(taken by T. F. O’Rahilly from a pamphlet by Canon O’Leary entitled Is agus Tá. A mBrígh. A nDeifrígheacht, published in Cork in 1895.)

The difference in meaning between these two little words seems to have puzzled all our Irish grammarians. At page 165 of O’Donovan’s Irish Grammar there occurs the following sentence:—“It may be curious to remark that although in the application of these two verbs a strict attention to logical distinctions must be observed still the native Irish speaker never finds any difficulty in applying them correctly.”

This fact is really more than a mere curiosity. It is even stronger than the words of O’Donovan give it. Not only is it true that “the native Irish speaker never finds any difficulty in applying them correctly,” but, moreoever, that he could not misapply them if he were to try. If he were to use is where should be used, or vice versa, his language would cease to have any meaning for himself. Hence there is no danger of his expecting that it could have any meaning for others. It is physically impossible for the Irish mind to use is, or any part of it, where , or any part of it, should be used. Hence it is not a question of logic for the Irish mind.

Hence the two words must be fundamentally different. They must be so different in their nature that, although no Irish rule was ever formed or written to regulate their use, still no Irish mind, educated or uneducated, has ever used the one where the other should have been used. This is true of the most obscure disguises which the words can assume, and of the most varied changes to which they have been subjected by the lapse of ages. The oldest Irish MS. observes the distinction exactly as it is now observed by the most ignorant Irish peasant.

This fundamental, or natural, difference must, of course, consist in the fact that is is able to do things which is not able to do, and that is able to do things which is is not able to do. Each has its own exclusive function.

What are those two functions?

They are as distinct to the Irish mind as the functions of the hammer and tongs are to the mind of the smith. In English those two functions have always been discharged by one instrument, viz., the verb “to be.” The first step therefore, for an English mind, is to find out when it is that the verb “to be” is equivalent to is, and when to .

When the verb ‘to be’ predicates a substantive of a substantive, it discharges the function of is, e.g. :—

Is adhmad clár. A board is wood.
Is ainmhí bó. A cow is an animal.
Is uisce fearthainn. Rain is water.
Is cnámh é sin. That thing is a bone.

It is impossible for to discharge this function. It would be physically impossible for an Irish mind to put it to that use.

When the verb ‘to be’ ascribes a quality or a mode or manner, or place of existence, to a substantive, it discharges the function of , e.g. :—

Tá adhmad bog. Wood is soft.
Tá iarann cruaidh. Iron is hard.
Tá an t-uisce ag rith. The water is running.
Tá Tadhg i gCorcaigh. Thade is in Cork.

It would be physically impossible for an Irish mind to substitute is for in any of these sentences. The result of such substitution, in either case, would not be merely ungrammatical, it would be chaos. The words of the sentence would cease to have any connection with each other.

When a mode of existence is predicated of a mode of existence, is must be used and cannot, e.g.

Is ag rith atá an t-uisce. It is running the water is (=the state in which the water is is a running state).
Is ’na chodladh atá Tadhg. It is asleep Thade is (=the state in which Thade is is his state of sleep).

The following principles, therefore, hold good:—

  1. The function of is is to predicate a substantive of a substantive, or a mode of a mode.
  2. The function of is to ascribe a mode to a substantive.

Besides the difference of function there is a difference of order. O’Donovan states that the difference between is and lies in the fact that is is the copula of logicians. This is not a difference. is as much the copula of logicians as is. Is adhmad clárIs (copula), adhmad (predicate), clár (subject). Tá adhmad bog(copula), adhmad (subject), bog (predicate). The difference of order is, that with is the subject is last; with it is first. An is-sentence may be turned into a -sentence by making the predicate a mode, and reversing the order. Thus, Is fear Tadhg and Tá Tadhg in’ fhear.

