The Copulas Is and in Modern Irish

Britta Irslinger
Albert-Ludwigs-Universität, Freiburg, Germany, 2015
(from “More tales of two copulas – the copula systems of Western European languages from a typological and diachronic perspective” [link])

[Modern] Irish grammar traditionally distinguishes between the “copula” and the “substantive verb”. The proper copula is proclitic, precedes the copula complement and may be dropped in positive clauses in the present tense. Its inflected forms of the indicative present are based on PIE [Proto-Indo-European] *h₁es-. The other forms are supplied by PIE *bʰu̯eh₂- and thus have initial b-. While in Old Irish the copula was still inflected, it is uninflected and defective in Modern Irish, with is used for present tense and ba for past and conditional. In negative, interrogative and subordinate clauses the copula fuses with the respective preverbal particles and conjunctions, which are mostly not analysable already in Old Irish, e.g. OIr. ní (ni) ‘is not’ < *nītes < *ne eti esti (GOI 483-494, Schumacher 2004, 311).

Diachronically, the copula continuously developed from an inflected verb into a functional morpheme, to the point that in Modern Irish its “verbal” features have almost disappeared.

The substantive verb, on the other hand, is stressed and possesses also in Modern Irish a full paradigm and a residue of lexical semantics. Modern Irish , originating from the Old Irish compound verb attá < *ad-tá ‘to be present, to stand by’ is based on PCl [Proto-Celtic]. *tā-i̯e/o- from PIE *steh₂-. Its paradigm is highly suppletive, as is restricted to positive main clauses in the present indicative.

In negative, interrogative or subordinate clauses, the so-called dependent form OIr. fil, ModIr. bhfuil is used. OIr. fil was originally the imperative ‘see!’ of a verb based on PIE root *u̯el- ‘to see’, and in archaic texts can also be found to indicate existence. All other tenses and moods are supplied by forms based on *bʰu̯eh₂-. In Old Irish, a form of gaibid ‘to take’ (PIE *gʰeHb- ‘to take’), i.e. the perfect ron(d)-gab ‘has taken it’ with an infixed 3SG neuter pronoun occurs in nasalizing relative clauses as a copula (GOI 476-483, Schumacher 2004, 623- 26).

Contrary to Spanish, Portuguese and Catalan, OIr. attá does not express ‘to stand’ as a bodily posture.

In Modern Irish, is (COP-I) expresses identity (38) and attribution (39) with nominal and pronominal complements. In both cases, permanent attributes are involved. Is also introduces cleft sentences (40), which are frequent in all periods of Irish (Ó Siadhail 1989, 219-252, Doyle 2001, 65-67, Wigger 2003, 264-64, Nolan 2012, 204-213, NIG 122-125, GG 167-170, 175-192).

identity (38) Ó Siadhail (1989, 227)
Is mé an múinteoir.
“I am the teacher.”
classification / attribution (39) Ó Siadhail (1989, 220)
Is bádóir é.
COP-I.PRS boatman PRON.3SG.M
“He is a boatman.”
contrast focus cleft sentence (40) Ó Siadhail (1989, 237)
Is tinn atá sé.
“He is SICK.” (lit. “It is sick that he is.”)

(COP-T) denotes existence (41) or a position (42) expressed by a locative NP or adverb. can also express temporary states and attributes or the notion ‘to have become’. However, this case requires the use of a locative complement consisting of in ‘in’ + possessive + either a verbal noun (43) or a noun (44). The latter construction is mainly restricted to denotations for roles or professions, but it is also possible to find exceptions like (45) or more idiomatic expressions like Tá sé ina lá ‘It is day’ (lit. ‘It is in its day’.). Finally, + ag ‘at’ + verbal noun is used to form the progressive. If the progressive phrase is in the past tense (46), a form based on *bʰu̯eh₂- is used.

+ locative NP or adverb
(41) NIG 117
Tá trí phersa i nDia.
COP-T.PRS three person.SG in god.SG
“There are three persons in god.”
+ locative NP or adverb
(42) NIG 117
Tá Seán ar scoil. / anseo
COP-T.PRS Seán on school / here
“Seán is at school / here.”
temporary state, process
+ locative NP
(i ‘in’ + possessive + verbal noun)
(43) NIG 117
Tá Seán ina choladh.
COP-T.PRS Seán in in-POSS.3SG.M sleeping.VN
“Seán is sleeping.” (lit.: “Seán is in his sleeping.”)
+ locative NP
(i ‘in’ + possessive + noun)
(44) NIG 117
Tá Máire ina múinteoir anois.
COP-T.PRS Máire in-POSS.3SG.F teacher now
“Máire is a teacher now.”/ “M. has become a teacher.”
(lit. “Máire is in her teacher now.”)

permanent state
+ locative NP
(i ‘in’ + possessive + noun)
(45) NIG 118
Tá an tAthair ina Dhia.
COP-T.PRS ART father in-POSS.3SG.M god
“The Father is God.”
tá + ag ‘at’ + verbal noun
(46) NIG 93
Bhí Peadar ag rith.
COP-T.PRT Peadar at run.VN
“Peadar was running.”

