Irish grammar

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This article discusses the grammar of the Irish language.

The morphology of Irish is in some respects typical of an Indo-European language. Nouns are declined for number and case, and verbs for person and number. Nouns are classified by masculine or feminine gender. Other aspects of Irish morphology, while typical for an Insular Celtic language, are not typical for Indo-European, such as the presence of inflected prepositions and the initial consonant mutations. Irish syntax is also rather different from that of most Indo-European languages, due to its use of the verb–subject–object word order. [1]


Word order in Irish is of the form VSO (verb–subject–object) so that, for example, "He hit me" is Bhuail [hit-past tense] [he] [me].

One distinctive aspect of Irish is the distinction between is, the copula (known in Irish as an chopail), and . Is describes identity or quality in a permanence sense, while temporary aspects are described by . This is similar to the difference between the verbs ser and estar in Spanish and Portuguese (see Romance copula), although this is not an exact match; is and are cognate respectively with the Spanish es and está.

Examples are:

  • Is fear é. "He is a man." (Spanish Es un hombre, Portuguese (Ele) é um homem)
  • Is duine fuar é. "He is cold (a cold-hearted person)." (Spanish Es frío, Portuguese (Ele) é frio)
  • Tá sé/Tomás fuar. "He/Thomas is cold" (= feels cold) (Alt. Tá fuacht air [= "Cold is on him"]). (Spanish Tiene frío – in this case Spanish uses 'tener' (to have) instead of 'estar' (to be), Portuguese (Ele) está com frio)
  • Tá sé ina chodladh. "He is asleep." (Spanish Él está durmiendo, Portuguese Ele está a dormir)
  • Is duine maith é. "He is good (a good person)." (Spanish Es bueno, Portuguese (Ele) é bom)
  • Tá sé go maith. "He is well." (Spanish Está bien, Portuguese (Ele) está bem)


Irish is an inflected language, having four cases: ainmneach (nominative and accusative), gairmeach (vocative), ginideach (genitive) and tabharthach (prepositional). The prepositional case is called the dative by convention.

Irish nouns are masculine or feminine. To a certain degree the gender difference is indicated by specific word endings, -án and -ín being masculine and -óg feminine. While the neuter has mostly disappeared from vocabulary, the neuter gender is seen in various place names in Ireland.


The Irish definite article has two forms: an and na. An may cause lenition, eclipsis, or neither. Na may cause eclipsis, but the only instance of lenition with na is with the genitive singular of the word céad meaning first. An is used in the common case singular for all nouns, and lenites feminine nouns. In the genitive singular, an with lenition is used with masculine nouns, na with feminine nouns. In the dative singular, an may cause lenition or eclipsis depending on the preposition preceding it and on regional norms (in Ulster usage, lenition is standard with all prepositions, while in other regions eclipsis is used with many). Na is the only plural form of the article; it causes eclipsis in the genitive for both genders, and no mutation in other cases.

There is no indefinite article in Irish; the word appears by itself, for example: Tá peann agam. - "I have a pen", Tá madra sa seomra. - "There's a dog in the room".


Irish adjectives always follow the noun. The adjective is influenced by the case, number and gender of the noun preceding it.

  • An cailín beag
  • An bhean bhocht
  • Na buachaillí óga

Adjectives in Irish have two morphological degrees of comparison: the positive (Irish: bunchéim), e.g. Tá an buachaill cairdiúil "the boy is friendly", and the comparative (Irish: breischéim), e.g. Tá an cailín níos cairdiúla ná an buachaill "the girl is nicer than the boy". A superlative (Irish: sárchéim) sense is rendered by the comparative in a relative clause, e.g. Is é Seán an páiste is cairdiúla den triúr "Seán is the nicest child of the three".


Irish adverbs are used to modify verbs, adjectives and other adverbs.

An adverb can be created from an adjective by adding go before it, e.g. go mall, go tapaigh, go maith, etc. If the adjective begins with a vowel, h is added before it, e.g. go hálainn, go híseal, go háirithe, etc.

