Feminine nouns

O Goireasan Akerbeltz
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Gaelic has 4 cases (we will leave the discussion of whether the vocative is a case in Gaelic to the linguists): the nominative, the dative, the genitive and the vocative case. Hurk?

Cases

The nominative

Literally the "naming" case. The nominative presents the basic form of a noun which is the word that a dictionary gives you or that you use when naming something, e.g. an taigh, am balach, a' chaileag etc. In Gaelic, subjects of a sentence are in the nominative case. It's referred to by some as the "Naming Case" or the "Nominal Case", probably because they think that Latinate words might cause the brain to overheat. In any case, we believe grammar is difficult enough without having 5 terms for the same thing so we stick with the most established term - the nominative.

The dative

Literally the "giving" case. Never mind other languages here; in Gaelic, simple prepositions are followed by the dative case, e.g. fo, do, de, bho, le, ri, aig, ann an etc. Because prepositions are used with the dative case, it is sometimes referred to as the "prepositional case". Again, we'll stick with the established word, dative, and not bother that linguists argue about whether today's Gaelic dative isn't really a dative anymore.

The genitive

Literally the "creating" case. Well, in Gaelic the genitive is used for various things. For one, it expresses possession (akin to the English "possessive 's"), e.g. taigh mo mhàthar, bean an taighe etc. The genitive case also takes the function of the English particle 'of' as in 'house of horror', 'Queen of Scots' - taigh an uabhais, Ban-rìghinn nan Albannach. In Gaelic, it also forms compound nouns, e.g. bàta + smùid » bàta-smùide (a steamboat). The genitive case is referred to by some as the "possessive" case - but do we really need yet another term?

The vocative

Literally the "calling" case - which is what it does. In Gaelic, you use the vocative case when directly addressing someone or something, e.g. when shouting someone's name to get their attention, when addressing an audience, or when you're drunk and talking to a lamp-post: a Mhórag! a lampa-shràid!

Number

What else? Ah, number. English makes a distinction between singular (the cat) and plural (15 cats). In addition, Gaelic has a dual distinction which means the noun will take on one shape for one [X], two [X] and more than two [X] - bròg, dà bhròig, trì brogan.

Definiteness

Definite and indefinite: an indefinite noun is a noun that indicates a member of a group of things without telling you exactly which member. For example, 'a cat' could be any moggie on or off this planet. However, if you say 'the cat sat on the mat' you must have previously mentioned which cat you mean or it must be otherwise clear, from the context, which specific cat you're referring to, for example, a cat from a specific novel. In Gaelic, the definite article that precedes a definite noun changes its shape depending on the noun, case, gender and number: a', na, nan, nam... Proper nouns are always considered definite, so Calum and Èideann are proper nouns even though there are many Calums in this world and at least two Dùn Èideanns (look for Dunedin in New Zealand).

Caileag

Right, now lets look at our first noun: Caileag. It's feminine and forms its plural by taking a suffix. Actually, there are no feminine nouns that slenderise to create their plurals, so you have one thing less to worry about. It has as its initial consonant. It's important to notice initial consonants because they influence the choice of definite article.

caileag bheag - feminine indefinite noun

Case Singular Plural
Nominative caileag bheag
a small girl
lenite the adjective
caileagan beaga
small girls
one syllable adjectives add -a in the plural1
Genitive taigh caileige bige2
a house of a small girl
to form the genitive, slenderise the final consonant and add -e in most cases; same applies to the adjective
taigh chaileagan beaga
a house of small girls
nouns followed by an indefinite noun in the plural cause lenition; one syllable adjectives add -a in the plural1
Dative air caileag bheag
(air caileig bhig)

on a small girl
lenite the adjective (and potentially slenderise the final consonant of both the noun and the adjective, see 6)
air caileagan beaga
on small girls
one syllable adjectives add -a in the plural1

a' chaileag bheag - feminine definite noun

Case Singular Plural
Nominative a' chaileag bheag
the small girl
the definite article is an3 and lenites following nouns and adjectives
na caileagan beaga
the small girls
the definite article is na; one syllable adjectives add -a in the plural1
Genitive taigh na caileige bige4
a/the house of the small girl
the definite article is na; slenderise the final consonant and add -e in most cases; same applies to the adjective
taigh nan caileagan beaga
a/the house of the small girls
the definite article is nan5; one syllable adjectives add -a in the plural1
Dative air a' chaileag bheag
(air a' chaileig bhig)

on the small girl
the definite article is an3; lenite noun and adjective (and potentially slenderise both, see 6)
air na caileagan beaga
on the small girls
the definite article is na; one syllable adjectives add -a in the plural1
Vocative a chaileag bheag!
Oh, small girl!
the vocative particle is a; lenite noun and adjective
a chaileagan beaga!
Oh, small girls!
the vocative particle is a; lenite the noun; the vocative plural is the same as the nominative plural; one syllable adjectives add -a in the plural'1

Oh joy, footnotes again...

