Irish Language Blog

Blianta Go Leor — Years Galore, Except the Donkey’s! Posted by on Jun 29, 2009 in Irish Language

(le Róislín)

You may have noticed Transparent’s recent Word of the Day, bliain (year) or an bhliain (the year).  Care to guess how many forms of this word are in common use?

Well, there’s the lenited form (an bhliain), the special form used after the numbers 3, 4, 5, and 6 (bliana), the eclipsed “special” form used after the numbers 7, 8, 9, and 10 (mbliana), the possessive form (also bliana), and the plural form (blianta). 

Examples, you cry?  Coming up!

Tá mo hamstar bliain d’aois.  My hamster is a year old. 

Tá mo hamstar bliain amháin d’aois.  My hamster is one year old (emphasizing the “one” bit)

Tá mo hamstar dhá bhliain d’aois.  (dhá bhliain, two years).

Tá mo hamstar trí bliana d’aois.  Just like I promised, a change kicks in at number three.

Tá mo hamstar seacht mbliana d’aois.  (seacht mbliana, seven years, showing “eclipsis” or covering of the letter “b”). 

How long do hamsters live anyway?  Maybe I’d better switch to pearóidí (parrots).

Tá mo phearóid trí bliana déag d’aois.  My parrot is thirteen years old. 

Tá mo phearóid fiche bliain d’aois.  My parrot is twenty years old. Time for an osna faoisimh (sigh of relief) – no change to the word “bliain” for multiples of ten!

And how about that possessive form?

Beidh sé anseo go ceann bliana. He’ll be here for a year (lit. “until the head of a year”)

And the plural:

Ní fhaca mé le blianta é.  I haven’t seen him for years.

And speaking of not seeing someone le blianta (for years), one phrase that has “years” in English but not in Irish, is “donkey’s years.”  As in, “I haven’t seen a Slinky in donkey’s years.”  For all of the presence of Equus africanus asinus in Ireland, this particular idiom doesn’t have an exact equivalent in Irish.  To say “I haven’t seen him for a long time,” you just substitute “fada” (long) in the phrase “le blianta,” giving:

Ní fhaca mé le fada é.  Literally, I didn’t see him with “long.” 

So why do we drag the word “donkey” into expressions like this in English. It’s sort of like rhyming slang, although in this case almost a reverse rhyming slang. The idea behind the expression is “donkey’s ears,” which are, well, you guessed it, long. Add a little word play to the mix and you have “donkey’s years.”  Maybe there’s also a little insinuation that donkeys may take a long time to move along, or, if not a long time, their own sweet time. 

It wouldn’t hurt to learn the actual phrase for “donkey’s ears:” One of these days, I plan to blog about the tearmainn asal, donkey sanctuaries in Ireland, which I hope to visit sometime, so I’m sure we’ll return to the topic of donkey’s ears eventually.  At that point we can discuss more features of donkeys – ears, fur, hoofs, their vulnerable hind legs, etc.*

The phrase “donkey’s ears” is basic enough as far as vocabulary goes:

cluas, ear

cluasa, ears

cluasa asail, donkey’s ears

 I just read in one of the documents for University College Cork’s Irish Department that, “… is fada siar a théann an ceangal idir chluasa asail agus rí.”  That means “The connection between donkey’s ears and kings goes back a long time,” and on that intriguing nóta, I’ll leave you for now.  Slán ach ní go ceann fada! — Róislín

Leideanna Fuaimnithe (Pronunciation Tips)

bhliain – VLEE-in, the “bh” is pronounced like a “v”

mbliana – MLEE-un-nuh

ní fhaca – nee AHK-uh, the “fh” is completely silent

*I’ll have to remember to keep the “hupcoming” donkey blog short and succinct, otherwise I might be accused of “talking the hind leg off the (proverbial) donkey.”  By the way, the Irish for “Hup!” is (drumroll) “Hup!”  ‘Nuff said! 



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