Irish Bingo Lingo

This week I had my third lunchtime Irish language class during which, among a few other things, we learned about numbers (just 1-10 so far). After some practice in pronunciation, we then had some practice in comprehension by playing Bingo in Irish. Out of interest I’ve put up the Irish numbers along with their counterparts in Welsh for reasons which will become clear:

The first thing to note is the presence of the particle “a” in front of the number in Irish. This is a consequence of something I didn’t know about before taking this course. In Irish there are different ways of using numbers depending on whether you’re using them just as numbers (in which case you put the “a” in front) or if you’re using them to denote a quantity of things or people (in which cases you don’t put the “a” in front but have to use a particular grammatical construction involving the thing being counted). Numbers in Irish are not used simply as adjectives, as in for example English. That’s not how it works in any other language I know. So far we haven’t been taught about these other counting systems so I can’t say any more.

The second thing concerns the similarity of these numbers to those in many other European languages, which is not surprising since they share an Indo-European origin. Integers are such basic things that they are embedded at a very deep level in languages. The Irish numbers resemble those in French particularly strongly. This may be a consequence of modern Irish being influenced by Norman French or may just be evidence of the common root.

Notice the comparison with Welsh, however, which gives very clear evidence of the ancient mutation that led to the distinct language branches of p-Celtic and q-Celtic. Look at the number 4. In Irish, this is a ceathair (which is pronounced “a ka-hir”; the t is weakened by the following h) which resembles the French quatre. There is no q in the standard Irish alphabet but the sound is similar. In Welsh we have pedwar which, apart from the initial letter being a “p”, is structurally similar to the Irish version. A similar change in initial consonant happens with the number five.

Anyway I’m enjoying learning Irish. It’s a very interesting challenge. In the rest of the class we learned how to answer questions like What is your name (Cad is ainm duit?) followed by an exercise in giving names to celebrities shown in photographs. I firmly established my status as the Old Fogey of the class in this part, by being unable to identify a person called Shakira who, I’m told, is a popular vocal artiste of some sort.

12 Responses to “Irish Bingo Lingo”

  1. Dipak Munshi Says:

    In Hindi or Bengali they are:
    Ek, Do, Tin, Char, Panch, Chai, Saat, Aast, Nau, Das.
    In all North Indian languages (as well as in other branches of Indo-Europian language family) they are very similar.

  2. In English (and in other languages), you can, for example, write some numbers on the blackboard and ask where the five is, referring to the numeral itself rather than using it as an adjective.

    Note that the Greek-derived prefix for 5 is pent but Latin is quint, also a p/q split.

    The word for 4 starts with something like q in many languages, but with something like 5 in Germanic languages, another split.

    My guess is that the similarity of Irish and French reflects common Indo-European heritage, as the numbers are similar in all Indo-European languages I know, including not just Romance and Germanic but also Slavic.

    • telescoper Says:

      My point is that’s not what happens in Irish. If you want to specificy the number three you say “a trí” if you want to say, e.g., three boats you don’t just stick a “trí” in front of the plural word for boats. In fact you say “trí bhád” which involves using the singular word for boat “bád” but mutating the initial consonant to indicate its grammatical position. It’s a bit like “three of boat”. The number is not simply used as an adjective in such a case.

      • OK. Irish is a language I gave up on after the first two pages, and that was 40 years ago, so I don‘t completely follow you. Certainly in German there are contexts where one would use the article with a number where one wouldn‘t in English.

        Of course, when to use articles is a more general topic. In English, professions have an indefinite article—I’m a scientist—whereas in German they don’t—-ich bin Wissenschaftler. On the other hand, abstract nouns don’t in English—-should one fear death?—-whereas they do in German—-sollte man Angst for dem Tode haben?

        The above is related to the famous Kennedy quote: Ich bin ein Berliner. Normally one leaves out the article when the word refers to an inhabitant: ich bin Hamburger, ich bin Frankfurter, ich bin Wiener, ich bin Würzburger, ich bin Stuttgarter, ich bin Kieler, etc. Yes, a Berliner is something similar to a donut, but that word is not used in Berlin itself for that. Also, in the context in which he said it, when it was clear that he didn’t mean it literally but it was an act of solidarity, even a native speaker of German would probably have used the article in such a case.

      • telescoper Says:

        The particle “a” is not an article: “a haon” does not mean “the one”. A particle is basically a word that doesn’t fit into the most common categories of words. The same particle is used in Irish to introduce the vocative case where it is identical to the archaic English form “O” found in old verses.

      • I must mind my p‘s (and q‘s).

    • telescoper Says:

      It seems to me that the English “four” and German “vier” and equivalents in other Germanic languages are a bit anomalous in this context.

  3. Darach Watson Says:

    Perhaps you can take over some of the Raidió na Gaeltachta interviews for me soon, a Pheadair a chroí!

  4. The number system (in full detail) is probably one of the more complex areas of the language, as all the dialects diverged in various ways retaining different elements of the Classical grammar.

    If you find it interesting the “a” is the same as the feminine possessive. So “a trí” originally meant “her three”. That’s not how it would be intuitively understand by a native speaker today, but it’s the idiom it grew out of in the early Medieval period.

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