Guide to Scottish Gaelic to be, the linking verbs: substantive bi, tha & the copula is
… or how to say I am…?
This is one of the subjects that seems to be quite challenging to learners (and understandably so!) – this guide aims to explain it in a systematic and relatively comprehensive way.
DISCLAIMER: This is a copy of a guide originally posted on Duolingo forums and written not by a native Gaelic speaker, but rather just a foreign learner of Irish and Scottish Gaelic. The author believes that he has a reasonable understanding of those Gaelic verbs in question and most of the examples here are taken from other sources – but nevertheless there might be some mistakes here. If you spot any – don’t hesitate to point them out or correct them if you have an account on this wiki.
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 animal” an 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.
Scottish Gaelic has two separate words to translate the English to be verb depending on context.
The first one is the substantive verb bi. The second one is the copula is.
The substantive verb BI
The form bi 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 tha and the dependent form is (bh)eil (more on that in a minute).
You use this verb for stating how, where or when something is or what something is like – for describing something and stating its whereabouts. That means that this verb takes only adverbs, adjectives, and prepositional phrases as its predicates:
- tha mi gu math I am well, here an adverb – gu math well – is the predicate;
- tha an ceapaire blasta the sandwich is tasty, here an adjective – blasta tasty – is the predicate;
- tha an ceapaire air a’ bhòrd the sandwich is on the table, here a prepositional phrase – air a’ bhòrd on the table – is the predicate;
- tha seo salach this is dirty, again an adjective as the predicate.
When the predicate is an adjective, it always stays in its base form, compare:
- na cait mhòra the big cats (with mhòra ‘big’ having plural form, and lenited after a plural noun formed by slenderization)
- with tha na cait mòr the cats are big (mòr staying in base unlenited form).
- tha a’ phàirc mhòr brèagha the big park is pretty – here mhòr is lenited because it attributes a feminine noun pàirc directly, but brèagha stays in the basic unlenited form because it is a predicate to the verb and not directly linked to the noun.
Existentials or there is…
Bi 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 Gaelic:
- tha cù anns an taigh there is a dog in the house – it’s a simple sentence with an indefinite subject cù a dog and a prepositional predicate anns an taigh in the house stating where the existing dog is.
But tha 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 Gaelic. 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:
- tha deagh dhaoine ann there are good people,
- but tha deagh dhaoine ann an Alba there are good people in Scotland without this ann (because ann an Alba already works as a predicate).
This ann might also mean here, there, somewhere around when the subject is definite as in
- tha Seumas ann James is here/there (James is present and you can find him somewhere around).
So, having that out of the way – how do you say he is a man? Or you are the king of Scotland? 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 language.
The present form is is and there is no imperative (so you’ll find it under is in dictionaries). This is often 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.
Identification – definite predicates
If the predicate is definite – that is if you identify the subject as some specific person or thing (the teacher, my brother, Calum, the king of Scotland) rather than simply stating what kind of thing the subject is, then the pattern is:
is (e/i/iad) ⟨subject⟩ ⟨predicate⟩
- is mise Calum I am Calum, the predicate is a definite noun – Calum, some particular defined person – the copula is used directly;
- is tusa an duine a chunnaic mi you are the person I saw;
- is tusa rìgh na h-Alba you are the king of Scotland;
- ’s esan an tidsear he is the teacher;
- ’s e an ceapaire agam it is my sandwich, the predicate again is a definite noun phrase – an ceapaire agam the sandwich of mine, my sandwich;
- ’s e an Tighearna mo bhuachaille the Lord is my shepherd;
- ’s e Seumas bràthair Chaluim James is Calum’s brother;
- ’s i Màiri piuthar Chaluim Mairi is Calum’s sister;
- ’s i a’ Ghàidhlig cànan na Gàidhealtachd Gaelic is the language of Scottish Highlands;
- ’s iad na Gàidheil luchd na Gàidhealtachd the Gaels are the people of Gaeldom/Scottish Highlands.
