The way of defining things in Irish is very different to the way it’s done in the English
language. The present tense of the verb ‘to be’ is tá, which is the substantive verb in Irish. When we are classifying or defining things, instead of using this verb,
we often use what is known as the verb is or ‘the copula’. As with all grammar
constructions and rules there are exceptions and complexities but I will try to keep
this account as simple and as accessible as possible.
If we’re defining something, for example if we’re answering the question cad é sin?
(’what is that?’) we could answer with;
Is doras é ‘It is a door’
Is fuinneog í ‘It is a window’
Is páistí iad ‘They are children’
Is daoine fásta muid ‘We are adults’
In the first of those examples is doras é, is is the verb / the copula and é is
the subject (it). They surround the word doras (door) and they tell us that é belongs
to the group of things which we call a door.
When the word is feminine, like the word for a window fuinneog, the subject becomes
feminine, so we have í (’Is fuinneog í’). That tells us that í is classed as one
of those things which we call a window.
When the set of things which is in question is in the plural, the pronoun which
describes them becomes plural also.
Is daoine muid ‘We are people’
Is múinteoirí iad ‘They are teachers’
Is craoltóir mé ‘I am a broadcaster’
Is amadán thú ‘You are a fool’
Is fear grinn é ‘He is a clown’
Is banaltra í ‘She is a nurse
Is mic léinn sibh ‘You (plural) are students’
Is dochtúirí iad ‘They are doctors’
Instead of the pronouns (mé, tú, é, í, muid, sibh, said) you can also have proper nouns,
such as names
Is aisteoir (é) Seán ‘Seán is an actor’
Is múinteoirí iad Seán agus Síle ‘Seán and Síle are teachers’.
So far we have had a noun in the group that the subject belongs to but you can also
have an adjective in the phrase.
Is maith sin ‘That is good’
You can also have phrases between the is and the subject.
Is fear maith é ‘He is a good man’
Is peileadóir ar dóigh é ‘He is a brilliant footballer’
Another important aspect of this is when you have a proper noun, this is when the subject
does more than just belong to the set of things in the middle of the phrase but where
it is exactly and exclusively equal to it.
Is rí é ‘He is a king’
When we want to say ‘he is the king’ we must add an extra é to show that the subject
exactly equals the rest of the information in the set.
Is é an rí é ‘He is the king’
Basically you can have anything you want in the set in the middle of the copula, you
can almost have whole sentences and you can use the copula for emphasis.
A major mistake that learners of Irish make is mixing the copula (the is verb which
defines things) with the ordinary verb tá (to be).
Tá sé ‘he is’
Learners (and sometimes people who should know better) often make the mistake of saying
tá sé fear instead of is fear é and the simple way of remembering not to do that
is to make sure that you never have the structure ’tá sé + a noun on its own’
You can have tá + subject +adjective
Tá sé mór ‘He / it is big’
Tá sé beag ‘He / it is small’
You can have ’tá + subject + preposition’ ’tá + subject + prepositional phrases’
Tá sé ina dhoctúir ‘He is a doctor’ (literally ‘he is in his doctor’)
Tá Séamus ina mhúinteoir ‘Séamus is a teacher’
Tá siad ar na daoine is fearr sa rang ‘They are the best in the class’
But you can never have ’tá + subject + noun on its own’ phrases like tá sé múinteoir.
In Irish, phrases like this just sound ridiculous.