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Predicting gender
Recognising gender

Cases in Irish
Common case

Declensional system
Formation of the genitive
Plural formation
Summary of declensions


Irish, like many other Indo-European languages, continues the system of grammatical gender which the original proto-language had. It also has natural gender whereby beings which are biologically masculine or feminine are also so grammatically, e.g. nia (m) ‘nephew’, neacht (f) ‘niece’. This is not, however, completely true: the noun cailín ‘girl’ is masculine, because the diminutive ending -ín always demands masculine gender.

Grammatical gender is a system of co-occurrence restrictions and correspondences. By this is meant that to say a noun is (grammatically) feminine is a shorthand for stating that it lenites in the nominative singular and does not in the genitive singular, that the form of the article in the latter case is na, that adjectives which qualify it lenite, etc. To say that a noun is (grammatically) masculine is to assert the opposite, namely that it does not lenite in the nominative singular, but does in the genitive singular, that qualifying adjectives do not lenite, etc.

Gender does not have a semantic function in Irish, i.e. it is not used to distinguish meanings primarily, though if speakers know the genders of nouns then it may help them to recognise them more quickly when used by their interlocutors, but this is more a pragmatic function and may well be a reason why languages retain grammatical gender: it often makes the structure of discourse easier to grasp for the native speakers who, naturally, know the gender of the words of their language.

Words of the same form do not generally occur with both genders. There are a few exceptions here, e.g. ráth is masculine in the meaning ‘ring-fort, earthen rampart’, but feminine in the meaning ‘shoal of fish’. More common is the situation in which words may have different genders and only one phonological difference, chiefly the contrast between a palatal and a non-palatal right margin, cf. gráin (f) ‘hatred’ versus grán (m) ‘wheat grain’. Across the dialects there may be differences in gender, e.g. in Donegal the word for ‘bucket’ is feminine (buicéid) but masculine (buicéad) elsewhere.

There are some anomalies in the gender system of Irish, e.g. the word áit ‘place’ is feminine but pronominal reference to it is masculine (é ‘it’-MASC instead of í ‘it’-FEM).

Is é sin an áit ina bhfuil sé ina chónaí.
‘That’s the place here he is living.’

Predicting gender

There are some guidelines for gender in modern Irish which are not watertight but which help the learner when trying to master the system.

1) Grammatical and natural gender

The first generalisation has to do with the relationship between grammatical and natural gender. Agent nouns are grammatically masculine. The following are some examples.

tiománaí ‘driver’ iománaí ‘hurler’
marcach ‘rider’ bacach ‘begger’
ceannaire ‘leader’ aire ‘minister’
múinteoir ‘teacher’ rinceoir ‘dancer’
scoláire ‘scholar’ baicéir ‘baker’
saighdiúir ‘soldier’ doctúir ‘doctor’

Masculine gender holds here, although the default interpretation of a noun may indeed be feminine, e.g. rúnaí ‘secretary’. Furthermore, nouns which are inanimate, but formed on the pattern of an animate group, show masculine gender, e.g. loisceoir (m) ‘incinerator’. When the prefix ban-, deriving from bean ‘woman’, is present then the noun is, however, feminine, e.g. banaltra ‘nurse’, cf. altranas ‘nursing’.

2) Value of [palatal] in right margin of word

The second generalisation is phonological and concerns the value for [palatal] in the right margin of a word. There is a rough rule of thumb which says that words ending in a palatal consonant or cluster are feminine while those which end non-palatally are masculine.

Animate nouns, except cailín, follow natural gender, so that words like namhaid ‘enemy’ or ‘king’ are masculine despite the final palatal consonant or vowel. Conversely, words like maighdean ‘maiden’ are feminine despite the final non-palatal consonant.

The right margins of words with predictable gender are often formed by endings and not by the lexical stem of the word. This can be seen clearly with words like leabhrán (masc) ‘booklet’, leabhróg (fem) ‘libretto’ and leabharlann (fem) ‘library’ which share the same lexical stem leabhr-, cf. leabhar (masc) ‘book’, but where the gender varies according to suffix.

Below a dash in the word indicates the boundary between the stem and the ending.