1 -e if they end in a slender consonant e.g. glic > glice

2 Most feminine nouns slenderise their final consonant and add -e. However, this is by no means a reliable rule and care must be taken that the correct genitive is learnt and used as there are a lot of exceptions to this rule e.g. màthair > màthar, cathair > cathrach (see the forthcoming special chapter on forming the genitive).

3 The article is an but before all lenitable consonants (except f where it remains an) this is reduced to a'; bear in mind the homo-organic rule which prevents the lenition of d, n, t, l.

Before the intial letters m, b, p, c, g the article an becomes a' and the those initial letters are lenited:

a' + m>mh, b>bh, p>ph, c>ch, g>gh

4 Gaelic has a rule that states that in any given definite noun phrase, the definite article may only occur once and in front of the last noun. In English, 'the house of the small girl' is grammatical, but in Gaelic, you may only use na in front of caileige. As a result, in Gaelic, you cannot distinguish 'a house of the small girl' from 'the house of the small girl' and have to rely on context to determine whether the first noun is definite or indefinite.

5 The article is nan, except that in front of the labials b, p, f, m (sounds made at the lips) this assimilates to nam.

6 Historically, Gaelic feminine nouns (and adjectives that follow it) slenderise in the dative. But this has been fallen by the wayside for a considerable amount of time and today, even the most fluent native speakers rarely - if ever - use it in speech. It has become what is called a "marked feature". What that means for you in practise is that you certainly don't need to worry about it in spoken Gaelic. When it comes to writing Gaelic, it is most appropriate in really formal registers (like a PhD or giving a formal speech) but much less so in non-formal registers. It largely falls under issues I recommend you're aware of, but don't actively use. If you have a tutor who insists you use it in writing, go along with it as a mental exercise but otherwise you can revert to not using it.

A general footnote: basically anything that happens to the noun, happens to the adjective. In most cases, if the noun slenderises, so will the adjective and if it adds -e, so will the adjective. Lenition caused by the definite article "jumps" and jumping lenition will affect every noun and adjective in the noun phrase until you reach the next part of the sentence, e.g. a' chaileig bhig thana mhodhail.

Also, in a noun-adjective compound like clach-dhearg, both elements are declined as if they were seperated e.g. taigh na cloiche-deirge. If it's a compound where the adjective precedes the noun, as in glas-fhaoileag, the adjective undergoes lenition but takes no other changes. The noun is declined regularly and determines the gender of the compound, e.g. na glas-faoileige, dhan ghlas-fhaoileig, etc.

Oiteag

Our next noun is Oiteag. It's feminine and has an initial vowel:

oiteag bheag - feminine indefinite noun (not forming its genitive with -e)

Case Singular Plural
Nominative oiteag bheag
a small breeze
lenite the adjective
oiteagan beaga
small breezes
one syllable adjectives add -a in the plural1
Genitive taigh oiteig bige
a house of a small breeze
put the noun in the genitive2; slenderise the final consonant of the adjective and add -e
taigh oiteagan beaga
a house of small breezes
one syllable adjectives add -a in the plural1
Dative air oiteag bheag
(air oiteig bhig)

on a small breeze
lenite noun and adjective (and potentially slenderise, see 6
air oiteagan beaga
on small breezes
one syllable adjectives add -a in the plural1

an oiteag bheag - feminine definite noun

Case Singular Plural
Nominative an oiteag bheag
the small breeze
lenite the adjective
na h-oiteagan beaga
the small breezes
the definite article is na h-3; one syllable adjectives add -a in the plural1
Genitive taigh na h-oiteig bige
a/the house of the small breeze4
the definite article is na h-3; slenderise the adjective and add -e
taigh nan oiteagan beaga
a/the house of the small breezes
the definite article is nan; one syllable adjectives add -a in the plural1
Dative air an oiteag bheag
(air an oiteig bhig)

on the small breeze
the definite article is an; lenite the adjective (and potentially slenderise the final consonant of the noun and the adjective, see 6
air na h-oiteagan beaga
on the small breezes
the definite article is na h-; one syllable adjectives add -a in the plural1
Vocative (a) oiteag bheag!5
Oh, small breeze!
the vocative particle is a; lenite the adjective
(a) oiteagan beaga!
Oh, small breezes!
the vocative particle is a; one syllable adjectives add -a in the plural1