Is or occur in a number of other constructions in which their distribution is not predominantly governed by the permanent vs. temporary distinction. Discourse-pragmatic features play a role with regard to adjective complements. While introduces a pragmatically neutral clause with the adjective in final position (47), the construction with is requires that the adjective be fronted and thus focussed (48). In this exclamatory construction expressing a subjective view, only adjectives denoting permanent qualities are permitted.

pragmatically neutral
+ subject + adjective
(47) Ó Siadhail (1989, 236)
Tá sé tinn.
“He is sick.”
is + adjective + subject
(48) Ó Siadhail (1989, 229)
Is maith é!
“He is (so) good!”

Comparative and superlative constructions only allow the use of is (49). The same is true for impersonal constructions like is féidir ‘it is possible’ or is deacair ‘it is difficult’ as well as for modal constructions like is maith liom ‘I like’ or is fearr liom ‘I prefer’ (50). ([note:] While the use of certain adjectives with is or is to some degree idiomatic, GG 182 points out that is mostly denotes more permanent qualities and states and more temporary ones.) Additionally, a small number of adjectives (aisteach ‘odd’, beag ‘small’, cosúil ‘similar’, fíor ‘true’, fiú ‘worthwhile’, fuar ‘cold’, greannmhar ‘funny’, ionann ‘equivalent’, leor ‘sufficient’, mall ‘slow, sluggish’, maith ‘good’, mór ‘big’ and olc ‘evil’) can still be constructed with the copula (51). This construction of adjectives denoting permanent qualities constitutes a relic of Old Irish, where the substantive verb could not be combined with adjectives. For the same reason, certain frequent adjectives like maith ‘good’, dona ‘bad’ or deas ‘nice’ occur with the adverbial marker go, when used as complements of (52) (Ó Siadhail 1989, 230-32, Doherty 1996, 32, Dillon, 1927, 317).

comparative and superlative clauses (49) Wigger (2003, 264)
Is measa Peadar ná Pól.
COP-I.PRS worse Peadar than Pól
“Peadar is worse than Pól.”
modal constructions (50) Wigger (2003, 264)
Ba mhaith liom toitín a chaitheamh.
COP-I.COND good with.1SG cigarette to consume.VN
“I would like to smoke a cigarette.”
various adjectives denoting permanent qualities (relics) (51) Doherty (1996, 37)
Is aisteach agus is iontach bealaigh Dé.
COP-I.PRS strange and COP-I.PRS wonderful ways.PL god.GS
“The ways of God are strange and wonderful.”
with adverbial marker go (52) Wigger (2003, 264)
Tá sí go deas.
“She is nice.”

Some scholars have claimed that the use of is : tá with adjectival predicates in Irish corresponds to the use of ser : estar in Spanish. According to Greene (1966, 41-42), cited by Stassen (1997, 180-1), examples like (47) refer to a temporary state of sickness, while (52) indicates that somebody is not necessarily nice in general by is being nice in a given moment. Constructed with is, the same adjectives would express inherent qualities. ([note: See also Hickey (1968, 222-224) and Devitt (1990, 110), who gives the following ex. without citing a source: Tá an páipéar bán. “The paper is white.” (i.e. blank; not written on) vs. Is bán an páipéar é. “The paper is white.” (its whiteness is inherent). According to Ó Siadhail (1989, 229), the latter sentence is exclamatory, i.e. pragmatically marked.] He admits that “it is doubtful whether many speakers feel a distinction between them nowadays.”

However, one wonders if this distinction, which could be exemplified by a small number of minimal pairs, was ever productive. Ex. (53) from the grammar of the Christian Brothers published around 1920 should not be possible if Greene was right. The adjectives constructed with the copula listed above constitute a closed set. Thus all other adjectives denoting permanent attributes have to appear with the substantive verb, i.e. the speaker is not free to choose between is and to express an aspectual distinction (Doherty 1996, 37).

permanent attribute (53) Graiméar na Gaedhilge (s.a., about 1920, 205)
Tá an bhó mhór dubh.
COP-T.PRS.3SG ART cow big black.
“The big cow is black.”
[Tá an bhó mór dubh. “The cow is big and black.”
[Is é dubh an bhó mhór. “The big cow is black.”]

There are two semantically different constructions to denote possession and ownership respectively. + ag ‘at’ means ‘to have, to possess’ (11), while is + le ‘with’ denotes ownership (12). Nolan (2012, 210) calls the latter function “ownership identity”. According to the Dictionary of the Irish language (eDIL O 85b), possession is correlated with the feature “temporary”. This claim has to be questioned, as the concepts of possession and ownership do not seem to be intrinsically linked with the features temporary and permanent.

+ ag ‘at’
(54) Ó Siadhail (1989, 233)
Tá carr ag Cáit.
COP-T.PRS car at Cáit
“Cáit has/owns a car.” (lit. “A car is at Cáit.”)
is + le ‘with’ + definite noun
(55) Ó Siadhail (1989, 233)
Is le Cáit an carr.
COP-I.PRS with Cáit ART car
“The car is Cáit’s / Cáit owns the car.” (lit. “The car is with Cáit.”)

