A good few years back the old Linguistics Institute of Ireland, Institiúid Teangeolaíochta Éireann, carried out research into the mistakes most commonly made by learners in their written Irish. The results were very interesting for anyone designing materials for learners of Irish and you would expect that type of research to be on-going and widely available. Sadly, Institiúid Teangeolaíochta Éireann is no longer with us and it’s hard to see who will carry out future research into the difficulties and needs of learners.
One of the things that the research picked up was the problems learners have in handling the infinitive in Irish. The infinitive is the form of the verb used in phrases like ‘to be or not to be’ or ‘to go on holiday’ and so on. It’s tricky in Irish for reasons that we’ll explain in this programme. Basically, there are different types of infinitive in Irish, phrases that have an object and phrases that don’t. By an object, or cuspóir if you want to say it in Irish, I mean the thing that is being acted upon in the sentence. A sentence such as ‘I like to sing’ has no object - no type of song or music is specifically mentioned. We have an object in the sentence ‘I like to sing old songs’, because the old song is the thing that is being sung, or performed.
None of this matters much in English, but it does in Irish. Phrases without an object are the easiest to handle. “I like singing” could be translated in a number of ways. We’ll say Is maith liom canadh. The form of the verb used in phrases like this is called the verbal noun, quite simply because it’s a noun that functions like a verb. You find them included in the grammatical information the dictionaries give about verbs. As long as the phrase has no object, the verbal noun won’t change. “I can sing”: Is féidir liom canadh; “I don’t want to sing now”: Níl mé ag iarraidh canadh anois and so on. All you do is insert the word canadh.
The plot thickens if you mention what it is you want to sing, the object of the sentence. ‘I like to sing old songs’ becomes Is maith liom seanamhráin a chanadh. So as well the word canadh we have a short word a, which causes séimhiú to the verb coming after it. It’s the same story no matter what the actual wording might be: Is féidir liom seanamhráin a chanadh or Níl mé ag iarraidh seanamhráin a chanadh anois. Of course, some verbs begin with a combination of letters that you can’t séimhiú - scríobh for example. I’d like to write a letter - Ba mhaith liom litir a scríobh. But you still have the short a: litir a scríobh. You could do a lot worse than memorise the two sentences Is maith liom canadh and Is maith liom seanamhráin a chanadh. If you think about it in that way, it all seems quite simple. Even so, it seems that some of the best learners get mixed up, and write things like Is féidir liom a thiomáint. It’s probably the case that we tend to use phrases with objects more often, and that this heavily influences the way learners use the infinitive. Another complicating factor are those verbal nouns which almost always have séimhiú, whether they have an object or not. The verbal noun ‘to be’ for example, always has séimhiú - bheith nó gan bheith, sin í an cheist.
Sometimes it’s a question of dialect, as with the verbal nouns teacht and dul - ‘coming’ and ‘going’. You’ll hear Gaeltacht people say ‘Do you want to come to the game with me?’ - An bhfuil tú ag iarraidh theacht go dtí an cluiche liom? And someone possibly replying ‘Sorry, I can’t go.” Brón orm, ní thig liom dhul. Sometimes you’ll even hear a short a. I asked Máire to come with me: D’iarr mé ar Mháire a theacht liom. Why this should be, I don’t know. There is no object in any of those sentences, and you would expect An bhfuil tú ag iarraidh teacht go dtí an cluiche liom? and Brón orm, ní thig liom dul or D’iarr mé ar Mháire teacht liom. I can’t explain it, but it’s so common in Gaeltacht speech that it seems useless to complain about it being ‘wrong’. Maybe some learners make mistakes because they’re trying to incorporate these forms into their own Irish, and they overgeneralise.
Another complicating factor is the Irish equivalent of ‘I’m going to’. In English ‘I’m going to write a book’ doesn’t differ much from ‘I’d like to write a book’ The verb and the object stay in the same place, at the end of the phrase. This isn’t true of Irish, though. In a sentence like Ba mhaith liom leabhar a scríobh the object and the verbal noun come at the end, leabhar, the object and scríobh, the verbal noun. The Irish for ‘I’m going to write a book’ changes the order around: Tá mé ag dul a scríobh leabhair. Another example - I’d like to learn Irish would be Ba mhaith liom Gaeilge a fhoghlaim. ‘I’m going to learn Irish would be Tá mé ag dul a fhoghlaim Gaeilge. That is a bit more difficult, mostly because the object of the sentence goes into the genitive case.
The good news is that it’s easily avoided. You’ll notice it in books and articles and maybe the best thing is to know how it works before you begin to use it yourself. Avoiding complicated structures isn’t chickening out. Experts in language learning recognise the value of going round the houses a bit to avoid those aspects of a language that you have problems with, until such times as you get to grips with them. They call them ‘avoidance strategies’. So instead of Tá mé ag dul a fhoghlaim Gaeilge you can say Tá mé ag foghlaim Gaeilge and you can do it with a clear conscience.