Irish Language Blog

Orlaí agus Troithe (Measurements in Irish in the ‘inches/feet’ system) Posted by on Feb 28, 2015 in Irish Language

(le Róislín)

Even though the world has become increasingly méadrach over the last half-century, there are still many reasons to use the words “inch” and “feet” in measuring, or at least to recognize them in older texts.

One main reason is that a few countries still use inches (orlaí), feet (troithe), and yards (slata), as the main unit of measurement, namely, Stáit Aontaithe Mheiriceá, Burma/Maenmar agus an Libéir.  A lot of other areas also have the córas impiriúil either i ngnáthúsáid na ndaoine or for feidhmeanna áirithe (mar shampla, airde eitleán  agus “piontaí beorach” in ionad “leathlítir”).

Another reason is simply that as the weather seems to get increasingly stranger, it seems we’re constantly talking about the depth of snow or the amount of rainfall or the sea level, all around the world.  Even if you’re in a metric country, it’s good to have a sense of what seven feet of snow is like, for example, if you’re talking to a relative i mBostún, i mbliana (2015) ar a laghad.  Or what difference a 2-inch increase in the water level means sa Bhanglaidéis.

In today’s blog, we’ll look at the words “orlach” (inch) and “troigh” (foot, in measuring).  Both have the special forms that are used with certain units of measurement in Irish.  Some of the other words with this same system are “bliain,” “uair,” “seachtain,” and “pingin,” and in slightly older terminology, “scilling.”

Counting years and hours are typically taught even before basic measuring, so you might remember such patterns as:

bliain amháin (one year), dhá bhliain, trí bliana … seacht mbliana, where the special ending “-ana” is used.  Sampla: Tá mo mhadra ceithre bliana d’aois.


uair amháin (one hour OR one time), dhá uair, trí huaire … seacht n-uaire, where the special ending “-e” is used.  Sampla: Bhí mé ar rollchostóir dhá uair i mo shaol (agus b’fhuath liom é) ach bhí m’fhear céile ar rollchostóir naoi n-uaire, b’fhéidir, agus ní miste leis ar chor ar bith é.

Remember, most nouns in Irish simply stay singular after numbers, so these special “units of measurements” features don’t apply at all to the vast majority of situations.  But they do apply to “year,” “hour,” “week” and “penny,” all quite important vocabulary words, as well as to “orlach” and “troigh.”

So how about those “orlaí” agus “troithe“?  Almost there, just let me mention one more thing, that unlike English, where “foot” can be used for measuring or for the “foot” of the body, the Irish word “troigh” (foot) is almost exclusively used for measuring.  A completely different word, “cos,” is  usually used when talking about the body. Having said that, it seems there’s a resurgence of “troigh” for the body these days as well, since “cos” can also mean “leg.”  Ach sin ábhar blag eile.  Our concern here is simply “foot” for measuring.

Before we actually start counting inches and feet, let’s look at the full set of forms for each word:

orlach, inch

an t-orlach, the inch

orlaigh, of an inch

orlaí, inches

na horlaí, the inches

na n-orlach, of the inches (admittedly, probably a little challenging to find a practical application for that phrase)

And for “foot,” we have:

troigh, a foot (mostly for measuring)

an troigh, the foot

na troighe, of the foot (“fad na troighe,” mar shampla)

troithe, feet (used to be spelled “troighthe, which showed the original ending)

na troithe, the feet

na dtroithe, of the feet

Now let’s put “orlach” and “troigh” with numbers and see what happens:

orlach amháin, no real issue here, just like a normal noun

dhá orlach, still no change, just the regular process

trí horlaí, ceithre horlaí, cúig horlaí, sé horlaí (3 through 6 inches; the ending looks plural, but technically isn’t plural, it’s just “special,” and we have the h-prefix, as we did with uair / sé huaire, etc., because both “orlach” and “uair” start with a vowel

seacht n-orlaí, ocht n-orlaí, naoi n-orlaí, deich n-orlaí (7 through 10 inches; special ending plus “n-” to “eclipse” the vowel)

And for feet:

troigh amháin

dhá throigh

trí troithe, ceithre troithe, cúig troithe, sé troithe (3 through 6 feet, special ending and note there’s NO lenition, as opposed to say “cúig theach” or “sé thobar,” which have the usual lenition)

seacht dtroithe, ocht dtroithe, naoi dtroithe deich dtroithe (7 through 10 feet, special ending, plus the usual eclipsis)

For phrases like “twenty inches” or “twenty feet,” we’re back to the basic form, since multiples of ten don’t cause mutations in Irish:

fiche orlach

fiche troigh

Finally, having said all that, let me add that this special system is very widely used, but it’s not absolute.  In some areas, inches, feet, years, hours, etc. are counted like regular nouns.  In that case, just stick to the singular forms and follow the normal lenition, h-prefixing, and eclipsis rules.  As one example,  I just happened to notice the phrase, “diosca trí horlach go leith,” a “floppy” disk size which admittedly I haven’t used in years, though I have boxes of them somewhere.

As for the whole issue of metric conversion in the US, it seems the phrase “a liter bottle of Coke” or “a 2-liter bottle of Pepsi” has taken root, but not much else, except in scientific contexts.  I wonder why the terminology for soft drinks converted so quickly.  Ach sin ábhar blag eile, nó b’fhéidir ábhar blag taobh amuigh den tsraith seo ar fad.

Hmmm, so thinking metrically, “A half-liter of ‘Plain’ is your only man”?  Paraphrasing the popular refrain from the great Irish writer Flann O’Brien’s poem, “The Workingman’s Friend.”  Or, for that matter, how about “568 milliliters of ‘Plain’ are your only man?”  Nó do “phionta” sa chóras Meiriceánach, “475 milliliters of ‘Plain’ are your only man” — do bharúilBíodh cuimhne agat, ní hionann an pionta impiriúil agus an pionta sna “US customary units” mar a thugtar ar an gcóras tomhais atá in úsáid i Meiriceá.  Tá an pionta impiriúil níos mó ná an pionta Meiriceánach.

Agus an “Plain” sa chomhthéacs seo?  Pionta “stout” (leann dubh) atá i gceist ag Flann O’Brien ina dhán.  Is é sin a rá, pionta Guinness.

Well, that’s some food for thought, especially since there’s supposed to be a “ceapaire” (sandwich), in every glass of Guinness, nutritionally!  Mianraí, and all that!   SGF – Róislín

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  1. Lars:

    h-prefix is used with plural nouns only following trí-sé, h-prefix can’t be used in leniting circumstances, so something like “trí horlach” is wrong.
    Either trí horlaigh or trí orlach.

    • róislín:

      @Lars A Lars, a chara,
      GRMA as do nóta. Tuigim an rud atá i gceist agat ach tá an frása a luaigh tú ar fáil ag . De ghnáth bíonn a samplaí ceart.

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