To be in Irish and Spanish

Or should that title be ‘“To be” in Irish and Spanish‘? The issue is just use versus mention, you know. (If you don’t know, check out this Wikipedia entry.)

Let’s start with Spanish, since I am guessing that most — many? — of the readers of this blog know some Spanish. I don’t. But I do know quite a bit about Spanish, mostly from linguistics courses and also from my knowledge of Latin and French and a reasonable amount of Italian. One thing that has always confused me is the distinction between “ser” and “estar,” both of which seem to mean “to be.” Several Spanish teachers have tried to explain it to me, but it never sticks, for some reason. Something about temporary versus permanent characteristics, as in “I am healthy” versus ”I am human.” But what about “I am in Boston” or “I am on earth”? Would those use different verbs? Let’s check an authoritative source: “ser refers to more permanent traits of someone or something, while estar refers to transient conditions.” So far, so good. On the other hand, they cite these confusing sentences as examples:

  1. Mi novia es muy guapa. (ser)
  2. Los exámenes están en los escritorios de los alumnos. (estar)
  3. El examen será en la biblioteca del colegio. (ser)
  4. La sopa fue cocinada por la familia Sánchez. (ser)
  5. La sopa está cocinada y lista para comer. (estar)
  6. Este churro está delicioso. (estar)
  7. La comida de este restaurante es deliciosa. (ser)

Clear as mud. Maybe some reader can give me a better explanation that accounts for all seven examples.

OK, now you’re primed to move onto Irish. Full disclosure: I know even less Irish than Spanish — a lot less, in fact. Mostly all I know is that it’s a Celtic language with difficult spelling rules. The father of one of my students in the 1970s tried to explain Irish spelling to me one day, but I left more confused than I started. (“A little knowledge…”) I refer you to a fascinating entry in the blog “The Geeky Gaeilgeoir.” Before we start, let’s look at the authentic Irish spelling of eight commonly Anglicized Irish names, and you’ll see what I mean about spelling:

  • deBuitléir = Butler
  • Ó Ceallacháin = Callahan
  • Mac Cathmhaoil = Campbell
  • Ó Conchobhair = O’Connor
  • Ó Dubhghaill = Doyle
  • Ó Raithbheartaigh = Rafferty
  • Ó Súileabhain = O’Sullivan
  • Ó Breathnach = Walsh (Would the mayor prefer the Irish spelling? It is Boston, after all.)

Anyway, what about the verb “to be”? Like Spanish, there are two different verbs corresponding to the English “to be,” so what’s the difference? The Geeky Gaeilgeoir blogger, Audrey Nickel, explains if you get them confused you will be committing a TSF error. That stands for “tá sé fear,” of course (she promises to explain it later). After those spellings of names I’m not even going to guess. Nickel starts with a description that sounds just like Spanish:

Typically, when new learners are first introduced to this concept, they are told to use is when talking about things that are permanent and tá when talking about things that are impermanent.

But then… it turns out that it’s not so simple. For instance, Nickel asked for a sentence about vegetarians, and a beginning student said this:

I guess it would be “Tá mé feoilséantóir,” because I haven’t always been a vegetarian and I might not be one forever, so it’s not a permanent state.

Sounds good to me — but what do I know? Nothing. I know nothing. This turns out to be a TSF error. Yes, tá is for temporary things, but…:

You can’t say “Tá mé feoilséantóir.” It’s a TSF error. You say “Is feoilséantóir mé.

OK, if she says so. So what’s going on? Nickel overhears someone giving a new rule:

Use is when describing something using a noun. Use  when describing something using an adjective.

But it turns out that that rule too only works sometimes. She eventually settles on a two-part rule:

  • If you want to say something ABOUT something or someone, use tá.
  • If you want to say WHAT something or someone IS, use is.

I wish I knew Irish — and Spanish — so I could judge the accuracy of this rule and how much it mirrors Spanish. It of course requires exceptions and contingencies:

You use tá say what something or someone is like: its appearance, its state or condition, its location, what it’s doing, etc. Some examples:

Tá an madadh dubh: The dog is black.

Tá an múinteoir ard dáthúil: The teacher is tall and handsome.

Tá Máire sa chistin: Maire is in the kitchen.

Tá na daoine ag rith: The people are running.

You use is to say what someone or something IS. Some examples:

Is madadh dubh é sin: That IS a black dog.

Is cócaire í Máire: Máire IS a cook.

Is é Seán an múinteoir: Seán IS the teacher.

Is iad na daoine atá ag rith: They ARE the people who are running.

(If you like grammatical terminology, these are called “identification” and “classification” sentences).

You also use the copula [is] in certain basic set phrases, mostly having to do with likes, dislikes, and preferences (there are a few others as well, but you’ll pick those up as you go along):

Is maith liom: I like

Is breá liom: I love (as in “I love New York,” not as in “I love you, my darling”)

Is fearr liom: I prefer

Is fuath liom: I hate

Is cuma liom: I don’t care

There are more of these set expressions, but these are the ones you’re most likely to encounter early on.

It’s not really all that hard at all now, is it?

Yes, it is. And then there’s Nickel’s next sentence:

Of course, this isn’t the entire story.

Sigh. Fortunately, linguistics is fun.




Categories: Linguistics