Irish Language Blog

Declensions, Generally Speaking Posted by on May 30, 2011 in Uncategorized

(le Róislín)

Next time the gnáthmhionchaint grows tedious at some required but understimulating social event, maybe you’d like to liven up the chat by mentioning declensions.  The conversation could have far-reaching implications, like “When is a category a category?” and “When is a category a sub-category?”  If it’s anything like “adamhach” and “fo-adamhach,” sin scéal go leith.

Or we might ask, “When is a category in the eye of the beholder?”  Or “i súil an ghramadóra”?  On the more mundane level, you could find yourself noun-dropping in both Latin (speluncae, crambārum) and in Irish (When is a “rós” a “róis,” when is a “ros” a “rosa,” and when does “ros” revert to simply being “ros”).  Drithlíneach!

In modern English, we don’t think of nouns as being in declensions, and we have a very streamlined system for plurals and possessives.  We add “-s” or “-es” for most plurals (gowns, dresses) and for possessives, we either use the apostrophe (doctor’s parking space, doctors’ parking spaces) or the word “of” (the parking space of the doctor, the parking spaces of the doctors).  We have a few eisceachtaí, of course, those pesky “sheep” (never sheep + s), fish (sometimes “fishes”), the mouse/mice pattern (sometimes broken as in computer “mouses”); the small “-en” plural category (children, oxen, brethren), and the conundrum of the words “man” and “wīfman,” pluralized by changing the “a” to “e,” and resulting in a perpetual, subliminal reference to “men” when we’re talking about “wīfmen” (women).   But, by and large, you can go a long way with “-s” plurals and possessives in English, even if there’s occasional overkill (hobbitses).

In contrast, Irish, together with Latin, Russian, and various other languages, has lots of different endings for nouns.  The declension system is an attempt to establish some order over this potential chaos.  To take just one example, and to jump back briefly to the 1st-declension, we have the following for “fear” (man): fear, fir and feara, in 21st-century use, and if we include the early 20th century and previous eras, “fearaibh” as well).  And that’s without the initial mutations, which will add fhear, bhfear, fheara (“A fheara,” arsa Fionn), fhir, and bhfir, plus the following somewhat dated forms: fhearaibh, bhfearaibh, and bhfeara (“bhí siad ina bhfeara gasta,” in case you’re wondering about that non-Caighdeánach form).  Another group of nouns, still in the first declension, adds yet another ending  (-ta) to the mix: rón (a seal), róin (of a seal), rónta (seals), rónta (of seals).

Please keep the following feature about “an cúigiú díochlaonadh” in mind.  Even though it represents a category within which nouns are supposed to follow the same pattern, there are actually at least four main sub-patterns.  There are also at least five words, probably more, that are quite idiosyncratic but which are not considered “neamhrialta” (irregular).  The latter include, interestingly enough, both “cara” (friend) and “namhaid” (enemy) and are probably best taken case by case, rather than trying to see an overall pattern within the hodge-podge corner of this supposed “system.”

For anyone who remembers the declension system from Latin, it’s much more regular there.  If a noun is in, say, the first declension, like “terra” (earth), it will have hundreds, probably thousands, of cohorts with the exact same “-a” ending and exact same set of endings as you go through its various forms, plural, possessive, and so forth.  So we use the same endings to make “terra” plural, (-ae, giving us “terrae”) as we use to pluralize “matella.”  And kudos to anyone who already knew or dredged up the meaning of “matella” from the murky past of secondary-school memories.  I must confess we never learned “matella” in my high school class.  At least not that I remember.  Matella, translated into Irish, would be either a “fualán” or an “árthach,” namely, a chamber-pot.  Both of these Irish words also have other meanings.  “Fualán” these days, with modern plumbing, is more likely to mean “urinal,” and “árthach” is really just a general word for “vessel” or “container” (as in “spásárthach,” a spaceship).  But the main point here is that “matella” is like “terra,” which is like “alumna,” which is like “filia” (daughter), which is like “spelunca” (cave), which is like “nigella,” etc.

Having said that, and double-checking, as it’s been blianta since I actually studied Latin, I’m wondering how did we managed to escape such a charming 1st-declension noun as “crambē.”  Maybe it’s just how they taught us as students, emphasizing the extent to which the declension system is systematic, and de-emphasizing the anomalies.  I don’t remember the “-e” ending being in the same category as the “-a” ending, but that could just be me being “fíor-dhímheabhrach” (having a memory like a sieve, but literally, simply “truly-un-, hmm, -recollective”).  So, one more Latin example, mura mhiste libh, and then back to the Irish.  “Crambē” being in the 1st-declension, together with all those “-a” words, reminds us that even the Latin approach wasn’t completely predictable, at least not from the student viewpoint.  It didn’t necessarily matter what the last letter of the word in its subject form (nominative) was, but rather, how it added on endings.

