Eureka Moments with the Irish Copula: A Crib Sheet
The copula looked easy at first glance. But the devil was in the detail.
Drawing on my own series of eureka moments, I've pulled together all the information I encountered while completing the Duolingo Irish lessons, focusing on Classification and Identification sentences. I’ve tacked on a brief teaser at the end for negation, question/response, copula inherent in questions, and other idioms. When you spot errors, please post and I will make corrections.
Since this “crib sheet” has grown to the length of a short chapter, I don’t always include numerous examples. But if you have favorite Duolingo examples just say the word and I’ll add them.
Use the copula "is" to link the subject (noun/pronoun) to the predicate (noun/pronoun) in a relationship of equivalence.
X = Y
Equivalence comes in two flavors, classification (X is "a" Y) and identification (X is "the" Y):
CLASSIFICATION (X is “a” Y)
--The predicate is always INDEFINITE (a teacher, a doctor, an animal, teachers, doctors, animals)
--Expresses class membership. X (the subject) belongs to class Y (the predicate).
Is dochtúir í. She is a doctor. (classification: “She” belongs to the class “doctor.”)
Is fear é. He is a man. (classification: "He" belongs to the class “man”.)
Is portán é. It is a crab. (classification: “It” belongs to the class “crab.”)
Ba dhochtúir mé . I was a doctor. (classification: “I” belonged to the class “doctor.”) Ba causes lenition
B’aisteoir é. He was an actor. (classification: “he” belonged to the class “actor”.) Use b’ if the following word begins with a vowel
IDENTIFICATION (X is “the” Y)
--The predicate is always DEFINITE, i.e., noun with definite article (the river, the trees, the shop), noun with a possessive pronoun (my horse, your book, their ice cream) or proper noun (Niamh, Dublin, Apple).
--Expresses identity of subject and predicate. X (the subject) and Y (the predicate) refer to the same entity.
Is í an dochtúir an bhean. The woman is the doctor. (identification: “The woman” and “the doctor” refer to the same person.)
Is é mo dheartháir é. He is my brother. (identification: “He” and “my brother” refer to the same person.)
Is é Pól uachtarán na hÉireann. Paul is the President of Ireland. (identification: “Paul” and “the President of Ireland” refer to the same person.)
Is í an léachtóir í. She is the lecturer. (identification: “She” and “lecturer” refer to the same person.)
An important HINT while we’re dealing with basics. Don’t confuse “is” with “tá”. Use “is” when the predicate is a noun/pronoun and use “tá” when the predicate is an adjective.
Is capaill iad. They are horses.
Tá sí óg. She is young.
PRONOUNS WITH THE COPULA
As you can see from all examples above, the copula uses the pronouns é, í, iad instead of sé, sí, siad (used with tá and all other conjugated verbs).
The copula also the uses ea, the neuter pronoun meaning “it”.
Emphatic pronouns are used in some copula constructions: mé/mise, tú/tusa, sibh/sibhse, . The emphatic forms area usually preferred for the 1st person and 2nd person with the copula.
Is mise Tara. I am Tara.
The copula construction follows this basic pattern:
COPULA + PREDICATE + SUBJECT.
Is dochtúir é. He is a doctor.
This basic pattern can be tweaked slightly by the insertion of a subpredicate. The historical explanation for subpredicates is the subject of fractious debate, but for standard Irish, the pragmatic explanation most commonly presented is that a DEFINITE NOUN cannot stand directly after the COPULA. To prevent this from occurring a pronoun, called at “subpredicate,” is inserted.
