Cailíní — firinscneach? Staileanna — baininscneach? Go figure! Posted by on Nov 30, 2012 in Irish Language

(le Róislín)

Very early on in learning Irish, most people see phrases like “an capall” (the horse) and “an bhó” (the cow).  Or “an seomra” (the room) and “an chistin” (the kitchen).  Then, somewhere along the way, we learn that the basic form of “cow” is “” (not “bhó“) and that the basic form of “kitchen” is “cistin” (not “chistin“).   These different forms of the word have different pronunciations: [boh] but bhó [woh OR voh, depending on dialect] and cistin “KISH-tchin” but “chistin” [HISH-tchin].

Capall” and “seomra,” however, stay the same, even when the definite article (“an“) is taken away:  capall (horse), an capall (the horse), seomra (room), an seomra (the room).

Here are some more pairs:

cearc [kyark], hen; an chearc [un hyark], the hen.  NB: the [hy] is like the “h” in “humid” or “human”

coileach [KIL-yukh], rooster; an coileach [un KIL-yukh], the rooster

crannóg [KRAHN-ohg], lake-dwelling (house built on support posts); an chrannóg [un KHRAHN-ohg], the lake-dwelling

teach [tchakh], house; an teach [un tchakh], the house

[gyay], goose; an ghé [un yay], the goose

gandal [GAHN-dal], gander; an gandal [un GAHN-dal], the gander

Notice any pattern here?  Pertaining to “na h-anna“?

So as you may have noticed, certain words get the letter “h” inserted after the first consonant when we add the word “the” (bó, an bhó, etc.).  Others don’t (capall, an capall, etc.).

You might also have noticed that some of the words that take the additional “h” pertain to female animals (cearc, gé).  Bhuel, “” can sometimes refer to geese in general, fireann agus baineann, but technically speaking, a male goose is a “gandal” (gander).

So, lo and behold, we’ve stumbled upon the key to grammatical gender (inscne ghramadúil) in Irish.  One blog can’t possibly describe the entire situation, but here are some of the basics:

1) Like most European languages (except English), almost all Irish nouns have grammatical gender.  That means that almost everything, animate (duine, m) or inanimate (bosca, m), biologically gendered (cearc, f) or not (aiméibe, f), is either masculine or feminine in Irish.  You may have encountered a similar situation in a language like Latin, with “puer” (m) and “puella” (f), “pēs” (leg of a table, m) and “mēnsa” (table, f).  Or Spanish “el niño” and “la niña.”  How about French “le roux” (m) and “la fondue” (f)?  Or, also in “la belle France” (f), the land of “le beau geste” (m), we find “le chien” and “la chienne.”  Finally, although grammatical gender is rare in modern English, we usually do differentiate “fiancée” from “fiancé,” and we might differentiate “blonde” from “blond.”   Or less commonly still, “brunette” from “brunet.”

2) There are a few exceptions, Irish nouns with no gender, most of which only occur now in fossilized expressions, such as “féidir” (“possibility,” often translated as “possible” or “can”), which do not have gender in modern Irish (Is féidir liom, etc.).

3) Grammatical gender in Irish may be related to biology, or it might not.  So we have “an chearc” and “an ghé,” and “an bhó,” and also “an chéirseach” (the female or hen blackbird) and “an chráin” (the sow), among others, for animals.  For people we have “an bhean” [un van, the woman], an ghirseach [un YIRzh-shukh, the little girl], and “an chliobóg” [un HLIB-ohg, the big strong girl].  On the masculine side, we have “an coileach,” “an gandal,” “an tarbh” (the bull), “an lon dubh” (the blackbird), “an collach” (the boar), “an fear” (the man), “an gasúr” (the boy, though sometimes “child” in general), and “an cliobaire” (the strong, able-bodied man).

4) On the other hand, we have thousands and thousands of inanimate nouns in Irish that also have grammatical gender, among them:  bosca (box, m), cos (foot, leg, f), bord (table, m), cathaoir (chair, f), teach (house, m), otharlann (hospital, f), leabhar (book, m), leabharlann (library, f).

5) Irish just has one form of the word “the” for singular nouns — it’s “an,” pronounced like “un.’  It doesn’t have a masculine and feminine form such as we see in some other languages (le/la, el/la, il/la, etc.).

So how do we tell which words are masculine and which are feminine if we don’t have the definite article to help us as we did for languages like French or Spanish?  There are two main ways.  One is by looking at the ending, which I’d say is helpful about 75% of the time.  For example, the “-óg” ending is almost always feminine, as in “an chliobóg.”  But there are many feminine nouns that don’t have any actual suffix ending (bean, cearc, traein, etc.) and others with different endings (Gaeltacht, péinteáil, etc.).  The second way is to check for lenited adjectives following the noun (bean mhaith, not “maith;” “cearc mhór,” not “mór).

There’s actually a third way — look the word up the dictionary and see if it says “m” or “f.”  Note that some two-way dictionaries only give the gender in the Irish-to-English section, not in the English-to-Irish section.   Some dictionaries will say “f” for “firinscneach” and “b” for” baininscneach,” so be sure to check out what the system is.

Once you learn a new noun and its gender, try to practice it as much as you can so you can remember whether it’s firinscneach or baininscneach even if there are no surrounding clues (like lenited adjectives or definite articles).

Any surprises in all of this?  Tá, cinnte!  Consider the title of this blog.  Yep, “cailíní” (girls) in Irish are firinscneach (masculine)!  Grammatically, that is.  And “staileanna” (stallions) are baininscneach (feminine)!  But better not tell them that or An Graíolach Náisiúnta might be affected!  Mar a dúirt mé sa teideal, go figure!  SGF, Róislín

For more examples of grammatical gender in Irish, please check out Transparent Language’s video at

Gluais: baineann, female; fireann, male; graíolach, stud (as in horse stud farm)

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  1. Brian Murphy:

    Róisín tá cara agam,dar ainm Sophie Luckinsky atá in a conaí sa Ruis and taistíonn uaithi an teanga Gaeilge a fhoghlaim. Seo i a seoladh i facebook;
    an féidir lear an gaeilge a múineadh di le do thoil. Má’s maith leat is féidir duit scríobh go dtí Sophie.
    go raibh maith agat
    brian ó Murchu

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