1 -e if they end in a slender consonant e.g. glic > glice

2 Most feminine nouns slenderise their final consonant and add -e. However, this is by no means a reliable rule and care must be taken that the correct genitive is learnt and used as there are a lot of exceptions to this rule e.g. màthair > màthar, cathair > cathrach (see the forthcoming special chapter on forming the genitive).

3 The definite article is na h- before vowels. Commonly this is described as the article prefixing h- to nouns beginning with a vowel, but this h- is actually part of the definite article.

4 Gaelic has a rule that states that in any given definite noun phrase, the definite article may only occur once and in front of the last noun. In English,This 'the house of the little breeze' is grammatical. However, in Gaelic, you may only use na h- in front of oiteige. As a result, in Gaelic, you cannot distinguish 'a house of the little breeze' from 'the house of the little breeze' and have to rely on context to determine whether the first noun is definite or indefinite.

5 Before vowels, the a is not pronounced, but it should be written.

6 Historically, Gaelic feminine nouns (and adjectives that follow it) slenderise in the dative. But this has been fallen by the wayside for a considerable amount of time and today, even the most fluent native speakers rarely - if ever - use it in speech. It has become what is called a "marked feature". What that means for you in practise is that you certainly don't need to worry about it in spoken Gaelic. When it comes to writing Gaelic, it is most appropriate in really formal registers (like a PhD or giving a formal speech) but much less so in non-formal registers. It largely falls under issues I recommend you're aware of, but don't actively use. If you have a tutor who insists you use it in writing, go along with it as a mental exercise but otherwise you can revert to not using it.

Sùil

The next noun is Sùil. It's feminine, forms its plural by means of a suffix, and has an initial s:

sùil bheag - feminine indefinite noun

Case Singular Plural
Nominative sùil bheag
a small eye
lenite the adjective
sùilean beaga
small eyes
one syllable adjectives add -a in the plural1
Genitive dath sùla bige
a colour of a small eye
put the noun in the genitive2; slenderise the final consonant of the adjective and add -e
dath shùilean beaga
a colour of small eyes
nouns followed by an indefinite noun in the plural cause lenition; one syllable adjectives add -a in the plural1
Dative air sùil bheag
(air sùil bhig)

on a small eye
lenite the adjective (and potentially slenderise if possible, see 6)
air sùilean beaga
on small eyes
one syllable adjectives add -a in the plural1

an t-sùil bheag - feminine definite noun

Case Singular Plural
Nominative an t-sùil bheag
the small eye
the definite article is an t-3; lenite the adjective
na sùilean beaga
the small eyes
the definite article is na; one syllable adjectives add -a in the plural1
Genitive dath na sùla bige2
a/the colour of the small eye4
the definite article is na; slenderise the final consonant and add -e in most cases; same applies to the adjective
dath nan sùilean beaga
a/the colour of the small eyes
the definite article is nan; one syllable adjectives add -a in the plural1
Dative air an t-sùil bheag
(air an t-sùil bhig)

on the small eye
the definite article is an t-3; lenite the adjective (and potentially slenderise if possible, see 6)
air na sùilean beaga
on the small eyes
the definite article is na; one syllable adjectives add -a in the plural1
Vocative a shùil bheag!
Oh, small eye!
the vocative particle is a; lenite noun and adjective
a shùla beaga!5
Oh, small eyes!
the vocative particle is a; lenite the noun; one syllable adjectives add -a in the plural1

1 -e if they end in a slender consonant e.g. glic > glice

2 Most feminine nouns slenderise their final consonant and add -e. However, this is by no means a reliable rule and care must be taken that the correct genitive is learnt and used as there are a lot of exceptions to this rule e.g. màthair > màthar, cathair > cathrach (see the forthcoming special chapter on forming the genitive). In this case, the genitive is slightly irregular: sùil > sùla.