A little reflection will convince any one of the fact that the Irish language possesses in those two verbs a source of strength and of accuracy of expression to which modern European languages must be complete strangers. Take a few examples:—

Is fear é=he is a man (not a different being).
Tá sé in’ fhear=he is a man (he has become a man).
Fear is ea é=he is a man (‘man’ emphatic).
Fear atá ann=he is a man (the person you see is a man).

Here we have in Irish four different sentences with, of course, four different meanings. There is in English only one sentence to represent the four. In English the difference of meaning must be gathered from the context, or from the intonation. In Irish the different meanings are thoroughly defined, and there is no room for ambiguity. Those two words, is and , pervade the whole language and get mixed up in the closest mutual relations without the possibility of being confounded. They supply at every turn ample means of accurately expressing the most refined distinctions of meaning.

(The loss of such a language is awful to contemplate. Every young Irishman who has a spark of national feeling should make himself master of it at once. It is only necessary that he should devote to it the time and attention which he would otherwise throw away. Surely, mastering the beauties of his native language is as pleasant a recreation as any Irishman can take.)

Suppose a person whose mind is foreign to Irish idiom wishes to put into Irish a sentence in which the verb ‘to be’ occurs, how is he to proceed? Either the verb ‘to be’ occurs only once in the sentence, or it occurs more than once. If it occurs only once, it connects two substantives, or two modes, or a substantive and a mode.

(a) If it connects two substantives it will be in such a sentence as this, “Dermot is a man.” In all such sentences is must be used, and the predicate comes first; thus, Is fear Diarmaid.

(b) If it connects two modes it will be in such a sentence as this, “It is asleep I find him,” i.e., “The mode in which I find him is asleep.” In all such sentences is must be used, and the mode which is the predicate must come first. Is ’na chodladh do gheibhim é.

(c) If it connects a substantive and a mode it will be in such a sentence as this, “The day is fine.” In all such sentences must be used, and the subject must come first. Tá an lá breá.

(By “first,” of course, is meant first after is or , since either of them must begin the sentence.)

If the verb ‘to be’ occurs more than once in a sentence, it will be in some such sentence as this, “It is asleep he is.” This is a form of (b). It is the verb ‘to be’ connecting two modes. In all such sentences the method laid down in (b) must be adopted. Is must be used as the principal verb. The mode which is the predicate must come next to is, and the mode which is the subject must come last. Is (copula) ’na chodladh (predicate) atá sé (subject). The second verb ‘to be’ is merely a portion of the subject of the sentence, and the question whether is or is to be used in it depends upon whether it comes itself under (a), (b), or (c). In the present instance it comes under (c). A is a relative pronoun, and its antecedent is ’na chodladh, which is a mode. Hence in the phrase atá sé the verb ‘to be’ joins the mode a with the person ; therefore must be used.

As a general rule the English sentences which have two verbs ‘to be’ can be put into this shape: “It is asleep he is.” The the first verb ‘to be’ is is, and the second is . Of course two verbs ‘to be’ connected by a conjunction cannot be looked upon as in the same sentence. For example, the words, “He is strong, and he is good,” constitute two distinct sentences. There are two judgments pronounced. Whereas in the words, “It is strong he is,” there are two verbs ‘to be,’ and there is only one judgment pronounced: Is láidir atá sé.

Sometimes the second verb ‘to be,’ as well as the first is is. In fact, it must be is if it happens to connect two substantives, e.g. :—

Is dall is giolla againn.
“It is a blind man that is a guide to us.”

In this English sentence the relative ‘that’ is joined by ‘is’ to the substantive ‘guide.’ But ‘that’ is a relative representing the substantive ‘blind man.’ ‘It’ also represents a substantive, viz., ‘the person who is a guide to us.’ Hence each of those verbs ‘to be’ is a link between two substantives. Hence for each of them is must be used, as above.

If the word giolla be changed into a mode, the second verb ‘to be’ will connect a substantive and a mode, and then it must be rendered in Irish by :—

Is dall atá ’na ghiolla againn.
“It is a blind man that we have as guide.”

