Prepositional Possessive Constructions in Irish

Excerpts from “Prepositional Possessive Constructions in Celtic Languages and Celtic Englishes”, 2007, by Piotr Stalmaszczyk (University of Łódź)

1. Introduction

One of the often noted characteristic features of the Celtic languages is the absence of a singular verbal form with the meaning ‘to have’. The principal way of expressing possession is through periphrastic constructions with prepositions (such as Irish ag, Scottish Gaelic aig ‘at’; Welsh gan, Breton gant ‘at, with’) and appropriate forms of the substantive verb. Pronominal prepositions, another distinctive feature of the Celtic languages, consist of a preposition and a suffixed pronoun, or rather a pronominal personal ending. This construction may be analyzed as an instance of category fusion. Thus, the Irish and Welsh equivalents of English ‘I have money’ are Tá airgead agam or Mae arian gen i, respectively, both literally meaning ‘is money at-me/with-me’. ...

[2.] Origin of Celtic Conjugated Prepositions

... A close study of Celtic grammars reveals that the conjugation of the preposition is very similar to that of the verb and has been influenced by verbal forms. Stifter has recently noted that the very “term ‘conjugation’ is in fact not absolutely appropriate, as the ‘endings’ of the conjugated prepositions have nothing in common with the inflectional endings of the verbs”. On the other hand, if conjugation is taken in its etymological sense of ‘joining together’, the term seems to be most appropriate indeed.

The paradigmatic behaviour of pronominal prepositions is illustrated below, in tables 1 and 2. Table 1 presents the preposition frequently occurring in constructions expressing possession with the meaning ‘at, with, by, of, from’ (henceforth AT). Table 2 presents, for comparative purposes, the conjugation of the preposition ‘on, near, at’ (henceforth ON). It is always difficult to provide exact singular translations of prepositions. Ó Dónaill’s dictionary (1977) gives numerous examples of usage of Ir. ag, but translates it only as ‘at’ and ‘for’. Similarly with ar, translated as ‘on’, ‘in’, ‘at’.

The Goidelic forms of AT derive from OIr. oc ‘at; with’. The Goidelic variants of ON derive from the conflated forms of OIr. prepositions for ‘on’ and ar ‘for, on account of’.

Celtic prepositions not only display a multitude of meanings, they also frequently appear in metaphorical and idiomatic expressions, and one of their characteristic usages is in possessive constructions (discussed in section 5). It may be claimed that Celtic prepositions convey meanings which in other languages are expressed by other categories (verbs, adjectives, adverbs). It has been observed already by A. G. van Hamel (“On Anglo-Irish Syntax,” 1912) that: “in Irish syntax prepositions take a much more prominent place than in that of any other language”. Furthermore, the influence of Celtic prepositions has been attested in Celtic Englishes.

Tables 1 and 2: Irish prepositions
ag (AT)ar (ON)
1 sg.agamorm
2 sg.agatort
3 sg. m.aigeair
3 sg. f.aiciuirthi
1 pl.againnarainn
2 pl.agaibhoraibh
3 pl.acuorthu

3. Preposition ON

This section provides selected examples of various phrases and constructions with the preposition ON in Irish. The examples come from the grammars and dictionaries listed in the references (which provide numerous other examples together with various classifications), only in some more complicated, archaic or regional variants the exact sources are identified below.

Irish ar

ar bhád  ‘in the boat’
ar chrann  ‘on a tree’
ar an mbord  ‘on the table’
ar neamh  ‘in heaven’
ar maidin  ‘in the morning’
ar a seacht a chlog  ‘at seven o’clock’
ar tosach  ‘at front’
ar clé  ‘on the left’
ar díol  ‘for sale’

Chuir mé orm mo chóta  ‘I put my coat on’ (put I on-me my coat).
Shocraigh sé ar imeacht  ‘he decided to go off’.

Irish ar frequently co-occurs with abstract nouns referring to emotions, feelings and sensations. For simplicity, the Irish examples below are restricted to the third person singular only and may be literally translated as ‘is x on-me’, where ‘x’ is the name of the relevant state, feeling or sensation:

Tá áthas orm  ‘I am happy’
Tá amhras orm  ‘I suspect’
Tá codladh orm  ‘I am sleepy’
Tá eagla orm  ‘I am afraid’
Tá náire orm  ‘I am ashamed’
Tá tart orm  ‘I am thirsty’
Tá slaghdán orm  ‘I have a cold’

Some of the above examples refer to unpleasant feelings, ailments and negative states. ...

