Guide to Irish to be, the substantive verb bí, tá & the copula is

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… or how to say I am…?

This is one of the most challenging subjects to learners – this guide aims to explain it in a systematic and relatively comprehensive way. This guide is partially adapted from Guide to Scottish Gaelic to be.

First let’s define two terms:

  • subject – the thing or person about whom the given sentence is, it is the main noun phrase in the sentence, eg. in the sentence “Tom has a cat” Tom is the subject, in the sentence “The people around here are very nice” the people around here are the subject.
  • predicate of a linking or copular verb – the phrase that goes after is in English, eg. in “a cat is an animalan animal is the predicate, in “the boat is on the sea” the predicate is on the sea, thus the predicate is the thing that the subject is linked to with is.[1]

Some sentence (and their more-or-less literal translations) below will be colour-coded. The subject will be blue, pronouns standing for the subject light blue, predicates will be green, pronouns standing for the predicates light green, and the copula or the verb themselves red. Other colours will be occasionally used to show connections of other parts of sentences with their translations.

Irish has two separate words to translate the English to be verb depending on context.

The first one is the substantive verb . The second one is the copula is.

The substantive verb

The form is what you’ll find as a headword in dictionaries, it is the singular imperative command form be!.

In the present tense its independent form is and the dependent form is fuil – but you will typically see it mutated as bhfuil or fhuil more often (more on dependent forms later).

You use this verb for stating how, where or when something is or what something is like – to describe something or state its whereabouts. That means that this verb takes only adverbs, adjectives, and prepositional phrases as its predicates:

  • táim go maithI am well, here an adverb – go maith well – is the predicate;
  • an ceapaire blastathe sandwich is tasty, here an adjective – blasta tasty – is the predicate;
  • an ceapaire ar an mbordthe sandwich is on the table, here a prepositional phrase – ar an mbord on the table – is the predicate;
  • sé seo salachthis is dirty, again an adjective as the predicate.

When the predicate is an adjective, it stays in the base form – it doesn’t change to agree in number or gender with the subject. Compare:

  • na cait mhórathe big cats (with mhóra ‘big’ having plural form, and lenited after a plural noun formed by slenderization)
  • with na cait mórthe cats are big (mór staying in base unlenited form).

A few adjectives expressing subjective assessment typically get go before them when they’re predicates of the verb (this might be a remnant of the verb taking only adverbs as its predicates in the remote past):

  • Tá an fear go maiththe man is good,
  • Tá an cailín go hálainnthe girl is beautiful,
  • Tá an lá go deasthe day is nice,
  • Tá an aimsir go donathe weather is bad,
  • Tá an samhradh go haoibhinnthe summer is splendid,
  • Tá an rós go breáthe rose is pretty,
  • Tá sé go holcit is evil,
  • Tá sí go hiontachshe is wonderful.

And so:

  • an pháirc mhór go breáthe big field is pretty – here mhór is lenited because it attributes a feminine noun páirc directly, but breá stays in the basic unlenited form because it is a predicate to the verb and not directly linked to the noun.
Remember! You cannot use a noun phrase as a predicate of this verb, so you cannot say something like *tá sé fear – this sentence simply doesn’t make any sense in Irish, fear a man is a noun and as such cannot be a predicate here.

When describing something with an adjective, it’s more traditional to use the copula. See below for that.

Existentials or there is…

is also used for existential sentences like there is a dog in the house – this sentence means that a dog exists and that dog is located in the house. English (like other Germanic languages) doesn’t like indefinite subjects of such sentences and starts them with a dummy subject there a bit as if defining this dummy there as a dog in the house. Also that’s the reason why the story starts with In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit and not simply … a hobbit lived. Many languages don’t do this and just straightforwardly say something like a dog is in the house, that’s what happens in Irish:

  • tá madra sa teachthere is a dog in the house – it’s a simple sentence with an indefinite subject madra a dog and a prepositional predicate sa teach in the house stating where the existing dog is.

But always needs some predicate. In some languages you could say something like good people are in the meaning there are good people, good people generally exist – but not in Irish. [2] Here enters our friend the dummy predicate ann there, in general existence. If you lack a predicate for an existential sentence, you just stick ann there:

  • tá dea-dhaoine annthere are good people,
  • but tá dea-dhaoine in Éirinn there are good people in Ireland without this ann (because in Éirinn already works as a predicate).

This ann might also mean here, there, somewhere around when the subject is definite as in

  • tá Séamas annSéamas is here/there (Séamas is present and you can find him somewhere around).

The dependent form fuil

With some irregular verbs – among them – Irish requires the use of a separate dependent form after some dependent particles, like the negating ‘not’, interrogative an? ‘does? is?…’, go ‘that’ (introducing subordinate clause in reported speech), etc.