Feminine nouns with palatal right margin


beoir ‘beer’ caint ‘talk’
nimh ‘poison’ páis ‘passion’
smid ‘breath, puff’ spéir ‘sky’

polysyllables (opaque)

díle ‘flood, deluge’

polysyllables (stem + ending)


big-e ‘smallness’ (< beag + e)
náir-e ‘shame’
taighd-e ‘research’


fann-tais ‘faintness’


Gael-tacht ‘Irish-speaking area’
naof-acht ‘sanctity’
tábh-acht ‘importance’
fealsún-acht ‘philosophy’


teangeol-aíocht ‘linguistics’
deilbh-íocht ‘morphology’
cáil-íocht ‘quality’
dír-íocht ‘directness, straightness’


fead-óg ‘whistle’
dall-óg ‘window-blind’
neant-óg ‘nettle’
spún-óg ‘spoon’


tabhair-t ‘grant’

Masculine nouns with non-palatal right margin


nós ‘custom’ plean ‘plan’
plód ‘crowd’ scríobh ‘(hand)writing’
snag ‘gasp, catch’ stad ‘stop, halt’

polysyllables (opaque)

botún ‘mistake’

polysyllables (stem + ending)


cruinn-eas ‘accuracy’
gann-tanas ‘scarcity’


ocht-ar ‘group of eight people’


óg-lach ‘volunteer’


áras-án ‘flat, apartment’
spar-án ‘purse’
-ín (diminutive)
lóistín ‘lodgings’

Exceptions to predictable and/or regular gender

Monosyllabic word stems tend to show the greatest degree of irregularity in terms of gender relative to the value for [palatal]of the right margin.

Feminine, but right margin in non-palatal

adharc ‘horn’ deoch ‘drink’
grian ‘sun’ nead ‘nest’
sprioc ‘aim’ srón ‘nose’
srann ‘snore, snort’ slat ‘stick’

Feminine ending, but right margin in non-palatal


dia-lann ‘diary’
bia-lann ‘restaurant’
leabhar-lann ‘library’
cart-lann ‘archive’

Masculine, but right margin is palatal

béile ‘meal’ cairde ‘respite, credit’
céilí ‘social evening’ maide ‘bar, beam’
táirge ‘product’ tairne ‘nail’

The level of predictability decreases sharply with nouns ending in a vowel, though these tend to be masculine with a slight tendency for words in final /i:/ to be feminine.

aoi (m) ‘guest’ baoi (m) ‘buoy’
plé (m) ‘dealings’ dlí (m) ‘law’
bia (m) ‘food’ polla (m) ‘pole’
taca (m) ‘support, prop’ dreo (m) ‘decay’
ceo (m) ‘fog’ cruinniú (m) ‘meeting’
seachtú (m) ‘seventh’ dua (m) ‘labour, toil’

láí (f) ‘spade’ (f) ‘month’
slí (f) ‘way’ sní (f) ‘flow, pouring’
rogha (f) ‘choice’ osna (f) ‘sigh’

In some cases, the orthography shows that a word did end in a palatal segment before this was lost through vocalisation.

culaith (f) ‘suit, gear’ ádh (m) ‘luck’
leith (f) ‘flat fish’ cuireadh (m) ‘invitation’
sraith (f) ‘course, series’ sruth (m) ‘stream, current’

Similar to other inflecting Indo-European languages, such as German, the gender of compounds is determined by the final element.

grian (f) ‘sun’ + graf (m) ‘graph, chart’ > grianghraf (m) ‘photograph’
cam (m) ‘bend’ + cuairt (f) ‘visit’ > camchuairt (f) ‘ramble, tour’

Recognising gender: Prefix h and t

Words beginning in (i) a vowel and (ii) an /s/ + vowel / sonorant (sl, sr, sn) may show a prefixed sound under conditions which are mutually exclusive, i.e. where there is complementary distribution. The two types of prefix are:

1) Prefix h (i) before vowels
2) Prefix t (i) before vowels
(ii) an /s/ + vowel / sonorant

Occurrence of prefix t and prefix h

Non-leniting environment

1a) an t-arán ‘the bread’ (MASC, NOM)
2a) an siopa ‘the shop’ (MASC, NOM)
(an fear ‘the man’)
1b) blas an aráin ‘taste of the bread’ (MASC, GEN)
2b) in aice an tsiopa ‘beside the shop’ (MASC, GEN)
(culaith an fhir ‘the man’s suit’)
5a) a h-aois ‘her age’ (POSS PRO, FEM)

