Irish Language Blog

How to say ‘Ebola,’ ‘Ebola Virus,’ and ‘Ebola Virus Disease’ in Irish Posted by on Oct 10, 2014 in Irish Language

Fearann poiblí:, CDC/Cynthia Goldsmith

Ebola (fearann poiblí:, CDC/Cynthia Goldsmith)

(le Róislín)

Not surprisingly, the word “Ebola” got an impressive 22,700,000 hits (22,700,000 amas), in my recent Google search.   How many of those hits might be Irish-language resources?

Since “Ebola,” as such, is exactly the same in Irish (Ebola), it’s not easy to search for results that are specifically in Irish. In fact, for many of the languages I checked online, “Ebola” is the same in some major ones (e.g. Fraincis, Portaingéilis), almost the same + or – diacritical marks in some others (Spáinnis: Ébola, Rúisis thraslitrithe: Ebóla (ó Эбо́ла), and the same but as part of a compound word in some others (Danmhairgis: ebolavirus, Gearmáinis: Ebolavirus).

So, unlike some other disease names of global importance but with distinctively Irish names, it’s a little tricky to find articles in Irish on Ebola. For example, if you Googled “an bholgach,” you’d probably only get Irish-language results for “smallpox.”   I just tested that and got 350 hits for “an bholgach,” filtered down by Google to 52, avoiding duplications, etc. They all appear to Irish-related. Likewise, the search term “Siondróm Easpa Imdhíonachta Faighte” (SEIF; “AIDS” i mBéarla) will probably mostly get Irish language results (na torthaí: I get 1760, filtered down to 75).

I tried another search, for “víreas Ebola,” adding the Irish word “víreas” to get results that were more likely in Irish. The preliminary results were 955 hits, but Google sorted them down to a mere 42. Of those, the last several, at least, had no obvious Irish language connections so I think they were included perhaps because of machine translations or sheer listing of terms, without context.

Note the word order, by the way, in “víreas Ebola.”  Unlike in English, “Ebola” comes second, after the noun, because it’s functioning as an aidiacht (like “póca” in “scian phóca” or “shnámha” in “culaith shnámha”).

I tried various other searches, using “advanced search” and “hl” restrictions, to see if I’d get any more Irish language hits, but I didn’t get any conclusive results.

So my conclusion is that, not surprisingly, there’s relatively little commentary about Ebola that is completely in Irish. But, additionally, I also conclude, to more or less state the obvious, that it’s difficult to search for Irish-language results for a word like “Ebola,” which is exactly the same in various languages, including Irish. The good news, if anything can be good about this ábhar tromchúiseach, is that the word “Ebola” itself is straightforward in Irish.

From the search results for “víreas Ebola,” I’ve picked out a few links that are actually full articles in Irish (naisc thíos/links below). B’fhéidir go mbeadh suim agat iontu.

As for the river from which the Ebola virus gets its name, I only found three hits (trí amas) in Irish, two of which were “dúblaigh” (duplicates). I wanted to determine the exact form of the river name in Irish, but I found two slightly different versions: “abhainn Ebola” (lit. river Ebola, with no “the”) and “an Abhainn Ebola” (lit. the River Ebola). The presence of the definite article (“an,” in English “the”), may not seem very significant, but it does make a difference in Irish for phrases using prepositions or the genitive case.  Many typical river names in Irish do include the definite article, including most, probably all, that are actually in Ireland, and many abroad, such as Abhainn an Hooghly (i mBeangál Thiar) and An Abhainn Bhuí (sa tSín).  Other river names seem to not include the definite article (Abhainn Charles, Abhainn Yazoo). Others, especially large ones, both in and outside of Ireland, are frequently referred to without the word “river,” (An Volta, An Danóib, An Dnípir, An tSionainn).

In fact, all this is making me consider, what are the rules for English usage with river names? Do we ever just say “Charles River,” aside from adjectival usages such as Charles River Laboratories or Charles River Apparel?  And then there’s the issue of word order (the Schuylkill River vs. the River Liffey). Why does give us “The Liffey River, Dublin, Ireland” as a title but refer to the body of water as “the river Liffey” in the text of its article? (nasc thíos).  But those questions, plus the ins and outs of river names in Irish, will have to wait for blag éigin eile. For now, for “the Ebola River” in Irish, suffice it to say that there aren’t many readily searchable examples to look at.

A final phrase that might be useful for referring to Ebola in Irish is “galar víris Ebola” (Ebola virus disease). Here, as we can see, the word “víreas” ([VEE-rzhass] virus) changes to the genitive case (víris [VEE-rzhish, note the “sh” sound at the end) because we’re literally saying “disease (of) Ebola virus.”

One might wonder, what’s the big deal if “Ebola” is “Ebola” in Irish? Well, one thing I’ve learned in Irish is never to assume that any word from another language will be what you think it might be, based on English or other languages. Sometimes simple adjustments are made to gaelicize a word, for example, just a síneadh fada or “long mark” (“Congó” for “Congo”) Other times, adjustments are made for Irish vowel harmony (“móideim” for “modem”). “Ebola,” for example, could have had a couple of letters added to accommodate for Irish vowel harmony rules, or it could have gotten a long mark over the “o.”  But it didn’t.