The dependent form of is in present tense is fuil is. But you’ll rarely, if ever, see this form on its own. In most dialects – outside of Munster – it always appears mutated, either lenited or eclipsed, and thus what you’ll see is rather:

  • níl… for … is not… – it’s an irregular spelling of ní fhuil ( causes lenition), since the fh is silent and thus the thing is pronounced /n´iːl´/; you’ll sometimes see it written as ní’l in older texts, and in Ulster dialects it sometimes keeps two syllables: /n´iː.ɪl´/;
  • an bhfuil…? for is…? in yes-no questions;
  • nach bhfuil…? for isn’t…?, in the negative yes-no questions;
  • go bhfuil… for that is… in reported speech;


So for example:

  • níl Tadhg sa teachTadhg is not in the house,
  • nach bhfuil sé sin go deas?isn’t that nice?,
  • is dóigh liom go bhfuil brón airI think that he is sad (lit. that sadness/sorrow is on him),


In Munster dialects is used instead of nach before verbs for negative questions and in relative clauses, and it doesn’t cause any mutation, thus Munster texts do use unmutated fuil:

  • ná fuil sé sin go deas?isn’t that nice?.

The fuil form in general can also be inflected for persons, like can, so you’ll find nílim for I am not, go bhfuilimid (or often in Munster texts go bhfuilimíd) for that we are, etc. (and in older, especially Munster, texts fuilir for you (sg.) are, thou art, fuilid (siad) for they are, and sometimes fuileann tú, fuileann sibh for thou art, ye are are used too; but they’re rare or nonexistent in other dialects and are not part of the standard Irish).

Remember! The níl (< ní fhuil) and bhfuil forms are used in dependent position where you’d use in independent positions. You can’t use them for copular meanings. See below for more about dependent forms of the copula.

So, having that out of the way – how do you say he is a man? Or you are the high king of Ireland? Well… let’s look at the copula, shall we?

The copula is and how to say what or who something or someone is

I intentionally avoid the word verb when writing about the copula, although you’ll often see it called the copula verb or the assertive verb or something like that. That’s because it has its own syntax and doesn’t really behave like a verb (and has fewer forms) so it is a bit of its own grammatical category in the Gaelic languages.

The present form is is and there is no imperative (so you’ll find it under is in dictionaries). This is sometimes shortened to ’s after or before vowels.

You have to use the copula if you want to create a simple X is Y sentence and the predicate is a noun phrase (there are some idiomatic phrases without the copula but they don’t translate literally, we’ll look at them later).

There are quite a few different patterns involving the copula – sorry, I don’t think I can make it any shorter.

General remarks and syntax

Irish copula is an unstressed element that is not a separate word in its own right – it cannot exist separate from its predicate. Thus it will always be followed by something.

And the general syntax of the copua is:

is ⟨predicate⟩ ⟨subject⟩

but in identification sentences additional pronouns are inserted, see below.

Classification – indefinite predicates

When the predicate is indefinite – you want to state what kind of thing something or someone is, like in he is a doctor, I am a student, Irish is a Celtic language, cats are animals, then there are a few different ways. The most straightforward is to use the copula directly:

is ⟨predicate⟩ ⟨subject⟩ (VPS)

This is basically the basic syntax of the copula, V[erb] P[redicate] S[ubject], as mentioned above.

  • is ceapaire éit is a sandwich,
  • is múinteoir I am a teacher,
  • is iasc breaca trout is a fish.

When the subject is definite, a “subsubject” pronoun is often added before it:

  • is cailín cróga Síle or is cailín cróga í SíleSíle is a brave girl (she is a brave girl, Síle).
  • is peileadóir Tadhg or is peileadóir é TadhgTadhg is a footballer.

This pronoun is common in some Connacht and Munster dialects but isn’t required in the standard language and you’ll often see this kind of clauses without it in older literature.

Copula and adjectives

The copula is sometimes used with adjective predicates when describing more permanent features (while the substantive verb is used for more temporary states – though it’s not a strict rule by any means).

Thus to say the house is big you might say:

  • is mór (é) an teach (the pronoun before the subject is very common in this kind of sentences),

while I’m sad could be expressed with táim brónach since being sad is just a temporary state of a person – being mór big is a permanent inherent feature of the house so it’s more natural to link it with the copula.

or you can hear in a song:

  • is briste mo chroímy heart is broken

which sounds a bit more serious than tá mo chroí briste.

The book Fiche blian ag fás by Muiris Ó Súilleabháin starts with the words (the form gur is explained later):

  • Níl aon bhaol ná gur breá í an óigeThere’s no fear but that (the) youth is wonderful (or ‘the one certain thing is that youth is wonderful’).

You’ll sometimes also hear is maith sin for that is good.

Another very common use of the copula with adjectives is as follows:

  • is fuar an oíche íit is a cold night, very literally the nightitis cold or the night that it is, is cold,
  • is maith an fear éhe is a good man (the man that he is, is good),
  • is mór an teach éit is a big house (the house that it is, is big).

In this construction the predicate is the adjective (fuar, maith, mór), and the subject is complex, composed of a definite noun phrase and a pronoun.

⟨predicate⟩ is ea ⟨subject⟩

Beside the basic classification, another type exists.

This is the default structure used in Munster dialects, where the simple is X Y is rarer, the above examples expressed using this construction are:

  • ceapaire is ea éit is a sandwich (a sandwich, it is it),
  • múinteoir is ea I am a teacher,
  • iasc is ea breaca trout is a fish,
  • cailín cróga is ea (í) SíleSíle is a brave girl.

The ea element here is the old neuter pronoun ‘it’ which stands for indefinite predicate, a sentence like fear is ea é he is a man says literally: a manhe is it with ea it referring back to fear a man.

