LESSON SIX -- CEACHT A SE/
In English, forms of the verb "to be" are used both to join a noun
with an adjective ("I was sick", "you're lucky", "it won't be easy" etc.)
and to join a noun with another noun ("He is the King", "we were
volunteers", "I'm Neil", etc.) But in Irish, only the task of joining a
noun to an adjective is usually assigned to the verb "ta/" and its various
forms. Most of the time when we want to join a noun to a noun, to say
that Thing A is Thing B, we use a different verb, called a "copula". A
sentence containing a copula also consists of a subject (Thing A) and a
predicate (Thing B):
Subject Copula Predicate
------- ------ ---------
Liam is a man.
I am Neil.
Aoife and Bri/d are young girls.
Cormac was a king.
That is a book? (i.e. "is that a book?")
There are two fundamental kinds of copula sentence in Irish,
sentences of "classification" which tell you *what* a person or a thing
is ("Sea/n is a poet", "that is a house") and sentences of
"identification" which tell you *who* or *which* a person or thing is
("Sea/n is the doctor", "I am Ma/ire/ad"). Both kinds of sentence use
the same form of the verb, but they have different word order. At first
there might not seem to be much distinction between "Sea/n is a poet" and
"Sea/n is the doctor", but in the former sentence we are starting with
Sea/n as a topic of conversation and trying to find out more about him
(e.g. *what* he is), and in the latter we are starting with "doctor" and
trying to find out more about this doctor (e.g. *who* he is).
Identification sentences are usually concerned with more *specific* things
than classification sentences are, but in general the distinction is not
always clear-cut and it is mainly used in grammars for convenience.
The present tense, affirmative form of the copula in Irish is,
coincidentally enough, spelled "is". Because it is a verb, it always
comes first in a sentence. When the third-person personal pronouns (se/,
si/, and siad) are used with "is", they drop the "s" and become e/, i/, and
The word order in a "classification" is as follows:
Copula + Predicate + Subject = Classification Sentence
------ --------- ------- -----------------------
Is fear Liam. "Liam is a man".
Is leabhar e/ sin. "That is a book".
Is peann e/ seo. "This is a pen."
Is caili/n o/g Ma/ire. "Mary is a young girl."
Is E/ireannach me/. "I am an Irishman."
Is mu/inteoir tu/. "You are a teacher."
Is dochtu/ir e/. "He is a doctor."
Is Meiricea/nach i/. "She is an American."
Is ollamh i/. "She is a professor." [etc.]
To make a negative statement, "ni/" is used in the place of "is":
Ni/ leabhar e/. "It is not a book."
Ni/ peann e/ seo. "This is not a pen."
Ni/ caili/n o/g Ma/ire. "Mary is not a young girl."
To ask a positive question, "is" is replaced by "an". For a
negative question, "nach" is used:
An leabhar e/ sin? "Is that a book?"
An mu/inteoir tu/? "Are you a teacher?"
Nach dochtu/ir e/? "Isn't he a doctor?"
The yes answer to a classification question is "Is ea." The no
answer is "Ni/ hea".
In identification sentences both the predicate is always a definite
noun (preceded by the article) or a proper name, and the subject is
either a definite noun or a pronoun.
Copula + Subject + Predicate = Identification sentence
------ ------- --------- -----------------------
Is mise Niall. "I am Neil."
Is tusa Peadar. "You are Peter."
Is tusa mo leanna/n. "You are my sweetheart."
Is sinne Sea/n agus Se/amas. "We are Sean and Seamas."
Is sibhse Aoife agus Ma/ire. "You are Aoife and Mary."
Note that the emphatic form is much more common when the subject is a
first- or second-person pronoun. (Emphatic pronouns were covered in
In identification sentences using the third person, a personal
pronoun is always inserted after "is", even though there is already a
subject in the sentence.
Is e/ Sea/n an dochtu/ir. "Sean is the doctor."
Is e/ Liam e/ "He is Liam."
Is i/ Si/le i/. "She is Sheila."
Is iad Liam agus Si/le iad. "They are Liam and Sheila."
Is e/ an t-uachtara/n an ceannaire. "The President is the leader."
Is e/ do bheatha. "It's your life."
As with classification sentences, negative identification sentences
use "ni/" --
Ni/ tusa an duine. "You are not the man."
-- positive questions begin with "an...?" and negative questions
begin with "nach...?" When "ni/" comes before a third-person pronoun (e/,
i/, or iad), "h" is added to the pronoun. For example, answering the
An e/ sin an teach? "Is that the house?"
You can answer "yes" by saying "Is e/" or "no" by saying "Ni/ he/." If
"teach" were a feminine noun you would answer "yes" by saying "Is i/" and
"no" by saying "Ni/ hi/."
More direct questions using the identification sentence can be asked
using the word "ce/...?" meaning "who...?", which also puts "h" before a
Ce/ tusa? [or] Ce/ he/ tusa? Who are you?
Ce/ he/ an ri/? Who is the king?
Ce/ hi/? Who is she?
Ce/ sibhse? [or] Ce/ hiad sibhse? Who are you [plural]?
Ce/ he/ mise? Who am I?
Ce/ hiadsan? Who are they?
Ce/ hi/ an bhean sin? Who is that woman?
CÚ/ he/ sin? [or] Ce/ sin? Who is that?
iii) Copula with an Adjective
I said before that "ta/" is for joining a noun to an adjective and
"is" for joining a noun to a noun, and that is generally true. However,
the copula can be used to join a noun with an adjective in cases where
heavy emphasis is required, or where attention needs to be drawn to the
sentence. Used in these sentences, the adjectives have a greater
sense of permanency and importance that they would in a "ta/" sentence.
Think of the difference between the straightforward English sentence "the
night is dark", which is merely descriptive (and which would be a "ta/"
sentence in Irish), and the more poetic and forceful "dark is the night"
(which would be a copula sentence in Irish). Technically these are
classification sentences, except that the noun in the Predicate is
replaced by an adjective:
Copula + Predicate + Subject = Sentence
------ --------- ------- --------
Is dorcha an oi/che "The night is dark."
An deas e/? "Is it nice?"
Ni/ fi/or sin. "That is not true."
Nach leor seo? "Isn't this enough?"
Some proverbs, and other statements to which you're expected to pay
particular attention, use this form:
"Is binn be/al ina thost." "Sweet is a silent mouth."
"Is mo/r an trua." "It's a great pity."
"Is bocht an sce/al." "It's bad news."
[lit: "it's a poor story"]
Sometimes a third-person pronoun is added after the subject. This
pronoun is the same number and gender as the subject:
Is brea/ an la/ e/. "It's a fine day."
Is brea/ an oi/che i/. "It's a fine night."
To finish up, I'll give a few copula sentences extracted from Brendan
Behan's play "An Giall" -- see if you can translate them.
"An Garda e/?" ("Garda" [m.], Irish policeman)
"Nach fear bocht bacach me/?" ("bacach", lame)
"Nach tusa ata/ spleodrach?" ("spleodrach", boisterous)
"Is duine uasal e/." ("uasal", noble, well-born)
"Is e/ sin an Fhraincis." ("Fraincis" [f.], the French language)
"Is mairg ba/s gan bheannacht." ("mairg" [f.], a sorrow; "ba/s" [m.],
death; "gan", without;
"beannacht" [f.], blessing;