Irish Language Blog

An Focal “ann” (agus beagáinín faoi “ionam,” “ionat,” srl.) Posted by on Apr 19, 2012 in Irish Language

(le Róislín)

Some of you might be wondering about the word “ann” in the question “An ann di?” from the recent blog entitled “Cén Ghaeilge atá ar ‘rusticle’An Ann Di (Dó)?”  It is a short but multi-purpose, multi-faceted, and very important word in Irish.

The very literal translation of “An ann di?” is, perhaps intriguingly, “Is it in it to it?” and the masculine variation (with “”) also translates as “Is it in it to it?”  If that’s caught your interest, read on!

Before we go farther with “ann,” though, let’s just look at its pronunciation.  There are two main ways to pronounce “ann,” each quite widespread: one as “ahn,” and the other, more typical of Munster Irish, as “oun” as in “now,” “cow,” “sound,” or “tau” (as in the Tory Island tau cross), Taos (New Mexico, not the Irish word “taos,” pronounced “teess”), or Tao (Chinese for “the way”).  Why so many examples for one simple, if diphthongized, sound?  Well, just trying to cover the bases, since some readers are more likely to talk about the “soon’ of the broon coo’s moo” than the “sound of the brown cow’s moo.”  The spelling of English is hopeless in this regard!  The best recourse, of course, would be IPA: /au/.  At any rate, either “ahn” or “oun” is fine, in accordance with whatever dialect of Irish you speak.

It’s helpful in understanding “ann” to have a background in the Irish-English usage of “in it” to question or state something’s existence.  Sentences like “Let’s finish the work while the day is in it” (i.e. while it’s still daylight), “Given the week that’s in it …” (heard a few years ago in reference to the week surrounding St. Patrick’s Day), or “with the times that are in it” (heard recently on the Marian Finucane radio show).  Or, jumping back about 150 years ago, “Oh, murther alive! and is it himself that’s in it?” from novelist Charles Lever.  That’s not a reference to a man being in a box or cupboard or closet or some such thing, but simply a way of welcoming someone, like saying “Is it you that has come here?” (or, more colloquially, “Well, look who’s here!”).  Using the third-person form in this example is a token of respect; the question could also be asked using “yourself”?  All of these usages come from the Irish word “ann,” which can be translated as “in it,” “in him,” “in existence” (loosely speaking, not overly philosophically), “here” or “there.”

The most literal translation of “ann” is “in him” or “in it” (including masculine nouns, like box, room, house, etc.).  It is part of the preposition “i” (in), which you may know from its full paradigm:

“i” (in) Uatha (singular) Iolra (plural)
1st person ionam (in me) ionainn (in us)
2nd person ionat (in you) ionaibh (in you, pl.)
3rd person ann(in him, in it);inti (in her, in it) iontu (in them)

A few more expressions with “ann” are:

Tá ocht dtroithe ann, It measures (is) eight feet high, lit. there are eight feet in it.

Is duine ann féin é, He’s a peculiar person, lit. he is a person in himself.

Níl an anáil ann, He isn’t breathing, lit. the breath isn’t in him

Múinteoir atá ann, He is a teacher, lit. a teacher is in him (likewise, “Múinteoir atá ionam,” I am a teacher; “Múinteoir atá ionat,” You are a teacher, etc.)

To top things off, there is also the expression, “Tá mé in ann sciáil” (I can ski), where “ann” has a completely different meaning, part of the phrase “in ann” indicating talent or ability,

So that’s “ann.”  Now, how about the word “an”?

Well, there are seven different words “an” in Irish.  We’ll only deal with a couple here, primarily focusing on the one that fits in the question “An ann di (dó)?”  Of the others, the two most basic are “an” (the definite article, as in “an leanbh,” the child, and “an tsláinte,” the health) and “an-“ (with the dash), meaning “very,” as in “an-mhaith” or “an-dona.”  But neither of these is our “an” for today’s purposes.  The “an” in today’s question is a form of the verb “is,” specifically, the interrogative form.  In its two scant letters it encompasses both the subject and verb for our question “Is it …?”  The whys and wherefores of that could perhaps be ábhar blag eile, but for now, the translation should suffice.