Nota bene: Since the copula comes after the predicate and it is not relative, when using this construction in subordinate clauses the go ‘that’ particle

appears twice:

  • tá a fhios agam gur fear gurb ea éI know that he is a man

The second gur(b) means ‘that … is’ and the first gur is pleonastic, inserted there only to syntactically fit the predicate fear in the sentence. One could imagine saying something like

*fear, tá a fhios agam gurb ea é instead – but it’s not the common form of such sentences.

There are other constructions for classification though, most common of them is probably:

(is) ⟨predicate⟩ atá i ⟨subject⟩

literally ⟨predicate⟩ is what is in ⟨subject⟩ or what is in ⟨subject⟩ is {{smallcaps|⟨predicate⟩. Saying that thing1 is in thing2 is just a Gaelic way of stating that thing2 is thing1. Note that this uses the verb – but its predicate is not a noun. Thus:

  • is ceapaire atá annit is a sandwich, but literally something like: (it, the thing) that is in it is a sandwich or what’s in it is a sandwich – notice that a prepositional phrase ann in it is the predicate of , not a noun;
  • múinteoir atá ionamI am a teacher, but literally: (the thing) that is in me (is) a teacher or what’s in me is a teacher – again a prepositional phrase ionam in me is the predicate of ,

[TODO: more examples]

The copula is very often omitted in this construction.

⟨subject⟩ ina ⟨predicate⟩

literally ⟨subject⟩ is in its ⟨predicate⟩ (ina here means in his/her/its and will be replaced by appropriate form agreeing with the subject, eg. táim i mo… for I am in my…, tá tú i do… for you (sg.) are in your…, etc.). This one is interesting as it uses the substantive verb and not the copula – but note that the actual predicate in the Irish sentence is the phrase in its ⟨predicate⟩ – so actually a prepositional phrase.

This structure is often used to state one’s profession but is not restricted to such use:

  • táim i mo mhúinteoirI am a teacher, but literally: I am in my teacheronly the verb, but the predicate is a prepositional phrase i mo mhúinteoir in my teacher;
  • an Ghaeilge ina teanga CheilteachIrish is a Celtic language, but literally: the Irish is in her Celtic language the predicate is a prepositional phrase na teanga Cheilteach in her Celtic language (feminine non-leniting ina in her because the word Gaeilge is feminine, Irish language is a she in Irish ;-));
  • siad ina ndochtúiríthey are doctors, but literally: they are in their doctors;
  • ina chara liomhe is a friend of mine, but literally: he is in his friend of mine.

This construction is more often used with temporary states rather than permanent ones. That’s why it tends to be used when stating one’s profession, you say I (currently) am a teacher (but maybe in 3 years I’ll be doing something else) – because of this hint of non-permanent description it’s often used in past tense to give description that is no longer true:

  • nuair a bhí i mo bhuachaill ógwhen I was a young boy (but I no longer am)…, literally the-time that I was in my young boy

but it doesn’t have to mean the state is temporary – it just doesn’t suggest that it is permanent as strongly as simple VPS clause tends to.

seo/sin/siúd ⟨predicate⟩

When the subject is a demonstrative (a word like ‘this’, ‘that’), ie. to express sentences like ‘this is a cat’, ‘that over there is a house’, an alternative structure is available which doesn’t have an explicit copula and the demonstrative itself takes its role.

That is, instead of saying (using the regular VPS syntax):

  • is cat é seothis is a cat,
  • is teach é siúdthat over there is a house, yonder is a house,

you can say:

  • seo catthis is a cat, here is a cat,
  • siúd teachthat over there/yonder is a house.

You’ll also hear things like sin fíor ‘that is true’ (lit. ‘that is truth’) beside the more regular is fíor sin. Note that this type of sentences is used with noun predicates (to way what this or that is).

The original meaning of this type of sentences is actually ‘here / there / over there is X’ rather than ‘this / that is X’, and although they are today understood as copular sentences – historically they did not actually involve the copula, see the article on Classical Gaelic for more about the history behind them.

Because the demonstratives start with s- and this type of sentences have copular meaning, over time they had been reanalyzed by speakers as having the copula is at the beginning and were generalized to other tenses and constructions. Basically seo teach got reanalyzed as is eo teach and today, especially in some Connacht and Munster dialects, you can get sentences like eg.:

  • b’eo teachthis was a house,
  • dúirt sé gurb’in fearhe said that that was a man,
  • nach in atá uait?isn’t that what you want?,

and similar.

Those forms are also sometimes written as shin, sheo, shiúd but the sh is not pronounced (eg. the last example above could be written as nach shin atá uait? instead).

When the predicate is definite (a specific item or person rather than a general idea) in Connacht and Munster the syntax differs slightly – an additional pronoun is inserted before the predicate, see below, but in Ulster sentences like seo mo theach for this is my house without the pronoun are common too.

Identification – definite predicates

As a general rule in Irish (but not a strict one – see below for exceptions), since at least late Old Irish, the copula isn’t directly followed by a definite noun. It is separated from definite predicates with a pronoun. Because of that, if the predicate is definite – that is if you identify the subject as some specific person or thing (the teacher, my brother, Colm, the high-king of Ireland) rather than simply stating what kind of thing the subject is – then an additional “subpredicate” pronoun appears before it.

is (é/í/iad) ⟨predicate⟩ ⟨subject⟩ (VpPS)

The subpredicate generally agrees in gender and number with the predicate.

