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Here's one of the more entertaining prepositions that Gaelic has to offer. But first, let's get the easy stuff out of the way before you let yourselves be entertained by a mad linguist.

As with most simple prepositions, ri [rʲi] can be conjugated (i.e. the preposition has merged into one word with the pronouns mi, thu etc.)

mi rium /rʲium/
thu riut /rʲiuhd/
e ris /rʲiʃ/
i rithe /rʲi.ə/
sinn r(u)inn /rɯiNʲ/
sibh r(u)ibh /rɯiv/
iad riutha /rʲu.ə/

First things first

Now, easy bits first:

You will sometimes see ruinn and ruibh spelt as rinn and ribh. Also, you will have noticed that most unexpectedly, the ri in rium, riut, ris, rithe and riutha is pronounced as [rʲ] even though you will have learned that at the beginning of a word all r-sounds are pronounced strong, as [R].

The reasons for this seem mysterious but it's not really such a mystery. The reasons for the r being slender are clear. In Old Irish, the r was simply not at the beginning of the word because ri used to be fri. Over time, the f just got lenited away. However, because fri had been originally (when the f was still around) pronounced as [fɾʲi], the -r- was fixed in the linguistic memory of people as being non-initial and slender. The whole paradigm of ri can be found in the page here. It does, oddly enough, survive in one instance: the prefix frith- but we won't go into that here because it would be too much of a tangent, even for me!

So, why has the -r-, which apparently was still slender in Old Irish changed to a broad -r-? Probably two things happened at the same time:

On the one hand, there has probably been a certain amount of re-analysis going on with people trying to fit an irregular pattern into a regular pattern. Something like this is occurring among modern English speakers who are re-analysing irregular plurals and slowly getting rid of them. These days, although "fishes" is perhaps frowned upon, it's certainly current in the spoken language. So in Gaelic, to some extent, people would have tried to to squeeze ri into the regular pronunciation patterns by pronouncing rinn as it now "appears" to be - with an initial r which has to be strong.

But, at the same time, something else was going on. Consonant length was shifting away from the consonant and onto the vowel. And we all know what that leads to in modern Gaelic. Let's take it one step at a time to understand the sequence of the daisy chain: [fɾʲiɲː] > [ɾʲiɲː] > [ɾʲiːɲ] > [ɾʲuiɲ]. At this stage, probably somewhere around the year 1500, a problem arose. The [ɾʲ] is suddenly in front of a very broad diphthong [ui] which makes it difficult to pronounce and "illegal" in terms of its phonetic structure (according to the rules of Gaelic, of course.) The easy solution was to make the r broad because that fits in nicely with the usual rule that r at the beginning of a word is always broad. But then, what about ribh/ruibh? I'm not sure, but perhaps a case of analogy surfaced, i.e. people applied the pattern of another preposition e.g. dhuibh which used to be duibh and therefore very similar in its sound structure.

Thus, the variant spellings are simply reflexes of something that used to be rinn & ribh and are now ruinn & ruibh.

Again, the Leòdhasaich need a footnote because in Lewis Gaelic [ɾʲ] has changed to [ð], so don't be surprised if you hear things like [ðiʃ].

To infinity...

Now, that was the easy bit.

Meaning and use of ri are a bit more tricky. Rather than give a long list of ways that this preposition can be translated (the format of most textbooks), depending on context and the verbs it is used with, we will try to give you an idea of what concept(s) ri entails.

The primary meaning of ri is best summed up as the "interaction between two participants in which some form of feedback or resistance is exhibited". Think of a man holding his head in front of a fan blowing at full force and you're not far off the concept. And contrary to some grammars, it *can* involve physical motion.


The reason for not just giving you a list of possible translations is that such a long list would suggest that it's a very convoluted preposition when it really isn't. We're just trying to get away from the English speaking point of view for a bit.

