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  5. "When is it? Wednesday?"

"When is it? Wednesday?"

Translation:Cuin a tha e? Diciadain?

May 9, 2020



Why is the verb tha and not bheil?

I think learning the difference between the two verbs translating to be, and learning when to use each one, is one of the hardest parts of learning Gàidhlig for me.


It’s the same verb, just different forms. tha is independent present, (bh)eil is the dependent present.

Now, the dependent form goes after particles requiring it, such particles are: cha(n) (negating, chan eil is not), a(n/m)? (interrogative, a bheil? is it?), nach? (neg. interrogative, nach eil? is it not?).

The dependent form also goes in relative clauses if there is a preposition before the relative particle a(n/m):

  • an duine ris a bheil mi a’ bruidhinn the man/person to whom I am speaking (in past: ris an robh mi to whom I was…) – here bheil because there is ris with before relative a,
  • but an duine a tha mi a’ bruidhinn ris the man/person I am speaking to (in past: a bha mi … ris I was … to) – basically the same sentence but uses tha because there is no preposition before a¹.

And the dependent form is used in the relative clauses after some question words about place: càite? where?: càite a bheil i? where is she?.

But the independent form is used in most relative clauses (an cat a tha air a’ bhòrd the cat that is on the table), including those referring to time: cuin a tha e? when is it?, nuair a tha mi a’ bruidhinn ris when I am speaking to him, dè an uair a tha e? what’s the time/hour that it is?

¹ Nota bene Irish would use the dependent form here too. That’s one of the major differences between Sc. Gaelic and Irish grammar, Irish uses the independent form only in direct relative clauses, where the antecedent of the rel. clause is either its subject or direct object, but dependent form in all the other ones.


That's extremely helpful (as ever - mate, you're fantastic!)

One thing that's left bugging me is this: why do certain question words, caite, take a dependent form after them, but others such as cuin take the independent? Is this one of those things every language learner meets where it just is, or is them some deep diachronic linguistic reason?


**Edit: It appears silmeth answered as I was typing, but I'll leave this up since reading two slightly different approaches to answer the same question might help?

In this sentence the reason is that tha is the one used after question words like cuin' – so too in dè tha 'what is', cò tha 'who is', ciamar a tha 'how is', carson a tha 'why is'. The only exception is càite 'where', which selects bheil > càit' a bheil 'where is'. After a while these combinations will become natural and you won't have to think about them anymore.

More in general, tha is used in positive declarative sentences that are not modified by a particle like a(n/m) 'yes/no-question', cha(n) 'negative', nach 'negative question'. Compare for example: – tha e ag obair 'he's working' – a bheil e ag obair? 'is he working?' – chan eil e ag obair 'he's not working' – nach eil e ag obair? 'isn't he working?'

Consequently, tha is also known as the "independent" form of this verb 'to be' (there is another, the copula), while (bh)eil is the "dependent" form: it is always dependent on something else like one of those particles.

If it helps you remember to use tha after question words, the historical explanation for most selecting tha is that they are structured as "[what is it] that is", "[what is the time] that is", etc. The a that you see in cuin' a tha is NOT the question particle, but the relative particle, even though they might look/sound the same. Càit' a bheil 'where is' is different because it reflects "what is the place in which is" instead of "what is the place that is". The a here historically contains the word for 'in', so this is technically yet another a.


Good point about the relative particle in càite a bheil coming from a(n/m) in and basically meaning in which, quite analogical to relative clauses like ris a bheil mi a’ bruidhinn with whom I’m speaking.


Guys, you're both brilliant!

And you've answered my other question to silmeth, so synthesising what you've both told me: càit(e) a bheil e? looks like it has a relative particle a, but it's actually a form meaning "in which", not "that" (which is more transparent if you've got some diachronic knowledge of the language, as you've shown). Because this specific particle a 'secretly' contains a preposition, it's followed by the dependent verb form.

Whereas cuin a tha e? contains only the relative particle a (the usual a to find between clauses), meaning that although tha e is a relative clause, as there's no preposition before the relative particle a the relative clause uses the independent form. (Hope you don't mind me summarising this back at you - I want to make sure I've got this right.)


Yes, that's right! It's nice to see that our two comments ended up complementing each other.

Note, however, that if you want to say in which in a regular sentence in modern Gaelic you'd use anns a bheil/sa bheil: e.g. an taigh anns a bheil iad a' fuireach the house in which they live, analogous to the ris a bheil mi a' bruidhinn example silmeth gave. So this a in càite a bheil is a fossilised form for in which that –as far as I can think of– doesn't show up anywhere else.

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