  • is é mo cheapaire éit is my sandwich, note that additional é, agreeing with the predicate mo cheapaire ‘my sandwich’, appeared before it;
  • is é an cineál céanna feamainne íit is the same type of seaweed – note that the subject í ‘it’ is feminine (as it presumably refers to the feminine word feamainn ‘seaweed’) but the subpredicate é agrees with the predicate (an example from Foclóir Gaeilge–Béarla);
  • is í Máire an múinteoirthe teacher is Máire, or in better English Máire is the teacher (when answering the question “Who is the teacher?” – ie. giving the identity of the teacher, ‘Mary’ being the information given);
  • is í an múinteoir MáireMáire is the teacher (when answering the question “Who is Máire?”, “the teacher” being the new information) – note that here í agrees with Máire (the subject) and not with an múinteoir – when the predicate denotes a person, the subpredicate generally agrees with the gender associated with the person;
  • is é deartháir Choilm SéamasSéamas is Colm’s brother;
  • is í an Ghaeilge teanga na Gaeltachtathe language of the Gaeltacht is Irish (or Irish is the language of the Gaeltacht, but Irish is the information given);
  • cuir i gcás gurb í an fhírinne féin ésuppose that it is the truth itself – the subject is generic é ‘it’, the subpredicate í agrees with predicate an fhírinne ‘the truth’, a feminine noun.

When a definite noun standing directly after the copula is defined by a relative clause, the article is traditionally often omitted:

  • is é rud é is éagsamhlaighe (…) dár airigheas riamhit is the most extraordinary thing of all that I’ve ever heard – note that the first é is the subpredicate separating the definite rud (…) is éagsamhlaighe dár airigheas riamh from the copula, the second é is the subject ‘it’,

sometimes the article is omitted even without the relative clause:

  • is í cúis éit is the reason.

The rule about subpredicate agreeing with the predicate isn’t very strict though. As noted above, it gets overriden by the perceived gender when talking about persons (is í an múinteoir Máire), but it is sometimes ignored in other cases too:

  • is é an chloch is mó ar a phaidrín éit is his greatest concern (lit. it is the greatest stone on his prayer)

with the subpredicate é despite an chloch being a feminine noun. In this case the masculine é might be transferred from the VpSP structure where an chloch is mó… ‘the greatest concern’ would be the subject.

[TODO: elaborate]


There is sometimes a need to state the subject before the predicate (since generally subject is the theme, topic of a sentence, and the predicate is the rheme, new information, it’s a natural tendency – all languages with some freedom of word order prefer stating the rheme later). In this case the sub-predicate pronoun actually fulfills the role of the predicate of the copula and it refers to the noun phrase that comes later, this gives us the V[erb] p[redicate] S[ubject] P[redicate] structure. This is the type from which the previous one (VpPS) developed.

Sometimes, especially in Munster the word (which can be understood as ‘namely, that is’ in this context) is inserted before the rheme-predicate. Thus one can find this in Peadar Ua Laoghaire’s prose:

  • agus is é ainm a bhí airSéadnaand his name was Séadna, literally: and (the) name he had is it, (namely) Séadna.

Also note that in Muskerry Irish (the dialect of Peadar Ua Laoghaire) the word ainm name is feminine – so the pronoun é clearly disagrees with the subject here.

When no is present there might be more vocal stress put on the pronoun and a pause might be heard after the subject. This also means that a sentence like:

  • is é Mícheál D. Ó hUigínn uachtarán na hÉireann can be understood as either:
  • VpPS: is é Mícheál D. Ó hUigínn uachtarán na hÉireann(the person being) the president of Ireland is Michael D. Higgins (ie. answering the question ‘who is the president of Ireland?’), literally: the president of Ireland is Michael D. Higgins,
  • or VpSP: is é Mícheál D. Ó hUigínn, uachtarán na hÉireannMichael D. Higgins is this / him: the president of Ireland (ie. answering the question ‘who is Michael D. Higgins?’),

depending on how the words are stressed in pronunciation.

This structure is required when the predicate is a subordinate clause, when stating facts, opinions, reporting what someone said, etc. – the subordinate clause is always pushed till the end and substituted with é it:

  • is é mo thuairim go bhfuil sé as a mheabhairI’m of the opinion that he’s out of his mind, literally my opinion is it: that he is out of his mind,

it’s also required when the predicate is a verbal noun clause, and common when stating meanings of words, reasons of events, etc.:

  • ba é aidhm an Chonartha ‘Teanga na Gaeilge a choinneáil á labhairt in Éirinn’the purpose of the League was (it:) ‘to keep the Irish Language spoken in Ireland’,
  • is é an bhrí atá leis na litreacha BBC ná British rud éigin Corporationthe meaning of the letters BBC is (it, namely:) British something Corporation,
  • is é an fáth gur tugadh Spioróg air ná go raibh duine uasal darbh ainm Spioróg ina chónaí i mBun Abhna agus (…)the reason why it was called Spioróg is (it, namely:) that there was a noble man called Spioróg living in Bun Abhna and (…).

Note that the words tuairim opinion, aidhm aim, purpose, brí force, meaning are feminine, so in the first examples the pronoun é stands for the whole go… that… phrase and disagrees with the subject mo thuairim my opinion; in the second example it stands for the infinitival phrase teanga … a choinneáil … to keep the language… and also disagrees with the subject aim an Chonartha the purpose of the (Gaelic) League, etc.