And of course, some adaptations can be much more dramatic (“XMODEM” in Irish isn’t simply putting “X” in front of “móideim” because we also have to use lenition, giving us “X-mhóideim” [… WOHDj-em, with the “w” sound for the “mh” (or “v” for some speakers)]. That’s the same process by which “ga” (ray) becomes “gha” in the word “x-gha.” How many people ever talk about an X-mhóideim in Irish?  Níl a fhios agam.  But “X-mhóideim” is the official version, at any rate. What ríomhchláraitheoirí actually say for this in Irish I don’t really know for sure, since XMODEM and its successors YMODEM and ZMODEM, have never been part of mo ghnáthchaint, in Irish or in English (agus ní ríomhchláraitheoir mise!).

There’s also the gender issue. Is a new word in Irish, especially a “focal iasachta,” going to be “firinscneach” or “baininscneach”? Or “gan inscne”? “Ebola,” apparently does not have gender in Irish. Grammatically, it’s considered a “substantive” noun in Irish.  Substantive nouns are marked “s” in most dictionaries and genderless. But “móideim,” a new adaptation, is masculine, despite the fact that some similar-looking words (“reim, ” meaning “rem” in nuclear physics and “peineim,” meaning “penem” in chemistry) are feminine (and, for good measure, let’s note that “greim,” meaning “a bite,” “a stitch,” or “a grip” is masculine). Word endings don’t always accurately predict the gender of a noun in Irish. So, with new words, we need to check if there’s an Irish adaptation, a gaelicization, or a full translation of the word, and if there is, for nouns, what’s the gender. Even if we’re looking at a focal iasachta, and assume it’ll probably be the same in Irish and English, it’s always worth checking.

Next up (sa chéad bhlag eile), since it’s also in the news a lot these days, how do we say “in quarantine” in Irish? Can we count on the preposition still being “in” in Irish, followed by eclipsis? Or, should we assume that prepositions rarely match up from language to language? Oh, how well I remember struggling with “por” and “para” in Spanish! And all that “auf dem Tisch” and “an dem Tisch” differentiation in German!

So the take-away here is that, minimally, we’ve clarified that the Irish and English words for “Ebola” are the same. And we’ve looked at how a few other focail iasachta (loan words) are handled. And reminded ourselves never to take Irish spelling or word adaptations for granted.

While on the topic of Ebola, I also want to add “R.I.P. Excalibur.” I feel that this dog (madra an altra Maria Teresa Romero Ramos, sa Spáinn) was prematurely euthanized. I see from browsing broadly online that some readers in some forums get angry when there is a discussion of canine victims as opposed to human victims of this raging illness. Nevertheless, I’m very sad that the life of this innocent dog, who knew nothing of the controversy or the possibilities of quarantine, was ended, despite the enormous rally to save him. It reminds me of the very sad saga of the dog Lennox in Belfast (, who was also unfairly euthanized, although for completely different reasons.

And given that this is an Irish blog, how eerily coincidental that the first dog known to be euthanized because of Ebola has a Celtic name, or at least a semi-Latinized version of a Celtic name. Not that he was an Irish or Welsh breed of dog as far as I can tell from his photos; he was a mixed-breed dog (mar mo dhá mhadra féin) according to what I read. The word “Excalibur” comes from the Welsh “caled” (hard) and “bwlch” (gap, pass, breach, cleft) and has cognates in medieval Irish (calad(h), hard; bolg, gap, although normally “bolg” would mean “bag” or “stomach” in modern Irish). Mo chomhbhrón do Maria Teresa agus a fear, Javier Limón (úinéirí Excalibur), agus do gach teaghlach a chaill daoine muinteartha san eipidéim seo. Go raibh biseach ar na daoine atá ag streachailt leis an ngalar seo faoi láthair.

Slán go fóill agus go brónach — Róislín

Naisc: (Posted on Lúnasa 16, 2014 le Gaeilgeoir na Fionlainne ) (Imní anois go bhfuil Ebola ar thriúr sa Spáinn – RTÉ News. Dé Máirt 07 Deireadh Fómhair 2014 17.32)

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  1. Proinsias:

    i was under the impression that in Irish an ‘e’ was most never followed directly with a consonant, and was usually followed by an ‘i’ even if not needed to make the consonant slender.
    In this case, the ‘b’ is probably broad. Or is it slender the way it is written?
    Should that not impact on spelling? Or is it a de facto exception (most such exceptions seem to be with composite words)?

    • róislín:

      @Proinsias A Phroinsias, Thank you for your note. It’s true that the word “Ebola” breaks the vowel harmony spelling rules, but it is an exception to the rules for Irish, since it is borrowed from another language. And based on a place name (a river name), that appears to have no Irish version. It’s also true that “e” is almost never followed directly by a consonant in Irish. “Móideim” is an example of adding an “i” after the “e” in a new-ish word, in accordance with that rule, to prevent “-em.” I can’t think of any examples with “e” followed directly by a consonant in modern Irish, well, except maybe in run-together words like “led'” (led’ thoil, sometimes written simply as “led thoil,” both short for “le do thoil”). But the vowel harmony rules are also sometimes broken, even aside from “focail iasachta,” often with a specific reason. For example, we now have the spelling “anseo.” Originally it was two separate words, so no vowel harmony rules were broken, and, of course, it’s sometimes spelled “anso,” although this isn’t the most widespread form. Also, it’s sometimes still spelled as two separate words (an seo). GRMA arís as scríobh isteach, a Phroinsias!

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