4. Preposition AT

The Celtic preposition AT is equally versatile and occurs in numerous phrases and idioms, some more typical examples are provided below:

Irish ag

ag an teach / ag baile  ‘in the house’ / ‘at home, at a town’
ag an tine  ‘at the fire’
ag barr an staighre  ‘at the top of the stairs’
Tá sé ag an doras  ‘he is at the door’
ag an Aifreann  ‘at the Mass’

Tá mo chroí briste aici.
‘She has broken my heart’. (is my heart broken at-her)

The Irish preposition ag is used together with the relevant form of the substantive verb bí and an appropriate verbal noun to denote action in progress, or with the past participle to denote a completed action [in this usage, ag is often considered to be the ‘agentive marker’, in contrast to the ‘possessive marker’, discussed below]:

Tá sí ag ól  ‘she is drinking’
Tá tú ag obair  ‘you are working’

Tá an obair déanta agam
‘I have done the work / the work is done’ (is the work done at-me)

Tá an leabhar leite agam
‘The book is read by me’ (is the book read at-me)

MacAulay (The Celtic Languages, 1992) notes that ag ‘at’ is “normally found in ‘dynamic’ verbal contexts,” whereas i ‘in’ can be found in ‘stative’ correlates:

Tá Pádraig ag codladh  ‘Patrick is sleeping’

Tá Pádraig in a chodladh  ‘Patrick is asleep’ (is Patrick in-his sleep)

The two prepositions discussed in this paper (also in their conjugated forms) may co-occur in numerous constructions:

Tá tinneas cinn orm agat
‘You give me a headache’ (is headache on-me at-you)

Tá meas agam air
‘I have respect for him / I esteem him’ (is respect/esteem at-me on-him)

Tá airgead agam ort
‘You owe me money’ (is money at-me on-you)

Tá ceist agam ort
‘I have a question for you’ (is question at-me on-you)

Tá aithne agam ar Eibhlín
‘I know Eileen’ (is knowledge at-me on Eileen)
or: Tá aithne ag Eibhlín orm (is knowledge at Eileen on me)

Ó Siadhail (Modern Irish: Grammatical Structure and Dialect Variation, 1989) claims that idioms with the preposition ar ‘on’ are in contrast to the idioms with ag ‘at’, “which are in some way less passive” and “this less passive quality is further highlighted by the use of ag rather than ar when followed by a prepositional phrase which does not in turn precede a finite clause”; this behaviour is illustrated by the following examples from Munster and Connacht:

Bhí eagla orm  ‘I was afraid’ (was fright on-me)

Tá eagla agam roimis na fir
‘I am afraid of the men’ (is fright at-me before-it the men)

Tá éad orm  ‘I am jealous’ (is jealousy on-me)

Beidh éad agam leat
‘I will be jealous of you’ (will be jealousy at-me with-you)

The above remarks might be extended to the use of ag in possessive constructions, discussed in the next section.

5. Prepositional Possessive Constructions

It is a well known fact that possession in Celtic languages is expressed not by a simple lexical verbs (such as Eng. have), but rather through appropriate prepositional possessive constructions. As remarked by Ó Corráin (“Aspects of voice in the grammatical structure of Irish,” 1997) possession is “a state rather than an action and as a consequence, in Irish as in many languages, it is expressed nominally rather than verbally”. The typical Irish equivalents of the English verb ‘to have’ involve the substantive verb bí (in appropriate form) and the personal form of the preposition ag, e.g.:

Tá airgead agam  ‘I have money’ (is money at-me)

Tá teach ag Seán i gConamara
‘Sean has a house in Conemara’ (is house at John in Conemara)

An bhfuil carr nua aige?
‘Has he got a new car?’ (is-QUESTION car new at-him)

Tá beirt mhac aige
‘He has two sons’ (is pair son at-him)

Bhí sos fada againn
‘We had a long break’ (was break long at-us)

The same construction is also used to express the extended and metaphorical sense of possession, examples from Irish, from Ó Dónaill’s dictionary:

Bíodh ciall agat  ‘Have sense’ (be-IMPER. sense at-you)

Tá an tsláinte aige  ‘He has good health’ (is the health at-him)

Tá go leor le déanamh agam
‘I have a lot to do’ (is a lot with doing at-me)

Tá grá aici air  ‘She loves him’ (is love at-her on-him)

Phrases with the preposition ag are also used to express the meaning of ‘know/have knowledge of’, also in the context of knowing a language:

Tá a fhios agam  ‘I know’ (I have knowledge < is its knowledge at-me)
Tá snámh agam  ‘I can swim’ (is swimming at-me)
Tá agam!  ‘I have it’ (= ‘I comprehend’)! (is at-me)
Tá Gaeilge agat  ‘You know Irish’ (is Irish at-you)

Other ways of expressing possession in Irish include constructions with another preposition, le  ‘with’, and the copula is:

mac liom  ‘a son of mine’ (a son with-me)
Is le Seán an teach  ‘Sean has a house’ (is with Sean the house)
Ba le Dónall an madra  ‘Donald had a dog’ (was with Donald the dog)
Cé leis é?  ‘Whose is it?’ (whose with-him (is) it)
Ní liom an t-airgead  ‘This money is not mine’ (not-is with-me this money)

Also the following possessive constructions are possible [these expressions exist in addition to typical genitive possessives, e.g. cù Coilm  ‘Colum’s dog’ (dog Colum-GEN)]:

Tá an cù ag Colm
‘Colum has got the dog’ (is the dog at Colum)

Tá an cù le Colm
‘The dog belongs to Calum’ (is the dog with Calum)

MacAulay explains the difference between the above examples in the following way: in full sentences, expressions with ag denote ‘in the possession of’, whereas expressions with le have the meaning of ‘belonging to’. ...