1st and 2nd person: mise, tusa

The 1st and 2nd person pronouns in identification clauses always come first – as if they always were the predicate. The pronouns also generally are with the emphatic suffixes (mise instead of ‘I’, tusa for ‘you, thou’, sinne or muidne for sinn, muid ‘we’, sibhse for sibh ‘you, y’all’):

  • is mise an múinteoirI am the teacher (or more literally: the teacher is me);
  • is mise SéamasI am Séamas (or more literally: Séamas is me);
  • is tusa ardrí na hÉireannyou are the high-king of Ireland (or more literally: the high-king of Ireland is you);

[TODO: more examples]

The above sentence work well as responses to questions like cé hé an múinteoir? ‘who is the teacher?’, cé hé Séamas? ‘who is Séamas?’, etc. – ie. the pronoun is the response. They may also be used when responding to cé (hé) thusa? ‘who are you?’ (ie. giving an múinteoir ‘the teacher’, Séamas, etc. as the information) – but to note explicitly that the focus is not on the pronoun, the non-emphatic form might be used:

  • is an múinteoirI am the teacher;
  • is SéamasI am Séamas;
  • is ardrí na hÉireannyou are the high-king of Ireland;

[TODO: more examples]

Here the pronouns I, you, sinn or muid we, sibh ye are merely the topic, the context of the sentence, and what follows is the rheme, the focus, the new information given.

Note that the word order differs from classification. To say ‘I am a teacher’ you say:
  • is múinteoir mé,

but to state ‘I am the teacher’ you say:

  • is mé an múinteoir or is mise an múinteoir.

seo/sin/siúd (é/í/iad) ⟨predicate⟩

Similar to classification when the demonstrative is the subject being equated to another noun, there is a shorter form. In Ulster dialects it generally looks the same as in the case of classification, but in Connacht and Ulster an additional pronoun appears before the predicate.

So to say things like ‘this is my house’, you can use either the regular identification syntax:

  • is é mo theach é seothis is my house,
  • is é toil Dé é sinthat is the will of God,

but you can also say:

  • seo é mo theachthis is my house,
  • sin é toil Déthat is the will of God.

But in texts from earlier 19th century, and also today in Ulster, you’ll see the same type without the pronoun:

  • seo mo theachthis is my house.

Personal names – identification versus classification

When a proper noun (like a personal name, or a place name) is the predicate of the copula, there is a clear distinction in Irish between talking about the person (or the place, etc.) referred to by that name, ie. the identification, and talking about the name itself, in which case it becomes classification.

And thus a sentence like Mary is the teacher (giving information about the teacher, informing that it’s Mary who’s teaching) you use the identification structure:

  • is í Máire an múinteoir — lit. the teacher is Mary – this tells us which person is the teacher – the one specific human being we know by the name Máire,

but when giving a name of a person, you use the classification structure:

  • is Máire an múinteoirthe teacher is Mary, the teacher’s name is Máire, literally the teacher is “a Mary”.

The latter sentence means that the teacher belongs to a set of all the Máire-s – it doesn’t identify the teacher with any specific person! It merely states their name.

Similarly one says for example:

  • tá mé ag ceapadh gur Cáit a bhí uirthiI am thinking that her name was Cáit, lit. that (the name) that was on her is Cáit,
  • dúirt sé gur Pádraig ainm a mhiche said that his son’s name is Pádraig,
  • Aill an Tuim is mó a thugaidís uirthi, ach Aill an Mhairnéalaighit’s not Aill an Tuim that they called it most, but Aill an Mhairnéalaigh.

Or in the 17th century Keating wrote:

  • is follus fós a hannálaibh Éireann gurab Alba fá hainm don chrích sin which in Modern Irish would be is follas fós as annála Éireann gurb Alba ab ainm don chríoch sinit is furthermore clear from Irish annals that that country’s name was Alba (ie. Scotland).

The same distinction exists in other grammatical persons between the identification:

  • ní mise MáireI am not Máire (ie. that Máire person is not me),

and classification:

  • ní Máire mé ach ÁineI am not Máire but Áine (ie. my name is not Máire but Áine).

Definite nouns directly after the copula

The pattern of inserting a pronoun between the copula and definite predicate (see above) is not a strict rule. There are certain contexts where definite predicates are commonly allowed to stand directly after the copula.

The main exception is after the copula in a relative clause which itself serves as a subject of another copular clause. This sounds complicated but basically it boils down to is X is Y sentence meaning ‘(the one) who/which is Y, is X’. An example of this would be:

  • gá chur ’n‑a luighe ar na Iúdaígh gur b’é Íosa is Críost anntestifying to the Jews that Jesus was Christ, lit. testifying it to the Jews that who is Christ was Jesus (translation of Acts 18:5 by Ua Laoghaire). Note that Críost is the predicate of the relative copula and there’s no pronoun between them:
(an té) is Críost ann — … (the one) who is Christ, the subject is not expressed directly here.

This structure is common in a certain type of questions in Irish, eg.:

  • cad is ainm duit?what’s your name?, more literally: what is it, (the thing) that is (the) name to you?,
  • cad is brí leis?what does it mean?, more literally: what is it, (the thing) that is (the) meaning with it?

and also in answers to such questions:

  • Tadhg is ainm dommy name is Tadh (what is my name is Tadhg),
  • is é sin is brí leisthe meaning of it is that.