Adverbs can often be created from nouns by putting a preposition before them, e.g. ar bith, de ghnáth, faoi dheireadh, etc.

Other categories of adverbs include the following:

Adverbs that describe relation to time, e.g. uaireanta, anois, cheana, etc.

Adverbs that describe relation to place, e.g. ann, abhaile, amuigh, etc.

Adverbs used in questions, e.g. cathain?, conas?, cá?, etc.

Adverbs used for negation, e.g. , nach, nár, etc.

Other adverbs, e.g. áfach, chomh maith, ach oiread, etc.


There are two conjugations and 11 irregular verbs. Tenses or moods are formed by inflecting the stem, and in the past and habitual past tenses and the conditional mood also by leniting any initial consonant. The inflected tense and mood forms are: present indicative, present habitual indicative (differs from present only in the verb "to be"), future, past indicative, past habitual indicative, conditional, imperative, present subjunctive, and past subjunctive. Verbs also have a verbal noun and past participle, and progressive constructions similar to those using the English present participle may be formed from the verbal noun and an appropriate tense of . Examples of tense conjugations: (all third person forms without subject pronoun):

  • 1st conjugation: Fág "to leave" – d'fhág (past) – fágann (present) – fágfaidh (future) – d'fhágfadh (conditional) – d'fhágadh (habitual past) – fága (subjunctive) – fágadh (imperative)
  • 2nd conjugation: Ceannaigh "to buy" – cheannaigh (past) – ceannaíonn (present) – ceannóidh (future) – cheannódh (conditional) – cheannaíodh (habitual past) – ceannaí (subjunctive) – ceannaíodh (imperative)
  • Irregular: Téigh "to go" – chuaigh (past) – téann (present) – rachaidh (future) – rachadh (conditional) – théadh (habitual past) – (subjunctive) – téadh (imperative)

In addition to the passive voice, there is the impersonal form of the verb, termed the saorbhriathar or "autonomous verb", which serves a similar function (the most literal translation is "You/One/They...[e.g. say, are, do]”).

Verbs can be conjugated either synthetically (with the personal pronoun included in the verb inflection) or analytically (with the verb inflected for tense only and a separate subject). However, the official standard generally prescribes the analytic form in most person-tense combinations, and the synthetic in only some cases, such as the first person plural. The analytic forms are also generally preferred in the western and northern dialects, except in answer to what would in English be "yes/no" questions, while Munster Irish prefers the synthetic forms. For example, the following are the standard form, synthetic form and analytical form of the past tense of rith "to run":

Person Standard Synthetic Analytic
1st sing rith mé ritheas rith mé
2nd sing rith tú rithis rith tú
3rd sing rith sé rith rith sé
1st plural ritheamar ritheamar rith sinn / rith muid*
2nd plural rith sibh ritheabhar rith sibh
3rd plural rith siad ritheadar rith siad
Impersonal ritheadh ritheadh ritheadh
*muid is non-standard but is the usual 1st person plural pronoun in the western and northern dialects.


Personal pronouns[edit]

Personal pronouns in Irish do not inflect for case, but there are three different sets of pronouns used: conjunctive forms, disjunctive forms, and emphatic forms (which may be used either conjunctively or disjunctively)

Conjunctive forms[edit]

The normal word order in Irish is verb–subject–object (VSO). The forms of the subject pronoun directly following the verb are called conjunctive:

Person Singular Plural
1st (muid)
2nd sibh
3rd masc.

The form muid in the 1st person plural is not used in the standard language, but is very common in western and northern dialects. The standard and southern dialects have no subject pronoun in the 1st person plural, using the synthetic verb ending -imíd (alt -imid) instead.

Irish has no T–V distinction, i.e. it does not differentiate between formal and familiar forms of second person pronouns. The difference between and sibh is purely one of number.

There is no equivalent to the English "it", either "sé" or "sí" are used depending on whether the thing the speaker is referring to is a masculine noun or a feminine noun. The exception is the pronoun ea, used in impersonal copula phrases, particularly in the phrases is ea (> 'sea) "yes", "so", "that is so", ní hea (the opposite of is ea), nach ea? "is that not so?", an ea (Kerry am b'ea) "Is that so?", fear is ea é "it's a man", and so on.

