‘Bean’ or ‘Ban’ or ‘Mná’ or “mBan': How to Say ‘Woman’ (Women) in Irish (just in time for Nollaig na mBan on 6 January)

Posted on 05. Jan, 2014 by in Irish Language

(le Róislín)

As the final day of “dhá lá dhéag na Nollag” (6 Eanáir), we recognize “Nollaig na mBan.”  Many other sites online offer some commentary on the day’s activities, typically with women taking some time off for a relaxing afternoon tea or evening out.  One interesting article, by actress and playwright Sheila Flitton, is at http://www.ireland-fun-facts.com/little-womens-christmas.html.  Today’s blog will mostly look at the forms of the word for “woman” in Irish, including the “mBan” of “Nollaig na mBan” (lit. the Christmas of the Women).

Let’s start with the basics for this word.  We’ll be looking at “bean” [pronounced like the English word “ban” as in “banish,” not like the English word “bean”], “mná,” “ban,” and “mban.”   The word is grammatically feminine, and, as far as categories of nouns go, there is no other word like it, in terms of endings, vowel changes, etc.

bean, woman [/b’æn/, to use the “Irish-modified” IPA pronunciation guide, as found in the incredibly useful Foclóir Póca; it basically rhymes with English words like “van” or “suntan.”

an bhean, the woman [the “bh” is pronounced “v,” so this pronunciation is virtually the same as the English “van.”  Sampla: Tá an bhean anseo — The woman is here.

mná, of a woman.  For pronunciation, this is a bit tricky till you get used to it.  Try thinking “hymnal” but without the initial “hy,” so you’re just left with the “-mnal.”  And the vowel sound is like “awe” or “law.”  So, in a rough transcript, we have “mnaw.’  In some dialects, the “n” is pronounced like an “r,” but I don’t know that that makes it any easier: mraw.  This form does double duty, also serving for some of the plurals, as we’ll see below.  Sampla: hata mná, a woman’s hat

na mná, of the woman; sampla: hata na mná, the hat of the woman

And now for the plurals:

mná, same spelling and pronunciation as we just saw above.  Sampla: Tá “MNÁ” scríofa ar dhoras sheomra na mban agus tá “FIR” scríofa ar dhoras sheomra na bhfear. — “MNÁ” is written on the door of the women’s room (women’s restroom) and “FIR” is written on the door of the men’s room (men’s restroom).

na mná, the women; sampla: Tá na mná ag dul amach ar Nollaig na mBan. — The women are going out on “Women’s Christmas.”

And here’s where I’d say it gets a bit trickier, possessive and plural:

ban, of women [pronounced with an “ah” sound for the vowel, a lot like American English “Bonnie” or “bond”]; sampla: hataí ban, women’s hats

na mban, of the women [pronunciation: the “b” has now become silent because the “m” has “eclipsed” it, so this phrase sounds like “nuh mahn”]; samplaí:

hataí na mban, the hats of the women

Nollaig na mBan, Women’s Christmas, lit. the Christmas of the Women

Cumann na mBan, lit. “The Irishwomen’s Council,” but rarely, in fact, translated.  It was founded in 1914 as part of the Irish Volunteers.

seomra na mban, as mentioned above, the women’s restroom, lit. the room of the women

Sliabh na mBan, anglicized as “Slievenamon,” this is a mountain in Co. Tipperary where, according to folklore, Fionn Mac Cumhail, the legendary warrior/giant, arranged for women to run a race.  He would marry whoever reached the cairn at the top of the mountain first.  And the winner was … Gráinne.   But then there was this little glitch in the plans because of one of Fionn’s warriors, Diarmaid, who had this irresistible “ball seirce” (love spot; its exact nature isn’t specified in any versions of the legend that I’ve read).  And thus began “Tóraíocht Dhiarmada agus Gráinne,” which is a tale unto itself and “i bhfad rófhada” for this blog. 

There are a few more variations, as in:

D’iarr mé ar bhean an tí an dinnéar a réiteach dúinn ag 6:00.  (I asked the woman of the house to prepare dinner for us at 6:00)

beirt bhan, two women [this “bh” is pronounced like a “w” in some dialects, like “v” in others, especially Munster}, but “triúr ban” three women

Tá áthas ar mhná na tíre go bhfuil síocháin ann.  (The women of the land are happy that there is peace, lit. there is happiness on the women of the land that there is peace).

And sometimes one encounters the old direct address form, now mostly abandoned except in some folksongs and traditional texts: a mhnaoi an tí (O woman of the house!)

This form was also used after prepositions: D’iarr mé deoch ar mhnaoi an tí (I asked the woman of the house for a drink, lit. I requested a drink “on,” i.e. “of,” the woman of the house.).  But today, most people would say “ar bhean an tí.”