If the subject of a sentence is a DEFINITE noun (the woman, my father, Paul), then the subpredicate will be a pronoun (í, é, iad, etc.) agreeing in gender/number with the subject. In the example below the subpredicate "é" is inserted between the copula "is" and the DEFINITE noun "an fear". Is dochtúir é an fear. The man is a doctor. ("é" agrees in gender/number with the DEFINITE noun subject "an fear")
If the predicate of a sentence is also a DEFINITE noun (the man, my mother, Niamh) and the predicate is also a DEFINITE noun (the man, my mother, Niamh), then the subpredicate will be a pronoun (í, é, iad, etc.) agreeing in gender/number with the subject. In the example below the subpredicate "é" is inserted between the copula "is" and the DEFINITE nouns "an dochtúir" and "an fear". Is é an dochtúir an fear. The man is the doctor ("é" agrees in gender/number with the DEFINITE subject "an fear")
If the predicate is an INDEFINITE noun (a man, a doctor, a girl), that predicate can be shifted to the front of the sentence for emphasis, then the subpredicate ea, the NEUTER PRONOUN, will be used regardless of the gender/number of the subject. The INDEFINITE predicate is shifted to the front of the sentence and the subpredicate "ea" is placed between the copula and the DEFINITE noun subject. Dochtúir is ea an fear. The man is a doctor! (doctor emphasized; "ea" the neuter pronoun is used regardless of gender/number of subject)
You can get a better idea of how subpredicates work by looking at further examples below showing the copula in sentences of CLASSIFICATION, “X is a Y” (predicate is INDEFINITE (a woman, a doctor, a boy) and IDENTIFICATION, "X is the Y" (predicate is DEFINITE (the doctor, my brother, Paul).
WORD ORDER PATTERNS WITH THE COPULA--EXAMPLES
Now we have all the pieces and some stickum. Let’s make our own sentences. The point here is to consolidate "all of the above" into common colloquial patterns that you can use in everyday speech.
CLASSIFICATION, the predicate is always INDEFINITE
"X is a Y"
Is dochtúir í.
She is a doctor.
copula (Is ) + predicate (INDEFINITE NOUN dochtúir ) + subject (PRONOUN í )
both subject and predicate are INDEFINITE
"the X is a Y"
Is dochtúir é an fear.
The man is a doctor.
copula (Is ) + predicate (INDEFINITE NOUN dochtúir ) + subpredicate (é ) + subject (DEFINITE NOUN an fear )
subject is DEFINITE; predicate is INDEFINITE
Literally: The man is he, a doctor.
A subpredicate (é) is placed before the DEFINITE noun subject (an fear). It matches the subject in gender/number
"X is a Y" (with EMPHASIS)**
For emphasis shift the predicated “dochtúir” in the sentence Is dochtúir í. (She is a doctor) to the front of the sentence. In the resulting blank space, Dochtúir is ___ í. insert ea, the neuter pronoun, regardless of the gender/number of the noun being emphasized.
Dochtúir is ea í.
She is a doctor! (doctor emphasized)
predicate (INDEFINITE noun Dochtúir; emphasized) + copula (is ) + subpredicate (ea ) + PRONOUN subject (í )
Literally: A doctor, is it she.
IDENTIFICATION, the predicate is always DEFINITE
"She is the Y"
Is í an léachtóir í.
She is the lecturer.
Copula (Is ) + subpredicate (í ) + Predicate (DEFINITE noun an léachtóir ) + pronominal subject (í )
predicate is DEFINITE noun; subject is PRONOUN, 3rd person
Literally: She is she, the lecturer.
"I am the Y"
Is mise an dochtúir.
I am the doctor.
Copula (Is ) + subject (mise ) + predicate (an dochtúir )
EMPHATIC pronoun preferred in 1st and 2nd persons
predicate is DEFINITE noun; subject is PRONOUN, 1st and 2nd person
"The X is the Y"
Is é an dochtúir an fear.
The man is the doctor.
Copula (Is ) + subpredicate (é ) + predicate (DEFINITE noun an dochtúir ) + subject (DEFINITE noun an fear )
literally: "The man is he, the doctor."
predicate is DEFINITE; subject is DEFINITE
"Séamus is the Y"
Is é Séamus an múinteoir.
Séamus is the teacher.
Copula (Is ) + subpredicate (é ) + subject (DEFINITE:PROPER NOUN Séamus ) + predicate (DEFINITE noun an múinteoir )
predicate is DEFINITE; subject is DEFINITE (Proper noun)
(pronoun added after copula; agrees in gender/number with the subject)
"This/that is the Y"
Is é seo an peann.
This is the pen.
subject is a demonstrative pronoun
Seo an peann.