Disjunctive forms[edit]

If a pronoun is not the subject or if a subject pronoun does not follow the verb (as in a verbless clause, or as the subject of the copula, where the pronoun stands at the end of the sentence), the so-called disjunctive forms are used:

Person Singular Plural
1st sinn, muid
2nd thú sibh
3rd masc. é;
fem. í

In Munster dialects the form thú is either (a) archaic (replaced by ) or (b) is only found after words ending in a vowel.

Buailim thú ("I hit you", present tense), Bhuail mé thú ("I hit you", past tense)
Dialect type (a)
Buailim tú, Bhuail mé tú
Dialect type (b)
Buailim tú, Bhuail mé thú

Intensive forms[edit]

Irish also has intensive pronouns, used to give the pronouns a bit more weight or emphasis.

Person Singular Plural
1st mise muidne, sinne
2nd t(h)usa sibhse
3rd masc. (s)eisean
fem. (s)ise

The forms thusa, eisean and ise are disjunctive forms, while tusa, seisean and sise are conjunctive forms.

The word féin (/fʲeːnʲ/ or /heːnʲ/) "-self" can follow a pronoun, either to add emphasis or to form a reflexive pronoun.

Rinne mé féin é. "I did it myself."
Ar ghortaigh tú thú féin? "Did you hurt yourself?"
Sinn Féin is thus "We Ourselves"

Possessive determiners[edit]

The possessive determiners cause different initial consonant mutations.

The forms a and ár can also blend with certain prepositions:

de & do dá chara "from/to his friend"
dá feirm "from/to her farm"
dár n-athair "from/to our father"
dá n-athair "from/to their father"
faoi faoina chara "about his friend"
faoinár n-athair "about our father"
i ina feirm "in her farm"
inár bhfeirm "in our farm"
le lena n-athair "with their father"
lenár bpáiste "with our child"
ó óna bhean "from his wife"
ónár dtaighde "from our research"
trí trína cos "through her foot"
trínár dteach "through our house"

The object of a verbal noun is in the genitive case:

  • Tá sé ag plé a rothair. "He's discussing his bicycle" (lit.: He is at the discussing of his bicycle)

Similarly, if the object of the verbal noun is a pronoun, then it is a possessive pronoun:

  • Tá sé á phlé. "He's discussing it." (lit.: He is at its (i.e. the bicycle's) discussing)

More examples:

  • Tá sí do mo bhualadh. "She's hitting me."
  • Tá siad do do phlé. "They are discussing you."
  • Tá sé á pógadh. "He's kissing her."
  • Tá tú dár mbualadh. "You're hitting us."
  • Tá mé do bhur bplé. "I'm discussing you (pl.)."
  • Tá sibh á bpógadh. "You (pl.) are kissing them."

Interrogative pronouns[edit]

Interrogative pronouns introduce a question, e.g. the words who, what, which. The Irish equivalents are:

  • "who?, which?"
  • cad or céard "what?"
  • cén "which?"


  • Cé a rinne é? "Who did it?"
  • Cé a chonaic tú? "Who did you see?"
  • Cé ar thug tú an leabhar dó? "Who did you give the book to?"
  • Cad atá ort? "What's wrong (with you)?" (lit. "What is on you?")
  • Céard a dúirt tú? "What did you say?"
  • Cén t-ainm atá ort? "What's your name?" (lit. "Which name is upon you?")
  • Cén aois tú? "How old are you?" (lit. "Which age are you?")


As the object of a preposition, a pronoun is fused with the preposition; one speaks here of "inflected" prepositions, or, as they are more commonly termed, prepositional pronouns.


Cardinal numbers[edit]

There are three kinds of cardinal numbers in Irish: disjunctive numbers, nonhuman conjunctive numbers, and human conjunctive numbers.