Gloss abbreviations:
1SG, 1st-person singular
3SG, 3rd-person singular
ADV, adverb
ART, definite article
COND, conditional
F, feminine
GS, genitive singular
M, masculine
[NP, noun phrase]
PL, plural
POSS, possessive
PRON, pronoun
PRS, present
PRT, preterite
REL, relative
VN, verbal noun


The Christian Brothers (s.a., about 1920): Graiméar na Gaedhilge.

[Devitt (1990): ?]

Dillon, Myles (1927): Nominal Predicates in Irish I. Zeitschrift für celtische Philologie 16: 313-356.

[Doherty (1996): ?]

[Doyle (2001): ?]

eDIL 2013: Dictionary of the Irish Language: Based Mainly on Old and Middle Irish Materials. Dublin 1913-76. (

[Greene (1966): ?]

GG = The Christian Brothers (1999): Graiméar Gaeilge na mBráithre Críostaí. Baile Átha Cliath.

GOI: Thurneysen, Rudolf (1946): A Grammar of Old Irish. With supplement. Revised and enlarged Transl. from the German by D. A. Binchy and Osborn Bergin. Dublin.

Hickey, Leo D. (1968): Los verbos de existencia en castellano e irlandes. Filologia moderna 8: 213-227.

NIG: The Christian Brothers (2002): New Irish Grammar. Repr. Naas, Co. Kildare.

Nolan, Brian (2012): The Structure of Modern Irish. A Functional Account. Sheffield.

Ó Siadhail, Mícheál (1989): Modern Irish. Grammatical Structure and Dialectal Variation. Cambridge.

Schumacher, Stefan (2004). Die keltischen Primärverben. Ein vergleichendes, etymologisches und morphologisches Lexikon. Unter Mitarb. von Britta Schulze-Thulin und Caroline aan de Wiel. Innsbruck.

Stassen, Leon (1997): Intransitive predication. Oxford.

Wigger, Arndt (2003): Keltische Sprachen: Irisch. In: Roelcke, Thorsten: Variationstypologie. Ein sprachtypologisches Handbuch der europäischen Sprachen in Geschichte und Gegenwart = Variation typology. Berlin / New York: 251-276.

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(from The Christian Brothers (~1920): Graiméar na Gaedhilge, 133-136.)

The position of a verb in an Irish sentence is at the very beginning; hence, when a word other than the verb is to be brought into prominence, the important word is to be placed in the most prominent position — viz., at the beginning of the sentence, under cover of an unemphatic impersonal verb. There is no stress on the verb so used; it merely denotes that prominence is given to some idea in the sentence other than that contained in the verb. There is a similar expedient adopted in English: thus, “He was speaking of you” [Bhí sé ag labhairt fút], and, “It is of you he was speaking” [Is fútsa a bhí sé ag labhairt]. In Irish there is a special verb for this purpose, and of this verb there are forms to be used in principal clauses and forms to be used in dependent clauses — e.g.:

Is mise an fear. I am the man.
Deirim gur ab é Seaghán an fear. I say John is the man.

In Principal Sentences.

Present Tense, is.
Past Tense, ba.

In the Present Tense the verb IS is omitted after all particles except , if: as, Is mise an fear. I am the man; Ní mé an fear. I am not the man.

In the Past Tense BA is usually omitted after particles when the word following BA begins with a consonant: as, Ar mhaith leat an áit? Did you like the place? Nár bheag an luach é? Was it not a small price? Ba is not usually omitted when the following word begins with a vowel or f, but the a is elided: as, Níor bh’ é sin an sagart. That was not the priest. Notice that the word immediately after ba or badh, even when ba or badh is understood, is usually aspirated when possible.

In Dependent Sentences.

Present Tense. — Ab is used instead of is after gur, meaning “that”; as, measaim gurab é sin an fear. I think that is the man. Before a consonant ab is usually omitted; as, deir sé gur mise an fear. He says that I am the man. Ab is always omitted after nach, that...not. Saoilim nach é sin an rí. I think that is not the king.

Past Tense. — The word ba or badh becomes bh’ in dependent sentences and is usually joined to the particle which precedes it. When the following word begins with a consonant the bh’ is usually omitted. Measaim gurbh é seo an teach. I think that this was the house; measann sé nár mhaith le Niall bheith annso. He thinks that Niall did not like to be here. An measann tú gur mhaith an sgeul é? Do you think that it was a good story?

Conditional. — In dependent sentences ba or badh becomes mba. Saoilim go mba mhaith leis dul leat.. 1 think he would like to go with you. Deir sé nach mba mhaith leis. He says that he would not like. In the spoken language the tendency is to use the past tense forms in dependent sentences; hence Irish speakers would say gur mhaith in the above sentence instead of go mba mhaith, and nár mhaith instead of nach mba mhaith.

The Future is never used in dependent sentences in the spoken language.