This is the pen.
Simple structure. Is é can be dropped in affirmative statements.
Some people describe the copula as a defective verb. Some describe it as a particle. On the practical level, if you think of the copula as a particle rather than as a verb, it makes it very easy to understand how other particles like ní, níor, an, ar, etc. can replace the copula in negative sentences or in question/response.
Ní replaces is in negative sentences (add "h" if word following Ní begins with a vowel.)
Níor replaces ba in negative sentences (causes lenition)
Níorbh replaces ba in negative sentences if the word following begins with a vowel
Ní fear mé. I am not a man
Ní mé an dochtúir. I am not the doctor.
Ní hí an léachtóir í. She is not the lecturer. (add "h" if word following Ní begins with a vowel.)
Ní hé an dochtúir an fear. The man is not the doctor. (add "h" if word following Ní begins with a vowel.)
Níor dhochtúir í. He was not a doctor. (causes lenition)
Níorbh aisteoir é. He was not an actor. (use níorbh if following word begins with a vowel)
An replaces is (DOES NOT cause eclipsis when replacing copula)
Ar replaces ba
Arbh replaces ba if the word following begins with a vowel
-----Ar replaces is in Connacht Irish; ab if the following word begins with a vowel.
Nach replaces is for a negative question
Nár replaces ba for a negative question
Nárbh replaces ba for a negative question if the word following begins with a vowel
USE ea in the response if the predicate is INDEFINITE (h-prothesis , add an initial “h” to "ea" following Ní: Ní hea.)
Use the personal pronoun (í, é, iad, etc. ) that matches the gender/number of the subject if the predicate is DEFINITE (add "h" if word following ní begins with a vowel: Ní hé.)
An dochtúir í? Is she a doctor? (no eclipsis) Is ea. Yes, she is. Ní hea. ((add "h" if word following Ní begins with a vowel.) No, she isn’t.
An portán é? (no eclipsis ) Is it a crab? Is ea. Yes, it is. Ní hea. (h-prothesis) No, it isn’t
An dochtúir é Pól? Is Paul a doctor? (no eclipsis) Sea. (Sea is the contracted form of Is ea) Yes. Ní hea. (h-prothesis) No, he isn’t.
An peann é sin? (NO ECLIPSIS) Is that a pen? Is ea. Yes, it is. Ní hea. (h-prothesis)
An é an portán é? Is it the crab. Is é. Yes it is. Ní hé. (h-prothesis) No it isn’t.
An í Máire mo mhúinteoir? Is Mary my teacher. Is í. Yes, she is. Ní hí. (h-prothesis) No, she isn’t.
An é Pól an dochtúir? Is Paul the doctor? Is é. Yes, he is. Ní hé. (h-prothesis) No, he isn’t.
An mise an léachtóir? Am I the lecturer? Is tú. Yes you are. Ní tú. No you aren’t.
An sibhse a tuismitheoirí? Are you her parents? Is muid. Yes we are. Ní muid. No we aren’t.
An tusa Seán? Are you Seán? Is mé. Yes, I am. Ní mé. No, I am not.
An é seo an peann? Is this the pen? Is é. Yes, it is. Ní hé. (h-prothesis) No, it isn’t
An é sin m'athair? Is that my father? Is é. Yes, it is. Ní hé. (h-prothesis) No, it isn’t
-----Ar dochtúir í (Is she a doctor?) Connacht Irish
-----Ab ise an dochtúir (Is she the doctor?) Connacht Irish
Ar mhúinteoir í? Was she a teacher? (+lenition) Ba í. Yes, she was. Níorbh í. No, she wasn’t.
Arbh é an múinteoir? Was he the teacher? Ba é. Yes, he was. Níorbh é. No, he wasn’t.
Nach dochtúir mé? Am I not a doctor?
Nar dochtúir mé? Was I not the doctor?
THE HIDDEN COPULA IN QUESTIONS
The copula is inherent in many question words. In those instances, the response will also take the copula.
Take a look at a couple of examples from the Duolingo course to understand this more fully:
Cé? = Who [is]? The copula is is inherent in cé (Who is?). So the response to cé questions also includes the copula.
