A Chara

Having spent a great deal of time recently writing reference letters I thought about how at least to start a letter in the Irish language (though I’m nowhere near fluent enough to continue).

It turns out the correct formal way to begin a letter in Irish to someone you don’t know is “A chara” which means literally “O friend” to be compared with the opening you might write in English “Dear Sir/Madam”. The plural version is A chairde.

The Irish form is interesting for a number of reasons. For one thing it is ungendered so there’s no need for the clumsy “Sir/Madam”. For another it presupposes that the person you are writing to is a friend, which is far less frosty than the English alternative.

The Irish word cara is related to many similar words in other European languages, especially the Italian caro and the French cher and like them can be used as an adjective meaning “dear”. If you want to address a letter to someone you know you can write, for example, A Phádraig, a chara which would mean “Dear Patrick”.

A chara is also interesting from a grammatical point of view because the nominative case of the word for friend is cara but in the vocative case (introduced by the particle “a”) it is modified in a manner called a séimhiú which involves lenition of the initial consonant, hence a chara. The plural form of cara is cairde, which also attracts a séimhiú in the same way as the singular form, becoming chairde. In older forms of written Irish this would have been denoted by a dot over the consonant, but in modern script the modification is indicated by inserting an h.

One of the pronunciational things I struggled with when I was attempting to learn Irish last year was the difference between the c in cara and the ch in chara. The c in Irish is usually pronounced like a k in English but in its weakened form ch it only changes slightly: it’s not like the c in census nor the ch in cheese.

If you try saying the letter k out loud as a child would – “kuh” – you will find it involves contact between your tongue and the roof of your mouth. Move the point of contact back to the rear of your mouth and it becomes deeper and thicker; move it towards your front teeth and it becomes narrower and slightly higher in pitch. That’s the difference between the broad and narrow “c”. It’s very hard to spot in spoken Irish, particularly for a beginner!

There is a vocative case in other European languages ancient and modern, e.g. Latin, but that involves changes at the end of a noun rather than the beginning. The particle “a” which introduces it in Irish plays the same role as “o” in archaic and/or poetic English usage but is part of everyday usage in Irish. It is not a preposition because it doesn’t have any particular meaning other than to introduce the vocative case.

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