Leniting environment

3a) an áit ‘the place’ (FEM, NOM)
4a) an tseachtain ‘week’ (FEM, NOM)
(an chuairt ‘the visit’)
3b) ar fud na háite ‘all over the place’ (FEM, GEN)
4b) i rith na seachtaine ‘during the week’ (FEM, GEN)
(fad na cuairte ‘the length of the visit’)
5b) a aois ‘his age’ (POSS PRO, MASC)

What the above table shows is that – synchronically in Irish – prefix t helps speakers (and language learners) to recognise the gender of words. With a vowel-initial noun, prefix t in the nominative shows that this is masculine, the lack of prefix t shows that the noun is feminine. In the genitive the lack of prefix t shows that a noun is masculine and the presence of initial h- that the noun in question is feminine.

With nouns beginning in /s/ + vowel or sonorant the mirror image situation is found: the presence of prefix t signals a feminine noun and the lack of it a masculine (in the nominative). The opposite is the case for the genitive (lack of prefix t signals feminine, its presence masculine gender).

Cases in Irish

Irish has three cases, of which one – the vocative – is not determined by grammatical structure and can be treated on its own, see module on pragmatics. The remaining two cases are the common case and the genitive. The common case subsumes the former nominative, accusative and dative which have been formally levelled in the development of Irish (but see remarks below).

The genitive is still kept distinct from the common form by such means as lenition, nasalisation and/or palatalisation, depalatalisation (phonetically velarisation) or combinations of these with or without other further alterations in the structure of words.

It should be mentioned that many native speakers, use word order alone to indicate the genitive, i.e. they make no distinction between the nominative and the genitive where position is sufficient to distinguish the two, e.g. talamh an feirmeoir (for talamh an fheirmeora) ‘the land of the farmer’.

1) The common case

The term ‘common’ is diachronically justified, i.e. several former cases have now come to share a common form. On the synchronic level it is also justified as this case is used in many environments and functions.

1) as the subject of a sentence:

D’imigh an dlíodóir abhaile.
‘The lawyer went home.’

2) as the object of a sentence:

Chonaic mé an dlíodóir ag dul abhaile.
‘I saw the lawyer going home.’

3) as both the subject and subject complement of a copula construction:

Is dlíodóir a athair. ‘His father is a lawyer.’

4) in apposition to either a subject or object:

Bhí Tomás dlíodóir ag dul go dtí an Ard-Chúirt.
‘Thomas the lawyer was going to the High Court.’
Chonaic mé Tomás dlíodóir ag dul go dtí an Ard-Chúirt.
‘I saw Thomas the lawyer going to the High Court.’

5) the singular common form is used instead of the plural with expressions which indicate quantity, worth, value, division, etc.:

Cá mheád fear a bhí ag an gcomórtas?
‘How many men were at the competition?’
Ní fiú lá oibre é.
‘It’s not worth a day’s work.’
Trí phunt an ceann.
‘Three pounds each.’
Gheobhfaidh sibh gúna nua an cailín.
‘Each of you girls will get a new dress.’
Dá mheád / laghad foighid a bhí aige ba chuma léi.
‘She didn’t care how much/little patience he had.’
Ní bhfuair sí a rogha post.
‘She didn’t get the job she wanted.’

2) The genitive case

The genitive case is also used basically as in English, generally with a noun which qualifies a further one:

Gluaisteán an bhainisteora ‘The manager’s car’

Where the qualifying element is preceded in English by ‘of’, Irish uses the genitive.

Culaith olla. ‘A suit of wool/a woollen suit.’

The genitive in s in English, used to denote possession/personal association, has no formal equivalent in Irish which simply uses the genitive following the noun it qualifies.

Bhí sí ag déanamh imní faoi neamh-aird Sheáin.
‘She was worrying about John’s carelessness.’