Most English sentences in which the verb ‘to be’ occurs can, according to the choice of the speaker, be cast in the form (a) or in the form (b) or the form (c). But when the sentence is cast, the form must be rigidly observed, both in substance and in order. Thus:—

“Donald is a king”=is rí Dónall. (a)
” ” =is ’na rí atá Dónall. (b)
” ” =tá Dónall ’na rí. (c)

There is at least one instance where the speaker has not this choice. That is when the subject and the predicate are the same individual. Thus:—

“I am a priest”=is sagart me. (a)
” ” =is im shagart atáim. (b)
” ” =táim im shagart. (c)

“I am the priest”=is me an sagart. (a)

This form cannot be changed to (b) nor to (c). A person may say, Is me atá im shagart anso, but then the second member of the sentences loses its individual character.

To a mind which is not Irish it must seem incredible that distinctions so subtle should have been observed with such accuracy throughout the history of the language, in spite of powerful disorganising forces. To an Irish mind the matter never presents itself in the shape of a difficulty, because at the present moment no Irish mind could possibly avoid observing even the most subtle of those distinctions. Hence an Irish mind cannot see how any person should ever have failed to observe them.

The fact is, the difference between is and is not an arbitrary distinction. It is a distinction founded on the nature of things. The functions of the two words can no more get confounded in the Irish mind than the functions of air and water can get confounded in the operations of nature.

What, then, is the cause which prevents the Irish mind from ever using is where should be used?

Because to do so would be to state, not that a certain quality belongs to a certain thing, but that the quality actually is the thing, and it is impossible for a rational being to state that.

What is the cause which prevents the Irish mind from ever using where is should be used?

Because to do so would be, as far as it could state anything, not that a certain substance is the same as a certain other substance, but that it adheres to that other substance as its mode or quality, a sort of idea which no rational mind can form.

Hence, in both instances, the result would be the cessation of all sense.

How is it that in other languages people have been able to get along with only one verb ‘to be’?

In other languages the one verb ‘to be’ has the two meanings. Where the meaning of is alone is possible the verb ‘to be’ has that meaning, and there is no danger of its having the other, because the other would then be absurd. When the meaning of alone is possible the verb ‘to be’ has that meaning, because the other would be absurd. But when it becomes necessary to distinguish the two meanings by means of the two verbs, then other languages are in a bad way. Take the following:—

Sid é an ní atá, sin é an ní ná fuil, agus siúd é an ní a bheidh.
“This is the thing that is, that is the thing that is not, and that (other) is the thing that will be.”

I think it is hardly possible for a person to understand this piece of English unless he understands the Irish first. Then the meaning will be very plain.

Although in English the verb ‘to be’ is capable of discharging the two functions, viz., that of predicating a substantive of a substantive, and also that of predicating a mode of a substantive, still it has been found necessary, when the mode of one substantive is to be predicated of another, to make an arrangement which will have the effect of restricting the predication of the mode. Thus we have “The house is in ashes,” instead of “The house is ashes.” “The glass is in bits.” “Those things are in a heap.” “The clay is in hard lumps.” “The sea is in mountains.” This is, in reality, an Irish idiom, but somewhat damaged. In the original Irish shape there occurs a certain possessive pronoun, whose effect in the way of accuracy of expression is simply magnificent. Here are the full Irish forms:—

“The house is in its ashes.” Tá an tigh ’na luaithreach.
“The glass is in its bits.” Tá an ghluine ’na brúscar.
“Those things are in their heap.” Táid sin ’na gcárnán.
“The clay is in its hard lumps.” Tá an chré ’na chnapógaibh crua.
“The sea is in its mountains.” Tá an fharraige ’na cnucaibh.

Even in English there are few sentences where this possessive pronoun has kept its ground, e.g., “The men are coming in their thousands,” “The man is in his cups,” etc.

The idiom is universal in Irish. By means of it the modes or qualities of one substantive can be predicated of another in a construction in which the predication of the substantive itself need not be feared, because it is impossible.