Note that if the subject is not a pronoun itself, then a pronoun e, i, or iad is inserted after the copula – it generally agrees in gender with the subject (’s e Seumas…, ’s i Màiri…, ’s i a’ Ghàidhlig…, ’s iad na Gàidheil…).
Also generally emphatic pronouns (mise, tusa, esan, ise, iadsan, etc.) are used in such sentences. But note ’s e… for ‘it is’ (esan suggests a sentient being, so you would still use e for ‘it’ here).
But there is a tendency to use e regardless of the gender and number, eg. ’s e a’ chaileag sin mo phiùthar that girl is my sister, ’s e na daoine sin na dotairean those people are the doctors , or old proverb ’s e do shùil do cheannaiche your eye is your merchant – even though do shùil is feminine, here I think that e agrees with the predicate do cheannaiche your merchant (in that case it’d be an archaic feature here).
If the subject is itself a pronoun (like mise or tusa), then no other pronoun is inserted. Often the copula in such sentences is dropped (so just mise Calum, thusa an duine…).
If the subject is seo this, sin that, or siud that over there, yonder then the copula is commonly dropped (and you’ll see those sentences without copula in the Duolingo course a lot):
- ’s e seo an cat agam or commonly just seo an cat agam this is my cat;
- ’s i sin mo mhàthair or commonly sin mo mhàthair that is my mother.
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, Gaelic is a Celtic language, cats are animals, then there are a few different ways. First let’s look at the most straightforward – but very poetic/archaic and high-brow way that you wouldn’t use in a normal conversation, but it’s helpful to understand. The general syntax of the copula is:
is ⟨predicate⟩ ⟨subject⟩ (archaic, poetic)
This was historically the original syntax of the copula. And thus in the older poetic language you’d say:
- is ceapaire e it is a sandwich,
- is tidsear mi I am a teacher;
- is iasg breac a trout is a fish.
But as I wrote above, that wouldn’t be used commonly today. And Duolingo generally won’t accept such sentences.
Instead different idiomatic periphrastic phrases are used. The most common one is probably
’s e ⟨predicate⟩ a th’ ann an ⟨subject⟩
literally ⟨predicate⟩ is what is in ⟨subject⟩ or it’s ⟨predicate⟩ that is in ⟨subject⟩. Saying that thing1 is in thing2 is just a Gaelic way of stating that thing2 is thing1. Thus:
- ’s e ceapaire a th’ ann it is a sandwich, but literally something like: a sandwich is (it, the thing) that is in it or it’s a sandwich that is in it – notice that a prepositional phrase ann in it is the predicate of tha, not a noun;
- ’s e tidsear a th’ annam I am a teacher, but literally: a teacher is (it) that is in me or it’s a teacher that is in me – again a prepositional phrase annam in me is the predicate of tha;
- ’s e caileag chrodha a th’ ann am Mòrag Morag is a brave girl, but literally: a brave girl is (it) that is in Morag or it’s a brave girl that is in Morag;
- ’s e cànan Ceilteach a th’ anns a’ Ghàidhlig Gaelic is a Celtic language, but literally: a Celtic language is (it, the thing) that is in the Gaelic or it’s a Celtic language that is in the Gaelic;
- ’s e caileag bhòidheach a th’ innte she is a beautiful girl, but lit. a beautiful girl is (it, the thing) that is in her;
- ’s e oileanaich a th’ annta they are students, but lit. students are (it, this) that is in them.
The pronoun is always e in this type of sentences. Also notice how to say ‘it is a sandwich’ you have to say ’s e ceapaire a th’ ann and the ’s e ceapaire part on its own doesn’t work.