The genitive is frequently used to translate English compound nouns or nouns qualified by a descriptive adjective or a single lexicalised item:

fear oibre bróiste airgid. mac léinn
‘a workman’ ‘a silver brooch’ ‘a student’ (lit.: son of knowledge)

Further instances where the genitive is used are:

1) as the partitive case:

mo chuid talún ‘my piece of land’
roinnt ama ‘some time’

the function of partitive can also be fulfilled by de and the common form:

cuid den leabhair ‘part of the book’

2) after the prepositions chun, cois, dála, fearacht, timpeall and trasna.

trasna na farraige ‘across the sea’
cois na habhann ‘beside the river’
timpeall an tí ‘around the house’

Note: chun can sometimes take the common form when it expresses purpose:

Tháinig siad chun an teach a dheisiú. ‘They came to repair the house.’

3) after all compound prepositions:

os comhair an tí ‘in front of the house’
i ndiaidh a athar ‘like/after his father’
de réir mo bharúla ‘in my opinion’

They are around 30 compound prepositions in Irish. They consist of a simple preposition plus a noun and act as a unit requiring the genitive. Frequently the noun of the compound preposition has a meaning of its own, e.g. aghaidh ‘face’; in aghaidh ‘against’.

in aghaidh na gaoithe ‘against the wind’ (lit.: ‘in the face of the wind’)

4) as the object of an verbal noun when the noun follows it:

Bhí Séamus ag léamh leabhar.
‘James was reading a book.’
Bíonn Máirtín ag caitheamh míosa i Sasana go minic.
‘Martin often spends a month in England.’

5) as the genitive of time

i mbliana ‘this year’ (lit.: ‘in the year-GEN’)

3) The ‘dative’ case

Irish does not have a formally marked ‘dative’ case any more. In the standard there is one lexicalised instance of this left: in Éirinn ‘in Ireland’. A former dative may occur in some dialects, often in another function than it had formerly, e.g. fear ‘man’ ~ fearaibh ‘men’ in Munster Irish (for standard nominative plural fir). Occasionally remnants of an old dative form can be found in lexicalised expressions such as ‘tigh X-GEN’, e.g. tigh Mháirtín Mhór ‘at Big Martin’s house’. The use of the term ‘dative’ to refer to nouns governed by a preposition, e.g. ar an mbord ‘on the table’, leis an mbád ‘with the boat’, is not justified on either semantic or morphological grounds.

The declensional system

The nouns in Irish are traditionally divided into five declensional classes. Each class consists of a unique combination of the following four parameters across case and number:

1) nominative singular
2) genitive singular
3) nominative plural
4) genitive plural

Of these the most important is the genitive singular. It varies consierably across the declensional classes and is frequently the form which determines class affiliation.

Formation of genitive singular

First declension

STEM [-pal] > STEM [+pal]
STEM [-pal] + /-əx/ > STEM [+pal] + /-i:/

Second declension

STEM [-/+pal] > STEM [+pal] + /-ə/
STEM [-pal] + /-əx/ > STEM [+pal] + /-i:/

Third declension

STEM [-/+pal] > STEM [-pal] + /-ə/

Fourth declension

STEM [-/+pal] > STEM [-/+pal]

Fifth declension

STEM [+pal] > STEM [-pal]
STEM [+pal] > STEM [-pal] + /-əx/
STEM [-pal] > STEM [-pal] + /-d, -n/

Generalisations concerning the genitive

Those nouns which have /-əx/ as a genitival suffix all end in palatal sonorants and have syncope if it can apply. They all occur in the fifth declension which is not incidental if one takes two of the other parameters for declension into account: gender and plural formation. The gender is feminine and the plural is formed the same way as other fifth declension nouns. Thus the two cases given above as the first two types of the fifth declension only differ in the genitive singular as can be seen from the following examples.

an bheoir luach na beorach beorachaí na Gearmáine
‘the beer’ ‘the price of beer’ ‘the beers of Germany’
an abhainn domhain na habhann aibhneachaí na Sualainne
‘the river’ ‘the depth of the river’ ‘the rivers of Sweden’

Formation of genitive singular according to degree of alteration of base form.

