Irish Language Blog

What’s the “Tuiseal” of “an Tuiseal Ginideach” Anyway? Posted by on Apr 5, 2011 in Irish Language

(le Róislín)

By now, you’ve probably heard the term “tuiseal” quite a bit in discussing Irish nouns.  It’s generally translated as “case” as in “an tuiseal gairmeach” (“a Shinéad” for “Sinéad” in the “vocative” case) or as in “an tuiseal ginideach” (“cóta Sheáin” for “John’s coat” in the “genitive” case), etc.

Of course, this isn’t “case” in the more basic or physical sense of the word.  For that, we’d most likely use “cás” (as in cás veidhlín, a fiddle case, or cás mór / beag, upper/lower case).  For a more abstract notion of “case,” as in “situation,” or in the political or legal sense, we’d use either “cás” or “cúis.” 

So what is the basic meaning of “tuiseal” if it’s not the basic word for “a case”?  It’s related to the verb “tuisligh” (fall, falter, stagger, stumble, trip).  The core concept here seems to be that as you decline a noun (list its various forms in sequence), you’re sort of “falling” through a pattern, going from top to bottom.  It might help here to compare how you’d decline the word “fear” (man) in Irish with how you’d decline “vir” (man) in Latin.  If you’ve studied Latin previously, the whole idea of dividing nouns into categories called “declensions” should be “mar a bheadh sé as broinn leat” (translation below).  The declension system also pertains to other languages, ranging from Laitvis to Sean-Ghearmáinis Uachtarach.  If you haven’t encountered this previously, then welcome to díchlaontaí (declensions)!

Here’s the full set of forms for “fear.”  Please remember that the “-ea-” vowel of “fear” is pronounced as in “mat” or “cat,” not like English “fear” as in “being fearful”


a. subject form (a man):                                    fear

b. possessive form (of a man, a man’s):             fir (as in hata fir, a man’s hat)

c. vocative form (O man!):                                a fhir!

(used if talking directly to a man, presumably one whose name you don’t know or don’t choose to use)


a. subject form (men)                                        fir

b. possessive form (of men, men’s)                   fear (as in hataí fear, men’s hats)

See how the forms start to overlap in spelling?  It doesn’t mean they’re interchangeable!

c. vocative form (O men!)                                 a fheara!

I can’t say I’ve heard “a fheara” used much in natural conversation.  I mostly associate it with Fionn Mac Cumhail addressing his Fianna, in folktale of course.  Maybe the rest of us just say things like “Bhuel, leaids …” or “Anois, a chairde …”.  Or we use an option that English doesn’t afford us, the plural ending for command forms, as in “Goitigí” (come here) “Amachaigí” (go out), “Codlaígí” (sleep), etc.  This enables us to address a group, without specifically using the vocative plural of a noun, suggesting that “a fheara” might more likely be used for commentary than commands.  An example with commentary would be Fionn saying, “Bhuel, a fheara, mura nglanfaidh an ceo seo go luath, beidh muid caillte sa tsliabh.”

We’ve just been through one Irish noun, “fear,” and of course there are thousands more waiting in the wings.  Eventually we’ll work our way through other declensions.  Depending on how you count them, Irish has four or five declensions (or categories) of nouns, plus some very irregular nouns that don’t fit in any declension.  “Fear” (man) is a “first declension” noun.  Knowing that it’s first declension tells us its gender is masculine (in this case following biology as well, but that can’t always be assumed, if we consider examples like “cailín” and “stail”).  Knowing it’s first declension also tells us the endings the word “fear” is likely to have for possessive and plural forms.  How do you know it’s first declension?  Bit of a chicken-and-egg question, nach ea?  Some first-declension masculine nouns can be identified by the “-án” ending (arán, buachálán buí, leabhragán) but in many cases you need to rely on dictionaries that list declensions (“m1” for first-declension masculine, etc.), grammar-oriented textbooks like Ní Ghráda’s Progress in Irish or Stenson’s Basic Irish, or as a last resort, the cosán corrach of “gut instinct” or “by analogy.”

So, what about that Latin promised earlier?  Vir, virī, virōrum, and all that?  I’ll just list the subject (nominative), possessive (genitive), and direct address (vocative) forms, since those are the only categories that remain in Standard Modern Irish.  Anyone who really wants to know the accusative, ablative and dative forms will probably find them in any basic Latin textbook:

SINGULAR of Latin “vir

a. nominative (a man):                           vir

b. genitive form (of a man, a man’s):       virī

c. vocative form (O man!):                      vir (no change here, but other words do change, like “Brutus” which changes, infamously, to “Brute” [say: BROO-tay], as Shakespeare reminds us)

PLURAL of Latin “vir”

a. nominative form (men)                       virī

b. genitive (of men, men’s)                     virōrum

(You might recognize the word “virōrum” from works like the early 16th-century Epistŏlae obscurōrum virōrum, Letters of Obscure Men, itself perhaps a bit obscurus these days, but not really, since it’s a key text for German Humanism and for the study of satire. Or, if that’s too recent for you, Historia Ecclēsiastica Gentis Anglōrum, Bede’s 8th-century Ecclesiastical History of the Race of Angles, i.e. of the English People.

c. vocative form (O men!)                           virī

Why bother with Latin?  Well, it shows that Irish isn’t alone in having a declension system.  Old English had declensions, but they pretty much disappeared with the end of the Middle English period, with a few holdovers, like the “-‘s” ending for possessive, and some “non-s” plurals like “children” and “oxen.”  So, learning a language with a declension system presents a significant challenge to English speakers.  Some people prefer to learn and to teach every noun on a case by case basis (use “-áin” here and “-án” there and “-ir” here and “-ear” there, “-óg” here, “-óige” there, and “-óga” yonder, etc.).  But I prefer to approach the system as a system, as much as we can, and save the piecemeal approach for when we’re truly dealing with irregular nouns like “woman” (bean, mná, mná, ban, and formerly, mnaoi) or “descendent” (ó or ua, uí, uí, ó or ua). And yes, that latter one is no doubt part of the sloinne of many of the readers of this list.

So, “Is maith an aire an fhógairt” (forewarned is forearmed).  You might even want to resort to good old 3 x 5 cards, or the digital equivalent, on which you can gradually write all the forms of a noun as you learn them.  Eventually, your gut actually will become wise in the way of words and your gut instinct will enable you to decline nouns, to a large extent, by analogy.  Ach glacann sé am.

Coming down the home stretch for this blag,  I realize I’ll have to think of how to divide up Easter terminology by declension as An Cháisc approaches.  OK, to whet your appetite, ciseán (m1), ubh (f2), im (m2, a rarity in the 2nd declension, and what does “butter” have to do with Easter anyway?  Ah, think “Baranek Wielkanocny” if you will, and wait another blag nó dhó for the answer), dath (m3), coinín (m4), etc.  On that anticipatory note, sgf ó Róislín

Gluais: broinn, womb (mar a bheadh sé as broinn leat, lit. “as if it would be from the womb with/to you,” i.e. “as if it were second nature to you”); ceo, mist, fog; leaid, lad (plural: leaideanna or leaids); mura, if … not; sa tsliabh, in/on the mountain (Donegal dialect)  

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