Aig, air agus ann an or The severed head

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Now you've probably read and mastered the chapter on possession and when to use mo and when to use an X agam. There is another obstacle however.

There are a number of expressions that in English are all constructed with the same possessive construction 'to have', e.g. I have two eyes, he has one arm, I have a headache, she has a foul mouth, he has a scowl and so on.

The fun begins when you try to say these things in Gaelic, because Gaelic looks at the world differently and uses 3 different ways of expressing what English bunches into the one form. All three hinge on the correct use of the prepositions aig, air and ann an.

For example, take the sentence 'Mórag has a big head'. How would you say that in Gaelic? A lot of you are probably going to say tha ceann mór aig Mórag - which is a well formed sentence but ... more about this further down. How about tha ceann mór air Mórag? Or even tha ceann mór ann am Mórag? The latter two are also well formed sentences, that is, they are 100% grammatical. So why these three constructions and where are the differenced, if there are any?

There are big differences. The first one, tha ceann mór aig Mórag, which most of you will have at least considered, does mean Mórag has a big head, but it implies that this unfortunately has been severed from its owner's body. Aig, as you will remember from the page on possessives, implies alienable ownership. Which means that item X can be taken away from you and the only way you can do that with ceann is by cutting it off. Rrright ... if you're a Dungeons & Dragons fan, this may well apply, but in most settings this won't do. What about the next one, tha tha ceann mór air Mórag?

This is the one we're really after - Mórag has a head (still attached to her, no stitches, no seam). By using air, we imply that the possession is still inalienable. Which is what we want here.

So what on earth is the the third one about, tha ceann mór ann am Mórag? Here we are getting idiomatic and imply a trait or disposition - that Mórag is big-headed and a bit full of herself.

This three way distinction applies in most settings, so here's an overview with a few more examples. Note that a three way distinction is not always possible, yet the correct preposition still has to be chosen:

(ann) an air aig
inherent quality, disposition, nature physical inalienable possession, physical attribute, permanent state alienable possession, temporary possession or act
tha beul mór am Mórag tha beul mór air Mórag
Mórag has a big mouth [talks too much] Mórag has a [physically] big mouth
tha ceann mór an Seoc tha ceann mór air Seoc tha ceann mór aig Seoc
Jock has a big head [is full of himself] Jock has a [physically] big head Jock has a big [severed] head
chan eil tùr ann an Iain
Ian has no sense
tha falt dubh air Màiri tha falt dubh aig Màiri
Màiri has black hair [growing on her head] Màiri has black hair [which has been cut off]
tha ceithir làmhan air tha ceithir làmhan aige
he has four hands [pysically attached to his body] he has four [severed] hands
tha cluasan móra ann an Jo tha cluasan móra air Jo tha cluasan móra aig Jo
Jo has big ears [likes to listen, eavesdrop] Jo has [physically] big ears Jo has [severed] big ears
chan eil casan ann tha casan air Jo tha casan aig Jo
it has no legs [it isn't possible, feasible] Jo has [physically] legs Jo has legs [drumsticks for her dinner]
tha e air leth làimh tha leth làimh aige
he has one hand [attached to himself], is one handed he has one [severed] hand
tha sradag ann tha sradag aige
he has a temper [by nature] he has a spark [for lighting a fire etc]
tha stac-crùbaich ann an Jo tha stac-crùbaich air Jo tha stac-crùbaich aig Jo
Jo has a limp [e.g. developed due to old age] Jo has a limp [since birth] Jo has a limp [temporarily due to a sprained ankle]

I think you get the idea. Of course there are other uses of the same prepositions. In tha cnatan orm or tha sròn orm "I'm in a huff" the use of air implies a non-permanent state, i.e. you will get better at some point. However, this doesn't upset the system from the Gaelic point of view because the noun in question will give you an idea of the only possible interpretation, i.e. if it's cnatan, it must be temporary, if it's ceann, it must be permanent.

"But I've heard tha ceann agam!!" I'm sure you have, but this is just due to the ever increasing influence of English. It's up to you whether you want to learn good idiomatic Gaelic or Gall-Ghàidhlig.

And a footnote for good measure: remember that just because English uses a certain construction doesn't mean that Gaelic uses the same. In many cases, Gaelic will not use a possessive pronoun where English uses one. A good example is thilg mi an t-uisge mun dà shùil, I threw the water into his eyes or thug mi a chliù dha eadar an dà shùil, I told him how little I think of him straight to his face.

You ever watch Jackie Chan Adventures? "One more thing" ... in very idiomatic Gaelic ann is sometimes used to denote ability - chan eil òran innte "she can't sing" or tha seinn annta "they can sing". The underlying idea here is that there are certain skills which are innate - you either have them or don't have them. From the Gaelic point of view, the ability to sing is innate. Therefore, that skillis treated as an inherent ability, or disposition, and thus uses ann. Yes, you will hear chan urrainn dhomh seinn, but strictly speaking that implies there is some external factor preventing you from doing so - you have a sore throat, you're not getting paid for singing, or you have been forbidden to do so.

This, by the way, leads us to another issue - the difference between expressions like tha sunnd orm and tha mi sunndach. Click here for the full story.

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