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“A Shéamais!” “A Shinéad!” “A chuisle!” “A stór!” “A óinseach!” “A amadáin!” What do all these Irish phrases have in common? The vocative particle “a,” which has no exact equivalent in English. In addition to being used with terms of endearment, as discussed in the most recent blog (nasc thíos), this particle is constantly used in Irish in conversation and in salutations.
This single-letter word (“a“) is sometimes translated as “O” (the English interjection), but this tends to have too lofty a tone for everyday life. “O” might be a good translation for prayer, as in “a Dhia” [uh YEE-uh] (O God!) or “a Thiarna” [uh HEER-nuh] (O Lord!), but it’s not typical in daily conversation. For example, if I had the sentence “Conas atá tú, a Cháit?“, I’d just translate it as “How are you, Kate?”, not as “How are you, O Kate?”
The Irish particle “a” is sometimes equated with English “Hey!,” as used to get someone’s attention. But this is too casual for some purposes, and also wouldn’t work for situations where the name of the person addressed comes at the end of the phrase. In other words, we wouldn’t translate “Conas atá tú, a Cháit?” as “How are you?” followed by ” hey Kate.”
In certain situations, the word “you” will be included in the translation of an Irish phrase with “a,” for emphasis. For example, “A amadáin!” could be translated as “Fool!” or “You fool!” But, as can be seen, no form of the word “you” (“tú” or “thú.” for singular) is actually in the phrase.
Often the sense of direct address in English comes from the intonation of the voice, since English doesn’t routinely use a vocative particle (“O!” being mostly in prayer or rhetoric). The voice may go up in pitch, in English, especially if the person addressed is not in the immediate vicinity (John-↗NY, where are you? ) or if you’re warning them about unacceptable behavior (John-↗NY!”, often followed by stern silence and glaring eyes, rather than any other words). Or the pitch may decline noticeably, if you’re addressing them to actually scold them (“JOHN-↘ny, look what you’ve done!”) or if the search has become more desperate (“JOHN-↘ny, where on earth are you?”). Barnes and Noble lists about 49 books on the subject of intonation in English, for anyone who wants to pursue the matter. I introduce it here simply to suggest that with the presence of the vocative particle “a” in Irish, there’s somewhat less need to manipulate vocal tone in Irish to get someone’s attention. “A” already signals that you’re trying to get their attention.
So this basically brings us back to square one, using the vocative particle “a” before nouns of direct address in Irish. It’s unstressed, so it basically sounds like English “uh” and the sound may be assimilated into an adjacent vowel.
This vocative particle triggers lenition of the noun that follows; this change will affect nine consonants (b, c, d, f, g, m, p, s, t). For the issue of “lenition” of slender “l” and “n,” please see the note below. Using a sampler of nouns in direct address, including terms of endearment, pejorative terms, titles, and personal names, here are some examples, with the exclamation mark just to show direct address, not necessarily to indicate shouting or surprise:
A bhean uasal! [uh van OO-uss-ul], Ma’am! Madame! Lady!, etc.
A Bhríd! [uh vreedj], Bríd! (Bridget!)
A Chonnla! [uh KHOON-luh], Connla! (of folksong fame)
A chuisle! [uh KHWISH-luh], Beloved (one)! etc.
A Dhiarmaid! [uh YEER-midj], Diarmaid! (Dermot!)
A fheara! [uh AR-uh], Men! (“men” in direct address, as opposed to “fir“)
A ghioblacháin! [uh YIB-lukh-aw-in], Ragamuffin!
A mhac! [uh wahk], Son!
A mhuirnín! [uh WIRzh-neen], Darling!
A phleidhce amadáin! [uh FLY-kyuh AH-mu-daw-in], Silly fool!
A Shagairt! [uh HAHG-irtch], Priest! (as in the song “Fóill! Fóill! A Shagairt!” currently available at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E0pcUjYQjDQ sung by Maighréad Ní Dhomhnaill)
A Shéamais! [uh HAY-mish], Séamas! (James!)
A Shinéad! [uh HIN-ayd], Sinéad! (Janet!, Jeanette!, etc.)
A Thiarna! [uh HEER-nuh], Lord! (or, in prayer, “O Lord!”)
A Thomáis! [uh HOM-awsh], Tomás! (Thomas!)
Some consonant clusters are exempt, including “st,” as in two popular terms of endearment: “A stór!” and “A stóirín!”
As for nouns beginning with vowels, there is no change to the spelling (vowels can’t be lenited), but the sound of the particle “a” may be less audible, especially in rapid speech.
A athair! [uh AH-hirzh], Father! (could be capitalized, if addressing a priest, “A Athair“)
A Éanna! [uh AY-uh-nuh], Éanna! (or “Enda!”)
A Íosa! [uh EE-uss-uh], Jesus!
A óinseach! [uh OHN-shukh], Fool! (addressed to a female, as opposed to “A amadáin!,” which would be addressed to a male or used in more general terms)
A óinsín! [uh OHN-sheen], Little fool! (again, addressed to a female; the diminutive ending “-ín” implies that this is a young female fool; variations of this word include “óinseog” and “óinseachaín” — it seems there’s no shortage of words to fit this bill!)
A Uain Dé [uh OO-in djay], Lamb of God! (“uan,” together with its Welsh counterpart, “oen,” is a distant cousin of the word Latin “agnus“; here “uan” gets the letter “i” inserted to show the direct address ending)
As for the term, “an tuiseal gairmeach,” used in the title of this blog,” it means “vocative case,” that is, the form of the noun used for calling someone’s name, addressing them by title, etc. You might recognize “gairmeach” from Irish words like “gairmscoil” (vocational school) or “gairmoideachas” (vocational education), or, more distantly, “slua-ghairm,” literarally a “troop/host-call,” i.e. a “slogan.” English gets the word “slogan” from Gaelic; the traditional spelling was “sluagh-ghairm.” Incidentally, this is the origin of the name “Slughorn” in J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series.
“Tuiseal” [TISH-ul], grammatically speaking, means “case” (the form of a noun used for a specific role in a sentence – subject, direct address, possessor, etc.; in English this is mostly limited to the ” ‘s ” ending for possession and pronoun forms like “he” vs. “him”). “Tuiseal” is a variant of the word “tuisle” [TISH-luh], a “stumble” or “slip.”
So that’s an introduction to how Irish uses the vocative case, which we need when we call somebody by name, address them by title, hurl epithets at them, or whisper sweet nothings in their ear. As more and more non-Irish names appear in Irish language conversations, there may be some lessening of the rules, with, for example “Sally,” “Tran,” or “Balasubramaniam.” But I do distinctly remember “A Mhaggie” [uh WAGG-ee] from a coláiste samhraidh in the Gaeltacht. Come to think of it, I probably never saw it written. Maybe it had been gaelicized to fit Irish spelling patterns.
Ar aon chaoi, slán go fóill, a chairde (to use a vocative plural form), go dtí an chéad uair eile — Róislín
Nóta: A slight difference in sound for “l” and “n” in lenited positions can be determined in some speakers, but in my experience, this is not very prevalent today. Mícheál Ó Siadhail, for example, in his Learning Irish, contrasts the basic pronunciation of “leisciúil” (with initial /L’/) to its pronunciation in a phrase like “Máire leisciúil” (with /l’/). But this sound differentiation is not indicated by the spelling; most accounts of lenition focus on the nine consonants given above.