-100 years.

Before that, the Foirm Tháite (literally the Welded Form) or the Synthetic Form was in use, like Spanish “vivo” I live. The Synthetic form is the dominant form in Munster still today:

Chonac I saw
Chonaicis You saw
Chonaic (sé/sí) He/ She saw
Chonaiceama(i)r We saw
Chonaiceabhair Ye saw
Chonaiceadar They saw

Traditionally if you wanted to say “the teachers saw the lesson”

Chonaiceadar na múinteoirí na ceachtanna

“They the teachers saw the lessons”

This is the system past down since Old Irish but is only observed today amongst the best speakers. Mostly today you would say:

Chonaic na muinteoirí na ceachtanna

This is due to the connection with Chonaic meaning he/she saw being lost and now, incorrectly, in the minds of a lot of people chonaic just means the verb “saw”, this is an influence from the English language. But it is accepted now as being correct.

Likewise, lets take the substantive form “to be” Tá in Munster Irish:

In Ring Irish, the Irish of eastern and northeastern Munster Tá is lenited “Thá” such as Scottish Gaelic, but we’ll just use the more common “Tá”

Táim I am
Táir You are
Tá(nn) sé/sí He/ she is
Táimíd We are
Tá sibh Ye are
Táid (They are)

Traditionally if you wanted to say “the men are fishing” or the “Men were fishing”, You’d would say:

Táid na fir ag iascach/ iascaireacht


Do bhíodar na fir ag iascaireacht

Literally: “They the men are fishing” or They the men were fishing respectfully.  Today, however you would just use:

Tá na fir ag iascairacht


Bhí na fir ag iascaireacht

Cian Ó Cionnfhaolaidh • Posted on Sun, May 26, 2013 - 1:41 pm EST

In English “ph” sound becomes an “f”

Phone etc..

Cian Ó Cionnfhaolaidh • Posted on Sun, May 26, 2013 - 1:50 pm EST

Sorry I forgot to post this link in my original post, it explains all the grammatical terminology such as forim tháite, spléach and foirm neamhspléach and foirm spléach:

Ellen Jovin • Posted on Sun, May 26, 2013 - 2:05 pm EST

Cian, thank you so much for this amazing content. I really appreciate it!

When I read what you wrote here, I was actually partway through writing a new blog entry about the complexity of some of the Irish grammar explanations I am encountering in my books. It is not always easy to process what I am being told.

I will confess, I started smiling partway through this paragraph of yours:

Coincidentally, the Old Irish version for he/she saw (i.e simple past is “co n-accae”, the “co” being a “mír” that brings about the “foirm spléach” in verbs, that’s why today we say “Ní fhaca/ Ní fheaca” as “Ni” is the “mír dhiúltach” and put verbs into the “foirm spléach” like “fhaca” (“faca being the foirm spléach of chonaic, “raibh” being the foirm spléach of bhí)-But lets not get into that right now.

I think I have some more studying to do. :)

Ellen Jovin • Posted on Sun, May 26, 2013 - 2:16 pm EST

Cian, I forgot to say, that was awfully generous of you to call my mistake “small.” Thank you very much for the correction. I have put a little note in my blog text referring readers to your comment.

I think my brain automatically seized on that wrong translation (even though the Talk Irish program offered up the correct one for me right on that slide I was quoting) because “to see the lessons” is not an idiom I have ever come across in American English. Do people say that in Hiberno-English?

(This is the first time I’ve ever used the term Hiberno-English outside of a quotation from someone else.)

Cian Ó Cionnfhaolaidh • Posted on Sun, May 26, 2013 - 4:52 pm EST

“to see the lessons” in Hiberno-English,

Lessons are what the teachers gives you to do for homework in Hiberno-English.


English: Seán, Have you finished your homework

Hiberno-English: Seán, did you finish your lessons (or they can also be called exercises haha)? or homework is also common.

Irish: Seán, ar chríochnaís do chuid ceachtanna?

“Literally, Seán have you finished your portion of lessons”

“cuid” is an idiomatic Irish expression that doesn’t make much sense in English.

and is used in such phrases as:

Mo chuid Gaoluinne (Gaeilge) my (portion) of Irish
Mo chuid talmhan (talún) My land/ my property etc…

Hiberno English combines English, Irish and its own intuition

Therefore, it has phenomena compatible with English, Irish and with neither. Its not exactly a hybrid.