Our final word in the title question is a form of the preposition “do” (to, for; pronounced “duh,” as in “done” or “dun”).  “Di” is feminine (grammatically, pronounced with a short “i,” as in “din” or “ditto”), meaning “to it” or “to her” and “” is masculine, meaning “to it” or “to him.”  As you may recall, the reference was either to “an Ghaeilge” (a feminine noun) or, by implication to “focal Gaeilge” (a masculine noun).

Putting these three elements together, we have a perfectly complete and grammatical Irish question (An ann di [dó]?), even if it barely appears to have a verb.  It does really have a verb, embedded in the interrogative word “an.”  “Is it in it to it?” means, in plainer English, “Does it exist?”

Why not just say, “An bhfuil sin ann?”  Well, we could, I guess.  Or we could say, “An bhfuil a leithéid ann?” (Is the likes of it in it?, i.e. Does it exist?  Or should that be “Are the likes of it in it?  Hmmm, Irish singular, English collective plural … ábhaarrgh blag eile — and that’s me combining a Charlie Brownish frustration interjection with the Irish word “ábhar,” not actual Irish, except to the extent that “aargh” is an equal-opportunity wail!).

We could also say, “An bhfuil sin ar fáil?”  Or, fairly philosophically and not very colloquially, “An eiseann sin? (Does it exist?).  The phrasing “An ann di / dó / dóibh?, etc.” is reasonably widespread though, and, to my mind at least, has a nice conciseness and Irish pithiness to it.  It can exist for all seven forms of the preposition, although it would, admittedly, be rare in the first-person singular (An ann dom? Do I exist?).  But even there, it could be part of some first-hand existential query that could be connected, for example, to Mícheál Ó Conghaile’s short story, “Ag Ithe Daoine,” where the narrator continues to tell us the story of his demise even after he should be, well, in full demise.  Or, similarly, as a post-script to the song “I’m Being Swallowed by a Boa Constrictor,” where the narrator is devoured before the song is over, but then that’s Shel Silverstein for you.  Eiseachas draíochta (magic existentialism), an ea?  Nó gnáthosréalachas?

Want the works to query your own or other folks’ existence?

An ann dom? Do I exist?

An ann duit? Do you exist? (cf. the comment “Is ann duit!,” literally “It’s in it to you!” but understood as “You exist!” in the sense of “So you are still alive!”)

An ann dó? Does he/it exist?

An ann di? Does she/it exist?

An ann dúinn? Do we exist? (first-person plural existential querying again, is dócha, perhaps this time by Star Trek’s Sargon and Thalassa?)

An ann daoibh?  Do you (pl.) exist?

An ann dóibh?  Do they exist?

An ann do Mharsaigh?  Do Martians exist?

An ann do dhuine ar bith? Does anyone exist?  (Henry Bemis, b’fhéidir, san eipeasóid Twilight Zone “Time Enough at Last,” dá mbeadh Gaeilge aige, ar ndóigh)

Hope that wasn’t too far-fetched, but after all, existence is a sort of ficsean eolaiochta type of topic, nach eaSlán go fóill, ó Róislín (arb ann di fós, fad a heolais!)

Gluais: eis, exist (with “eiseann sé” for “he/it exists,” completely separate from “eisean” with one “n,” which means “he himself,” and also separate from “eisíonn sé,” meaning “he/it issues,” as, for example, money; ficsean eolaíochta, science fiction; gnáth-, ordinary; osréalachas, surrealism; sciáil [SHKEE-aw-il], skiing; troigh [silent “g”], foot, mostly for measuring these days, not for the body part (pl: troithe, remember the 2nd “t” is silent, making the “th” mostly just breath).

Nóta 1: If you’re curious about Mícheál Ó Conghaile’s story, it’s in his collection, An Fear nach nDéanann Gáire (ISBN 1-902420-65-9), winner of Gradam an Oireachtais in 2001, available from (Cló Iar-Chonnachta) and other bookdealers.

Nóta 2: Maidir le Sargon agus Thalassa, an cuimhin leat iad?  Neacha díchollaithe iad san eipeasóid “Return to Tomorrow” (9 Feabhra 1968).  

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