Note that ainm duit and brí leis here have definite meanings (‘your name, the name that you have’ and ‘the meaning of it’) even though there is no article before them.

Outside of this context, the copula followed by a definite noun phrase may occur in some older archaising texts.[3]

Other uses of copula

Contrary to the substantive verb, copula isn’t that restricted in what kind of predicates it takes. And in some common expressions it actually takes prepositional phrases, adjectives, and other grammatical creatures as its predicates.

Fronting – additional emphasis on the focus of the sentence

A very common use of copula is fronting – moving some part of a sentence to put emphasis on it – to explicitly mark it as the focus, the main point of the sentence. The rest of the sentence, with the main verb, is put in a relative clause then. Compare:

  • tá an cat ar an mbordthe cat is on the table – no fronting, no copula, neutral sentence,
  • is é an cat atá ar an mbordit’s the cat that is on the tablean cat fronted – it’s the predicate of the copula, the sentence underlines the fact that the thing on the table is the cat (as opposed to a cup, for example),
  • is ar an mbord atá an catit’s on the table that the cat isar an mbord fronted, the sentence underlines the fact that the location of the cat is on the table.

Note that a subpredicate pronoun (é, í, iad) will appear if a definite noun phrase is being fronted (is é an cat…). There will be no pronoun otherwise (is ar an mbord…).

Also note that the subject of the copula in the fronted sentence is a relative clause. Sometimes you can think of it as elliptical, eliding some noun – like you could add a noun to the second sentence:

  • is é an cat (an t-ainmhí) atá ar an mbord(the animal) that is on the table is the cat,

but it doesn’t work for the third sentence (or when an adverbial or a prepositional phrase is fronted in general). That’s just the general syntax of fronting in Irish – a relative clause can be the subject of the copula.[4]

In fronting the copula is very commonly elided.

  • [TODO: examples]

When fronting an adverb, the go part disappears:

  • [TODO: examples]

Other set phrases and constructions

is ⟨adjective⟩ le/do…

The copula is used in many idiomatic expressions involving adjectives, like for example:

  • is maith liom AlbaI like Scotland,
  • is fearr liom ÉireI prefer Ireland.

This expression is maith le X Y, literally ‘Y is good with X’, is part of a broader construction expressing subjective feeling or opinion. Thus the underlying meaning of a sentence like

  • is maith liom arán a itheI like eating bread

is eating bread is good in my opinion or I find eating bread good, that is eating bread feels good to me.

This construction can be used with many adjectives and sometimes nouns to express one’s feeling or opinion, some more idiomatic than other:

  • is cuma liom éI don’t care about it, literally it is same to me,
  • is fada liom go mbead i gCorca DhuibhneI long to be in Dingle Peninsula, more literally: I find it (= the time) long until I will be in Dingle Peninsula, literally: (the time) until I will be in D. P. is long with me,
  • is dóigh liom go bhfuil an ceart agatI think that you are right, more literally: I find it likely that you are right,
  • is fuath leis an Béarlahe hates the English language (the English language is a hate with him),
  • an cuimhin leat an rud sin?do you remember that thing? (do you find that thing to be a memory?; or perhaps is that thing a memory of yours?),
  • is cás leis éhe cares for it, it is of concern to him (it is a concern to him),
  • is beag liom éit’s of little concern to me (I find it little/insignificant),

sometimes their meaning by extension is more “objective”:

  • is féidir leat é a dhéanamhyou can do it (it’s possible to you to do it),
  • is gnách liom é sin a dhéanamhit is customary for me to do that, I’m in the habit of doing that (doing that is customary to me).

A more involved example from Ua Laoghaire’s Séadna would be:

  • geallaim dhuit gurbh é ab fhada leis go raibh sé amuighI promise you that what he longed for was to be outside, more literally: that what he found long was it: (the time) until he was outside.

On the other hand, when objective truths are expressed, the preposition do is used. Compare:

  • is maith liom milseáinI like sweets


  • is maith dom glasraívegetables are good for me.

So also:

  • is fearr duit a bheith ansinyou should (rather) be there, it is better for you to be there,
  • is éigean dom Gaeilge a fhoghlaimI must learn Irish (learning Irish is a necessity for me).

O’Nolan gives also such example showing the difference between the two prepositions:

  • an rud is féidir leat, is féidir duit éthe thing you think you can do, you can do it, or the thing you find possible, it is possible for you (but note that is féidir le… is used in general for ‘can, be able to’, not just about the opinion).

Some phrases like that developed meanings a little bit further removed from their literal reading – they’ll often be listed in dictionaries. And example is:

  • ní mór dom é sin a dhéanamhI need to/must do that

which comes from saying that ‘doing that is not big=excessive for me’, thus it is something I should to or I must do (it’s not excessive, it’s the normal expected concern).

Dependent form (present tense)

As mentioned earlier, some particles in the Irish language – like leniting not, or eclipsing an? is? does?, nach? isn’t? doesn’t?, etc. – require the dependent form of a verb. For the substantive verb that form is fuil. But what happens with the copula?

