Possessives and syllabic structure or Ar n-Athair a tha air nèamh

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Perhaps prayer is called for when learning Gaelic... Where shall we start? Well, let's be pompous: Gaelic, like many other languages does not have a verb for "to have" and distinguishes between alienable and inalienable possession.

It's nowhere near as horrible as it may look at first sight. There are two ways of expressing possession, so let's start with an overview of the two constructions:

màthair athair càr eun
my mo mhàthair m' athair an càr agam an t-eun agam
your do mhàthair d' athair an càr agad an t-eun agad
his a mhàthair athair an càr aige an t-eun aige
her a màthair a h-athair an càr aice an t-eun aice
our ar màthair ar n-athair an càr againn an t-eun againn
your ur màthair ur n-athair an càr agaibh an t-eun agaibh
their am màthair an athair an càr aca an t-eun aca

So what's this all about? In the construction using the possessive pronouns, take note of lenition, elision of vowels, prefixing of h-, and prefixing of n-. A noun beginning with a consonant is lenited by mo, do and a (his) but a (her), ar, ur and an do not prompt lenition. A noun beginning with a vowel will cause the vowels in mo and do to drop off yielding m' and d'. A noun with an initial vowel will cause a (his) to disappear completely (both in pronunciation and writing) but a (her) prefixes h- to the noun. No, this is not madness without reason - so for those of you curious about the reason, read the historical note at the bottom of this page. Of the last three, ar and ur prefix n- to a noun that begins with a vowel but an does nothing except change to am before labial consonants (b p m f), for the same reason that the definite article does.

Note on Pronunciation: You may ask "Why? The sounds all look pretty straightforward (as straightforward as <n> sounds get in Gaelic anyway)!" Unfortunately there is a tiny snag with ar and ur because, historically, the prefixed n- was part of the possessive pronoun, not the noun, and this influences their present pronunciation. Meaning?

That the n- in ar n-athair and ur n-athair does not get pronounced as a broad <n> would normally be pronounced but rather as a single, slender <n> just as if it still were attached to ar and ur.

ar n-athair [ar nahərʲ] our father
ur n-athair [ər nahərʲ] your (pl) father
ar nàthair [ar Naːhərʲ] our snake
ur nàthair [ər Naːhərʲ] your (pl) snake

In Gaelic, it IS important to get this pronunciation distinction (and your vowel length) right, as the above example shows. If you don't, it will seem to a native speaker that you're talking about snakes rather than someone's father! This is also where it is important you have your L N R sounds sorted, because these are also lenited by mo, do and a (his), particularly in the case of <his> and <her> where lenition, or the lack of it, is very significant (See the special chapter on leniting LNR)!

So, back to the constructions. The second one is a periphrastic (roundabout) way of expressing possession by using the preposition aig "at" either with or without the definite article depending on what you are trying to say. So, tha cat agam lit. "be cat at-me" expresses the concept of "I have a cat" and similarly tha an cat agam lit. "be the cat at-me" expresses "I have the cat".

And no, you can not just use these two constructions indiscriminately, which is where this stuff about alienable and inalienable comes in. This essentially means that anything that's considered to be connected to you, in such a way that it can not be taken away from you (=inalienable) or it's considered to be very close and personal to you, requires the first construction that uses the possessive pronouns (mo, do etc). Anything else requires the second construction and involves ownership of mostly material possessions like your herd of gnus, TV, ocean liner, fire extinguisher and automatic grape peeler.

So, what's considered inalienable in Gaelic? Blood relatives are, a wife (but not a husband!), clothes, children, parts of your body and certain special entities as kings, queens, and religious icons. A very nice illustrative example is the difference between mo làmh and an làmh agam. The first one talks about your hand that's attached to your body and therefore inalienable - but the second expression would suggest you're talking about a severed hand that you're holding in your own hand!!! Or, less macabre, seo an làmh agam might mean you're showing your hand in a game of cards - this is my hand (of cards).

Another nice example is seen in the two sentences tha i a' sguabadh na fiaclan aice and tha i a' sguabadh a fiaclan. In the first case granny is treating you to one of those unforgettable moments where she's holding her false teeth and brushing them with a toothbrush that belonged to her great-uncle Seumas. In the second case, she's standing in the bathroom brushing her own Mother Nature® teeth.