Here are some common Hiberno-English phrases that come from Irish:

I do be good/well


“bímse go maith”

This means I am well not just today but continuously! (Habitual present tense or an Gnáthláithreach)

Irish distinguishes from the habitual present tense and the present tense:

Present: Táim/ Tánn tú (Tá tú/ Táir)/ Tá sé,sí/ Táimíd/ Tá sibh/ Táid (Tá siad)

I am, you are etc…


Habitual Present: Bím, Bíonn tú Bír, Bíonn sé/sí/ Bímíd, Bíonn sibh/ Bíonn siad (Bíd)

I do be, you do be etc…

The English language does not have the Habitual present tense so the Irish mind conjurers up the form “I do be” in order to convey the feeling of “being well” continuously.

Táim tar-éis mo chuid ceachtanna/ obair bhaile a dhéanamh/dhéanadh

I am after doing my lessons/homework
it conveys the meaning that you are in a state of being just after completing your homework.

Ag tabhairt amach
Literally means, “giving out”

But actually means: To tell someone off”

Bhí sí ag tabhairt amach dom
She was giving out to me
She was telling me off

Thug sí amach dom
She gave out to me
She told me off

Ag tabhairt fé/faoi/fá
Going towards

Tá an fear sin ag tabhairt fén bhfear/bhfior eile
That man is going for the other man
That man is attacking the other man

Thug sé fúm
He went for me
He attacked me

Negative ways of forming questions:

nach rabhais/an raibh tú ag an bpictiúrlann inné?
Weren’t (were you not) at the pictures last night?
Were you at the cinema/ movies last night

Nach mbíonn tú/ dtéann tú ag obair gach lá?
Don’t you be/ go working every day?
Do you go working every day

There’s lot more of these Hiberno-English phrases.

There’s also Irish words that have entered into Hiberno- English: and Standard English:

cat cat (contested)
smidiríní smidereens
Bean Si(dhe) Bean sí
Smaiseog smasher (a really big kiss)


What I gave regards Old Irish and an fhoirm spléach and all the rest of the terminology was a bit more complex than it needed to be, my fault:

In Irish you have your verb, we’ll take the substantive verb “bí” to “be”:

The base form of the verb not only changes with the tense (Not all, some- the briathra mí/neamh-rialta, there are only 12 of these in modern Irish-a lot less than English) but also the base form changes, sometimes, due to what precedes it i.e a conjunct particle i.e

“An” (an mhír cheisteach/ The Interrogative Conjunct Particle-Do/Does)

Ní (An Mhír Dhiúltach/ The Negative Conjunct Particle-Not)

Cha is the Ulster and Scottish Gaelic variant of “Ní” (from Old Irish Nícon>Cha)

Nearly all conjunct particles initiate a mutation on the verb:

“An” initiates an urú on the verb
“Ní” usually initiates a séimhiú or (h), like we’ve seen:

An bhfaca, ní fhaca respectfully.

There are more examples of conjunct particles, the conjunct particles may also change with the tense also:


“An” can be “Ar” in the past when preceding certain verbs and “Ní/ Cha” is usually rendered as “Níor/ Char” in the past tense for most verbs.

Verb change and particle change in relation to tense varies dialectally also. 


Present: Tá
Habitual present: Bíonn
Future: Beidh
Conditional: (do) Bheadh*
Past: (do) Bhí*
Habitual Past: (do) bhíodh*

Now lets put a conjunct particle (An and Ní) in front of the verbs in their relative tenses:

Present: Foirm Neamhspléach (Independent Form): Táim/ Tá mé: I am
Present: Forim Spléach (Dependent Form): Níl mé/ Nílim: I am not

(stemming from Ní fhuil>when said quickly in speech becomes Ní‘l>Níl) As you have seen already “fh” is partially silent so you get Níl.

Present: Foirm Spléach: An bhfuiltú/ An bhfuilir?: Are you?

Habitual Present: Neamhspléach: Bím: I do be
Habitual Present: Spléach: Ní bhím: I do be not
Habitual Present: Spléach: An mbím: Do I be?

