Irish Language Blog

Logainmneacha a Thosaíonn le “An” (“the”) agus Consan (b, c, d, f, g, m, p, s, t) Posted by on Jul 22, 2011 in Irish Language

(le Róislín)

I’m sure geographers and all kinds of political, economic, and cultural analysts have all kinds of ways of categorizing countries, including by daonra, dlús daonra, cineál rialtais, leibhéal oideachais, olltáirgeacht intíre (OTI), stádas sna Náisiúin Aontaithe, srl.

However, as you may have noted from the last couple of blogs, and the title of this one, for Irish language practice, the key thing is how the place name happens to be spelled and whether or not it includes the definite article (usually the word “an,” for the singular, but occasionally the word “na” for plural or possessive). 

As preparation for this blog, I finally did a complete count of *205 nation names around the world, a project I’ve been meaning to do for a while, to see how many start with the definite article (“an” or “na”) in Irish.  English-speakers, in particular, are often surprised at the use of the definite article with so many place names in Irish, which occurs in slightly over half of country names in Irish (119 out of 205, according to my count).

In English, as I’ve said in other blogs, using “the” in a country name is mostly limited to those which incorporate adjectives or are plural, either as part of the main word (The Netherlands) or as a separate word (The United States).   There are, of course, some exceptions even to that (The Vatican), and there were some places which used to have the definite article until recently, but no longer do, at least in American English, due to either change in political status or language conventions.  Examples include Ukraine (formerly “The Ukraine”), Gambia, (formerly “The Gambia,” and still “The Gambia” in most UK English, as far as I can tell), and by way of one last example, Punjab (formerly called “The Punjab”), not that that was a nation as such. 

If your native language already uses the definite article with at ;least some country names then this isn’t as surprising.  Welsh, for example, says “Yr Almaen,”Y Ffindir,” and “Yr Alban,” (“the” Germany, “the” Finland, “the” Scotland), but it doesn’t always use the definite article (Lloegr [England], Awstria, Ffrainc).  I see “France” referred to in French with and without the definite article (La France, but “en France”), so that’s certainly a point that a learner would have to address.  Probably this discussion could carry on endlessly around the world, with different naming conventions for different languages, including those that don’t use a definite article at all, like Russian, Japanese, and Chinese, and for practical purposes, Latin (though there’s some wiggle-room there, depending on what you call a definite article). 

Anyway, the bottom line is that for country names in Irish, over half take the definite article, and that, in turn, changes the way you say “in” a country.  By the way, this blog isn’t going to deal with Irish town, village, and townland names that might use the definite article (like An Cheathrú Rua, An Clochán Liath) or city names like “An Róimh” that also take the definite article, simply because there’s not enough room in aon bhlag amháin.  We’re also not going to deal with the peripatetic definite article that affects Ireland and Scotland sa tuiseal ginideach.  That’s ábhar blag eile also. 

So, now down to the brass tacks.  Howd’ya use this stuff?

The basic preposition for “in” in Irish is the single letter “i.”  For place names beginning with “an” followed by the consonants b, c, d, f, g, h, l, m, n, p, r, s, t, the word “i” changes to “sa.”  That’s right, “i” becomes “sa.”  And that’s not as bizarre as it might seem, since “i” is a variant of the word “ins,” which also means “in” but which has to be followed by the definite article. 

Now we get to subdivide our “sa + consonant” list further into the consonants that can take lenition, and those that can’t (or at least don’t show it in writing, I’ll say to satisfy my phonologist friends):

Let’s start with those that don’t show/take lenition, since the list is short, involving just the consonants h (rare as an initial, so treated separately here), l, m, and r.. Examples for l, n, and r include “sa Liotuáin,” in (“the”) Lithuania; “sa Namaib,” in (“the”) Namibia, and sa Rúis, in (“the”) Russia.

For “an” + initial “H,” I only find one country name, usually part of the compound name “An Bhoisnia agus An Heirseagaivéin.”  To say “in Herzegovina,” it’s sa Heirseagaivéin.”  For more on “h,” which is relatively rare as an initial letter in Irish in general, please see an nóta below. 

Fully lenitable examples will start with the consonants b, c, f, g, m, p, or s; for “d” and “t,” see further below.  The “the” part can be understood from here on so I won’t continue to write it.  A rough pronunciation guide is in square brackets.

sa Bheilg [suh VEL-ig], in Belgium (< an Bheilg)

sa Chóiré Theas [suh KHOHRzh-AY hass], in South Korea (< an Chóiré Theas)

sa Fhrainc [suh rank], in France (< an Fhrainc)

sa Ghearmáin [suh YAR-maw-in], in Germany (< an Ghearmáin)

sa Mhacadóin [suh WAHK-uh-doh-in], in Macedonia (< an Mhacadóin)

sa Pholainn [suh FOL-in], in Poland (< an Pholainn)

sa Spáinn [suh SPAW-in], in Spain, (< an Spáinn; no change to “sp” because “sp” never gets lenited)

but also note, sa tSile [suh TCHIL-eh], in Chile (because of the “s”-becomes-“ts”-instead-of-“sh”-in-feminine-singular-nouns-starting-with-“s”+vowel rule).  The basic form of the country name is “An tSile.” 

