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Oddities of the Irish Language

I was wondering if we could have a thread to discuss some of the stranger aspects of the Irish language, some of its quirks and oddities.

One thing that baffled me recently was when I discovered that the word for 'steak' ('stéig') can also be used as the word for 'intestine'. I still haven't managed to figure that one out!

Any other odd features of Irish you can think of?

March 4, 2015



One of my favourite quirks is how Irish refers to the animal below as a 'Bóin dé' or 'God's little cow'!

It's something that's apparently reflected in a number of European languages and is believed to have its roots in the ancient Indo-European language.



In Dutch we call this a "Lieveheersbeestje", or a "Good lord bug". :)


In Hebrew, which is not an IE language, this is a "Parat Moshe Rabbenu", or "Cow of Moses our teacher". Maybe the roots go farther back, but I reckon - and I have no proof to back me up - that the phrase was made up when Hebrew came back to life in the early 20th century. I can't recall ladybugs being mentioned in the Old Testament. :)


Do you think that could have something to do with the fact that in Judaism, the Tetragrammaton must not be pronounced? (I'm not sure exactly how that goes though, I have Jewish ancestry but I've always been secular). I'm guessing they translated it from some IE name and since as far as I know saints aren't a part of Judaism, Moses was the best option.


@reggaelizard It doesn't have anything to do with the Tetragrammaton, which appears only in prayers and in the Bible. Hebrew is a very old language, and when the Jews got exiled by the Romans from what is now Israel, the language pretty much lost common usage in favour of Aramaic (if they stayed in the region) and other languages are migration moved to different parts of Europe. As it was used only in the liturgy and when studying the Bible. Speaking it for the common vernacular was somewhat taboo and besides which, you couldn't find anyone to converse with because no one was fluent in the language anyway.

When Jews started to move back into the region just over 100 years ago, Zionists logically thought that the new language of the state should be, well, the old language. Modern languages (as in languages spoken in the last 2000 years) contained vocabulary that simply didn't have translations into ancient Hebrew, so the earliest new Hebrew speakers had to improvise and generally made up words on the spot.

Even today, the language that Hebrew borrows from mostly is English, leading to some very interesting Hebrew words. For example, an "attaché case" had no Biblical equivalent. (I don't think you could fit stone tablets in one anyway.) The Hebrew word today? It's called a "jamesbond", and pronounced that way too. Another example: front- and rear-wheel drive on cars, which clearly didn't apply for camels and donkeys. Back-wheel drive is called "back axle" (and pronounced that way), whereas front-wheel drive is, logically or illogically "back axle mukdam" which means, rear-wheel drive in the front. There are other fantastic examples, and interesting readings abound on how the language was revived and modernised after so long in hibernation.

So when they got around to translating ladybugs - the "lady" referring to the mother of Jesus anyway (isn't etymology fun?) - I'm guessing they did indeed need to put a more Jewish spin on things. How the "cow" part comes into it is beyond me.

By the way, have a look at:


And looking at that article, looks like it was translated into Hebrew directly from Yiddish, which of course makes a lot of sense as most of the early Israeli pioneers were from Eastern Europe and therefore spoke Yiddish day-to-day. Much Yiddish vocabulary comes from other European languages anyway.


Woah, that's really interesting to know! Makes me wanna start studying Hebrew – I'd probably do it now if I had more time.

Yiddish is also pretty interesting in that it's the only Germanic language not written in the Latin alphabet; I've heard it's mutually intelligible with German when spoken but my knowledge is limited to 'kaput' and a bunch of words I probably shouldn't say on this forum so I can't really compare them. I wish the course hadn't been left hanging in Duolingo Incubator.


It’s the only surviving Germanic language that’s not written in the Latin alphabet — Gothic and Old Norse have their own scripts.


Marihøne, a "Mary chicken" in Norwegian.


Marieta, "little Mary" in Catalan.


Just to confirm, it's "God's Little Cow" ["Божья коровка"] in Russian as well.


Its Spanish name literally translates to 'St Anthony's little cow'. I had no idea this thing was considered holy in so many languages.

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In Italian it's called coccinella, but in Sicilian it's the Santanicola (=Saint Nicholas... Santa Claus?) and it's said to bring money and gifts to children losing their milk teeth.


This would mean Italian and French are, so far, the only Indo-European languages I know of where it doesn't have some sacred name. (Yesterday I found out 'ladybird' and 'ladybug' actually refer to the Virgin Mary and not to the insect being considered feminine).


One of its quirks is the ambiguity of voice in a particular verbal noun structure, e.g. Tá Pól á mholadh, which can mean either “Pól is praising him” (active) or “Pól is being praised” (passive). The ambiguity can be removed for the active meaning by switching to the passive voice — Tá sé á mholadh ag Pól — and the ambiguity can be removed for the passive meaning by switching to the autonomous form, which is an active voice — Táthar ag moladh Póil !


My favorite is with some of the ambiguity in relative clauses. An fear a mholann an sagart can be either "The man who praises the priest" or "The man who the priest praises".

Actually, I just love relative clauses. Oh, and all the fun stuff you can do with the verbal noun.


To get around the ambiguity those crafty Muimhnigh would say An fear go(/a) molann an sagart é to indicate that fear is the object.


Can I humbly intrude with a question for you folks on this thread? You all seem so good at Irish. Did you learn it before duolingo? Or are you just getting it here? If so, do you have any tips for how to improve? I am finding it very difficult... especially with the spelling issue. Some websites have been shared, but so far they have not worked for me. Maybe I am just bad at this! But I'm still hoping I'll find a way to get a handle on Irish.