Future: Neamhspléach: Beidh mé/ Bead: I will be
Future: Spléach: Ní Bheidh/ Ní Bhead: I will not be
Future: Spléach: An mBeidh tú/ An mBead: Will you be

Conditional: (do) Bheadh: (do) Bheadh mé/  (do) Bheinn: I would be
Conditional: Spléach: Ní Bheadh mé/ Ní Bheinn
Conditional: Spléach: An mBeadh mé/ An mBeinn

Past:: Neamhspléach: Bhí mé/ bhíos: I was
Past: Spléach: Ní raibh mé/ Ní rabhas: I was not?
Past: Spléach: An raibh mé/ An rabhas: Was I?

Habitual Past: Neamhspléach: (do) Bhíodh mé/ (do) Bhínn: I used to be
Habitual Past: Spléach: Ní bhíodh/ Ní Bhínn: I used not be
Habitual Past: Spléach: An mbíodh mé/ An mbínn: Did I not used to be

As you can see the base-verb does not change for every tense nor does the conjunct particle change every tense. As I have mentioned there are only 12 of these changing verbs in Irish and they are worth learning as they are the verbs you use the most. Old Irish used to have a different looking verbs for the independent and dependent forms. The reason modern Irish has kept different forms for these verbs is because they are so commonly used that they never fell out of usage as the language simplified.

A good way of remembering the dependent and independent forms is to think that the dependent forms are dependent on the conjunct particles and their mutations that precedes them. While, the independent forms are free from any influence.

*You might have questioned why there is a séimhiú on Bheadh (conditional), Bhí (past) and Bhíodh (habitual past). The answer simply is that these tenses used to carry, and still do in dialectal/ Gaeltacht Irish (especially in Munster), the particle “do” before them. This (“do” is not in Standard Irish but the mutation (séimhiú) that is brought about by the particle is).

However, if you have gotten as far as the past tense or the conditional tense or the habitual past tense in Irish you will see that “f” in these tenses not only display a séimhiú but also a D’ i.e D’fhág

This “D’” is in fact the mír “do”, it is shortened to D’ due to the fact that “fh” acts like a vowel sound in Irish and in Irish you cannot have two vowel sounds coming together (just like French) e.g mo athair> m’athair (my father); Do fhág> D’fhág.

However, when reading modern day standardised grammar books they fail to illustrate this, instead they have an emphasis on simplicity and in their simplicity they often leave confusion.

In Gaeltacht Irish, in Munster especially, “D’fhág” and all the other D’Fh. are pronounced guttural; such as Dh’fhág,  kind of like “Gág”.

Ellen Jovin • Posted on Sun, May 26, 2013 - 5:03 pm EST

Cian, I was wondering about that “níl” phenomenon. Thank you for explaining that, and many other things as well!

I have decided it is your destiny to write an Irish grammar book!

John Burton • Posted on Thu, June 13, 2013 - 9:19 am EST

Might the equivalent of the Habitual Present in English be something like, “I have been well?”  Not exactly as, to my mind, there is a connotation of doubt about whether one will continue to be well, but it does express the sense of ongoing action or state.

Also, btw, I think Pimmsleur acknowledges that their tapes are Munster.  They do teach the “ta” vs “bion” forms as Cian suggested.

Cian Ó Cionnfhaolaidh • Posted on Sat, June 15, 2013 - 7:38 am EST

@ John Burton,

I would consider “I have been well” as the habitual past rather than the habitual present as for me it implies you have been well in the past but may not be so well now. When you say “I have been well” it leaves an element of doubt of your current state of being. You could very easily say “I have been well but I have taken a turn for the worst lately”. Whereas, there is no doubt in the statement “I do be well” or “bímse go maith”; it doesn’t make much sense to say “I do be well but now I am sick”. Although, it is easy to see, with the absence of such a tense, the habitual past being used as the habitual present in English.

Irish also has the habitual past or an Aimsir/ Aimsir Ghnáth-Chaithte/ Chaite

Bhínn (I used to be)
Bhíteá (You used to be)
Bhíodh sé/ sí  (He/ she used to be)
Bhímís (We used to be)
Bhíodh sibh (They used to be)
Bhídís (ye/ you plural used to be)

Pimmsleur is pretty much standard Irish, mixed with Munster Irish pronunciation, with a few Munster phenomena thrown in like Gaoluinn/ Gaelainn for Gaeilge etc… Its not really “proper” Munster Irish.