If you open your dictionary of Old Irish, you will see that the above definition squares largely with the original meaning of the word which was most commonly translated as 'against', e.g. fri fál 'against a wall'. A look into your etymological dictionary will tell you that ri is most likely connected to the Indo-European root of *vṛti meaning "to turn" and is connected to Latin versus and the English suffix -wards. Already, you're probably getting a pretty good idea of the fundamental meaning of the preposition ri. So, the number one meaning of ri is 'against', both in a physical and metaphorical way. This covers phrases like the following:

tha fàradh ris a' bhalla there is a ladder leaning against the wall
geug a' gnogadh ris an uinneag a branch knocking against the window
sheas i ris a' chàr she leaned against the car
dèan strì ri nàimhdean fight against enemies
croch ri craobh hang from a tree
air neo bidh mi riut! or else you'll get it!
tha an ite maoth ri m' aghaidh the feather is soft against my face
shuidh e r' a thaobh he sat next to him

So why is 'hang from a tree' in there? Think of it - the rope has to be attached to something to keep it from falling to the ground - and that is the tree.

This is where some grammars get into really hot water because they look at ri from the English point of view. But staying with the definition that ri is used for the "interaction between two participants in which some form of feedback or resistance is exhibited" the following are quite logical:

tha e a' dol ris a' ghaoth he is going against the wind
shnàmh i ris an t-sruth she swam upstream/against the current
bha e ris a' ghrian it was exposed to the sun
shreap sinn ris a' bhruthach we ascended/went up the slope

Incidentally, the last example forms a nice pair with leis a' bhruthach which means exactly the opposite. Notice how in English we have to use a different idiom because English looks at the world from a different angle, but in Gaelic we're still in the same meaning system. This usage of ri is old and can be seen in Old Irish words like fresngabál meaning 'ascent' (lit. 'taking against').

For the next meaning group, we are simply going to state that in Gaelic you "compare against" rather than "with". That's does not seem so strange when you think of the English idiom "to measure against!"

tha e coltach ri cù he is similar to a dog
tha seo mór an taca ris an té sin this is big in comparison with that one
tha e cho glas ri càl Obar Dheathain it is as green as grass
tha e an aon dath ri mo phlangaid it is the same colour as my blanket

That use is old and existed as far back as Old Irish.

For the next group, again, we get closer to the meaning 'against'. You can think of the following as "against, tackling", while still staying within the Gaelic definition of ri:

tha e ris an iasgach he's fishing (for a living)
bha i ri ùrnaigh she was praying
dé tha thu ris? what are you up to?
tha iad ri trod they're having a fight
bha iad ris a-rithist they were at it again

So, where exactly is the difference between bha i ag ùrnaigh and bha i ri ùrnaigh? There's not much. Some dialects even use ri instead of ag with verbal nouns to give slightly more emphasis on the action taking place than in phrases with ag.

The next group also stays quite close to home - even though it gets translated into English by the word 'with' that has a seemingly unrelated meaning, in English. Again, it's a question of your point of view. The physical realities of leaning against a wall and standing side by side with somebody are not far apart (unless you're trying to push the wall over of course ...), so in Gaelic they are close in meaning and entail the same concept:

chaidh mi ann còmhla ris I went there with him
bha iad ann maille rithe they were there alongside her
tha iad ri chéile a-nis they are together now
rinn mi deasbad riutha they're having a fight
bha iad ris a-rithist They argued with him again

The next group is even more obvious as "two participants with some form of feedback or resistance:"

thachair mi ri muc-mhara I met a whale
coinnichidh mi rithe I will meet her
tha mi a' fuireach ris I am waiting for him

If you think back to the image with the fan and compare it to this one, you'll notice an interesting convergence because the same "symbol", ri, is used in both cases to represent the action relationship which is going on:

thuirt mi ris gun a dhèanamh I told him not to do it
dh'éist mi ruibh I listened to you
eughaidh mi ris I will yell at him

and beyond...

And then there are the remainder of expressions and idioms which use ri which are best just learned, things like réidh ri Dia 'at peace with God' where you could somehow invoke the above, but only with difficulty. Here's a list of usages which are difficult to predict but thankfully not that tricky to learn:

ri + Verbal Noun » to be V-PAST

ri ithe to be eaten
ri ràdh to be said
ri dhèanamh to be done

aig + ri » have to [present/non-tense]

tha agam ri èisteachd I have to listen
tha aca ri bruidhinn they have to speak

ri + Temporal Adverb » during/in

ri linn Jingis Khan during the age of Jingis Khan
ri (a) latha in his day
ri aimsir theth in hot weather

And then there are a number of verbs which take ri for reasons best known to themselves which you just have to learn such as feitheamh ri 'waiting for' and gabh ri 'to accept'. But every language has annoying constructions which do not fit easily into the paradigm.

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