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Forms of address
Discourse markers
Direction and location


Pragmatics is the study of language in use. It does not relate directly to internal structures of a language but more to the choices which speakers make in communicative situations, such as terms of address or discourse strategies. Pragmatics varies as much between languages as do other levels of language such as phonology or syntax. Equally, slightly divergent pragmatics can be found between varieties of one language in different countries as norms of language use develop in communities and these vary across greater geographical distances. For the present discussion the pragmatics of Irish is regarded as consistent across all dialects although this is obviously not the case on a level of greater detail than can be adopted here.


The function of the vocative (Irish an tuiseal gairmeach ‘the vocative case’) is to address an individual and get his or her attention as in the English example Michael, we have to leave soon. This function is clearly a matter of discourse which is why the vocative is located in pragmatics, the study of language use. However, in many languages of the Indo-European family the vocative is also formally marked, reflecting the original situation in Indo-European (such marking is also found in other language groups). For this reason the vocative has been treated as a case and appears in case listings in early grammars of classical languages, notably the Greek grammar of Dionysius Thrax (Techne Grammatike, c. 100 BC) and the Latin grammar by Donatus (Ars Grammatica, mid 4th century) and the later one by Priscian (Institutiones Grammaticae, c. 500 AD), all of which were influential in the rise of gramamtical practices in later European countries.

Tradition in Indo-European has put the vocative alongside the accusative, genitive, dative, etc. as a grammatical case. But it does not mark internal relationships in a sentence or characterise the complements of verbs as do the genitive or accusative, for instance. However, the formal similarity between nouns marked for the vocative and those marked for other cases has led to this alignment of the vocative with them purely on the grounds of form. For instance, with first declension nouns in Irish, the vocative and the genitive are identical. Nouns in the vocative are always preceded by the particle a [ə].

Teach Sheáin ‘John’s house
A Sheáin ‘John’-VOC

The vocative can equally occur with plural nouns and is also found in religious usage. In the latter case there is usually no inflection when it precedes a proper noun such as a saint’s name. This corresponds to the register-bound use of Dear in English, e.g. in prayers.

Anois, a chairde, cad a dhéanfaimid? ‘Now, friends, what will we do?’
A Naomh Pádraig ‘Dear Saint Patrick’

As an extension of its use in discourse, the vocative is also found as an opener in letters in Irish.

A dhuine uasail [VOC person noble] ‘Dear Sir’
A chara [VOC friend] ‘My friend’

Present state The demise of a formally marked vocative is regarded by some scholars as a change brought about by the decline in numbers of native speakers. Certainly, the use of the vocative is most prevalent among native speakers, indeed with older speakers less under the influence of English.

Forms of address

Irish has no formal pronominal means of address, that is there is no T-V system as there is in all European languages, bar English (the symbol T stands for an informal pronoun, like French tu and V for a formal pronoun like French vous). But whereas English did have a T-V distinction with a T form – thou – used in informal situations among friends and family and a V form – ye – used in more formal situations, Irish never had this type of distinction. When addressing someone the only pronoun available is ‘you-SG’, the continuation of the original Indo-European second person singular personal pronoun, derived from the same root as Latin tu and Greek σύ.

In Irish the plural sibh ‘you-PL’ can only be used for more than one addressee. The situation in Scottish Gaelic is different. There a T-V distinction is found with sibh used for singular formal address, e.g. Ciamar a tha thu? ‘How are you?’ (informal, one individual) versus Ciamar a tha sibh? ‘How are you?’ (formal, one individual). The latter question can have a plural, informal reference as can sentences with vous in French, for instance. The pragmatic context is, however, always sufficient to disambiguate such sentences.

The pronouns of the second person in Irish have emphatic forms in which {SA} is suffixed. This suffix is palatalised when added to a form ending in a palatal consonant, hence sibh + {SA} is realised as sibhse, but + {SA} appears as tusa (with a shortening of the stem vowel).

Pronouns of address
2nd person singular 2nd person plural
‘you-SG’ sibh ‘you-PL’
tusa ‘you-EMPHATIC_SG’ sibhse ‘you-EMPHATIC_PL’

Discourse markers

Discourse markers are elements which serve a specific purpose in conversation and are not demanded by the grammar of the language in question. Such markers can serve a variety of purposes. They can add or reduce emphasis, they can increase the focus on a particular element or part of a sentence. They can also be used to steer a conversation, e.g. by marking a turn, the introduction of a new topic by a speaker. In this respect they are important in the give and take between speakers in a conversation.

The following examples are intended to give a rough idea of what discourse markers are available in Irish. There are differences here between the dialects as indicated below. However, usage is somewhat fluid and the alignment of forms with dialects given here should not be understood as watertight.

Augmentatives iontach, an-, millteach

The prefix an- is found across all dialects. In the south it triggers epenthesis (schwa insertion) between it and the following element which it qualifies assuming that the initial consonant of this element cannot form a legal cluster with the final /n/, e.g. an-mhaith /anəva/.

N, W, S: an- N: iontach W: millteach

Beidh sé an-te amárach. ‘It will be very hot tomorrow’
Bhí sé iontach fliuch anuraigh. ‘It was very wet last year’
Tá meall mór millteach ansin. ‘There is a big heap there’

Other augmentatives are realised via phrases or productive prefixes:

Tá sé thar a bheith spéisiúil. [is it beyond being interesting] ‘It is really interesting’
Tá sé dochreidte. [is it non+believable] ‘It is unbelievable’

Downtoners: saghas, cuíosach

Downtoners are the opposite of augmentatives and serve to relativise a statement by reducing the emphasis put on it. Again, there are different options in the different dialects.

