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30 August 2014
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Weak and Strong Plurals

You might remember that we had another look at how numerals work in Irish a few weeks back. We could spend a long time on this and related subjects. Have you noticed, for example, how some things are plural in English and singular in Irish? Take 'stairs' for example. 'Upstairs' is thuas staighre and not thuas staighrí or anything like that. And a pair of scissors is just a siosúr and a pair of trousers is just a bríste. There's a certain logic to that, when you're referring to a set or a pair of things.

What was more difficult for me, when I began learning Irish, was the tricky business of strong and weak plurals. Why was the shoe shop called Siopa Bróg when there was presumably more than one shoe for sale there? Why was the men's toilet Leithreas na bhFear when the plural of fear is fir? Like a lot of aspects of the language I decided not to bother wondering why but just get on with it. That worked until one night I was having a deep and meaningless conversation with an Irish speaker at a higher level than me. He must have been at a much higher level, because we were talking about womens' rights. I mentioned something about what I thought meant 'the womens' movement' - gluaiseacht na mná - and he laughed out loud and told me that he didn't think much of a movement with just one woman in it. So, off I went to see if I could find out just what was going on here, with gluaiseacht na mban and all the rest of it.

The basic explanation given in all the grammar books is simple enough in itself. All nouns in Irish have strong or weak plurals. If they are strong, they have retain their normal plural form even when in the genitive plural. Here's an example. The plural of cailín, as you all know, is cailíní. A girls' school would be scoil cailíní. So the plural cailíní stays the same regardless of whether or not it's in the nominative or in the genitive. It's a strong plural, or tréaniolra as we say in Irish.

Now for it's opposite, the weak plural, or lagiolra. The plural or fear, as we've mentioned before, is fir. "Here are the men" would be Seo na fir. But when the word is in the genitive plural, we actually use the form more familiar to us as the singular. 'The mens' work' would be obair na bhfear. The only thing you wouldn't expect to hear in the singular is the urú or eclipsis on the word, which changes it from fear to bhfear. This is because of the genitive plural form of the article na, which always causes urú if at all possible, even to strong plurals: obair na bhfear or obair na gcailíní. A noun can be in the genitive plural without this article, of course. A 'shoe shop' would be siopa bróg, for example, which means that bróg is another weak plural - it's genitive plural is similar to it's nominative singular.

So that's how it works. I remember thinking at the time "That's all very well, but how do you know in advance which words have weak plurals and which have strong plurals?" Well, let's take the weak plural first. The plural of fear is formed by what we call slenderising, in other words changing the 'ea' to an 'i'. So fear changes to fir. A lot of nouns form their plural like this: éan, or 'bird' becomes éin; cat becomes cait and so on. These words are almost always weak plurals. Birdsong is known as ceol na n-éan and when people talk about something that hasn't happened for ages they say "níor tharla a leithéid le cuimhne na gcat," literally, "the like of that hasn't happened in the memory of the cats." So both éan and cat remain unchanged from the singular.

We mentioned bróg earlier on. It forms its plural by simply adding 'a' - bróga. There are a lot of words like this, and they almost always have weak plurals. The word for 'drop' is deoir and it’s plural is deora. One way of saying someone is crying is to say "Tá sé ag sileadh deor". Cos agus lámh - hand and foot - are good examples as well. When one is shaking all over, Irish speakers say "tá crith cos is lámh air" - so cos and lámh remain unchanged in the genitive plural.

When it comes down to it, what happens to these words in the genitive plural is closely related to the declension system in Irish. We won't go there just now. The poet Cathal Ó Searcaigh always says that too much grammar gives him tensions in his declensions. There are actually a few words which have a special, unique form in the genitive plural. You won't see the word ban in any other situation than in the genitive plural. That's why the Ladies is known as Leithreas na mBan and that's why I was wrong to say gluaiseacht na mná when I meant the womens' movement. It should have been gluaiseacht na mban.

There are situations where you have to be very careful about these things. Gluaiseacht na mná really does give the impression that only one woman is involved. Éadaí fir doesn't so much mean 'mens' clothing' as 'one man's clothes'. But many Gaeltacht people routinely ignore these rules and don't seem to have any problems getting their meaning across. If a young man tells you that he was at a disco last night and "Bhí cuid mhór mná ann" it really would be a bit pedantic to correct him.


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