Disjunctive numbers[edit]

0 náid 13 a trí déag
1 a haon 14 a ceathair déag
2 a dó 20 fiche
3 a trí 21 fiche a haon
4 a ceathair 30 tríocha
5 a cúig 40 daichead
6 a sé 50 caoga
7 a seacht 60 seasca
8 a hocht 70 seachtó
9 a naoi 80 ochtó
10 a deich 90 nócha
11 a haon déag 100 céad
12 a dó dhéag 1000. míle

These numbers are used for example in arithmetic, in telling time, in telephone numbers and after nouns in forms like bus a trí déag "bus 13" or seomra a dó "room 2".

Nonhuman conjunctive numbers[edit]

These numbers are used to count nouns that do not refer to human beings, e.g. capall "horse"

1 aon chapall amháin;
capall amháin
13 trí chapall déag
2 dhá chapall 20 fiche capall
3 trí chapall 21 capall is fiche
4 ceithre chapall 22 dhá chapall is fiche
5 cúig chapall 30 tríocha capall
6 sé chapall 40 daichead capall
7 seacht gcapall 50 caoga capall
8 ocht gcapall 60 seasca capall
9 naoi gcapall 70 seachtó capall
10 deich gcapall 80 ochtó capall
11 aon chapall déag 90 nócha capall
12 dhá chapall déag 100 céad capall

"One" as a pronoun is rendered with ceann (lit. "head") when it concerns things and animals, e.g.:

Tá cúig chapall agam; tá ceann acu breoite. "I have five horses; one of them is sick."

Human conjunctive numbers[edit]

These numbers are used to count nouns that refer to human beings, e.g. páiste 'child'

1 aon pháiste amháin;
páiste amháin
7 seachtar páistí
2 beirt pháistí 8 ochtar páistí
3 triúr páistí 9 naonúr páistí
4 ceathrar páistí 10 deichniúr páistí
5 cúigear páistí 11 aon pháiste déag
6 seisear páistí 12 dáréag páistí

"One" as a pronoun is rendered with duine (lit. "person") with people. The other "personal" numbers can also be used pronominally, e.g.:

Tá cúigear páistí agam; tá duine acu breoite. "I have five children; one of them is sick."
Tá seisear sa seomra. "Six people are in the room."

Higher numbers are done as with the nonhuman conjunctive numbers: trí pháiste déag, fiche páiste, etc.

Ordinal numbers[edit]

1st an chéad chapall 13th an tríú capall déag
2nd an dara capall 20th an fichiú capall
3rd an tríú capall 21st an t-aonú capall is fiche
4th an ceathrú capall 22nd an dóú chapall is fiche
5th an cúigiú capall 30th an tríochadú capall
6th an séú capall 40th an daicheadú capall
7th an seachtú capall 50th an caogadú capall
8th an t-ochtú capall 60th an seascadú capall
9th an naoú capall 70th an seachtódú capall
10th an deichiú capall 80th an t-ochtódú capall
11th an t-aonú capall déag 90th an nóchadú capall
12th an dóú capall déag 100th an céadú capall


A notable feature of Irish phonology is that consonants (except /h/) come in pairs, one "broad" (velarized, pronounced with the back of the tongue pulled back towards the soft palate) and one "slender" (palatalized, pronounced with the middle of the tongue pushed up towards the hard palate).

Consonant phonemes
Labial Coronal Dorsal Glottal
Bilabial Labio-
Dental Alveolar Post-
Palatal Velar
broad slender broad broad slender broad broad slender slender slender broad
Plosives voiceless t̪ˠ c k
voiced d̪ˠ ɟ ɡ
voiceless ʃ ç x h
voiced w j ɣ
Nasal n̪ˠ ɲ ŋ
Tap ɾˠ ɾʲ
Lateral l̪ˠ
Vowel phonemes
Front Central Back
Near-close ɪ ʊ
Mid ə
(only unstressed)
Open-mid ɛ ɔ
Open a ɑː

Diphthongs: /iə/, /uə/, /əi/, /əu/.


  1. ^ Strazny, Philipp (2005). Encyclopedia of Linguistics. New York, NY: Taylor & Francis. p. 183. ISBN 9781135455224.

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