Eisceachtaí to the rialacha so far: As some of you may recall, “d” and “t” resist lenition after “n,” even though they’re lenitable in other circumstances (like “mo dheirfiúr” or “mo theach”).   So we have:

sa Danmhairg, in Denmark (< an Danmhairg, no change to “Danmhairg”)

sa Tuirc, in Turkey (< an Tuirc, no change to “Tuirc”)

At this point, I expect to hear “what ‘n’ are you talking about that causes d and t resistance?”  Well, it’s become invisible.  The original “n” of the “an” in the place names “An Danmhairg” and “An Tuirc” still affects these structures, since we’re essentially saying “ins an Danmhairg” and “ins an Tuirc,” shortened to “sa Danmhairg” and “sa Tuirc.”

There are no examples of modern country names that start with “an” (the) plus j, k, q, v, w, x, y, or z in Irish.  No, not even Qatar, which is “Catar” in Irish.  Nor Vanuatú, Veiniséala or Vítneam, since they don’t take the definite article (“an”).  

What about “sa” plus countries whose names begin with vowels (like An Ostair).  Ábhar blag eile, but the clue is, we could say, very in-n-n-n-n-teresting. 

A few final disclaimers for this blog – I’ve only attempted to look at modern country names, not all the historical possiblities, like Rhodesia or Siam.  That would be a huge undertaking, interesting in its own right, but not as applicable for most of our immediate purposes, which probably include saying where we live or where we’re going on vacation.  Also not covered in today’s blog, but maybe eventually — districts, regions, mountain ranges, rivers, imaginary lands (that sounds like fun), or the various críocha, cosantóireachtaí, and spleáchríocha, srl., which exist around the world.  Oh, and also not covered yet, plural definite articles (as in “Na Stáit Aontaithe” or place names with the definite article in the middle (Poblacht na Seice, m. sh.), so lots more to come.  Oh (faoi dhó), also not covered here: island nations whose names start with “Oileán” or “Oileáin,” since, well, since they usually have the definite article in English (the Solomon Islands) but not in Irish (Oileáin Sholomón).  Can I finally exhale now?

Guess not.  Also not covered here, full official names of countries like “Commonwealth of …,” or “Federated States of … .”  That would probably go beyond most readers’ needs, so unless there are specific requests, we’ll let that rest.  I will, though, eventually cover the small group of place names for which “Republic of …” or some such term is the official “short” version of the country name (once again, Poblacht na Seice, srl.)

Now, having said all that, anyone else care to answer the question, “Cá bhfuil tú i do chónaí?”  Tá  @m that we’ll have some more takers.  SGF, ó Róislín

Nóta faoin Litir “H”: we have “Háítí” and “Hondúras,” with no definite article.   We have “Hungary” losing its “H” in “An Ungáir,” as does the region “Holland” (An Ollainn).  But we do have “An Háig,” which, however, is a city, and once again, not our focus here. 

Gluais: dlús, density; olltáirgeacht, gross product

Nóta faoin réabas: the  (eye) stands for “súil,” which in Irish means both “eye” and “hope.”

*205: my count of 205 country names includes some that are disputed.  But even if these were disregarded, the overall proportion of “definite article” names to “non-definite article” names would be about the same, meaning we need to apply lenition about half the time, in talking about country names.  For the remaining half of the time, we often apply eclipsis (urú).  And wedged in there, sometimes, we don’t have to apply any rule, like when we need to say “i Madagascar.”

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  1. Mike:

    Didn`t realize that Gaelic was so far off from English. Would like to know a bit more about it`s history and evolution.

    • róislín:

      @Mike Dia dhuit, a Mhaidhc (Hello, Mike),

      Interesting observation, and thanks for writing in. The nutshell answer to your question is that Irish is in a separate language family from English. English is a Germanic language, with Frisian being the closest counterpart, linguistically. And Dutch next, after Frisian. Other Germanic languages include German itself and the Scandinavian languages. Irish is in the Celtic language family, or as some linguists are saying now, in the “Italo-Celtic” language family, meaning that some features of Irish have more in common with Romance languages (especially Latin) than with English. The languages closest to Irish are Scottish Gaelic and Manx, and then the other three modern Celtic languages (Welsh, Breton and Cornish). As one example, out of possible thousands, we could look at the Irish word for a bull: tarbh. It’s identical to the Scottish Gaelic, also “tarbh,” similar to Manx “tarroo,” and Welsh “tarw,” and not too far from Latin “taurus” and Spanish “toro” (plus other Romance language cognates). It’s not linguistically connected to the English word “bull” although we do have a somewhat specialized adjective in English, “taurine” (of or pertaining to bulls) which is connected to the Latin, and by association, to the Celtic words. As for history, written Irish goes back about 1400 years (to ca. 600 AD) and there was a form of writing Irish even before that, called Ogham, which was used for brief inscriptions, usually carved into stone. Hope this helps address your question.

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