(1) no change

oibrí ainm an oibrí
‘worker’ ‘the name of the worker’

(2a) palatalisation

STEM [-pal] > STEM [+pal]
post ag lorg poist
‘job’ ‘looking for a job’

(2b) de-palatalisation

STEM [+pal] > STEM [-pal]
máthair cóicearacht na máthar
‘mother’ ‘the mother’s cooking’

(3a) vowel suffixation (non-palatal base)

STEM [-pal] > STEM [-pal] + /-ə/
anam ag sabháil an anama
‘soul’ ‘saving the soul’

(3b) vowel suffixation (palatal base)

STEM [+pal] > STEM [-pal] + /-ə/
áit ar fúd na háite
‘place’ ‘all over the place’

(4a) vowel suffixation and palatalisation (non-palatal base)

STEM [-pal] > STEM [+pal] + /-ə/
bróg dath na bróige
‘shoe’ ‘the colour of the shoe’
fios lucht feasa [people of knowledge]
‘knowledge’ ‘soothsayers’

(4b) vocalic suffixation and de-palatalisation (palatal base)

STEM [+pal] > STEM [-pal] + /-ə/
feirmeoir bean an fheirmeora
‘farmer’ ‘farmer’s wife’

(5a) suffixation of /d/

STEM [-pal] > STEM [-pal] + /-d/
cara teach an charad
‘friend’ ‘the friend’s house’

(5b) suffixation of /n/

STEM [-pal] > STEM [-pal] + /-n/
lacha ag ithe lachan
‘duck’ ‘eating duck’

Plural formation

Uniform and diaform

Nouns can be divided into two further groups depending on the form of the nominative and genitive plural. The distinction is as follows:

Uniform nominative and genitive plural have the same form
Diaform nominative and genitive plural are different in form

Uniform plurals are productive. All plurals which have a suffix longer than a, /ə/ are uniform (no change between cases in the plural). With diaform monosyllables the source of the different forms in the plural is the difference in the right margin of the word for [palatal] and which may affect the preceding vowel.

fear fir barúil na bhfear
‘man’ ‘men’ ‘the opinion of the men’
bád báid seolta na mbád
‘boat’ ‘boats’ ‘sails of the boats’

Consider the following two cases. Both are first declension masculine nouns, the first (fear) shows a change in vowel in the plural, the second (bád) does not. The reason for this is that the difference in right margin for [palatal] only affects the nucleus vowel when the latter is short (as in fear).

An external structural explanation can be given for diaform plurals. The common plural must be distinguished from the common singular. There are basically two options here. Either the stem is palatalised or a suffix is added. If a noun remains monosyllabic in the plural, e.g. is of the fear-type, then palatalisation takes place to differentiate the plural from the singular. As the stem syllable coda is always velar for the genitive plural this leads to a difference for [palatal] between the nominative and genitive in the plural. However, suffixation is the alternative to palatalisation and as it is a sufficient marker of the common plural no alteration of the value for [palatal] is necessary with the stem syllable coda. Where a schwa is the suffix for the common plural this is not found in the genitive plural.

bróg bróga praghas na mbróg
‘shoe’ ‘shoes’ ‘the price of the shoes’

For nouns with stem-extension in the base form – /-ə/ or /-əx/ – the suffix of the plural usually involves a change in the feature [palatal] to distinguish it from the common singular. There is great variation across the dialects and the guidelines of Caighdeán Oifigiúil ‘Official Standard’ are somewhat artificial in this respect. For instance, in the Caighdeán Oifigiúil the distribution of /i:/ and /əxi:/ plurals correlates with gender, the former being masculine and the latter feminine.

an bealach bealaí an ghrá
‘the road, way’ ‘the ways of love’
an ghealach na gealachaí Shiúipitir
‘the moon’ ‘the moons of Jupiter’

This does not hold for all dialects by any means, e.g. bealachaí is an equally common plural formation. There are also plural formations in the dialects which are not in the standard at all, e.g. crann ~ crainnte ‘tree’ ~ ‘trees’ is an alternation found in western Irish and not reflected in the recommendations of the standard.

Summary of declensions: features and examples

I 1: masculine
  2: common singular is non-palatal
  3: genitive singular is palatal
  4: vocative singular is either non-palatal (as common) or palatal (as genitive)
  5: plural is either uniform or diaform

COM SG an cnoc ‘the hill’
GEN SG Shroich sé barr an chnoic. ‘He reached the top of the hill.’
COM PL na cnoic ‘the hills’
GEN PL Bhí sneachta ar bharr na gcnoc. ‘There was snow on top of the hills.’

