Ann an

O Goireasan Akerbeltz
(Air ath-sheòladh o Preposition-annan)
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One of the more straightforward ones but let's look at the paradigm:

mi thu e i sinn sibh iad
annam annad ann innte annainn annaibh annta
[aNəm / uNəm] [aNəd] [ãũN] [ĩːNʲdʲə] [ aNɪNʲ / uNɪNʲ] [aNəv / uNəv] [ãũNdə]

No, we haven't suddenly joined the dialects camp but the IPA pronunciations in brackets are so commonly heard that we have to mention them.

What gives?

For starters, begin with ann an [aNən], the word for "in". Even though it's written as two words, it's pronounced as if it were one word. That's the quick answer.

Here's the longer answer. If we look at Old Irish, we find that the word for "in" was simply in(d). In modern Irish, this has been retained, so we get in Éirinn - "in Ireland". And we already know that in Gaelic ann an is basically saying the same thing twice. In ann an, we have the third person ann meaning "there" or "in him" and the original "in" word - an. So technically we're saying in-in. Why you might rightly ask. Well, not entirely sure. The literature does not say much about this but it's probably something to do with an overkill of an forms in Gaelic. To start with, you have the definite article an - the. Then there's the possessive an - their. There's also the question particle an - an robh... And, in spoken speech, there are a profusion of other particles which come out as [ə]. As long as in(d), in Old Irish, stayed [ind], things were fine. But when the in(d) changed to an [ən], we were suddenly in trouble when a new an came to town.

You might ask - so what? It matters because you could end up with a phrase like an taigh without knowing whether that's supposed to mean "the house" or "in a house", and there's a big difference in meaning between those examples. So, to make sure the other person understands what you mean, you say the same thing twice. Belt and braces really. No, I'm not crazy, this is quite common in languages.

For example, in French, you could originally negate a verb just using ne: et se ce fere ne volez. At some point, people started to reinforce this ne with words like pas (step), grain (seed), mien (crumb), goutte (drop), and so on, depending on the context. Through time, only pas survived, probably because it was common in Parisian French. So, the new way of stating a negation was with a double negative ne...pas, for example, je ne comprends pas. The neat thing is that with pas well established, ne is losing out fast. This can be seen in the colloquial phrase je comprends pas which French people use, regularly. But, we're not here to talk about French.

In Gaelic, in very limited circumstances, you can drop the ann. Most often, this happens in written Gaelic, especially if it's vaguely poetic writing. But, in the spoken language, ann an dominates. In certain joined forms, which always show up together, such as am measg, an déidh, an aghaidh, an dùil, and so on, you also get just an. And lastly, before place names an also shows up relatively frequently, as in bha iad an Glaschu "they were in Glasgow". Basically, an is sufficient because no potential confusion will arise from that sentence. You can not come up with a meaningful sentence putting an "their" or an "the" in front of Glaschu - without sounding weird or wrong.

The primary use of ann an is really rather boring. It just means "in" and is used similarly in English:

ann an taigh in a house
ann an Dùn Èideann in Edinburgh
ann an Glaschu in Glasgow
ann an cana in a can

Ah sandhi

No, not a bloke from Glesga, it's a Sanskrit word for funny stuff that happens to sounds at word boundaries. Technically lenition is a form of sandhi.

So, I want to mention here that ann an, before labials (b, bh, p, m, f), changes to ann am [aNəm]. But, more importantly, the -n strengthens to a [N] or a [Nʲ] in front of vowels depending on whether the next vowel is broad or slender and jumps from the end of [aNəN ~ aNəNʲ] to the next word:

ann an Bealach [aNəm bjaLəx] in Balloch
ann am nuga [aNəm mugə] in a mug
ann an ubhal [aNə Nu.əL] in an apple
ann an aisling [aNə Naʃlɪŋʲgʰ] in a dream
ann an Éirinn [aNə NʲeːrʲɪNʲ] in Ireland
ann an Ìle [aNə Nʲiːlə] in Islay

It's not quite as mad as it seems - think of English for a moment. You write "an apple" but if you say it reasonably fast, it comes out as "a napple". Incidentally, that's exactly what happened to the word nickname. Back in the 14th century, people used an ekename. But, at some point, some bright cookie (?!) figured that it must be "a nickname" rather than an ekename. Or the word "nuncle" which is "an uncle" fused together. Anyway.

In Manx, this has led to some amusing (well, from the Gaelic point of view) joined forms. For example, in Manx the word for Ireland is Nerin and the word for Scotland is Nalbyn.

