Should Vocatives Decline?

Whether vocatives should decline or not is a constantly raised question. It seems most vocatives don’t decline, as “metaphorical” nouns do not take a morphological vocative. Let’s look at vocatives under a number of categories.

1. Collective nouns do not take the vocative.

This is clear from PUL’s letter to Gearóid Ó Nualláin about the occasion when he was confirmed at 13 and three congregations joined together for the ceremony, with the priest addressing them as a phobail!

PUL explained his confusion. Why was the priest saying, a phobail? You can only say a phobal! in Irish, as collective nouns do not take a vocative. This is logical as only a person or persons should ever take the vocative, and collective nouns do not have the same sense of personhood about the people being addressed. PUL assumed on that occasion that maybe because three congregations were together on one occasion, the priest was using the plural. However, Ó Nualláin pointed out this would still be wrong: pobail is nominative plural, not vocative plural, and the vocative corresponding to ‘ye congregations!’ is a phobla! /ə fobələ/. PUL also wrote in a letter to Pádraig Breathnach that the Irish speakers he knew would interpret a phobail! as some kind of name of a person or thing, as it couldn’t be a collective noun.

2. Inanimate objects do not take the vocative.

For example, in Sliabh na mBan bhFionn, we find a thromán! where the weight in a spindle is being called out to. The notes to this at the back of Ag Séideadh agus ag Ithe, which includes Sliabh na mBan bhFionn, indicate that inanimate nouns cannot be declined for the vocative case. However, note that where inanimate objects are addressed in terms that can apply to humans, you would decline the vocative. E.g. if you referred to the spindle weight as a mhic ó! Also names of inanimate things that are personified take the vocative, e.g. a bháis!

3. Usage in addressing animals.

T. F. O’Rahilly showed in an article in Ériu that usage was varied when addressing animals. E.g. PUL had a éan uasal! in his Aesop a Tháinig go hÉirinn, but also a mhada ruaidh!, with the adjective showing the latter was a declined vocative. Also, animals addressed in terms that could apply to humans, e.g. a mhic ó!, would receive declension in the vocative.

4. Metaphorical use of nouns referring to people.

The key problem is therefore metaphorical nouns referring to people. Standardized grammars state these cannot be declined, and it seems the earliest statement of this as a rule is T. F. O’Rahilly’s article, “The Vocative in Modern Irish”, in Ériu, volume 9 (1921-23), p85ff. He shows non-declension of 1st declension nouns in the vocative was common even in bardic verse, e.g. a bhéal cumhra, and so the failure to decline the metaphorical vocative of 1st declension nouns (the only declension that has the vocative singular) is of long standing. He quotes some examples of older poems where there was no decline vocative, but when Pádraig Ua Duinnín edited them, he put the vocative in (changing a stór to a stóir, for example). Clearly Ua Duinnín felt the non-use of the vocative was wrong, and yet by the same token, such usage goes back centuries.

So Ua Duinnín’s assertion in his dictionary that both a stór and a stóir were found in the vocative of that metaphorical noun needs to be seen in the light of this. Possibly he felt that was correct, but he had evidence of historical usage showing the contrary was normal. O’Rahilly also quotes PUL’s statement to Pádraig Breathnach that a stór! is the only correct vocative of that noun. PUL clearly did not believe that metaphorical vocatives declined.

O’Rahilly’s article therefore runs counter to the explanation given by Gearóid Ó Nualláin in his Studies in Modern Irish, Part 1. Ó Nualláin was a great scholar, and the first headmaster of the Munster training school in Ballingeary, but O’Rahilly was a great scholar too and so the issue needs to be examined on its merits.

In this regard, Gearóid Ó Nualláin’s comments in his Studies in Modern Irish Part 1, 219, are interesting. He puts forth the view here that the sex of the person affected the vocative declension. As it is first-declension nouns—masculine—that decline for the vocative, where these are used to refer to females, the tendency, or so he says, is for the vocative not to be declined. He gives an example of a shólás na ndobrónach!, referring to the Virgin Mary in the Litany in An Teagasg Críostaidhe. This is “sense construction”, he says, because she is feminine, and so a vocative a shóláis is not used. Another example given is a rún! referring to a woman, and not a rúin! Yet PUL told Pádraig Breathnach quite specifically that a stór! and a chumann! were the only correct forms, whether referring to a man or a woman. This seemed an ingenious argument by Ó Nualláin, but not ultimately the correct one.

Another argument put forward by Ó Nualláin is that where the vocative is part of a larger noun phrase, like a shólás na ndobrónach!, you could also parse this as the “Bracketed Construction”, where noun phrases lose their declension (just like hata fhear an tí, where fear an tí is taken as a phrase and the genitive drops out; GÓN shows that the Bracketed Construction is optional in the genitive, as is proved by PUL’s works, and hata fir an tí is also correct). However, PUL’s statement that a stór! is correct would mean it is not necessary to explain non-use of the vocative by the Bracketed Construction.

Looking at the Litany of Jesus in PUL’s An Teagasg Críostaidhe, we find these vocatives:

A Íosa, a Shaibhreas na bhfíoraon!

A Íosa, a Fhíorsholas!

A Íosa, a Sholas na gconfesóirí!

Correctly, therefore, PUL does not decline the metaphorical vocative. Interestingly, Shán Ó Cuív’s transcription in Leitiriú Símplí (LS) inserts the vocative in the first of these (as if from a shaibhris na bhfíoraon!), but he does so incorrectly.  Similarly, in the second example, a fhíorsholas! he transcribes as if from a fhíorsholais! This is also incorrect. Finally, the LS version correctly allowed the original to stand in its transcription of the third of these vocatives. It is possible he was influenced by Ó Nualláin’s views in his approach to these transcriptions.

In the Litany of the Blessed Virgin Mary, we find these vocatives:

A Scáthán an chirt!

A Shoitheach Sprideálta!

A Rós dhiamhair!

A Thúr Dáibhid!

A Árc na Connartha!

A Shólás na ndobrónach!

Some of these are phrase nouns, and all of them refer to a female, and this may be why in none of these cases did the LS edition try to reinsert the vocative, but it would have been incorrect to try to do so anyway.

While I am a fan of Ó Nualláin’s, I am forced to acccept that he came up with an ad hoc explanation to explain the lack of vocatives that he saw .

There are also some counter examples to deal with: PUL wrote a ghrá dhil in his Aithris ar Chríost. I am wondering if this  is equal to a ghrá ghil, but in any case the vocative of the adjective is declined.

5. Non-metaphorical vocatives of persons.

These should be decline in the 1st declension, but counterexamples can be found, e.g. a Árdaingeal in Soisgéal as Leabhar an Aifrinn, and a leanbh in Táin Bó Cuailnge. There is also a tendency for feminine nouns and adjectives to decline in the vocative under analogy with the 1st declension. Examples from PUL include a óinsigh!, a chailligh ruainnigh and a thoice bhig in Séadna; a chábóig gan chiall in An Bealach Buidhe; a chuil bhig in Bricriú; a spioraid shailigh, referring to the Devil in Soísgéal Naomhtha do réir Mharcuis (spioraid is only masculine in the phrase An Sprid Naomh); and a chroich shúigh “sooty old potrack” in An Craos-Deamhan.

Clearly, vocatives are hard to find in common use, as generally speaking there are only a few common ones, eg a fheara! (or a fhearaibh!). And where a vocative is called for, the nominative may be found therefore, as some researchers have claimed (see Gaeilge Chorca Dhuibhne) that few vocatives survive in Munster Irish.

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