Irish Language Blog

Falling Leaves, Falling in Love: The Verb “to fall” in Irish Posted by on Oct 3, 2011 in Irish Language

(le Róislín)

Thit a lán duilleoga sa ghairdín (sa chlós) agus anois tá orm iad a rácáil.

Thit Seán i ngrá le Sinéad.

Notice anything interesting about those sentences?  For an English-speaker, I think it seems fairly normal to expect that in Irish one could say “many leaves fell” or “Seán fell in love” using the same verb, “to fall.”

Meandering around some Romance language dictionaries, I see the opposite.  There tends to be words or phrases like “enamorarse” (Spáinnis), “innamorarsi” (Iodáilis), and “adamāre” (Laidin) for “to fall in love.”  As far as I can tell, these all are basically intensifiers of the verb “to love,” with an indication of movement “in” or “towards.  None of them are connected to the most basic words for “to fall” in Spanish, Italian, and Latin respectively (caerse/caer, cadere, and cadere).

Maidir leis an bhFraincis, I see some interesting commentary about “falling amorously, i.e. falling lovingly or in love” (tomber amoureux), as opposed to the translation trap into which many English speakers might “fall,” trying using the verb “tomber” (to fall) with the phrase “en amour.” The latter apparently would suggest that love was some sort of three-dimensional phenomenon into which one could fall, like a box or a hole … or maybe a vortex, which would be more like the real experience..  Curious, though, from both the Irish and English perspectives, that the verb “to fall” (tomber) is at least part of the phrase.

Did the idea of “falling in love” (as opposed to marrying whomever your parents picked for you) travel from French to English in the Anglo-Norman period, and then perhaps to Ireland?   Well, that’s more like a Ph.D. thesis than a single Irish-language blog, but it would be interesting for someone to pursue.  First stop, I’d think would be De Amore, by André le Chapelain (Andreas Capellanus).  Well, actually, maybe the first stop would be Ovid’s own Ars Amatoria, about 1200 years earlier, but again, not quite exactly my next project.

It’s hard to know whether the phrase “to fall in love with someone” in Irish came about through direct borrowing, or if it originated as an old Irish concept.  But it’s been in the language for at least about 100 years, so if it is a borrowing, it’s one with a nice “paitean.”  Come to think of it, love in Old Irish literature often seemed to be fore-ordained, or unavoidable, not a Beatles-ey “falling, yes I am falling” process.  I don’t suppose Gráinne “fell” in love with Diarmaid in our modern sense of word, because Diarmaid, after all, had his “ball seirce,” whose attraction was unavoidable.  Last I checked, experts in the field (what field, anyway, “amorology”?) had never completely determined what the “ball seirce” actually was, but it is usually translated as “love spot.”  So Diarmaid had this “ball seirce” and Gráinne saw it, and, hey presto, she was in love with him.  Infatuated, in fact.  Enough to break off her engagement to Fionn.  Ach, guess what, sin scéal eile!

Oh, and what about other types of falling?   Like straightforward, down-to-the-ground movement.  Here are some more examples:

Thit na duilleoga.  The leaves fell, and of course, it’s the falling of the leaves that causes US English to say “the Fall” for the season, whereas UK English speakers will more likely say “the Autumn.”  Sometimes Americans wax a bit poetic or literary and use “autumn” too, but not as typically.  Irish, remember, uses “Fómhar,” which also means “harvest” or “harvest-time.”

Thit sé anuas de dhréimire.  He fell off a ladder.

Lig sé don vása Ming titim.  He let the Ming vase (to) fall, here using the ainmfhocal briathartha (verbal noun form) instead of an actual conjugated form of the verb.

Sometimes the verb “to fall” isn’t part of an Irish expression, even where it is present in the English:

Tá a cuid gruaige anuas thar a guaillí.  Her hair falls (lit. is down/downwards) over her shoulders.

Tháinig dreach díomach uirthi.  Her face fell (from disappointment, lit. a look of disappointment came on her).

As for other “fells,” as in “mountains” or “swoops,” definitely ábhar blag eile, since they’re not even related to the verb “to fall.”

And now, next time, what shall it be, a translation of Snow Falling on Cedars, “I’ve Just Seen a Face” (falling, yes, I am falling …), or perhaps, what to say once you have fallen in love with someone.  Something tells me that how to say “I love you” in Irish will win out.  Actually we covered it somewhat, last February, in fact about four blogs’ worth, but there’s always room for expansion, especially with this topic.  SGF – (le Róislín)

Gluais: paitean, patina (a near lookalike to “paitinn,” a feminine noun meaning “patent”); searc, love (as in “ball seirce,” which may have been a type of mole or birthmark.  Quite a mole, más mar sin atá sé!  “Seirce” literally means “of love,” so the phrase means “spot of love”).

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  1. Cahal Russell:

    Hi how do I say in Irish
    Cahal has fallen in love with Linda

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