Now, bear in mind two things. First, this distinction is not 100% clear cut. And second, be aware that the first type (mo, do ...) is getting less common in modern Gaelic. Here is an indicative list of when to use the first - with special attention given to personal relations as they are particularly tricky:

Category Noun mo, do ... an X agam, agad...
most blood relatives màthair, mamaidh, athair, dadaidh, seanmhair, seanag, seanair, sean, bràthair, piuthar, uncail, antaidh
mac, balach
cailleach, bodach
ogha, co-ogha, iar-ogha...
friends and partners, depending on how close or serious you are càirdean, bràmair, leannan, caraid...
bodyparts (read the notes above!) ceann, cas, sròn, beul...
opinions in general, your honour cliù, onair, beachd, moladh, càineadh...
your clothes briogais, brògan, ad, aodach...
celebs rìgh, Dia, tighearna...
pets cù, cat (peatannan)...
heritage dùthaich, tìr, cànan, ceòl, dualchas, oighreachd...
history, both personal and historic sinnsireachd, eachdraidh, òige, bàs, beatha...
your home taigh, teaghlach, dachaigh
your name and mind ainm, anam, inntinn...

*mo nighean is permissible, but it would imply the girl being your girlfriend rather than daughter

Beyond this business of alienable vs inalienable, you can see that the use of mo vs agam can mark a perceived closeness. For example, mo charaid implies a much closer friendship than an caraid agam. If in doubt, use the an X agam construction as it will seem less odd to the native ear, if used inappropriately, than an overuse of mo, do etc.

Note that a noun associated with both of these constructions will cause them to appear in the genitive case. Examples are taigh mo mhàthar "my mothers house", in which the possessive construction precedes the noun, and càr a' mhanaidseir aige "his manager's car", in which the possessive construction follows the noun.

Historical note for the curious

So why is this not madness without reason, because it sure looks like it . As with a number of things in Gaelic (and Irish and Manx), such as the reasons for prefixing h- and n-, they go back a long time. A very long time, actually going way back to Indo-European more than 4000 or so years ago. This is what happened:

A "straightforward" system, but Celtic starts leniting intervocalic consonants (see lenition). Note that "her" ends in s and "our" "your" and "their" all in n. Now lose some of the initial sounds, including p in "father".
mei pətēr / mātēr
tū pətēr / mātēr
esja pətēr / mātēr
esjās pətēr / mātēr
ṇsaron pətēr / mātēr
svaron pətēr / mātēr
esjon pətēr / mātēr
(my father/mother)
(your father/mother)
(his father/mother)
(her father/mother)
(our father/mother)
(your father/mother)
(their father/mother)
Somewhere in between
What used to be a simple rule saying "lenite any consonant between two vowels" is now getting messy. It's still the "rule" but á <her> has already broken the rule. Even though it's a vowel, it does not lenite because the original s, which has been lenited to h, blocks lenition. And because it's easier to say a h-athir rather than *ah athir (try it!) the h has shifted to become part of the noun.
mo athir/mháthir
do athir/mháthir
á athir/mháthir
á h-athir/máthir
aron athir/máthir
varon athir/máthir
esan athir/máthir
Old Irish
Now it's becoming really messy. The final n of the 1st 2nd and 3rd person plural has now also shifted to become part of the noun, prefixing n- to a noun beginning in a vowel and geminating (doubling) nouns beginning with a consonant.
mo athir / mháthir
do athir / mháthir
a athir / mháthir
a h-athir / mmáthir
ar n-athir / mmáthir
far n-athir / mmáthir
a n-athir / mmáthir
Modern Gaelic and Irish
Now we're reduced to learning when we have to lenite. But because "her" had a final s and "our", "your" and "their" had a final n, thousands of years ago, these still crop up in odd circumstances. Curiously, Gaelic has shifted the n in the 3rd person plural (yet again) - back to where it originally was!!
m' athair / mo mhàthair
d' athair / do mhàthair
athair / a mhàthair
a h-athair / a màthair
ar n-athair / ar màthair
ur n-athair / ur màthair
an athair / am màthair
mo athair / mo mháthair
do athair / do mháthair
a athair / a mháthair
a h-athair / a máthair
ár n-athair / ár máthair
bhur n-athair / bhur máthair
a n-athair / a máthair

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