I believe that’s because historically this sentence is just like the archaic one above, ’s e ceapaire… meant really ‘a sandwich is it…’ where ceapaire ‘a sandwich’ was the subject and e ‘it’ was just a placeholder predicate anticipating what will be said later: a th’ ann ‘that is in it’. Kinda like a sandwich is this – what is in it. Thus e it stands for the relative clause a tha ann an… that is in, and since the relative clause is just it, doesn’t have a gender or number of its own, the generic e is used and ’s e ceapaire… is just an abruptly unfinished sentence missing something. I’m not entirely sure if I interpret this correctly though.
If the subject is seo, sin, siud, then the ann an part is dropped:
- ’s e cù a tha seo this is a dog, lit. a dog is (it) that is this,
- ’s e cat a tha sin that is a cat, lit. a cat is (it) that is that.
This is one exception to the no noun phrase predicates to the tha verb (but then seo and sin aren’t really nouns, so…).
But you might also encounter the regular ’s e cù a th’ ann an seo, lit. a dog is what is in this – but this is rarer. Also, if ann an seo is present, it might sound and be written also as ann a sheo or similar.
tha ⟨subject⟩ na ⟨predicate⟩
literally ⟨subject⟩ is in its ⟨predicate⟩ (na here means in his/her/its and will be replaced by appropriate form agreeing with the subject, eg. tha mi nam… for I am in my…, tha thu nad… 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 Gaelic 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:
- tha mi nam thidsear I am a teacher, but literally: I am in my teacher – only the tha verb, but the predicate is a prepositional phrase nam thidsear in my teacher;
- tha a’ Ghàidhlig na cànan Ceilteach Gaelic is a Celtic language, but literally: the Gaelic is in her Celtic language the predicate is a prepositional phrase na cànan Ceilteach in her Celtic language (feminine non-leniting na in her because the word Gàidhlig is feminine, Gaelic is a she in Gaelic ;-));
- tha iad nan dotairean they are doctors, but literally: they are in their doctors;
- tha e na charaid dhomh he is a friend of mine, but literally: he is in his friend to me.
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 bha mi nam bhalach òg… when 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 ’s e Y a th’ ann an X tends to.
Similarly to the identification sentences, you can also just say ’s e seo ⟨predicate⟩ or seo ⟨predicate⟩ to classify this, and the same goes for sin and siud:
- (’s e) seo bogsa mòr this is a big box,
- (’s e) sin cat that is a cat,
- (’s e) siud cù that over there/yonder is a dog.
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 – topicalization or putting emphasis on part of sentence
A very common use of copula is fronting – moving some part of a sentence to put emphasis on it – to make it the topic, the main point of the sentence. The rest of the sentence, with the main verb, is put in a relative clause then. Compare:
- tha an cat air a’ bhòrd the cat is on the table – no fronting, no copula, neutral sentence,
- ’s e an cat a tha air a’ bhòrd it is the cat that is on the table – an cat fronted, the sentence underlines the fact that the thing on the table is the cat,
- ’s ann air a’ bhòrd a tha an cat it is on the table that the cat is – air a’ bhòrd fronted, the sentence underlines the fact that the location of the cat is on the table.
Notice that in Gaelic ’s ann is generally used if the fronted element is not a noun (like air a’ bhòrd on the table is a full prepositional phrase), other examples would be:
- ’s ann à Obair Dheathain a tha e he is from Aberdeen (it is from Aberdeen that he is),
- ’s ann air oidhche fhuar gheamhraidh a thachair e rium it was on a cold winter’s night that he met me,
- or even ’s ann a’ cluiche anns an iodhlann a tha iad they are playing in the yard (it is playing in the yard that they are), or very literally, it’s at playing in the yard that they are,
- ’s ann an-dè a bha sinn ga dhèanamh it was yesterday that we were doing it,
- ’s ann gu làidir a bhuaileas e an t-iarann (it’s) strongly (that) he strikes the iron.
