Answer Verbs or Thuirt vs Thubhairt and what's in it

O Goireasan Akerbeltz
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Most people have come across these doublets, but few have encountered any helpful explanations. Most explanations just present them as variants of the same 'thing'. Some say the longer forms are the 'old way' of spelling them, and there are a few sources which refer to them as stressed and unstressed forms. The latter is certainly true - but it actually goes beyond that. To begin with, here is a list of the most commonly seen variations:

an dubhairt thu? [əN du.əRʃdʲ u] an duirt thu? [əN duRʃdʲ u] did you say?
bhitheadh tu [viːəɣ du] bhiodh tu [vjəɣ du] you would be
bithidh tu [bi.ɪ du] bidh tu [bi du] you will be
thabhair dhomh [ho.ɪrʲ ɣõ] thoir dhomh [hɔrʲ ɣõ] give me

As so many things in Gaelic orthography which seem to be random, this isn't either. What the spelling is trying to reflect here with some of the most commonly used verbs is a phenomenon of spoken Gaelic - the distinction between what I have chosen to call neutral and stressed forms.

Neutral means that the verb is used without putting particular stress on it, for example because something else is stressed in the sentence or because it is just a simple statement or question you are making. Stressed means that for whatever reason, for example in answering a question or when stressing the verbal element of the sentence, you are putting emphasis on the answer.

This is very common in languages - they differ in how exactly they do it though. Gaelic does two things - it lengthens the vowel of the stressed verbs and splits the single syllable into two. Huh?

Well, let's look at an example:

Thuirt mi ris dol ann [huRʃdʲ mi rʲiʃ ə ɣɔL aũN] I told him to go there.
An dubhairt? [əN du.əRʃdʲ] Did you?
Thubhairt! [hu.əRʃdʲ] I did!

The first thuirt has quite a short vowel and has just one syllable. The other two on the other hand are "drawn out" somewhat and now there are two syllables. It's as similar difference as in English "Yes" and "Ye-es!" (the kind of long yes you get from teenagers) in terms of syllables - although it's still the same vowel, it's longer and there is kind of a break in between.

So what about other verbs, like tha and bha? In general there is a tendency to lengthen the vowels slightly in stressed verbs and for the vowels to be short or even disappearing:

Mhol mi an latha dha [vɔL mi N La.ə ɣa] I greeted him.
An do mhol? [əN də vɔL] Did you?
Mhol! [vɔˑL] Yes!
Bha mi ann [va mi ãũN] I was there.
An robh? [ə Rɔ] Were you?
Bha! [vaː] Yes!

In the Mhol! the vowel gets ever so slightly lengthened if you do a measurement of the vowels - by no means enough to make it sound like *mòl, but just a bit.

So it actually makes sense to have thubhairt AND thuirt when you are writing Gaelic - but however you write it, the important thing is to remember to pronounce them properly when speaking.

Beagan gràmair
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