top of page
Faclan riatanach – indispensable words


When we are learning languages, we tend to focus on learning nouns and verbs, and there is nothing wrong with this. However, when you become even slightly competent in the language, you will start to be able to guess meanings of some nouns and verbs from context. You may find that this starts to happen even very early on (from around A1 level, which is when you know about 500 words: some point in the first few weeks of learning). On the other hand, it is almost impossible to guess the meaning of certain other words, and these words are often absolutely crucial to the meaning of the sentence. For instance, think about the following pair of sentences in English:


The man ran out of the house.

The man ran into the house.


The nouns and verb are the same in both, and yet the sentences have opposite meanings that could completely trip you up if you were trying to follow a conversation or understand a text. You should dedicate a good chunk of your early learning time to mastering these indispensable, unguessable words. These include prepositions, conjunctions and particles. Here are a few of each.


do – to, for, into

bho – from

agus – and

ach – but


Some Gaelic prepositions seem to have similar meanings if you translate them to English, but bear in mind that they are not always interchangeable: the apparent similarity is due to the two languages having a different understanding of prepositions and the way they work with verbs. So:


ri – to

à, às – from, out of


We never use ri with the idea of going “to”; instead, it is used with verbs of talking, listening, accompanying, etc. We never use à with the idea of receiving something; instead, it is used with the idea of coming out of a place or emitting something. On the other hand, bho can be used with both general movement and also with the idea of receiving something from someone.


no – or

le – with

ged – although

seach – since [because]


This is another place where you will have to be careful with the way you map your understand of the words in the two languages. English uses ‘since’ in two main ways: one of them is to do with time and the other is more or less as a synonym of ‘because’. We never use seach with the time meaning. However, seach does have a second common meaning in Gaelic:


seach – rather than, instead of

gun – without

tro – through

mu – about


There are many words and phrases in Gaelic that can be translated by ‘about’ in English, but their meanings are not always exactly the same. This short word mu is rather a general one and can be used with most senses of ‘about’.


Several of the simple (i.e. one-word) prepositions crop up literally all the time in Gaelic conversations and you absolutely need to know them. Here are a few of the most common:


air – on

ann – in

aig – at, by


Even in their base meaning as prepositions, these are very common words, of course. However, since Gaelic tends to use phrasal verbs very commonly, the common prepositions have a whole extra life as part of many of these idiomatic phrases. For instance, if you want to say ‘have’, you need to use the preposition aig. If you want to talk about an ailment or many other physical or psychological states, you need air. And, if you want to define things, you need ann.


Progressive Gaelic 1 lists the most common prepositions and also shows you how to use them in sentences or how to deal with them in the context of pronouns. Talking of pronouns, these form another set of indispensable (and, for the most part, fairly unguessable) words.


mi – I, me

thu – you

e – he, him

i – she, her

sinn – we, us

sibh – you [plural or polite]

iad – they, them


And the possessive versions are:


mo – my

do – your

a – his

a – her

ar – our

ur – your [plural or polite]

an/am – their


Some language teachers estimate that there are between 150 and 200 of these little words that are both indispensable and also unguessable. If you want to speed up your learning of Gaelic, you might do well to dig out as many of them as possible and really focus on making sure you know: (1) what they mean (in various contexts) and (2) how to use them (with different verbs, etc.). Most Gaelic courses make smaller lists of groups of these kinds of words, so it shouldn’t take you too much time to compile your own list. If you have a textbook, course notes, or some other resource that you use, simply scan through it and look for: (1) lists of prepositions, (2) lists of conjunctions, (3) lists of particles (like an, gun, nach), and (4) lists of pronouns. If I was learning Gaelic, I would then dedicate a few days to mastering each list, using the words in sentences that I already knew were correct. For instance, if I know that the following sentence is correct, I can change the bit I am trying to learn:


Dh’ith mi mo bhiadh


If I am trying to learn the possessives, I could then make a new sentence:


Dh’ith mi do bhiadh


There are many other little tricks you could use in order to master these indispensable words. In any case, you will definitely feel much more confident in all four of the language skills once you are sure you have learnt them properly.

Join the Progressive Gaelic Community

Thanks for submitting!

bottom of page