There is a way to front an adverb that's a bit more archaic which doesn’t need ’s ann, but the gu disappears, compare the last example above with these:
- thog e gu h-aotrom i he lifted her lightly,
- but is aotrom a thog e i lightly he lifted her (lit. it is lightly that he lifted her),
- or in an old poem ’s daingeann a bhuail iad às gach taobh sibh fiercely they struck you from every side (from Cumha Ni Mhic Raonuill, Ni Mhic Raonuill’s Lament).
Emphasis when describing
In older language the copula was used to state more permanent features (while the substantive verb was used for temporary states – in this way those two verbs were historically similar to Spanish verbs ser and estar) – this usage isn’t very common today, but you’ll find it in poetry, and perhaps in some longer sentences in more regular speech:
- is fuar an oidhche i the night is cold or it is a cold night,
- is math am fear e the man is good or he is a good man,
- is brònach mi I am sad,
- is bochd nach robh iadsan cho dìcheallach it’s a pity that they were not so dilligent (lit. that they were not so dilligent is unfortunate).
Notice that if a simple noun phrase (like an oidhche the night in the first example or am fear the man in the second) is the subject, then it is followed by a pronoun agreeing with it.
This archaic structure is very common in one particular phrase:
- is math sin that is good
(but tha sin math is also grammatically correct way to say that is good)
Other set phrases and constructions
Copula is part of the phrase for I like and I prefer in Gaelic:
- is toigh leam an t-àite seo (or: is toil leam…) I like this place, very literally this place is pleasant/delight with me;
- ’s fheàrr le Seumas Èirinn James prefers Ireland, very literally Ireland is better with James.
There are more types of such phrases (like is ⟨adjective⟩ leam or orm) in Gaelic – but I don’t know them too well, so will probably edit this in the future when I gather more examples.
So what about the dependent form I mentioned? You use it after some particles that generally require the dependent forms of verbs. Some of them are: the negating cha(n) not, the interrogative (questioning) a(n/m)? is? does?, the negative interrogative nach? is not? does not?, the question word càit(e) a(n/m)? where?, gu(n/m) that introducing indirect speech, etc.
As I wrote, the dependent form of the substantive verb bi in present tense is (bh)eil:
- chan eil mi gu math I am not well – here the verb tha changed to the dependent form eil,
- a bheil an ceapaire air a’ bhòrd? is the sandwich on the table? – here the dependent bheil is used,
- thuirt i gu bheil thu an sin she said that you are there.
As for the difference between eil and bheil:
- use eil if the particle lenites – that is, chan, and also nach which lenites only initial f- (historically (bh)eil actually started with f-, see below),
- use bheil if the particle ends in -n or -m and does not lenite, but remove the final -m, -n (like an/am → a bheil, gun/gum → gu bheil).
(In Classical Gaelic the historical dependent form was actually fuil which lenited to fhuil, eg. chan fhuil ‘is not’, and was eclipsed to bhfuil in eg. go bhfuil… ‘that is…’ – you’ll still find these forms in modern Irish – that’s the reason for the disappearing bh).
The dependent form of the copula is in the present tense is zero, that is, in the present tense the copula generally disappears in the dependent positions. Thus:
- chan e Seumas rìgh Shasainn James is not the king of England,
- nach i Màiri bànrigh na h-Alba? isn’t Mairi the queen of Scotland?,
- chan e tidsear a th’ annad you are not a teacher,
- an e iasgairean a th’ annaibh? are y’all fishers?,
- an ann air a’ bhòrd a tha an cat? is it on the table that the cat is?.
But it replaces the -n with -r in gun (gun + is → gur):
- thuirt i gur e oileanach a th’ annad she said that you are a student,
- tha mi a’ smaoineachadh gur e Iain am fear a ghoid drathais I am thinking that Iain is the one who stole underpants.
Sometimes you’ll see gur also prefixing h- to vowels: thuirt i gur h-e oileanach a th’ annad she said that you are a student, smaoinich sinn gur h-ann a’ goid a bha e we thought that stealing he was (lit. that it’s at stealing that he was).