If I say in English, “Thade is a man,” no person can tell whether I wish to predicate the substantive ‘man’ of the substantive ‘Thade,’ or whether, to the exclusion of the substantive as such, I wish to predicate merely its modes or characteristics. If I think and speak in Irish I can at once make my meaning plain. If I wish to predicate the substantive as such, I say, Is fear Tadhg. If I wish to predicate exclusively the characteristics, as such, I say, Tá Tadhg in’ fhear. “What a metaphysical distinction!” some one will say. Call it by whatever name you like, all I can say is that from my earliest childhood I have found it utterly impossible to use one of those two phrases when I meant the other, and that the difference of meaning has always been for me exactly what I have explained above.

Some learners have looked upon this idiom as a blot, because the literal translation of it into English is, “Thade is in his man.” Let such persons console themselves with the fact that those words, “Thade is in his man,” do not convey to an English mind the faintest shadow of the sense which the words Tá Tadhg in’ fhear convey to an Irish mind. Hence, if the words were absurd and ridiculous, that is a matter with which the English language, not the Irish, is concerned.

As a rule those idioms which constitute the very gems of one language are proportionately hideous when put word for word into another. This is true of English and Irish to a greater extent than of most other languages. And even as regards those two languages themselves, a word for word translation of an English idiom into irish is worse than a word for word translation of an Irish idiom into English, as a rule. Take even the very idiom of which we are speaking, —“Thade is in his man” is bad enough, but Tá Tadhg fear is worse. The English words mean something. They can at least be parsed. The Irish words cannot. They express no sense whatever. They stand apart. They certainly convey three ideas, but the three ideas are utterly disconnected. Here, at least, the Irish language disdains to work at all in an English shape.


About dj1969

at the conservative end of the libertarian spectrum
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  1. Daithi says:

    Ana shuimuil! Go raibh maith agat.

  2. Samuel Lickiss says:

    Really helpful blog, thank you! Cleared a few things up! Go raibh maith agat!

  3. Mike Kerry says:

    This is the most helpful blog I’ve read so far in helping me understand the difference. I have a couple of comments/questions:
    (1) defines 3 types of predicate. I’d like to know if the copula is a ‘verb’ in that context. If it is, then quoting from your blog,”—Is (copula), adhmad (predicate), clár (subject)”, should not ‘predicate’ here really read ‘object’? This seems to me to be important when taking into consideration Irish words (e,g, “sé = is + é”), which contain an implied copula, so as to understand the structure, if not the meaning.
    I take your point about imperfect literal translation, and how one cannot expect an idiom to have its translatable counterpart in another language. However, when an Irish speaker says “Tá Tadhg in’ fhear” (and he does not mean “Thade is in his man”) what does he mean? The blog left me with the impression that there is no way to explain that. I hope that someone somewhere has been successful in the conveying a closer sense of what the meaning actually is.
    Go raibh míle maith agat!

    • djwebb2010 says:

      In “is adhmad clár” adhmad is not an object, because the verb to be is not “transitive”. It doesn’t convey the sense of an action performed on an object (as in “he knocked the door”), but merely links and identifies two nouns. The Irish for predicate, faisnéis, just means “information” – it is the information that tells you what something is.

      Tá Tadhg in’ fhear is not the same as “is fear Tadhg”. The latter classifies Tadhg (Tadhg is a man, that’s what he is). Tá Tadhg in’ fhear rather describes a state that Tadhg is in – he has become a man now.

      The more temporary a state is the more likely that “tá” and not “is” will be employed. So you read: nuair a bhí im gharsún (when i was a boy, temporary state).

      • Mike Kerry says:

        Perfect. I suspected that it wasn’t as obtuse as the article seemed to imply. It’s easy to accept “When I was in my boyhood” as a close-to-literal and meaningful translation. GRMMA.

      • djwebb2010 says:

        It doesn’t mean “when I was in my boyhood”. Garsún doesn’t mean boyhood; it means “boy”.

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