Let's add another complication

It gets a bit more interesting when we add the definite article to ann an. For starters, it's apparent that there are three different forms that it can take: anns an, san and sa. Well, five if you count anns an t- and san t-, as extras:

Before Example Pronunciation Meaning
vowels, f anns an Òban [ãũNs ə Nɔːban] in Oban
anns an ola [ãũns ə NɔLə] in the oil
anns an iris [ãũNs ə Nʲirʲɪʃ] in the magazine
anns an fhìrinn [ãũNs ə NʲirʲɪNʲ] in the truth
b c g m p anns a' bhàta [ãũNs ə vaːhdə] in the boat
anns a' choire [ãũNs ə xɔrʲə] in the kettle
anns a' phìob [ãũNs ə fiːb] in the pipe
s, sn, sl, sr anns an t-sròn [ãũNs əN trɔːn] in the nose
anns an t-sùil [ãũNs əN tuːl] in the eye
anns an t-snàthad [ãũNs əN traː.əd] in the needle
d n t l anns an taigh [ãũNs əN tɤj] in the house
anns an dùn [ãũNs əN duːn] in the fortress
anns an loch [ãũNs əN Lɔx] in the loch

Meaning? Well, the Old Irish word "in" fused with the definite article sind=the to give us the conjoined form issind, which also happened to prompt lenition. Actually, there were loads of different forms because Old Irish had three genders so it also had a feminine and neuter gender for sind and issind, plus a few extra cases. But that will do, for our purposes. This fusing process ultimately yielded the Irish sa(n) and Gaelic sa(n). Further change caused issind to drop the initial i- and the final -d - and the result was sin. Bingo. The -d only shows up in front of words which begin with an s - don't ask why. And through further alteration, the -d turned up as a t-, in modern Gaelic.

So, first riddle solved - the seemingly mysterious t-, that shows up is not random at all, just a remainder of something very old.

But, back to san. Presumably, when Gaelic added the ann to an, it also did that in front of san, just to be consistent. So we could have gotten *ann san, but we didn't. For the same reason iss-ind runs of the tongue better than i-ssind, the s- crept back to the ann > anns an.

Since the older sa(n) did not have any competition the way an had, there was less pressure to add the ann to it. So, at least in spoken Gaelic, san and sa are just as common as anns an. Other than one exception, they work exactly the same way as anns an. The exception is that you can not have the short sa in front of s - so *sa t-sùil is not acceptable. However, it's fine with san so san t-sùil is acceptable.

In colloquial Gaelic, there's a further simplification: anns an is often shortened to [ãsə]. In this case, note that the nasalisation of the [ã] is very important because without nasalization it sounds exactly the same as ás a' [asə] - "out of".

What else? Notice in the plurals it shows up as anns na (h-), just as expected. It behaves just like the plural definite article so you get anns na beanntan "in the mountains", anns na h-ubhlan "in the apples", and so on.


The only tricky part is that although the Gaelic ann an is often used when English uses "in", this is not always the case. Unfortunately, there does not seem to be a regular pattern and these expressions just have to be learned. Here are a few examples:

maol anns a' chlaisneachd hard of hearing
cuir dàil anns a' chùis delay the matter
anns an achlais under the arms
cuir e anns an t-soitheach put it into the dish
anns a' bheachd sin of that opinion
anns a' chamhanaich at dawn
anns an àm cheudna at the same time
anns a' chladach on the shore

And the fun existentials

What else? Well, (ann) an also provides us with existentials or, in other words, ways of saying that something exists, for example, 's e cù a tha ann "it is a dog" - which indicates that the dog exists. That's the main use for the conjugated forms annam, annad, ann, innte, annainn, annaibh, annta. For more on existentials, click here.

Our old friend "in" is also the source of the following conjoined forms

'nam / 'na mo 'nad / 'na do 'na 'na (h-) 'nar (n-) 'nur (n-) 'nan/'nam
in my in your in his in her in our in your in their

For example, Tha cù 'nad chàr "there is a dog in your car". All that has happened is that an has merged with the possessive pronouns mo, do, a, a, ar, ur, an/am to create blended forms.

The first two forms 'nam and 'nad occasionally show up as 'na mo and 'na do but they behave the same way. In many cases, that happens when the next word begins with a vowel. So, for example, you get tha cù 'na mo chàr and tha cù 'nam ospadal simply because it's a bit harder to say two consonants together.

That's it really so before I start wittering, I'll say oidhche mhath!

Hang on, there is one more thing we need to talk about but that's best done on a separate page on stative verbs

á - aig - air - ann an - de ⁊ a - do ⁊ a - eadar - fo - gu - le - mu - o ⁊ bho - os ⁊ fos - ri - tro - thar