Past and future tenses
Past forms of the verb bi are independent bha and dependent robh, eg.:
- bha mi anns a’ bhàta I was in the boat,
- an robh thu toilichte? were you happy?,
- thuirt e gun robh thu brònach he said that you were sad.
And the future and present habitual forms are indep. bidh (you’ll sometimes see longer bithidh) and dep. bi and also relative bios (or bitheas) which we’ll not spend much time on now:
- bidh an cù an sin the dog will be there,
- nach bi Iain a’ goid briogais a h-uile latha? doesn’t Iain steal trousers every day?, lit. isn’t (habitually) Iain at stealing (of) trousers every day?,
- thuirt Màiri rium gum bi (Iain a’ goid briogais a h-uile latha) Mairi told me that (Iain) does (steal trousers every day),
- an duine a bhios anns an taigh the man that will be in the house.
The copula is has only a past form bu which becomes b’ before vowels, this is both independent and dependent form, it’s itself never lenited, and it generally lenites the following word but not t or pronouns tu, sibh, sinn.
This form is also a conditional, so it has too meanings: past was, were and conditional would be:
- bu mhise an tidsear I was the teacher or I would be the teacher,
- am bu toigh leat bainne? would you like milk (or less likely did you like milk?)
- am bu tusa an t-iasgair? were you the fisher?,
- b’ i Màiri mo phiuthar Mairi was my sister,
- or archaic cha bu tidsear e he was not a teacher, bu shaighdear i she was a soldier.
To turn the ’s e ⟨predicate⟩ a th’ ann an ⟨subject⟩ construction into the past tense, you just use the past of the substantive verb (and optionally of the copula):
- ’s e tidsear a bh’ annad you were a teacher (a teacher is what was in you) or b’ e tidsear a bh’ annad (a teachar was what was in you),
- an e iasgair a bh’ annad? or am b’ e iasgair a bh’ annad? were you a fisher?.
Similarly to turn it into the future, you just change tha into the future relative bhios:
- ’s e iasgair a bhios annad you will be a fisher,
- ’s e athair air leth a bhios annad you will be an outstanding father.
Answering yes-no questions
In the sections on dependent forms and past/future tenses you saw how to form yes-no questions involving copula and the substantive verb. Now briefly on answering them.
Gaelic does not have a single yes and no words. To give positive or negative answer to a question you just repeat the verb.
Thus if one asks you a bheil thu gu math? are you well? you can reply with:
- tha for yes,
- chan eil for no,
or if one asks you an robh thu ann an Alba? were you in Scotland?, you reply with:
- bha for yes,
- or cha robh for no.
Notice that the form of the verb agrees with the question – if the present tense a bheil…? was asked, then the answer is present tense tha or chan eil, if the question is past tense an robh? then the answer also is in past bha or cha robh.
Notice also that you don’t need to repeat the whole sentence, just the verb is enough – the subject and the predicate are already known from context – the question asked.
That’s not true for copula – it cannot stand on its own, it is always unstressed and so it always needs a predicate.
Thus if one asks you an toigh leat Alba? or an toil leat Alba do you like Scotland? you answer with:
- is toigh or is toil for yes,
- or cha toigh or cha toil if you are a bad human being.
Or if someone asks you an tusa Màiri? are you Mairi?, you answer:
- is mi,
- or cha mhi.
Other explanations on the web:
- Gaelic Verbs Systemised and Simplified by Colin B.D. Mark (he calls the copula the assertive verb)
- Scottish Gaelic in Twelve Weeks by Roibeard Ó Maolalaigh (Lesson 2 introduces copula of identification, Lesson 5 introduces classification sentences and deals with fronting, Lesson 10 deals with indirect speech and gur)
- A Gaelic Grammar by George Calder, 1923, linked is the part on copula – it is old but gives a lot of examples of fronting.
ceud mìle taing do Joy Dunlop agus do joannejoanne12 airson a’ cheartachaidh agus a’ chuideachaidh!