So, there you are, just in time for Nollaig na mBan, all the typical forms of the word “bean” that you’re likely to encounter.   SGF — Róislín

P.S. Some of this was touched on in an earlier blog that you might like to check out: http://blogs.transparent.com/irish/na-huimhreacha-pearsanta-ar-leanuint/ (10 Eanáir 2011)

How to Say ‘2014’ in Irish

Posted on 31. Dec, 2013 by in Irish Language

(le Róislín)

Dhá mhíle is a ceathair déag.  Piece o’ cake, right?  Well, maybe, but for anyone new to the language, here is a rough pronunciation guide: [γaw VEEL-yuh iss uh KYA-hirzh djayg].  [Pointe léirithe, 4 Eanáir 2014: ní an litir “y” atá i gceist i “γaw” ach an tsiombail teangeolaíochta “γ″ .i. an tsiombail “gamma” a úsáidtear don bhfuaim seo san Aibítir Idirnáisiúnta Foghraíochta; níl aon litir san Aibítir Rómhánach a thaispeánann an fhuaim seo.  Amanna scríobhann daoine “gh” mar threoir gharbh don fhuaim seo.  Tá níos mó eolais faoin bhfuaim sna hailt a leanas.] 

An Bhliain Úr (Public domain image by Lilla Frerichs. Source: publicdomainpictures.net)

An Bhliain Úr (Public domain image by Lilla Frerichs, publicdomainpictures.net, nasc iomlán ag deireadh an bhlag)

Taken word by word, we have:

dhá [γaw], two.  The “gamma” symbol in the pronunciation guide is borrowed from Greek and represents a sound not found in English.  Nor is it in the European languages most typically taught in the US, at least not in the typical high school or freshman university classes.  I’ve discussed this sound in various previous blogs (nasc thíos) and you can hear it on the sound clip at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Voiced_velar_fricative.  If you listen to that sound clip, be aware that the speaker says the sound twice, first on its own and then with an “uh” sound before it.  So this is our old friend, the voiced velar fricative, the sound you need in Irish to say “two goats” (dhá ghabhar),  “the Irish language” (An Ghaeilge), and “I love you” (Mo ghrá thú), which is literally “you (are) my love.”  You also need it to talk to anyone named Gráinne or Gobnait or Dónal in direct address (a Ghráinne!, a Ghobnait!, a Dhónail!).

The sound does exist in various European languages (Portuguese, Basque, Dutch, West Frisian, etc.) and in some cases, in regional variations of some of “major” ones (Austrian German, and, I’ve been told, Mexican Spanish, with the “guttural” pronunciation of “agua“).  It’s also in a variety of languages around the world, Arabic, Yemenite Hebrew, Swahili, Vietnamese, if that helps.

The sound is similar to the guttural “ch” of “chutzpah,” “challah,” and German “Buch.”  But it’s lower down in the throat and sets up a lot of vibration of the vocal cords.

It may take practice to get the sound, but it is a very fundamental one in Irish.  Basically, every word that normally begins with “da-,” “do-,” or “du-” or “ga-,” “go-,” or “gu-” may have the “dh” or “gh” variant, which has the “voiced velar fricative” pronunciation.

mhíle [VEEL-yuh], lenited form of “míle ” (thousand).  Here the sounds are familiar from English, although the spelling of the “v” sound might be surprising to newcomers.  The “mh” is pronounced “v,” since it is “softened” (lenited).  The long “i” (i-fada) is an “ee” sound, like “beat” or “beet.”  The “l” is slender, approximating the “l” of “million.”  The final “e” is pronounced but unstressed, so it’s basically “uh.”

is [iss, breaking the standing pronunciation rule for “is” as found in “feis” [fesh], for example; here it’s “broad,” so it sounds like the “s” of English “hiss” or “kiss.”]  This “is” isn’t the verb “is.”  It’s a shortened form of “agus” (and), which explains the s-sound.

a [uh], no meaning as such, this is the “numerical particle,” which precedes numbers used “independently”

ceathair [KYA-hirzh], four.  The initial “c,” transcribed as “ky,” is like the “c” in “cute” or the “ky” “Tokyo, ” not like the “c” in “cool” or “coot” (or “bandicoot”).  The “r” sound, indicated by “rzh” has a buzzing, palatalized quality, as might be found in Czech in the name “Jiří.”

déag [djayg], teen, based on the number “deich” (ten).  In Irish, the numbers for the teens consist of two separate words, with “déag” for the “teen” element (a haon déag, a naoi déag, srl.). 

Bhuel, sin é.  Dhá mhíle is a ceathair déag.  And I guess we’ll have that pattern to work with for many years to come.