This is my third attempt to study Irish, and by far the most successful. The things that tripped me up most before were spelling and prepositions; I still have trouble with prepositions but I think I'm getting a handle on the spelling.

The most important thing for me is something galaxyrocker already mentioned: listen to native speakers. A lot. And not just large blocks of material, like listening to radio or what have you, but go on teanglann.ie and see if they have pronunciations - for every new word Duolingo throws at you. I really can't stress this enough; it's the way I finally broke through the barrier and started to read Irish, and not to look at entire words as ideograms.

I mean, I'm still bad at it, but at least now it's not an incomprehensible mess.

Other tips: Don't try to charge through the tree too fast. I did that when I was starting, and now I'm playing catch-up, mostly with vocabulary - which preposition does that verb take again?

Keep GnaG, focloir.ie, and teanglann.ie open in alternate tabs, and refer to them often.

Don't be afraid to ask questions about individual sentences. The community is excellent and includes several folks who are both very active and extremely knowledgeable.

Don't get discouraged.

Have fun.


Thank you for your useful comments. I really appreciate it. I was worried also because I read on all these threads that the Irish voice on duolingo was not accurate and was mixing dialects which meant a beginner could not truly learn. I don't know if they have fixed that. (Do you know?) I'm assuming you are saying those other sites have more accurate pronunciations. Anyway thanks so much! I will try not to give out! I love what I've learned so far. Just want to make sure it is accurate info. so I can really learn to speak too.


According to the Irish incubator page, the Irish team are currently vetting sources for new audio.

Gramadach na Gaeilge, aka GnaG, is a fairly extensive grammar reference. Confused about why a certain word is lenited? Wondering what irregular verb thángamar is a form of? This is where you want to go. NB that the grammar was originally written in German, and the translation and formatting are a little weird in places.

Focloir.ie is an excellent and extensive English-Irish dictionary. I've found it very useful for investigating different shades of connotation; also, they have audio samples of many words, one in each of the three major dialects.

Teanglann.ie was, until very recently, breis.focloir.ie, and is the Irish-English counterpart to focloir.ie. My experience has been that it's not as extensive, but when I'm boggling at just how to pronounce íoslódálann, this is my first stop.

(It also helps if I remember how to spell it. I keep thinking the second l is slender, and coming out with íoslódáileann.)


Thank you kindly for your help! I am fairly bogged down so far, but slogging on. Honestly, I still do NOT understand this slender/broad detail at all. I read the explanation and my mind goes blank. I am not usually terrible at languages, but apparently I'm terrible at learning Irish. I am not giving up though.


I learned it before Duolingo. In fact, I minored in it in college, and am planning on getting a masters this coming school year.


Any tips? It is really hard to learn and especially to spell if you are new to it. I am a bit ripping out my hair!


Practice makes perfect. And listen to as much native material as you can get, since the Duolingo speaker isn't native. Other than that, really, just try and practice.


So I've just seen a dictionary entry that defines 'Stéig' as 'A strip (of meat, flesh, etc)'. So I guess that makes more sense.

It also gives an amazing idiomatic phrase ' Bainfidh siad na stéigeacha as a chéile' for 'They will knock the stuffing out of each other'. :D


I'm accustomed to the idea that the gender of nouns is somewhat arbitrary (from my study of French), but I find it amusing that the word for girl, cailín, is a masculine noun.


It's because all diminutive nouns are masculine. Cailín is actually from caile + ín, or "little maid". Caile was feminine, but the ín makes all nouns masculine.

It's actually the same reason Mädchen has a neuter gender in German.


That's very interesting, thank you!


Proleptic pronouns, relative clauses and supressed copulas, take:

d’airíos-sa duine á rá gurb iad rudaí na síobhraí ná aingil an uabhair agus na deamhain aeir


I heard somebody say that fairies/elves are fallen angels and demons of air.

Irish sentence with hidden aspects expanded:

d’airíos-sa duine á rá gurb iad rudaí (is) na síobhraí ná aingil an uabhair agus na deamhain aeir

D'airíos-sa duine á rá = I heard somebody at its saying = I heard somebody saying it.

This "it" is known as a proleptic pronoun. Irish grammar often requires objects to be put in the genitive, but when a whole phrase is your object you used a generic it first as a place holder, known as a proleptic pronoun.

Now, the "it" stands for:

gurb iad rudaí (is iad) na síobhraí ná aingil an uabhair agus na deamhain aeir

Let's break this apart:

gurb iad rudaí (is) na síobhraí


rudaí (is) na síobhraí = things which the fairies are. (the hidden "is" conveys "which are", a supressed copula)

gurb iad = that they are (the "they" is to follow, sort of like "that they, i.e. 'what follows', are")

gurb iad rudaí (is) na síobhraí = that they, i.e. the things which the fairies are, are (yes there are two "are"s in the literal translation.

ná = namely. This is not "ná = nor" (negative or), but a different particle meaning "namely" used with the copula. This "ná" comes into effect when a relative is used with the copula, however here the relative copula was hidden, the "is" I have in brackets.

So fully literally translated:

d’airíos-sa duine á rá gurb iad rudaí (is) na síobhraí ná aingil an uabhair agus na deamhain aeir

I heard a person saying it, that they, i.e. the things which the fairies are, are namely fallen angels and demons of the air.

I'll come back with another bizarre examples from Irish grammar.

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