The progressive in Irish

Published · 3min

It’s funny. When I started this, I didn’t think the first proper post here I’d make would be on Irish grammar. This assumes a certain basic knowledge of Irish, such as word order and basic vocabulary. Tweet at me with any feedback.

Like English, but unlike many other European languages, Irish and English both make a very sharp distinction between the simple indicative (‘I do something’) vs the progressive indicative (‘I am doing something’). However, Irish makes some further distinctions that English lumps into the progressive which can seem a bit weird to an English speaker, the most important being state-of-being.

To show the difference, we’ll take the verbs siúil meaning ‘walk’ and codail, meaning ‘sleep’, whose verbal nouns are ‘siúl’ and ‘codladh’ respectively. In English, we’d say ‘She is walking’ or ‘He is sleeping’ for each of these, but in Irish, we make a distinction due to the nature of these action. In the case of walking, it’s something you continuously actively do, whereas in the case of sleeping, it’s a state you’re in for an extended period of time, so it’s not really the same kind of progressive action being performed.

In the first case, the simple progressive is used. This is formed with the preposition ag followed by a verbal noun. So, in the case of ‘she is walking’, you’d say ‘Tá sí ag siúl’. However, you can’t say ‘Tá sé ag codladh’, as this would imply the person is actively, consciously sleeping. Instead, a different construction is used to denote a progressive state-of-being: ‘Tá sé ina chodladh’, which literally translates as ‘he is in his sleeping’.

This state-of-being progressive is formed from the preposition i (meaning ‘in’), followed by a possessive pronoun agreeing with the subject, and the the verbal noun.

If you were to use this state-of-being progressive with a verb that typically takes the simple progressive, it would imply that the person wasn’t actively, consciously performing the action. So if somebody were to say ‘Táim i mo shiúl’, it would almost imply that they were walking around like a zombie!

Most of the time it’s obvious which progressive should be used under which circumstances, and which verbs it would be odd to use a particular progressive form with. There are some oddballs, however, such as rith (meaning ‘run’), which, in spite of intuitively being a verb you’d use with the simple progressive[*], is actually used with the state-of-being progressive. Thus, if you wanted to say ‘I am running’ rather than saying ‘Táim ag rith’, you’d say ‘Táim i mo rith’.

Some verbs are rarely used in the simple indicative form, and are instead always progressive because they indicate some long-lasting state. The verb cónaigh (meaning ‘live, reside, rest’) is one of these. If you wanted to say ‘I live in Carlow’, you wouldn’t say ‘Cónaím i gCeatharlach’, but instead ‘Táim i mo chónaí i gCeartharlach’. This is because residing somewhere is a state you are in, not something that happens in an instant.

[*]And nowadays often is by second-language speakers, though this could be a dialectical things I’m not aware of, given I was brought up in the north-west, and that’s what I’m familiar with. Corrections are welcome.