Generally, the dependent form of the copula is in the present tense is zero. That is, in the present tense the copula disappears in the dependent positions. But the particles with the copular meaning also stop leniting and eclipsing. Thus:

  • ní hé Séamas rí ShasanaJames is not the king of England,
  • nach í Máire banríon na hAlban?isn’t Máire the queen of Scotland?,
  • nach múinteoir thú?aren’t you a teacher?
  • ní múinteoir atá ionatyou are not a teacher,
  • an iascairí sibh?are y’all fishers?,
  • an ar an mbord atá an cat?is it on the table that the cat is?

In Munster – where the negative interrogative and relative particle is – it changes to nách in the copular meaning:

  • nách múinteoir thú?aren’t you a teacher?,
  • dúirt sé nách mac léinn íhe said that she isn’t a student.

The dependent present tense copula also adds an -r to go and changes the spelling of the vowel (go + isgur):

  • dúirt sí gur mac léinn atá ionatshe said that you are a student,
  • deirtear gur áit aerach Mullach an Chlasaighit’s said that Mullach an Chlasaigh is an eerie place.

In certain cases before vowels – especially before adjectives, adverbs, the pronouns é, í, iad, ea, this gur changes to gurb:

  • táim ag smaoineamh gurb é Iain an té a ghoid fobhrísteI am thinking that Iain is the one who stole underpants,
  • admhaím gurb áille cónaí cois farraige ná in áit eileI admit that it’s lovlier to live by the sea than in another place (lit. … that living by the sea is lovlier than in another place),
  • m’anam ag Dia gurb í an fhírinne a deirim(on) my soul to God that it’s the truth that I say.

This -r(b) is also used in indirect relative clauses and in relative clauses after prepositions:

  • an duine ar maith leis an rud sinthe person who likes that thing,
  • an duine lenar maith an rud sinthe person who likes that thing,
  • cén tír arb as duit?which country are you from?
  • [TODO: more examples]

Past and future tenses

The substantive verb

Past forms of the verb are independent bhí and dependent raibh, eg.:

  • bhí mé sa bhádI was in the boat,
  • an raibh tú sásta?were you happy?,
  • dúirt sé go raibh tú brónachhe said that you were sad.

The future form is beidh, and it works both as an independent and dependent form. In dialects of Connacht and Ulster you’ll also get the relative form bheas in direct relative clauses (but we’ll not spend much time on it now):

  • beidh an madra ansinthe dog will be there,
  • an duine a bheidh sa teach / a bheas sa teachthe man that will be in the house.

The substantive verb also has a separate present habitual form expressing being that occurs repeatedly, once in a while – bíonn (also relative bhíos, bhíonns):

  • nach mbíonn Iain ag goid bríste gach lá?doesn’t Iain steal trousers every day?, lit. isn’t (habitually) Iain at stealing (of) trousers every day?,

This verb has some more forms not mentioned here at all (like the autonomous forms, conditional, past habitual, subjunctive…). See the Réimnigh website for the full paradigm (in the standard, and the 3 main dialectal areas).

The copula

The copula is has a past form ba which becomes b’ before vowels (but not before pronouns in the standard), it generally lenites the following word – except for the pronouns. In dependent positions generally the past forms of the particles are used – so an? changes to ar?, nach? becomes nár?, becomes níor, go becomes gur, etc.

This form is also the conditional, so it has two meanings: past was, were and conditional would be:

  • ba mise an múinteoirI was the teacher or I would be the teacher,
  • ar mhaith leat bainne?would you like milk (or less likely did you like milk?)
  • ar tusa an t-iascaire?were you the fisher?,
  • ba í mo dheirfiúr MáireMáire was my sister,
  • níor mhúinteoir éhe was not a teacher,
  • ba shaighdiúr íshe was a soldier.

In the dependent forms before vowels -bh is added (thus the particles become: arbh?, nárbh?, níorbh, gurbh…):

  • arbh fhearr leat tae nó caife?would you prefer tea or coffee?,

In the conditional, after ‘if’, ba is used:

  • dá mba mhúinteoir thú, ní fhéadfá é a dhéanamhif you were a teacher, you wouldn’t be able to do it.

And ba is also often used after go ‘that’ instead of the gur(bh) form:

  • cheapas go mba mhaith an chomhairle íI thought it was a good advice (lit. I thought the advice that it was, was good).

The copula has no future form.[5]

To turn the (is) ⟨predicate⟩ atá i ⟨subject⟩ construction into the past tense, you just use the past of the substantive verb (and optionally of the copula):

  • (is) múinteoir a bhí ionatyou were a teacher (a teacher is what was in you) or ba mhúinteoir a bhí ionat (a teachar was what was in you),
  • an iascaire a bhí ionat? or arbh iascaire a bhí ionat?were you a fisher?.

Generally in this type the copula stays in the present tense – if you were a teacher, the fact that you were a teacher is still true in the present (so it is a teacher that you were). The past tense of the copula might be used to convey more remote past that has no bearing on the present – for example when talking about someone long dead (ba dhuine deas a bhí ann ‘he was a nice person’) or when telling a story about times long gone.

Similarly to turn it into the future, you just change into the future beidh (or relative future bheas):

  • (is) iascaire a bheidh ionat (… a bheas ionat) — you will be a fisher,
  • (is) athair ar fheabhas a bheidh ionat (… a bheas ionat) — you will be an outstanding father.

