Elmord's Magic Valley

Software, lingüística e rock'n'roll. Às vezes em Português, sometimes in English.

Irish nouniness

2020-04-10 23:21 +0100. Tags: lang, in-english

At work, when we make changes to some code, we make a pull request and send the link for others to review the changes, usually accompanied by a message such as "Can you review?", "Please review", or other variations depending on how inspired we are feeling on each particular occasion. A couple of weeks ago, I considered sending the message in Irish just for fun. I barely know any Irish, though, so I resorted to Google Translate. Upon entering the supposedly simple sentence "Can you review?" into it, however, I was confronted with the following translation:

An féidir leat athbhreithniú a dhéanamh?

And I was twice perplexed. At first, I was surprised because I got more words than I was expecting to get back. But the more I stared at this sentence, the more perplexed I got, for a different reason: I couldn't identify the verbs in it, at least not in the form and places I expected to see them.

Let's go through this sentence in order. 'An' is, among other things, an interrogative particle. Usually the verb is the first thing in the sentence in Irish, but the interrogative particle (and other question words), if present, comes before the verb. The next word, 'féidir', however, is not a verb: it is a noun meaning 'ability, possibility'. You can see where this is going: instead of using a verb like can, we phrase the question in terms of the ability to do something. So, no verb involved here. But whose ability?

The next word is 'leat', which is an inflected preposition: it is the preposition 'le' ('with') in the second person singular (you).1 This is actually part of a possessive construction in Irish: Irish does not have a verb to have; one way (among many) to express possession is to say that the possessed thing is 'with' the possessor. So, 'you have the ability' translates as 'is féidir leat', meaning literally '(there) is ability with you'. When asking a question, though, the question word 'an' is added and the verb 'is' can be omitted. So, 'an féidir leat?' = 'is there ability with you?' = 'can you?'.

The next word is 'athbhreithniú'. This is a noun meaning 'review', the verbal noun corresponding to the verb 'athbhreithnigh' meaning 'to review'. A verbal noun is a noun describing the action denoted by a verb. This is similar to a gerund in English: for the verb to sing, there is the corresponding action of singing. There is an important difference between an English-style gerund and a Celtic-style verbal noun, though: while a gerund can take an object, as in "I like singing that song", a verbal noun cannot: instead, you have to phrase it as something akin to "I like the singing of that song", introducing the object with a genitive/possessive construction. To give another example, the verbal noun for the verb construct would be less like constructing ("constructing houses takes time") and more like construction ("the construction of houses takes time"). Irish does not have gerunds or infinitives: it does everything with verbal nouns.

The next word is 'a', and I don't really know what this little word is doing here, though I have some hunches.2 I will ignore it for now.

Finally, the last word is 'dhéanamh'. That's the verbal noun of 'déan', meaning to do. So the sentence is actually phrased in terms of doing a review, rather than reviewing directly.3 But even to do is presented as a verbal noun here, so it's actually the doing of a review.

So the full sentence:

An féidir leat athbhreithniú a dhéanamh?

if translated literally, would be:

Is there possibility with you of the doing of a review?

And since the verb is is omitted after the question particle, there is no verb (other than verbal nouns) in this sentence.

Nouns everywhere

Irish reliance on verbal nouns means that sentences tend to look much more nouny in Irish than in the average Indo-European language. But that's only one element of it. Irish uses nouns in many other constructions where we tend to expect verbs in European languages. States of mind seem to be particularly prone to be rendered as nouns rather than verbs in Irish. For instance (and with the help of Google Translate, so take these translations with a grain of salt):

Some of these have verbal equivalents, but the noun form seems to be preferred.


The conclusion is that Irish, and Celtic languages in general, seem to love nouns far more than their non-Celtic Indo-European cousins. In the grand scheme of the world's languages, this may not be too weird: some languages are known to lean towards the verby side of things, so it should not come as too great a surprise that some lean towards nouns. Nevertheless, in the context of Indo-European languages, the Celtic family really seems to stand out in its penchant for nouniness.


1 If you know Portuguese or Spanish, this is similar to how these languages have a special form of the preposition com/con (with) combined with the personal pronouns: comigo/conmigo (with me), contigo (with you), etc. The difference is that in Irish, every preposition has inflected forms for each person.

2 If I understand correctly, what we have here is a cleft sentence construction. A cleft sentence is when you turn a sentence like I wrote the book into it was me who wrote the book. Basically you bring a bit of the sentence into focus (in this case, me) by moving everything else into a subclause. English does this for emphasis (in our example, to emphasize it was me and not anyone else). Some languages, like Portuguese, regularly do this for questions: como é que eu chego no aeroporto? (lit. how is it that I arrive in the airport?). And in Irish this seems to be mandatory in a variety of situations I don't understand very well at all.

3 After I wrote this, I realized that that's because the original sentence lacks an object, which actually sounds weird even in English ("can you review what?"), so Translate probably rendered it as "doing a review" as a way to get rid of the missing object. If I enter "Can you review it?" instead, Translate gives "An féidir leat é a athbhreithniú?", without resorting to "dhéanamh".

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me, 2020-04-17 18:39:28 -0300 #

Queremos áudio de voz de bruxa™

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