3 The definite article is an t- before s-. Commonly this is described as the article prefixing t- to nouns beginning with a vowel, but this t- is actually part of the definite article. The s- is eclipsed by this t, i.e. the two words are pronounced as if the s- wasn't there at all, so air an t-sùil is pronounced as /ɛɾʲ ən t̪uːl/. This happens in all cases except before sd/sg/sm/sp/st. However, the easiest way to remember this is to say that it happens in all cases where the resulting word is pronounceable, and *td/tg/tm/tp/tt are not possible pronunciations, in Gaelic.

Words beginning with the letter s prompt two different articles, an and an t-, depending on the letter that follows the s:

an + sg, sm, sp, st

an t- + sl, sn, sr, s+vowels

4 Gaelic has a rule that states that in any given definite noun phrase, the definite article may only occur once and in front of the last noun. In English, 'the colour of the small eye' is grammatical, but in Gaelic, you may only use na in front of -sùla. As a result, in Gaelic, you cannot distinguish 'a colour of the small eye' from 'the colour of the small eye' and have to rely on context to determine whether the first noun is definite or indefinite.

5 The vocative plural is generally the same as the nominative plural. This plural is slightly irregular.

6 Historically, Gaelic feminine nouns (and adjectives that follow it) slenderise in the dative. But this has been fallen by the wayside for a considerable amount of time and today, even the most fluent native speakers rarely - if ever - use it in speech. It has become what is called a "marked feature". What that means for you in practise is that you certainly don't need to worry about it in spoken Gaelic. When it comes to writing Gaelic, it is most appropriate in really formal registers (like a PhD or giving a formal speech) but much less so in non-formal registers. It largely falls under issues I recommend you're aware of, but don't actively use. If you have a tutor who insists you use it in writing, go along with it as a mental exercise but otherwise you can revert to not using it.

Compound nouns

So, what happens with compound nouns? Well, to begin, we need to try and answer the question of what constitutes a compound, in Gaelic. According to Faclair na Pàrlamaid, "close compounds" are hyphenated nouns; however, for Gaelic, that is not very helpful as there is a great confusion as to which words are and are not hyphenated.

Actually, the distinction is relatively easy, well, for a native speaker. Two nouns form a close compound if there is stress shift. Consider the two nouns gloine fìon 'a glass (full) of wine' as opposed to gloine-fìona 'a wineglass'. We start with remembering that every Gaelic word has word stress on the first syllable, which is the case both in gloine and fìon, in the first example, gloine fìon. However, in the second example, you can tell that these two words have fused by listening to the stress pattern and, for gloine-fìona, the only stress that is heard is the one on -fìona.

The same thing happens in other languages. For example, in English, when whirl + pool come together (both have word stress), to form whirlpool, only one word stress remains. Similar stress changes occur with paper + cut > paper-cut, bull + shit > bullshit and minimal pairs like 'a Frenchman' and 'a French man', 'a rolling pin' and 'a rolling-pin', and 'a holiday' and 'a holy day'.

This is a bit tricky for a learner, but it's the only foolproof way of telling a loose compound from a close compound. Consider a few more examples before progressing. As you can see, where Gaelic has a close compound, English often has a single word rather than two (e.g sgian-arain vs breadknife). Also, you get lenition in close compounds whereas you don't in loose compounds (the stressed syllables are in bold):


loose compound close compound
mac ministeir
the son of a minister
MacDhòmhnaill
MacDonald
latha nigheadaireachd
washing day
DiLuain
Monday
dùn cloiche
a fortress made of stone
sgian-arain
a breadknife
(sgian arain would be a knife made of bread!)
rach taighe
the ruins of a house
làrach-lìn
a website

Close compounds

So how DO you decline a close compound? The general rule is that the second noun is always in the genitive and undergoes lenition after the article, when appropriate. The second masculine noun slenderises for plural while the first noun is regularly declined. And, if the second noun is in the plural, it is always lenited. That follows the general rule that a plural noun, following another noun, is lenited. All the footnotes given above still apply to compound nouns but haven't been stated again:

cearc-fhraoich bheag - feminine indefinite noun

Case Singular Plural
Nominative cearc-fhraoich bheag
a small grouse
lenite the adjective
cearcan-fraoich beaga
small grouse
one syllable adjectives add -a in the plural1
Genitive dath circe-fraoich bige
a colour of a small grouse
put the noun in the genitive; slenderise the final consonant of the adjective and add -e
dath chearcan-fraoich beaga
a colour of small grouse
nouns followed by an indefinite noun in the plural cause lenition; one syllable adjectives add -a in the plural1
Dative air cearc-fhraoich bheag
(air circ-fhraoich bhig)

on a small grouse
lenite the adjective (and potentially slenderise both, if possible)
air cearcan-fraoich beaga
on small grouse
one syllable adjectives add -a in the plural1

a' chearc-fhraoich bheag - feminine definite noun

Case Singular Plural
Nominative a' chearc-fhraoich bheag
the small grouse
the definite article is an and lenites following nouns and adjectives
na cearcan-fraoich beaga
the small grouse
the definite article is na; one syllable adjectives add -a in the plural1
Genitive dath na circe-fraoich bige
a/the colour of the small grouse
the definite article is na; put the noun in the genitive; slenderise the final consonant of the adjective and add -e
dath nan cearcan-fraoich beaga
a/the colour of the small grouse
the definite article is nan; one syllable adjectives add -a in the plural1
Dative air a' chearc-fhraoich bheag
(air a' chirc-fhraoich bhig)

on the small grouse
the definite article is an; lenite noun and adjective (and potentially slenderise both)
air na cearcan-fraoich beaga
on the small grouse
the definite article is na; one syllable adjectives add -a in the plural1
Vocative a chearc-fhraoich bheag!
Oh, small grouse!
the vocative particle is a; lenite noun and adjective
a chearcan-fraoich beaga!
Oh, small grice! (yeah, I'm joshing you there)
the vocative particle is a; lenite the noun; one syllable adjectives add -a in the plural1

One thing to remember is that in a close compound, the second noun behaves much like an adjective, so after a feminine noun, there is lenition in the nominative and dative.

Proper nouns

Still more? Yes, but hang in there, we've almost got it.


Case Proper noun
Nominative Mórag Mhór NicDhòmhnaill
Great Mórag MacDonald
lenite the adjective
Genitive taigh Móraig Móire NicDhòmhnaill
Great Mórag MacDonalds House
slenderise the noun; slenderise the final consonant of the adjective and add -e
Dative air Móraig Mhóir NicDhòmhnaill
on Great Mórag MacDonald
slenderise the noun; slenderise the final consonant of the adjective
Vocative a Mhórag Mhór NicDhòmhnaill
Great Mórag MacDonald!
the vocative particle is a; lenite noun, adjective and surname


Footnotes? Just a few. If you get a double name like Màiri Céit, you only lenite the first one in the vocative e.g. a Mhàiri Céit!

Place names

The last nouns to examine are proper names that are place names. The two kinds of place names are called opaque place names and transparent place names. Opaque placenames are the ones that do not have any obvious meaning e.g. Leòdhas, na Hearadh, Glaschu. However, transparent place names make sense (meaning they give a bit of description) such as Dùn Éideann, Machair Aonghais, Dùn Bheagan, Meall nan Caorach and there are also semi-opaque place names, like An t-Eilean Sgiathanach, but one thing at a time.

Case Sron Mor Ben Alligin Glasgow
Nominative Sròn Mhór Beinn Ailiginn Glaschu
Genitive muinntir Sròine Móire Muinntir Bheinn Ailginn Muinntir Ghlaschu
Dative ann an Sròin Mhóir ann am Beinn Ailginn ann an Glaschu
Vocative a Shròn Mhór! a Bheinn Ailginn! a Ghlaschu!

For the most part, proper names, such as place names, behave like normal nouns. Here are a few pointers though:

  • In the genitive, placenames behave just like string of common nouns - slenderising and adding -e, such as Sròn Mhór > Sròine Móire, A' Chreag > Na Creige. Unlike common nouns and proper nouns (names of people), they also lenite their initials.
  • In the vocative (should one need it) placenames behave as if they were common nouns.
  • It is very difficult to determine the gender of opaque placenames and we haven't been able to identify the rule yet. Glaschu and Steòrnabhagh (cf. Glaschu Mhór nam Bùithtean) appear to be feminine, but this does not seem to apply to all opaque placenames. Watch this space for further developments though.

That's it really, easy peasy ...

The PDF

There is one for the traditional or conservative pattern and another for the normal or colloquial pattern.

See also



Beagan gràmair
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