N: rud beag W: saghas S: cuíosach

N: Tá sé rud beag fuar inniu. ‘It is rather cold today.’
W: Bhí an aimsir saghas maith. ‘The weather was rather good.’
S: Bhí an beilí cuíosach daor. ‘The meal was somewhat dear.’

Discourse markers are elements which travel easily between languages. The reason for this is probably that they are not integrated into the grammatical structure of a language and can be easily removed and just as easily integrated into the borrowing language for the same reason. Discourse markers from English are found in Irish, in some cases they continue to be common after their use has receded in the donor language, cf. by dad which is now quite dated in Irish English. An indication of the integration of borrowed discourse markers is their re-spelling via the means of the borrowing language, cf. bhfuel ‘well’.

By dad, tá an rás buaite aige. ‘By dad, he has won the race.’
Agus fair play di, rinne sí an obair. ‘And fair play to her, she did the work.’
Bhfuel, is dóigh liom go bhfuil sé ciontach. ‘Well, I suppose he is guilty.’

Borrowing is by no means the only source of discourse markers. There are many Irish ones, which are found in native usage, especially among older speakers, e.g. muise ‘indeed’ as in Muise, níl an t-airgead agam chun teach nua a thógáil ‘Indeed, I don’t have the money to build a new house’.

Direction and location in Irish

In Irish the expression of spatial relations is particularly well developed. There are many spatial adverbs which express such concepts as distance, confinement, movement or the lack of it, relation to a specified object, etc. In addition an extensive use is made of cardinal points of the compass to express movement and position.

Relativity proximity

Irish has three adverbs to express relative proximity to the speaker. The difference compared to English is that there are two adverbs expressing degrees of distance to the speaker (roughly equivalent to the distinction between ‘there’ and ‘yonder’ which used to exist in English).

Níl Pádraig anseo inniu. [a proximate] ‘here’
‘Pádraig is not here today.’  
Tá do cheannsa ansin ceart go leor. [b proximate] ‘there’
‘Your one is there all right.’  
Rachaimid ansiúd tar éis an dinnéir. [c proximate] ‘yonder’
‘We will go over there after dinner.’  

Vertical relations

Movement in a vertical direction, i.e. ‘up’ and ‘down’, can be combined with the notion of movement to give a series of spatial adverbs all of which end in a/os.

Chuaigh Diarmuid suas an staighre. ‘Dermot went up the stairs.’
Tháinig Diarmuid anuas an staighre. ‘Dermot came down the stairs.’
Tá Diarmuid thuas an staighre. ‘Dermot is upstairs.’
Chuaigh Bríd síos go dtí an trá. ‘Bridget went down to the strand.’
Tháinigh Bríd aníos ón trá. ‘Bridget came up from the strand.’
Tá Bríd thíos ar an trá. ‘Bridget is down on the strand.’

Horizontal relations

Similar movement, this time on a horizontal plane, is expressed with adverbs most of which end in -all, with movement away being realised by anonn. Movement to and fro is captured in the phrase anonn agus anall lit. ‘away and towards’.

Cuirtear sall thar an abhainn iad. ‘They were ferried across the river.’
Tá siad ag teacht anall anois. ‘They are coming from over there now.’
Bhí sí féin thall i Sasana uair amháin. ‘She herself was over in England once.’
Chuaigh sé anonn uaim. ‘He went away from me.’

The features [+/-confined], [+/-stationary] and [+/-relational]

Additional aspects of spatial expressions are encoded in other adverbs. Three semantic features – [+/-confined], [+/-stationary] and [+/-relational] – can be used to capture the distinctions realised here. Typical endings and/or prefixes are associated with these distinctions as can be seen in the following examples.

[+confined, +stationary]

Tá Seán istigh sa teach.
‘Seán is inside in the house.’

[+confined, -stationary]

Tar isteach sa chistín más mian leat.
‘Come into the kitchen if you want to.’

[-confined, -stationary]

Cathfaidh tú dul amach anois. ‘You have to go out now.’

[-confined, +stationary]

Bhí a athair amuigh (sa ghort) i rith an lae. ‘His father was out (in the field) during the day.’

[-confined, +stationary, +relational]

Tá duine éigin lasmuigh den teach. ‘Someone is outside the house.’
Tá duine éigin lasmuigh. ‘Someone is outside.’

Cardinal point reference

The cardinal points are very frequent to express general direction in Irish speech. This is true of older native speakers, though the practice appears to be on the decline among younger speakers and is not much in evidence in the speech of non-native speakers. The prevalence of cardinal point reference in former varieties of Irish English – as a transfer feature from Irish – may lead some speakers to regard such usage as stereotypically Irish and rather old-fashioned.

an tuaisceart ‘the North’ an deisceart ‘the South’
an t-oirthear ‘the East’ an t-iarthar ‘the West’

Stationary thuaidh, theas, thoir, thiar ‘in the north, south, east, west’
Direction to ó thuaidh, ó dheas, soir, siar ‘to the north, south, east, west’
Direction from aduaidh, aneas, anoir, aneas ‘from the north, south, east, west’

Bhí mé thuaidh sa samhradh. ‘I was up north for the summer.’
Rachainn ó dheas dá mbeadh mé in ann. ‘I would go south if I could.’
Beidh siad ag teacht anoir. ‘They will be coming from the east.’
Beidh mé ag dul siar an seachtain seo chugainn. ‘I will be going west next week.’
An ghaoth aniar aneas. ‘The south-west wind.’
[the wind from-the-west from-the-south]  

For more information on expressions of direction and location in Irish, follow this link which will load the PDF form of a longer article on this issue:

Direction and location in Modern Irish