It may help to see the various possibilities within the declension system.  For starters, just first declensions for Irish and Latin; maybe more in a later blog.  This isn’t an attempt to be exhaustive, just to show that there is variety within declension.

Irish first declension, just the basic four forms (nominative, genitive singular, plural, genitive plural), not the vocatives, datives, or dialect forms:

fear, fir, fir, fear

Breatnach, Breatnaigh, Breatnaigh, Breatnach

rón, róin, rónta, rónta

rós (a rose), róis, rósanna, rósanna

But never assume that near-lookalike words in Irish are in the same declension.  Note, for example, “ros” (a headland), with the genitive “rosa,” which marks it as 3rd-declension, not 1st-declension.  Its plural forms are “na rosa” (the headlands) and “na ros” (of the headlands).  You might recognize this word from the clár teilifíse, “Ros na Rún” (lit. the headland of the secrets) or from the place name “Ros na Ríogh” in Co. Meath.

Latin first declension, just nominative, genitive singular, plural and genitive plural, though the personal names do not normally have plural forms; we don’t need to look at all twelve Latin endings to illustrate this point, just these four:

terra, terrae, terrae, terrārum

crambē, crambes, crambae, crambārum (and that’s considered the same declension as “terra” even though “terra” ends with “-a” and “crambē” ends with “-ē”!)

And two personal names in Latin, also 1st-declension,both of which make me wonder how this is supposed to be systematic.  I’ve added the vocative here, just to show the possible variety, and because we’re more likely to talk directly to people than to cabbages or lands:

Aenēās, Aenēae (of Aeneas), and vocative (direct address): Aenēā

Anchīsēs, Anchīsae (of Anchises), and vocative, Anchīsā or (!) Anchīsē. 

I hope this has helped clarify that not everything in one declension works in exactly the same way, and that even Latin is less systematic than one might think, or than I remembered.  Slán go fóill – Róislín

Nóta maidir le “fíor-dhímheabhrach”:  I would have been tickled pink if I could have found widespread usage of an Irish idiom using the word “criathar” (sieve) in discussing “memory.” But, while “criathar” has some extended meanings, as in discussing the weather (Tá an spéir ina criathar inniu, the sky is a sieve today, i.e. it’s pouring), I don’t see this exact “mind-like-a-sieve” idiom.  There is a somewhat old-fashioned expression, teachtaire an chriathair (or with its original tuiseal ginideach, “teachtaire an chréithir”), which means a “dilatory messenger.”  I can’t say I use “dilatory messenger” that much in speaking English these days either, so the two phrases might be somewhat comparable in datedness.

Nóta maidir le “crambē” – Ar tuairteáladh do chuimhne maidir le focail Laidine ar chabáiste?  “Crambē” is one of several Latin words for “cabbage” and in a great idiomatic phrase, “crambē repetīta,” it means “stale repetitions.”  It is also presumed to be the origin of the game “crambo.”  Both a literary reference and a literal reference to the repeating taste of cabbage, it seems.  The other Latin words for cabbage might be more familiar; they include “brassica,” with its Irish cognate “praiseach” (as in “praiseach bhuí,” “praiseach thrá,” etc.) and “caulis,” as in Irish “cóilis “(cauliflower).

Gluais: scéal go leith, a tale and a half; buí [bwee], yellow; drithlíneach, scintillating;  gramadóir, grammarian; praiseach bhuí [wee], charlock, aka wild mustard (Sinapis arvensis), et al.; praiseach thrá [hraw, silent ‘t”], sea-kale, for which the Latin taxonomic name is, perversely, Crambe maritima!; scéal go leith, a tale and a half; súil, eye

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  1. mankso:

    Apologies if you’ve mentioned it already elsewhere, but here might be an appropriate place to mention Andrew Carnie’s recent (2008) “attempt to establish some order over this potential chaos”:
    “Irish Nouns – A Reference Guide”
    ISBN13: 9780199213757
    ISBN10: 0199213755

    Rather pricey at USD $120, but it just might be in a local academic library i d’aice!
    He attempts to introduce some system into the irregularities and exceptions of the traditional 5 declensions, and comes up with 10 declensional classes and 7 major plural types, while providing “fully inflected paradigms for 1200 nouns, and a reference list of 10,000 Irish nouns annotated with their new declension class, their plural type and the form of the genitive singular and common case (nominative) plural.” Maybe more than you ever wanted to know …?!!

  2. Tom Stewart:

    Is “fear, fir, fir, fear” and “rón, róin, rónta, rónta” supposed to follow the order “nominative, genitive, singular, plural”? If so, it is not correct. For example, “rónta” is not singular”.

    I think what you were trying to say was:

    “Just the basic four forms (nominative singular, genitive singular, nominative plural, genitive plural)”

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