Though come to think of it, if we try to sing Zager and Evans 1969 hit song, “In The Year 2525 (Exordium and Terminus), we could resort to the “twenty-twenty” type of pronunciation: sa bhliain a fiche cúig a fiche cúig.

So, “dhá mhíle is a ceathair déag sona dhuit,” and I hope this blog helped with some of the pronunciation issues.  SGF – Róislín

Nasc: http://blogs.transparent.com/irish/saying-i-love-you-in-irish/ (Saying ‘I Love You’ in Irish and Minding Your Velar Fricatives, posted 9 Deireadh Fómhair 2011

Nasc iomlán don phictiur: http://www.publicdomainpictures.net/view-image.php?image=65942&picture=2014-stars-green25

Cóisir Chinn Bhliana — Cad a Bheadh Ann? (re: New Year’s Eve parties)

Posted on 29. Dec, 2013 by in Irish Language

(le Róislín)

Seo séasúr na gcóisirí agus ‘chuile sheans go mbeidh tú ag freastal ar Chóisir Chinn Bhliana.

So first let’s take a look at the Irish for some of the typical trappings of  New Year’s Eve or New Year’s Day party.  Hitch is, we’ve got eleven items in the list below, but only ten of them are typically associated with the New Year.  Can you figure out which one is “an ceann corr” (the odd man out, lit. the odd one)?


tinte ealaíne

hors d’oeuvres (go díreach mar atá sé sa bhFraincis)

casadh “Auld Lang Syne” lámh le lámh 



Coinín na Cásca

an tAm (mar “athair”)


fíonchaora (má tá tú sa Spáinn, i Meicsiceo, nó ina lán tíortha i Meiriceá Theas

coirn chóisire

Cúpla nóta faoi na focail sin:

tinte ealaíne, fireworks, lit. fires of art; as in English, this is usually plural, except as sung by Katy Perry (GRMA, a Dheasúin C., as an tagairt)

casadh [KAHSS-uh, silent “d”] has the following meanings, among others: twist, sing, play a musical instrument

fíonchaora, grapes, referring to the custom of eating 12 grapes, one by one, during the last seconds of the old year.

coirn chóisire, party horns, which you may know other names in English (blow-out, squeaker, fizoo, or simply, noisemaker (the latter of which can include various other types, including percussive noisemakers).  I did have to improvise a bit here, since I can’t find a listing for “party horns” in any Irish dictionary, hard copy or online.  In the singular, it would be “corn cóisire,” with the lenition disappearing since the phrase no longer has the “slender” (“-irn”) ending which triggers the change (as does “fir” with “fir mhóra” and “báid” with “báid bheaga”).

As for “squeaker,” well, there is “píopaire” (not “píopaire,” a piper) usually used for a chick or a child, but I suppose it could apply here.  As I’ve been doing my homework for this blog, the grueling task of looking over party favor sites (in English, since I can’t find any in Irish), I see there are also “squawkers” that are sold as noisemakers for parties.  I doubt it’s the original intention of the word, but I think we could safely use “grágaire” for that one, as long as the context was clear.  “Grágaire” usually means a “cawer,” “croaker,” or “raucous-voiced person,” based on “grág” (caw, croak, squawk, raucous cry, etc.)

As for “fizoo,” well, we could model it on “casú” (kazoo), but I think I’ll leave that one to the reader’s imagination.  Not everything needs to be translated as such (as, for example, “hors d’oeuvres” being used in Irish as well as French).  Needless to say, I don’t think there’s an existing Irish word for it.  And, in fact, I haven’t found an etymology for it in English, though I wonder, perhaps, balancing precariously out on a limb, if it could be related to Italian “fischietto” (feadóg).  Perhaps with a couple of generations of Americanization layered on and an analogy to “kazoo,” to boot.

Or we could go the full Italian route and directly translate “lingua di Menelik,” (Menelik’s tongue), which is probably the most imaginative of all of these terms.  “Teanga Menelik” a bheadh ann i nGaeilge, nó “teanga Mhenelik” más fearr leat an séimhiú a chur ann.

Cérbh é Menelik a deir tú?  Mac Sholaimh agus Makeda, Banríon Sheabá (ríocht ársa in Aetóip an lae inniu.

Hmmm, did I write this entire blog in order to be able to talk about Irish words for party favors?  Bhuel, not really.  But before wrapping up, beagán gramadaí, for the “take-away.”

Cóisir” is a feminine noun, so it has the following forms:

an chóisir, the party, banquet, social gathering, etc.

na cóisire, of the party, etc., as in “tús na cóisire,” the beginning of the party

na cóisirí, the parties

na gcóisirí, of the parties, as in “costas na gcóisirí,” the cost of the parties

Bain sult as cóisirí an tséasúir!  SGF – Róislín

P.S.: An freagra, ar ndóigh, Coinín na Cásca (the Easter Bunny).