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16 October 2014
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Counting - objects and people

Some of the most obvious differences between languages are to be found in their systems for counting objects and people. Anyone who did French at school will remember how difficult it was to get to grips with numbers such as soixante dix or quatre vingt. I remember thinking "This is so stupid. Why can't they just have one word that means 'seventy' or 'eighty'? Irish is markedly different from English in it's numeric system, and perhaps the most striking difference is that there is an unique set of numbers used when counting people. One person - duine amháin and two people - beirt. Try to say beirt and not the English word 'birch' - as in a birch tree. It's a much shorter sound - beirt. That word beirt usually causes séimhiú to the noun that follows - so two men is beirt fhear and two children beirt pháistí and so on. It's the only one of the personal numerals to cause séimhiú, however, so the list continues as so: triúr fear, ceathrar fear, cúigear fear, seisear fear, seachtar fear, ochtar fear, naonúr fear up to deichniúr fear. In Donegal, people pronounce those last two - naonúr and deichniúr slightly differently; they lose the 'n' and the ú fada and say 'naor' and 'deichear'. Eleven people would simply be duine déag, but there is one last personal numeral - dháréag which means twelve people. To be honest, I've not heard that being used very often, except in set phrases such as An Dáréag Aspal for 'The Twelve Apostles'. After that it's triúr déag, ceathrar déag and so on.

I've said that we only use these numerals for counting people, but there is one context in which they can be used to denote objects or things, especially in Ulster Irish. It would be wrong to say something like beirt chathaoir meaning two chairs, or ochtar punt meaning eight pounds. But if the noun itself isn't used - that's to say 'chair' or 'pound' you are free to use the personal numeral to refer to them. This happens a lot in question and answer type conversations. Two people are preparing a room for a meeting and one asks the other how many more chairs are needed: Cá mhéad cathaoireacha atá de dhíth? The other may reply cúigear or seachtar or deichniúr or whatever the number may be. Some people from other areas of Ireland find this very odd, but it's perfectly correct, as long as you don't use the numeral and the noun together.

Of course we have a different set of numerals for counting objects. Let's take an example close to my heart - pionta or a pint. One pint is pionta amháin and now we'll go through the list from two to six. dhá phionta, trí phionta, ceithre phionta, cúig phionta, sé phionta. A few points to notice before we go any further. The word for 'two' is spelt dhá and to look at it you'd think it's pronounced dhá with the dh sounding a bit like ch - as in A dhochtúir, or A Dhonncha. In Donegal it's pronounced more like ja in German. It sometimes happens to learners in the Gaeltacht that they order two pints and end up getting a half pint. That's because dhá and word for half leath sound a bit alike. That happened to me once, but maybe the barman was just trying to tell me something. You'll also have noticed that it's the singular of the noun that's used with the numerals cúig phionta rather than cúig piontaí or anything like that. We have that in our English of course. "How much did you pay for that?" "Ten pound" and so on. Now, there are exceptions to this and we should mention the most important ones here. Bliain, the Irish for 'year' has it's own distinct plural form bliana. Trí bliana, ceithre bliana, cúig bliana and so on.

Another very important word is ceann which as you know means 'head' but also means 'one of something'. It's distinct plural form is cinn. So, you could answer the question "How many chairs are needed?" by saying trí cinn, or ceithre cinn or cúig cinn or whatever the number may be.

Even words such as bliain and ceann use the singular after the word for two - so you have dhá cheann and dhá bhliain. They also take the singular in multiples of ten - so it's fiche bliain and céad ceann and so on.

We have come as far as 'seven' in our list - so if you're the sort of person who's likely to be ordering between seven and ten pints in one go, this is for you: seacht bpionta, ocht bpionta, naoi bpionta and deich bpionta. So the word pionta basically stays the same and in the singular, but it's got a different sound change at the beginning urú, rather than séimiú. So we get seacht gcinn, ocht mbliana, naoi gcapall, and so on. If you don't know the way urú affects words beginning with certain letters, I'm afraid that there's no alternative to sitting down and learning them off. There's a section about this in all the courses currently available, Tús Maith or Turas Teanga and others.

We could say a lot more about the way Irish handles numbers. You might hear people using a pre-decimal counting system based on twenties, for example. A seventy year old might be described on Raidió na Gaeltachta as being deich mbliana agus trí scór, which brings us back to where we began, with soixante dix in the French language. I hope we've shown that, like French, Irish is very different to English in this respect. It's hard to get your head around some of the differences, but they are part of the richness and the uniqueness of the Irish language, and it's all worth the effort in the end.


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