Irish Language Blog

‘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 by on Jan 5, 2014 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  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 somewhat 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, pronounced /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), “bean” is “lenited,” becoming “bhean

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). The word “mhná” sounds like “vnaw” or “vraw,” depending on your dialect.

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!).  Say “vnee” “or vree” for “mhnaoi.”

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: (10 Eanáir 2011)

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  1. Aaron Brown:

    Go raibh maith agat

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