Cian Ó Cionnfhaolaidh • Posted on Sat, June 15, 2013 - 8:06 am EST

Scratch that, I confused myself there. “I have been” is the Present Perfect Continuous Tense, yet there is an element of doubt about the persons current state that you do not get with the Irish version.

I got confused because, in Irish, we no longer have the perfect tense, so we usually use the habitual past to convey the same idea. I suppose that’s what you get for thinking in Irish and writing in English. Therefore,

Bhínn (would be better translated as “I used to be” rather than I have been)


Ellen Jovin • Posted on Sat, June 15, 2013 - 8:23 am EST

On the English side, this is my understanding of tense terminology:

present habitual = just plain old present tense
I eat eggs for breakfast.

past habitual = either past tense accompanied by some temporal indicator (I ate eggs for breakfast every day) or a verbal construction such as “I used to eat eggs for breakfast” or “I would eat eggs for breakfast”

present perfect = I have been, I have eaten

present perfect continuous = I have been eating

I love this stuff.

Ellen Jovin • Posted on Sat, June 15, 2013 - 9:08 am EST

I am just finishing reading (now THERE’s a fancy English tense for you!) a chapter on past habitual in an Irish grammar book, and my head is swimming in verb forms that I don’t know how to pronounce. The chapter concludes with a little section entitled “Avoiding the past habitual.”

It reads: “In Ulster Irish, the construction ‘ba ghnách’ + the prepositional pronoun ‘le’ + the verbal noun is usually used instead of the past habitual.”

Here’s an example from the book: “Ba ghnách liom dul ansin agus mé óg.” (I used to go there when I was young.)


John Burton • Posted on Mon, June 17, 2013 - 12:52 pm EST

Ellen—thanks for the English grammar.  I was watching Des Bishop’s documentary and one of the speakers says, when Des asks him, “What the f**k is the conditional tense?”  As native speakers, at least in my experience, no one ever even suggests that tense have names.

Regarding English tense, my understanding is there are three ways of stating the present.

I eat eggs.

I am eating eggs.

I have been eating eggs.

You name the first as present habitual, the last as present perfect continuous, but what is the second?  (And also what would be present perfect “discontinuous ...”?)

Ellen Jovin • Posted on Mon, June 17, 2013 - 2:14 pm EST

Oh, John, once you bring up English grammar, it is very difficult for me to restrain myself.

In answer to your question, it is called present continuous (or present progressive). And while I’m at it, present perfect continuous also goes under the name of present perfect progressive.

I don’t think of present perfect (or its permutations) as a present tense. Either it describes an action begun in the past and continuing to the present moment (“I have lived in New York for 23 years,” “I have been eating eggs,” etc.), or it describes an action occurring at a time not named/implied but clearly completed in the past (I have seen that movie four times). The first examples touch the present, but I still don’t think of them as present tense.

However, because language is not about what I myself personally think, I also started pulling out 18th- and 19th-century grammar texts, which by the way—now that I know the full extent of your language nerdiness!—I think you would enjoy.

But they are too old-fashioned for the grammar discussions of today, so I sped forward in time to my Descriptive English Grammar by Homer C. House and Susan Emolyn Harman (second edition) from 1950. This book covers sentence-diagramming, but also explains a lot of grammar nicely and in a way that still corresponds pretty well to modern language reality.

Present is divided here into five types (though I confess I don’t mentally subdivide present-tense verbs quite this way):

1. habitual action - examples given include “I live in the country,” “I do try to be on time,” and “I can sing well enough.”
2. progressive (they use the name “definite,” which I don’t recall as a term; might not be much in use now) - an example would be “I am eating pea soup.”
3. “gnomic time, general truths, etc.” (how cool is that first term?!) - one example provided is “Five times five is twenty-five.”
4. future time - examples offered in the book include “I hope it does not rain tonight” and “It is going to rain.”
5. historical present (used for narration, book reviews) - example offered is “Hamlet dies in the last scene of the play.” (Sorry if that gave anything away.)

In this particular grammar book, present perfect gets its own section, parallel to but definitely separate from present tense, and they mention one use I didn’t think of above, which is for an action just completed, as in “The librarian has just left.”

Post a Comment