Irish Language Blog

An Mháthair nó an Lá: Cé Acu Atá Sona? Posted by on May 8, 2011 in Irish Language

(le Róislín)

Some of you may have been wondering how to say “Happy Mother’s Day” in Irish.  Previous blogs in the series have talked about the phrase for “Mother’s Day” itself (Lá na Máithreacha, lit. day of the mothers).  But what happens when you want to say the greeting?

In Irish, if a greeting is a blessing, we typically use the preposition “ort” (or “oraibh” for plural).  Who remembers how to say the following? Freagraí thíos-1.

Beannachtaí na _____________ Pádraig ort!  for “Happy St. Patrick’s Day to you!” (for plural use “oraibh” instead of “ort”).  Leid: think “feast,” not “day.”

Beannachtaí na ___________ ort! (or “oraibh)  for  “Happy Easter to you!”

If the greeting uses the word “sona” for “happy” instead of being basing the phrase on “beannacht” for “blessing,” we typically use the preposition “duit” (“daoibh” [deev] for plural).

So, for “Happy Mother’s Day to you,” I’d recommend “Lá na Máithreacha Sona duit.”  If you’re addressing a group of mothers, use “daoibh.”  That, of course wouldn’t be typical for most individuals, but might pertain for an event or in a group setting.

Tricky thing here, though, is this could also mean “the day of the happy mothers.”  Of course, it’s almost one and the same, moodwise.  It’s just a little different grammatically.  What with na bláthanna and na bróinsí, or other Mother’s Day traditions,  it’s both a happy day and, hopefully, a day on which mothers are happy.

The reason we can’t tell if “sona” goes with “” or “máithreacha”  is that “sona” doesn’t have a separate plural ending, like some other adjectives do (maith, maithe; suimiúil, suimiúla, srl.).  “Sona” can be singular or plural.  “Lá na Máithreacha” is a set phrase, so “sona” wouldn’t normally come right after the word “.”  In other words, even though adjectives usually follow their noun in Irish (“gúna nua” as opposed to English “new gown”), the adjective can also follow an entire phrase when it describe that entire phrase.

This is a reminder of how, within reason, we tend to interpret linguistic phenomena the way they’re intended to be interpreted.  The simplest solution is “supposed” to be the one that works.  In some cases, English will be as ambiguous as our Irish “Mother’s Day” phrase but pattern and context usually provide clarification.  For example, the phrase “Little Used Book Store” could mean all of the following:

1)       a store selling used books that are little (miniature editions, etc., many of which are collectible)

2)       a store selling books that are little used (like obscure dictionaries or histories of footnotes and of screwdrivers, both of which happen to be real books I couldn’t resist acquiring)

3)       a little store that sells used books, or,

4)      a book store that’s little used (Say it ain’t so! – I like to think that all bricks-and-mortar bookstore are well-used since they are among my favorite haunts, but they do seem to be disappearing  at an alarming rate)

I’m sure you can imagine other phrases that have struck you similarly.  Theoretically, in English, punctuation is supposed to help, but we seem to be losing our main weapon for this purpose, the hyphen.  If you have any doubts on that, just consider which you would rather encounter – a man eating shark or a man-eating shark.  Bhuel, ‘nuff said maidir le fleiscíní, is dócha.

Anyway, back to our phrase, Mother’s Day as celebrated in the US (ar an dara Domhnach de mhí na Bealtaine) isn’t a traditional holiday in Ireland, or for that matter in the UK, where “Mothering Sunday” is celebrated, usually in late March.  But the observance seems to be spreading, and certainly as more and more Gaeil-Mheiriceánaigh learn a dteanga dhúchais, people seem to want to know how to say “Happy Mother’s Day” in Irish.

Just to break the phrase down a little more:

(day): this will come first in the phrase since Irish word order is usually noun followed by modifiers/possessors, not modifier/possessor followed by noun as we usually find in English (Mother’s Day) or, for that matter, in German (Muttertag).

na: here, “of the.”  Remember, Irish doesn’t use the word “of” to express possession, since it’s an “inflected” language, meaning it has actual endings to words to tell us who owns what.  Usually!

máithreacha, plural of “máthair” (mother); this form is used both for “mothers” as the subject of the sentence (Tá na máithreacha ag teacht leis na leanaí) or for saying “of mothers.”  Moral of that story: the word “mother” doesn’t fit any of the declensions we’ve discussed so far, and I’ll make its details  the subject of a later blog, maybe when we do “Lá na nAithreacha,” since the word “athair” behaves quite similarly.

sona (happy): as I said before, somewhat ambiguous here, but tradition nudges us toward the correct interpretation.  “Sonacan undergo one change, initial mutation, resulting in phrases like “cearc shona” (a happy hen) or “fir shona” (happy men).  But for our purposes, modifying a masculine singular noun (), it stays as “sona.”  On that note, and for a little “cloze” practice, who remembers how to say the following in Irish (fill in the blank, freagraí thíos-2):

Lá Breithe ________ duit! (for “Happy Birthday to you!”)

Nollaig _____ duit! (for “Merry Christmas,” lit. “Happy Christmas,” comparable to the UK English usage).

On that nóta sona, sin é don bhlag seo.  SGF, ó Róislín

Freagraí (1): Beannachtaí na Féile Pádraig ort; Beannachtaí na Cásca ort.

Freagraí (2): Lá Breithe Sona duit (“sona” stays as is because it’s modifying a masculine singular noun,); Nollaig Shona duit! (lenition, with “s” changing to “sh,” because “sona” modifies a feminine singular noun).

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