Answering yes-no questions

Since Irish has no specific words meaning yes or no on their own, when answering yes-no questions in Irish, you have to repeat the verb of the question.

The verb

When a question begins with a form of the verb , that is it starts with an bhfuil…? is..? or nach bhfuil…? isn’t…? (in Munster ná fuil…?), you have to answer with either for yes or níl for no. The answer might use a form inflected for person. For example when asked an bhfuil tú i do chónaí in Éirinn? do you live in Ireland? you might respond with:

  • táim or for yes,
  • or nílim, níl for no.

It works in a similar way in other tenses. When asked an raibh tú in Éirinn anuraidh? were you in Ireland last year? you might respond with:

  • bhí (was) or bhíos (I was) for yes,
  • ní raibh or ní rabhas for no.

The copula

Since the copula can never stand on its own without a predicate, you have to repeat the predicate or use some pronoun to substitute it. In normal classification and identification sentences you typically substitute a pronoun for the predicate.


Since in classification clauses Irish uses the old neuter pronoun ea it to substitute the indefinite noun (cf. the X is ea Y structure above), that’s what you do after classification questions.

If asked an peann é seo? is this a pen? you respond with either:

  • is ea for yes (literally (it) is it),
  • or ní hea for no.

When asked an múinteoir tú? are you a teacher? you similarly would respond with either is ea or ní hea.

In the past or conditional you’d say either b’ea or níorbh ea.

This is also true for predicates that are names, so is ea and ní hea are also appropriate responses to questions like an Pádraig ainm a athar? is his father’s name Pádraig?.

With adjectives

If the question has an adjective as its predicate, though, it’s customary to repeat the adjective. Thus:

  • “An mór an teach é?”Is it a big house? (lit. is the house, it, big?)
“Ní mór.”No. (lit. is not big)


  • “An fíor an scéal seo?”Is this story true?
“Is fíor.”Yes. (lit. is true)


In identification you need to use the appropriate pronoun matching with the predicate.

If asked an é d’athair é? is he your father? you respond with:

  • is é for yes,
  • or ní hé for no.

If asked an tusa uachtarán na hÉireann? you respond with

  • is mise if you happened to win the presidential elections in Ireland,
  • or ní mise if not.

Other phrases

Very often, especially with idiomatic phrases, it’s common to repeat the head word of the predicate. And thus when asked an maith leat Éire? do you like Ireland? you would respond either:

  • is maith for yes,
  • or ní maith if you’re a bad human being.

If the question is about a prepositional phrase, you can use the classification is ea / ní hea response to agree or disagree with the whole proposition of the question, or you can repeat the preposition to emphasize a specific place or relation. Eg. when asked an ar an mbord atá an cat? is it on the table that the cat is? you can say yes in two ways:

  • is air which might emphasize that it is indeed on it (and not under the table, nor on another table),
  • or is ea which generally agrees with the idea of the cat being on the table.

If you were to say no, but (the cat is) under it you’d express it with:

  • ní hea, ach faoi, lit. it’s not it, but under it where the ea it refers to the whole idea of being on the table, and then faoi under it gives corrected location.

If you were to say no, but (the cat is) on the other table you’d say:

  • ní air, ach ar an mbord eile, lit. it’s not on it, but on the other table – where air on it refers to a location on this specific table.

When asked an as Éirinn duit? are you from Ireland? you typically respond with is ea or ní hea – agreeing or disagreeing with the whole proposition (rather than saying something like is aisti, lit ‘(I am) from her’ referring specifically back to the country in question).

The distinction between the choice of repeating the inflected preposition (is air, is uirthi, is aisti, etc.) versus the use of ea is basically the distinction between referring back to a specific definite object or place (which makes sense especially if contrasting with other specific object) and referring to the whole general proposition (which makes more sense if the answer is contrasted eg. with other preposition, like the location on something as opposed to under it, or it’s a reference to a general location or origin).

For more about it see Introduction to Studies in Modern Irish, pp. 23–25 and Studies in Modern Irish vol. 1, pp. 8–10.

Other resourses

See also Irish/Introduction to Studies in Modern Irish on this wiki. The first few lessons focus on the copula.


  1. The more proper term would be predicative, while the predicate is generally the whole main verbal phrase of a clause. But predicate in the sense “information given about the subject in a copular clause” is pretty common in Irish and Gaelic linguistics.
  2. Although Old Irish permitted that.
  3. O’Nolan notes for example a poem by Keating having gidh Eabhra teanga is seanda / gidh Laidin is léigheannda… ‘although the oldest language is Hebrew, although the most learned language is Latin…’) – but even in Classical Gaelic poetry this isn’t common. The pronoun is commonly inserted already in Old Irish.
  4. Sometimes in such cases in Old Irish the “subject” was a regular non-relative clause, it became relative in later Old Irish due to analogy with other types of fronting. See Pádraig MacCoisdealbha (1998) The Syntax of the Sentence in Old Irish, edited by Graham R. Isaac, De Gruyter
  5. Future forms of the copula existed in Old Irish and were still used in Classical Gaelic poetry (see Notes on Classical Gaelic Grammar#Forms), Gearóid Ó Nualláin reported hearing relative bhus with a future meaning ‘that will be’ in early 20th century, there’s one example of that in Croidhe Cainnte C[h]iarraighe too.