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Irish Gaelic: Notes from a Beginner

Most of us recognize Irish surnames easily enough, O'Connell, MacAlpin. We also know that the different prefixes mean different things. For example,

Mac -- son of... thus MacConnaill -- Son of Conaill
O' -- grandson of... thus O'Conaill -- Grandson of Conail

Women's surnames undergo a bit more of a change, depending on whether the woman in question is married or unmarried.

Rule 1: Names vary for married and unmarried women
Male Form Unmarried Woman Married Woman
O' --- Ní --- Uí ---
Mac --- Nic --- Mhic ---
Rule 2: Women's surnames cause lenition. Nic and Mhic do not cause lenition if the surname starts with 'C'
Male Form Unmarried Woman Married Woman
O'Conaill Ní Chonaill Uí Chonaill
MacConaill Nic Conaill Mhic Conaill
MacMathuna Nic Mhathuna Mhic Mhathuna

Rule 3: Women's titles are added by 'bean', woman.
Bean Uí Chonaill -- Mrs. O'Connaill
Bean Mhic Mhathuna -- Mrs. MacMathuna

One of the strangest things for me to deal with in Irish was the fact that people's names can change pronuncication depending on how they are used. English speakers (and many other languages) are used to names being sacrosanct: Mary is always pronounced Mary, no matter where the name shows up.

Irish, though, not only changes the ends of words (like English ball becomes balls), the middles of words (as English mouse becomes mice), but also the beginnings of words. So in some cases, Mary is prounounced "Wary", because of a grammar rule called lenition. (there are other rules, too, but don't worry about them with names.)

When you refer to a person by name, as in saying , "Mary, how are you?" the structure is:
'A [name]', and the name changes. This is called the vocative case, for those people interested in grammar.

Rule 4: Precede the person's name with 'a', which causes lenition.
Remember l, n, r, and h are not lenited
Máire -- a Mháire
Máirtín -- a Mháirtín
Peige -- a Pheige
Ronán -- a Ronán.

An addition, men's names also change form by changing the ending in some cases.

Rule 5: Male names that end with broad consonants (preceded by a, o, u)
become slender by adding an i.
Seán -- a Sheáin
Máire -- a Mháire
Dónall -- a Dhónaill

Names also change when they are in the genetive case (ok, if you're not familiar with the tenses and cases, don't panic. I had no clue what this meant. Basically, something is in the genetive case when you would say, in English, 'of x', like 'The house of Mary', or Mary's house.)

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Irish gaelic - Notes from a beginner
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