Irish Language Blog

‘In quarantine’ or ‘on quarantine’ — how to say it in Irish Posted by on Oct 15, 2014 in Irish Language

(le Róislín)

comhartha bithghuaise (grafaic san fhearann poiblí:

comhartha bithghuaise (grafaic san fhearann poiblí:

In the recent blog on the Ebola virus (víreas Ebola), I referred briefly to saying “in quarantine” in Irish.  It seems like a simple phrase to say, and the word for “quarantine” itself isn’t surprising — “coraintín” [KOR-antch-een], no relation to “aintín” as such!

But it’s interesting to note the preposition that’s used for the phrase “in quarantine.”  For Irish, it supports my informal theory that prepositions (e.g. by, for, with, to, at, etc.) are among the most challenging vocabulary words to predict as we learn language after language.

So, to end your possible suspense, if you haven’t already looked up “in quarantine” in your foclóir, the usual Irish phrase is “ar coraintín” (lit. “on quarantine”) using the preposition “ar” (on) instead of “i/in.”  Not a difficult combination to learn, but just a reminder that we can’t assume that any patterns from one language will be repeated in another language, even when the languages are geographic neighbors.  Sometimes, of course, this does happen.  I believe that “Phioc sé suas é,” is a relatively recent borrowing from English, “He picked it up.”  And, in reverse, “He was just after closing the door,” as a phrase, comes from Irish (Bhí sé tar éis an doras a dhúnadh) into Irish English.

But many, many phrases remain distinctively different in two different languages, at least in seemingly minor details.

So let’s look a little closer at the word “ar,” whose basic meaning is “on.”  However, depending on context, it can also be translated in a variety of ways.  Fairly often, “in” or “at” works best (ar neamh, in heaven; ar an gCnoc, at Knock).  Perhaps a little less frequently, other translations are most apt ( -wards, -ways, of, among, for, by, to, when, etc.).

Aside from the various meanings of “ar,” we need to remember what happens to the noun that follows it.  Basically, there are three choices:

1) no change: ar cuairt, ar muir, ar cíos, ar fiar, ar malairt, and of course, ar coraintín; this is often when the meaning is somewhat abstract, less physical than the next set, which have lenition

2) lenition (inserting h, pronunciation of the original consonant changes): ar chathaoir (on a chair, cathaoir), ar bhosca (on a box, bosca), ar choinníoll (“on condition” — so the lenition is not always for physical things, coinníoll)

3) And then there are a few set phrases, which cause eclipsis.  If I recall my Old Irish (SeanGhaeilge) correctly, these use a word which was originally different from modern “ar” altogether, but eventually the spelling was changed and we ended up with the spelling “a-r.”  Two such eclipsed phrases that come to mind are “ar dtús” (at first) and “ar gcúl, backwards), with “tús” and “cúl” changing to “dtús” and “gcúl.”

So, getting back to quarantine, the Irish phrase is literally saying “on quarantine.”

It’s always interesting to see what the search results are for phrases like this, and for the possible alternatives:

ar coraintín, ca. 11,000 reduced by Google filters to a mere 44

To be a linguistic devil’s advocate, I tried the phrase with the preposition “i” and eclipsis (not that this is the standard recommendation).  There were 11 hits, including a discussion of “zombaithe” (, with this interesting comment, the “grúpa” referring to “grúpa zombaithe”:

Ba chóir aon bhall de do ghrúpa a mbaintear plaic astu a chur i gcoraintín nó a sheoladh chun bealaigh go pras.

So is it really wrong to say “i gcoraintín“?  Doiligh a rá, but it doesn’t seem to be the standard, according to most dictionaries, ar aon chaoi.

On that note, well, I also checked for “ar” followed by “choraintín,” the lenited form of “coraintín,” even though it’s technically considered incorrect.  There were actually six hits (sé amas), not really that different from the results for “i gcoraintín.” Several of them were duplicates, so in the end, there were fewer than six.

As for the spelling of “coraintín,” it’s basically an adaptation of “quarantine.” Most Irish words that are cognates of Latin-based “qu-“ words in English, as well as many Irish surnames starting with “Qu-“, start with “c” in the Irish language version (Quinn / Ó Coinn; Quigley / Ó Coigligh; question / ceist; quorum / córam). There are a few exceptions, where English “qu-” remains “qu-“ in Irish (quinine / quinín and quinol / quionól, which have alternate (newer?) “c-“ spellings with “cuinín” and “cuineol”).

And a final point of interest, given here as a query, what’s the relationship between the Irish word “coraintín” and the Irish word “Carghas” (Lent)?  Tá an freagra thíos ach b’fhéidir go dtig leat é a oibriú amach gan a bheith ag breathnú ar an bhfreagra, ar dtús, ar a laghad. 

Sin é don bhlag seo.  Tá súil agam nach bhfuil duine ar an liosta seo ar coraintín — agus tá súil mhór agam nach bhfuil aintín leat ar coraintín!  – Róislín

Freagra: Tá an dá fhocal, “coraintín” agus “Carghas,” bunaithe ar an fhocal Laidine ar “forty” (quadraginta) as manifested in the Latin “Quadragesima” (Lent, lit. 4oth) and the “quarant-“ part of “quarantine.”  The Latin word had become “quaranta” by the 17th century, in Venetian/Italian, and was borrowed from there into English. s generally been 21 days, the original idea of general quarantine, apparently, was 40 days of seclusion. Of the two (count ‘em!) Irish words for “40,” one is a distant relative of “quadraginta,” but the other isn’t connected to the Latin for “40” at all. Even in the first case, the link may not be overtly obvious, but, like reading between the lines, the connection is there if you look for it.

Two Irish words for “40”? Yep, that’s right. And there’s also “dhá scór” (two score). But for “40” itself, there is “daichead,” the more standard word (caighdeánach de réir mo thaithí féin, ar a laghad), based on “dhá” and “fichead” (lit. two twenties), with no connection at all to the Latin for “40.” The other Irish word for “40” is “ceathracha,” which is based on “ceathair” (4), and so is as related to “quadraginta” as “ceathair” is to “quattuor.” But for Irish numbers in general, and their relation to numbers in other European languages, we’ll have to wait for blag éigin eile, sa todhchaí. Some of the basics have been covered in previous blogs (naisc thíos).


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