Irish Language Blog

Na hUimhreacha Pearsanta (ar leanúint) Posted by on Jan 10, 2011 in Irish Language

(le Róislín)

Cailín? Chailín? Cailíní? Chailíní?

Mac? Mhac? Mic? Mhic? 

So what’s all that about, and what does it have to do with the “personal numbers” in Irish?

What you just read is a sequence of four different forms of the word for “girl” (cailín) and the word for “son” (mac).  In each case, the first one is the basic form, singular, used typically as the subject of a sentence.  The second one is the same form, lenited.  The third form is plural, and the fourth one is plural and lenited.  Remember, when you “lenite” a word in Irish, you insert an “h” after the first consonant, causing the pronunciation to change.  Lenition occurs for over a dozen reasons in Irish; here we’ll only be concerned with lenition when using personal numbers, that is, when counting people.

One more twist before we move on to the actual personal numbers themselves, though.  The word “cailín” belongs to a category called “an ceathrú díochlaonadh” (the fourth declension).  That means that is has slightly fewer forms to juggle as you use the word in different types of sentences and phrases than nouns that belong to, say, “an chéad díochlaonadh” or “an cúigiú díochlaonadh.”

The word “mac,” in contrast, belongs to “an chéad díochlaonadh” (the first declension).  So, while “mic” and “mhic” are plural forms, there are two more plural forms we’ll be dealing with, “mac” and “mhac.”  As you may have noticed, they look exactly like the first two forms in the sequence, “mac” and “mhac.”  Depending on the specific type of sentence, “mac” can sometimes be plural, as can “mhac.”  This isn’t real common, but it can occur, so this is just a “heads-up.”  Most of the time, “mac” and “mhac” will be singular.

Now for the personal numbers themselves.  There are different approaches in use today for whether the word for the people themselves should be in the singular, plural (subject form), or plural (genitive form).  In other words, should we use “cailíní” (or “cailín”) or “mic” (or “mac”) after a word like “ochtar”?  I lean toward the genitive plural (cailíní, mac) for three main reasons.

First, it makes the most sense to me, logically.  We’re essentially saying “three of women” or “a trio of women” in personal number phrases.  Not that I always look for loighic, as such, in dealing with grammar, Irish, English, or otherwise.  Sometimes things simply are the way they are because they are the way they are (maith dom an t-athluaiteachas!).  One could study SeanGhaeilge and teangeolaíocht stairiúil for years, and eventually piece together some explanations, but that’s not everyone’s idea of “craic.” 

Second, using the genitive plural is consistent with phrases like “beirt bhan” or “triúr ban,” which are quite frequently used today.  Now these are often taught as exceptions, but originally they weren’t seen as exceptions, just as the normal form to use after a personal number.  “Ban” (of women) is the genitive plural form of the word “bean” (woman), and yes, it is irregular.  No other noun follows the exact pattern of “bean” (bean, mná, mná, ban).  In fact, there’s not even a suffix (like “-í” or “-aigh”) with which to create a pattern.  “Ban” is used in phrases like “bróga ban,” (women’s shoes), “Cumann na mBan” (League of Women) and “seomra na mban” (women’s room, i.e. women’s restroom or washroom, at least in North America; in Ireland, one might simply ask, “Cá bhfuil an leithreas?,” which means “Where’s the toilet?”). 

Third, the genitive plural after personal numbers is taught and referenced in many resources for modern Irish, including most dictionaries and lots of textbooks.  So, while you will find other patterns elsewhere, this is the one I advocate.

For the remainder of this blog, we’ll just look at saying two and three people.  Eventually we’ll work our way back up to the twelve folks in “Dhá Lá Dhéag na Nollag,” and maybe more (“twenty twins a-tweeting” for starters?).

The word for two people is “beirt” and the word for “three people” is “triúr.”  “Triúr” is based on the number “trí” but “beirt,” for “two people,” isn’t based on the corresponding number ( or dhá).  “Beirt” doesn’t follow the normal pattern here.  And … it’s grammatically feminine.  Like “fuinneog” (window) or “súil” (eye), there’s nothing inherently or biologically feminine about these words – it’s just the grammatical category they belong to.  Being grammatically feminine triggers lots of little changes to Irish words in general; here we’ll be limited to those connected to na huimhreacha pearsanta.  The other personal numbers (triúr, ceathrar, cúigear, etc.), are all grammatically masculine, so they trigger fewer changes.

Anois, na samplaí, using “cailín,” mac,” and “bean,” since their various forms have been shown in this blog:

beirt chailíní, beirt mhac, beirt bhan: in these phrases, the words for the people are all in the genitive plural.  In some cases, the form is identical to other uses, like “mo chailíní” or “ar mhac Sheáin,” but that’s a matter for blag eile.

Because the word “beirt” is grammatically feminine, it triggers lenition, changing “cailíní” to “chailíní,” “mac” to “mhac,” and “ban” to “bhan.”

Once we start with “triúr” and larger numbers, the lenition goes away!

triúr cailíní, triúr mac, triúr ban

That’s enough for now, I’d say.  It may seem more complicated than it really is.  But if that’s so, it’s because there are different interpretations of this system.  Whichever interpretation is followed, though, lenition will still be needed.  Imagine life for the Octomom (*ochtamhamaí?) if she were an Irish-speaker!

Some of this was addressed in previous blogs, like that of 10 Lúnasa 2009; so you might want to also check there for further details and examples of personal numbers.

And, by the way, in case you’ve been wondering, “Can’t I just use the regular bunuimhreacha for counting people?”  Dhá mhoncaí (two monkeys), so why not “dhá” with “cailín” or “mac”?  Bhuel, the answer is basically “no.”  The rare ways to “workaround” the personal number system involve other endings and more lenition, so at best it would be a case of “dhá réal” vs. “scilling” (two sixpences vs. a shilling, which was valued at twelvepence, in pre-decimcal, pre-euro currency).  In other words, six of one, half a dozen of the other.  But practically speaking, the system above is far more frequently used than the alternative.

Gluais: athluaiteachas, tautology; maith dom, forgive me; teangeolaíocht, linguistics.  As for *ochtamhamaí, no sign of that word yet in the world of online Irish, so, yeah, I judiciously made it up.  Moltaí ar bith eile?

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  1. gaelan:

    In DOnegal, you can say dhá anything…

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