Cé tú? Who are you? (copula inherent in cé) / Is múinteoir mé. I am a teacher.
Cé hí? Who is she (copula inherent in cé; h-prothesis) / Is múinteoir í. She is a teacher.
Cé hé? Who is he? (copula inherent in cé; h-prothesis) / Is múinteoir é. He is a teacher.
Cé hiad? Who are they? (copula inherent in cé; h-prothesis) / Is múinteoirí iad. They are teachers.
Cér? = Who [was]? The copula ba is inherent in cér (Who was?). So the response to cér questions also includes the copula.
Cérbh? Who [was] (Use cérbh instead of cér if the following word begins with a vowel)
Cér tú? Who were you? / Ba mhúinteoir mé. (+lenition) I was a teacher.
Cerbh iad? Who were they? / Ba mhúinteoirí iad. (causes lenition) They are teachers.
Cad =What [is]? (the copula is is inherent in cad )
Cad é do cheist? What is your question? That is: What is it, your question?
This sentence has two clauses:
Cad é What [is] it
do cheist your question
Knowing the copula is inherent in cad helps us understand another Duolingo example:
Cad atá sin? What is that? More literally: What is it, which that is?
Cad What [is it] the copula is is inherent in cad; “it” is also implied in this instance
a is a relative pronoun which/that (“which” used with a comma, “that” used without a comma) introducing a new clause (tá sin=that is)
So two clauses:
Cad What [is it]
atá sin which that is (a and tá contract to atá )
OTHER IDIOMATIC USES
Liking and Preference
Is maith linn seacláid. We like chocolate.
Ba mhaith liom é sin. I would like that.
B'fhearr liom tae. I would prefer tea.
Arbh fhearr leat caifé? Would you prefer coffee?
Yu Ming is ainm dom. My name is Yu Ming. (Literally: Yu Ming is name to me)
Place of Origin
Is as Éirinn di. She is from Ireland.
Is linne é. It is ours. (Literally, It is with us [permanently]. linne= linn + the emphatic suffix –ne
Is le Pól an carr. The car belongs to Paul. (Literally: The car is with Paul [permanently].)
an fear is mó the biggest man
I made no attempt at a comprehensive survey of the literature or anything else. I went for whatever caught my fancy. :D :D :D
My main references were the Duolingo “Notes and Tips,” sentences and attached posts! Additional sources consulted include:
For the catalog of syntax:
Thoughts on Linguistic Theory:
Terms and Examples:
Ongoing translation of the Caighdeán into English: https://caighdean.home.blog/chapter-7-the-copula/
For native speakers, the ba form is normally the conditional. It only becomes the past tense in context. So, it's more correct to say that Ba dhoctúir í means "She would be a doctor" but can also be the past, instead of suggesting it the other way around. Also, for tenses/moods/aspects that don't have a copular form, you can't use it. Is docthúr thú can never be "you will be a doctor". You would say Beidh tú i do dhochtúir instead.
So, essentially, the one issue I had is with you using ba as the past, since that's the marked (not normal) form for native speakers, with the unmarked (the natural interpretation) being the conditional.
Also, just to add a little dialectal variety: Before a vowel in Connacht Irish, cé can become cérb, so you get Cérb í instead of cé hí. An, instead on an in the present tense, you'll see ar, with ab before a vowel.
Ar dochtúir í (Is she a doctor)
Ab ise an dochtúir (Is she the doctor)
Thanks so much for all your explanations throughout the course!
A great help start-to-finish.
Would that only apply to ba or does it extend to níor/níorbh?
For this crib sheet I'm sticking with ba in the past tense for my "X is Y" translations. RTE.ie is using the past tense for their ba translations in http://www.rte.ie/tv/turasteanga/tt.pdf . And I see so many examples of "X is Y" without markers translated in the past tense in www.focloir.ie "advanced search". I think I'll just run with the crowd. :D :D :D
But to emphasize your important point, I've added a number of conditional Ba mhaith liom-type expressions to the Other Idiomatic Uses section.
And I've added ar/ab to the question particles, along with your examples.