Saying Who and What
Sentences that might seem simple in many languages can be devilishly difficult in Irish, because of the intricacies of the copula. I have for years been trying to nail down how to say “who are we?” and “what are we?”
I saw in Séadna chapter 2, this sentence: d’airigheas-sa duine ‘ghá rádh gurab iad rudaí na síobhraí, ‘ná aingil an uabhair agus na deamhain aeir. My translation is: “I heard someone saying that the elves are the fallen angels and the demons of the air”. This set me wondering why iad rudaí is used in the middle there.
One clue is given in Peadar Ua Laoghaire’s translation of the Imitatio Christi, book 1, chapter 13: taisbeánann an cath cad é an saghas sinn, or “temptation shows us what we are”. One notices immediately that, despite the fact that sinn is a plural subject of the copula too, the predicate is an saghas and not na saighseanna or some such thing. An rud or an saghas means “the class of things to which something belongs”. The definite article is omitted in iad rudaí above, because the noun rudaí is later defined by ná. Otherwise, the article needs to be in there. The modern grammar books for Irish are all pamphlet-sized, and don’t give a proper coverage of Irish grammar. You have to look in older books to find more detailed things. In Gnás na Gaedhilge by Cormac Ó Cadhlaigh, published in 1940, deletion of the article in copular sentences where a subsequent qualifying clause adds more detail is discussed. Examples on pages 194 and 195 include b’í céad bhean í a tháinig chun an doruis and siní aithne a bhí acu air. Gurb iad rudaí na síobhraí ná XYZ is analogous.
My conclusion is that it depends on how many things are in the predicate of the copula. In gurab iad rudai na siobhraí, the elves were being equated with TWO classes of things: the fallen angels and the demons of the air. Whereas in cad é an saghas sinn, “we” is being equated with a singular predicate: what we are, that thing (singular) that we are.
Presumably, if the elves were just the fallen angels, and not the demons of the air, the sentence in Séadna would have been d’airigheas-sa duine ‘ghá rádh gurab é rud na síobhraí, ‘ná aingil an uabhair. In fact, examples of multiple nouns in the predicate of such sentences are rare, and so the sentence in Séadna is quite a good find.
This means that “what are we?” would be cad é an rud sinne? in nearly all normal circumstances. Can you imagine a picture of two robins in a children’s book? Cad é an rud sinne? Of course, the answer could be spideóga is ea sibh, but I specifically want to work out the usage with rud, and it seems to be is é rud sibhse ná spideóga. What about a picture of cats and dogs? What (things, plural) are we? Cad iad na rudaí sinne? Is iad rudaí sibhse ná cait agus madraí.
The following forms would seem to be correct:
What am I? = cad é an rud mise?
What are you? = cad é an rud thusa?
What is he? = cad é an rud é siúd?
What are we? = cad é an rud sinne?
What are you plural? = cad é an rud sibhse?
What are they? = cad é an rud iad súd?
What is this? needs to be cad é an rud é seo? rather than cad é seo?, at least according to Gerald Nolan’s Introduction to Studies in Modern Irish. Scanning PUL’s works, it is clear that cad é seo? is only used where there is a further clause, e.g., cad é seo atá uait?, and not in general questions about what something is.
These would become cad iad na rudaí…? in the very rare circumstance that it was being implied that that there would be multiple categories in the predicate. Cad é an rud sinne? What are we? Cad iad na rudaí sinne? What various things are we?
Saying “who are we?” can also present problems. Diarmuid Ó Sé’s Gaeilge Chorca Dhuibhne specifically discusses this on page 371, and accepts cé hiad sibhse? as correct but adds that it is not normal to put the hiad in with sinne, preferring cé sinne? to cé hiad sinne?, but this is probably because real examples are lacking, and there is less of a native-speaker sense when it comes to a rare sentence. The Irish version of the Christian Brothers Grammar, accepts the forms cé hiad sinne.
The following are correct:
Who am I? Cé hé mise?
Who are you? Cé hé thusa?
Who is he? Cé hé siúd?
Who are we? Cé hiad sinne?
Who are you plural? Cé hiad sibhse?
Who are they? Cé hiad súd?
Who is this? Cé hé seo?