II 1: feminine (with a few exceptions)
  2: common singular ends in a consonant (either non-palatal or palatal)
  3: genitive singular is either palatal with final -e /ə/ or palatal with -aí /i:/ when final consonant is -ch /x/
  4: vocative singular is as the common singular
  5: plural is either uniform or diaform

1) -(e)ach

COM SG cáiteach ‘large sheet of paper’
GEN SG toirt na cáití ‘the sise of the large sheet of paper’
COM PL na cáiteacha ‘the large sheets of paper’
GEN PL cual na gcáiteach ‘the bundle of large sheets of paper’

2) -óg/-eog

COM SG bileog ‘the leaf’
GEN SG dath na bileoige ‘the colour of the leaf’
COM PL bileoga ‘the leaves’
GEN PL titim na mbileog ‘the falling of the leaves’

III 1: masculine and feminine
  2: common singular ends in a palatal or non-palatal consonant
  3: genitive singular is non-palatal with final -a /ə/
  4: vocative singular is as the common singular
  5: plural is uniform

1) the following nouns are nearly all agent nouns and end in the common singular in -aeir, -éir, -óir, -úir and plural in .

COM SG léachtóir ‘lecturer’
GEN SG saincheard an léachtóra ‘the speciality of the lecturer’
COM PL léachtóirí ‘lecturers’
GEN PL scata léachtóirí ‘the group of lecturers’

2) monosyllabic non-palatal nouns with uniform plurals in -anna, aí:

COM SG fáth ‘reason’
GEN SG míniúchán an fhátha ‘the explanation’
COM PL fáthanna a ghníomhaithe ‘the reasons for his action’

IV 1: masculine and feminine
  2: common singular usually ends in a vowel
  3: genitive singular is as the common singular
  4: vocative singular is as the common singular
  5: plural is uniform

1) MASC and FEM with COM SG in -a/-e and COM PL in -(a)í.

COM SG balla an ghairdín ‘the wall of the garden’
COM PL na ballaí roimh na haillte ‘the walls before the cliffs’
COM SG béile gan deoch ‘a meal without a drink’
COM PL trí bhéille gach lá ‘three meals a day’
COM SG aiste an mhic léinn ‘the essay of the student’
COM PL aístí an uadair Chorcaigh seo ‘the essays of this Cork author’

2) MASC and FEM with COM SG in -le/-ne and COM PL in -lt/-nte.

COM SG an baile seo againne ‘our town’
COM PL bailte an chontae sin ‘the towns of that county’
COM SG an tine a las sí ‘the fire she lit’
COM PL tinte ifrinn ‘the fires of hell’

3) nouns with COM SG in -(a)í/-aoi/-é and COM PL in -the (mostly masculine).

COM SG croí briste ‘a broken heart’
COM PL croíthe an chine dhaonna ‘the hearts of mankind’
COM SG ní a dhéanamh ‘something to be done’
COM PL nithe suaracha ‘trivial matters’

4) vocalic nouns with plurals in -nna (mostly masculine):

COM SG togha ‘choice’
COM PL na toghanna a bhíonn á ndéanamh againn ‘the choices which we have to make’
COM SG ceo ‘fog’
COM PL ceonna an fhómhair dheanaigh ‘the fogs of late autumn’

V 1: feminine
  2: common singular ends in a palatal consonant or a vowel
  3: genitive singular is non-palatal with a) palatal to non-palatal shift only, b) suffixation of -each /əx/ after palatal sonorants (with attendant syncope) or c) suffixation of -d or -n after nouns ending in a vowel
  4: vocative singular is as the common singular
  5: plural is uniform (in almost all cases)

COM SG cáin ‘tax’
GEN SG íocaíocht na cánach ‘the payment of the tax’
COM PL cánacha nach bhfuil éalú uathu ‘taxes which cannot be escaped’
COM SG riail ‘rule’
GEN SG coimeád na rialach ‘(the) abiding by the rule’
COM PL rialacha an ghraiméir ‘the rules of grammar’
COM SG cathaoir ‘chair’
GEN SG ábhar na cathaoireach ‘the material of the chair’
COM PL cathoireacha ‘chairs’