Old Irish


  • Language: Old Irish
  • Alternate names:
  • Language code:
  • Language family: Indo-European, Celtic, Insular, Goidelic
  • Number of speakers: Extinct
  • Script: Latin script


Old Irish is the name given to the oldest form of the Irish language, or, rather, the Goidelic languages, for which extensive written texts are possessed. It was used from the 6th to the 10th centuries, when it gave way to Middle Irish?.

A still older form of Irish is known as Primitive Irish?. Fragments of Primitive Irish, mainly personal names, are known from inscriptions on stone written in the Ogham alphabet. These inscriptions date from about the 4th to the 6th centuries. Primitive Irish is still very close to Common Celtic, the ancestor of all Celtic languages.

The verb

In Old Irish, verbs are inflected for voice, mood, tense, number and person.

There are two voices, active and passive. In the active, two inflections are distinguished, active and deponent, the latter of which is in its form similar to the passive but actually based on the Indo-European middle voice, which denotes that an action is carried out with reference or benefit to the subject. In the present selection, only active and passive finite verbal forms occur. There are numerous examples of active forms, e.g. boí 'it was', inlaat 'they prepare', fosruṁat 'they go', lotir 'they flew', etc. A passive form is found e.g. in sentence eighteen, in the 3 plural preterite passive toscartha 'they were separated'.

The passive has a special form for the 3rd person plural only, whereas the form of the 3rd person singular is used for all other persons; in these contexts an infixed pronoun (1st/2nd person singular/plural) must then be added to indicate the subject.

Three moods are distinguished. The indicative is used in declarative statements, the subjunctive indicates uncertainty, in subordinate clauses also volition or expectation, and the imperative serves for commands.

In the indicative, five tenses are distinguished: present, imperfect, preterite, future and secondary future. The present is used for present and universal or indefinite time, and is also very often employed as historical present to make a narration more vivid. This is observed e.g. in sentences five, eleven and twenty-one of the present text. The imperfect denotes repeated or customary action in the past, as illustrated by the verbs in sentences two and three, which describe the habitual behaviour of the birds. The preterite indicates past action or state. As is to be expected in narration, most of the verbal forms of the text are in the preterite. The future indicates future action, also action completed at a point of time in the future. The secondary future indicates an action which, when viewed from a definite point of past time, lay in the future, and also serves as potentialis and irrealis.

The subjunctive mood only differentiates between present and past, whereby the present subjunctive corresponds to the present and future indicative, and the past subjunctive corresponds to the imperfect and preterite indicative, and in some subordinate clauses can also serve as subjunctive of the secondary future.

In order to indicate that an act or state is perfect, completed, the verbal particle ro, which in origin is a preposition, can be combined with nearly all simple and most compound verbs. It gives perfective force to the preterite indicative and the past subjunctive, which otherwise have the meaning of a simple past, and with the imperfect denotes that an action is repeatedly completed in the past. It also has modal function, expressing possibility or ability (e.g. as°ro-ba(i)r 'he can say', from as°beir 'says').

The tenses and moods of the verbs are formed from five different stems:

Two main classes of verbs, strong and weak, can be distinguished according to the way in which they form these stems. Strong verbs are without exception primary, never derived, while weak verbs are mainly denominative. The difference between the two classes is most obvious in the 3 singular present indicative active, where a weak verb in the so-called conjunct inflection has the ending -a or -i, while a strong verb has no visible ending.

There are two numbers, singular and plural. Dual subjects take a plural verb. Both numbers distinguish three persons.

Sample verb: marbaid

C.f. also Insular Celtic verb endings.

Number Present
Absolute 2 Conjunct 3
Sg.1 marbu -marbu
Sg.1 marbaim -marbaim
Sg.2 marbai -marbai
Sg.3 marbaid -marba
rel. marbas1
Pl.1 marbmai -marbam
rel. marbmae1
Pl.2 marbthae -marbaid
Pl.3 marbait -marbat
rel. marb(a)te1


  1. Special relative forms of the verb incorporating the pronominal element exist in the absolute inflection for the third person singular and plural, active and passive, and generally also for the first person plural active in the present and future indicative as well as in the present subjunctive.
  2. Absolute inflection is employed for simple verbs in absolute sentence-initial position.
  3. Conjunct inflection is used after all kinds of preceding elements, such as prepositions, the verbal particles ro and no, the conjunctions and particles usually termed conjunct particles, and in the archaic construction where the verb stands at the end of its clause. An example of conjunct inflection is found in the second and third sentence, where the verbs, viz. notathigtis, naLġelltis, and connáfácbatis, are in the imperfect and therefore necessarily conjunct, since the imperfect has no absolute forms; its forms must therefore be preceded by the semantically void particle no whenever there is no preverb or conjunct particle to introduce them.