Habemus infinitivum necne

O Goireasan Akerbeltz
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No, not showing off, I had to ask a friend to correct my Latin (it's been a long time!) and there's a reason for the Latin name to the page. Here's a clue, it loosely translates as We have an infinitive, or do we?.

First things first

What's an infinitive and would it go with a glass of Château Musar? Probably as to the latter. As to the former, it's actually hard to say what it exactly is because the definition of the infinitive varies slightly depending on which language you're looking at.

Coming at it from English, the infinitive is often described as the dictionary form (also called the citation form) - for example to go or, dropping the to, simply go. It gets more complicated than that but I want to sidestep the definition of what the infinitive precisely is in English because it's a bit of a head-bender (and that's me you're talking to!) - plus it's not really a helpful concept for Gaelic as we'll see.

So anyway, this thing called the infinitive crops up in many European languages. For example in Spanish, the basic form of verbs (those ending in -ir, -er or -ar) is referred to as the infinitive (this also being the form you look for in the dictionary). For example morir "(to) die" or masticar "(to) chew". In German, the equivalent is -en, for example bedienen "(to) serve" or verniedlichen "(to) make cute". And so on.

What's the attraction?

Well... the infinitive is the basis for inflection on the whole (if the language in question inflects the language). Ignoring irregular verbs, if in English you know (to) place then you know that by adding -(e)d you get the past, by adding -(e)s you get the he/she/it form (he/she/it places) and by adding -ing you get the participle (placing).

You can also use them to make ungrammatical but somewhat intelligible sentences if you're not fluent. So something like I place money here yesterday or Ich lesen Buch, while not grammatical, can be understood. Which is why the infinitive is one of the first verb forms learners of English, German, Spanish or French learn, it allows you to say a lot relatively fast.

What about languages which are not English?

Depends. Some languages outside the Indo-European family entertain the idea of an infinitive. Others go even further and don't inflect at all - such as Cantonese where the verb 生 (sāng "to give birth") does not change at all. In fact it can also be a noun. No endings, no prefixes, no suffixes, no he/she/it -s ... nothing like that. You can add a word like 咗 () to indicate that this was in the past but is seen as an independent word, not part of sāng.

And then there are languages which entertain neither concept. Many Native American languages have nothing even approaching an English infinitive, as in, something that is wholly un-inflected, un-changed and basic. So what happens in a Lakhóta dictionary then, you might ask? No sweat. Lakhóta considers the most basic form of a verb to be the 3rd person singular. So while an English dictionary will list (to) sing, Lakhóta will list lowáŋ "he/she/it sings". Because if you look at the whole shebang, you'll see this is the form with the least amount of 'bits' stuck ok:

walowáŋ I sing
yalowáŋ you sing
lowáŋ he/she/it sings
lowáŋ we two sing
lowáŋpi we (more than two) sing
yalowáŋpi you (plural) sing
lowáŋpi they sing

Which brings us to Gaelic. In a Gaelic dictionary, the most un-inflected, un-changed and basic form of a verb is considered to be the imperative singular. The form you use to order one person around.

leugh! read!
seinn! sing!
gearr! cut!

That is because once you know what the imperative is, you can derive all but one of the required verb forms by applying a set of rules. Again, we're ignoring irregular verbs. So using gearr! as an example, you get the following:

gearraidh to form the independent future, add -(a)idh to the imperative
ghearras to form the relative future of a word beginning with b/c/d/g/m/p/s/t, lenite the initial and add -(e)as at the end
ghearramaid to form the conditional of a word beginning with b/c/d/g/m/p/s/t, lenite the initial and add -(e)amaid at the end

And so on. It's a fairly long list but on the whole entirely predictable.

The only form that is not predictable is the verbal noun. So just by looking at gearr, it's hard to guess how to say "cutting". It could be gearradh or gearrachdainn or gearramh or gearrail or gearrachd... and while there are usually forms common to many areas which are preferred (in this case gearradh), there is usually a lot of variation between dialects. So while one areas says gearradh, another might prefer gearrachdainn. Which isn't as confusing as it may sound because it's almost always clear from the word order that it is or isn't a verbal noun and in many cases, people are relatively used to not everyone using the same ending for verbal nouns.

Get to the darned infinitive already

Well, in a sense, you already have half the answer. If you equate the English infinitive with "the basic form of a verb that's listed in a dictionary" then you already know that this does not apply to Gaelic since Gaelic uses the imperative for this purpose.

But yes, there's a bit more to this story, because you're probably thinking of expressions like tha mi a' dol a bhualadh "I am going to hit a dog" or bu toigh leam a dhol a Ghlaschu "I want to go to Glasgow"

I've talked about this before - it's important to make a distinction between how something is constructed and how it's translated. On the face of it, this looks like an infinitive. After all, the English equivalent has "to go" and there's that handy little word a which the dictionary tells me means "to".

Yes, except you probably ignored the bit where it says prep(osition) or something like that. Let's analyse our Gaelic sentence word for word:

tha mi a' dol a bhualadh
be.PRES.IND I at going to LEN.hitting dog

The a in front of bhualadh unfortunately is not an infinitive particle or anything like that. It's the reduced form of the preposition do "to(wards)". The one that goes dhomh/dhut/dha/dhi... It's just that in Modern Gaelic, after a verb of motion such as dol you don't use the full form do but the reduced form a. So a clearer translation would be

tha mi a' dol a bhualadh
be.PRES.IND I at going towards LEN.hitting dog

You're probably actually already comfortable with this construction - just swap the bhualadh with a place name, for example:

tha mi a' dol a Ghlaschu
be.PRES.IND I at going to(wards) LEN.Glasgow

and you most likely wouldn't bat an eyelid. It's the same a (< do "to(wards)").

Of course the fact that in translation it looks like and English infinitive doesn't help. But if instead of saying "going to hitting a dog" you say "going towards hitting a dog" it might be a bit more apparent.

But what about that other one?

I was getting there. So there are sentences like the following:

bu toigh leam leabhar a leughadh
COND agreeableness with.me book INF reading
bu toigh leam a bhualadh
COND agreeableness with.me dog INF LEN.hitting

This is where you must pay very close attention to the difference between an infinitive and an infinitive(-like) construction.

English has a genuine infinitive, that un-changed and basic form of verbs ("(to) sit/eat/drink/run/read/like..."). You can use the infinitive in English to derive other verb forms (like > likes; liked; liking; liketh...). Or you can use it to make infinitive constructions. That would be a sentence that contains a verb in the infinitive, such as I like to read.

Still with me? Ok so what we have in those Gaelic sentences are infinitive(-like) constructions. They are called infinitive-like because they get translated into English using an infinitive. But look again at the verbs in the Gaelic sentences. Yes, that's right, they're just boring old verbal nouns, reading and going with an a slapped in front of it. The a is indeed called an infinitive particle (you may want to check out the page on The many functions of ə) but it's only called that because of its function. It causes lenition but unlike in English, it is not followed by a verb in the infinitive but rather a verbal noun.

Which means that the Gaelic looks a bit like an infinitive-like construction and that the translation (into English) uses an infinitive but neither of these two things mean that therefore Gaelic has a basic, un-changed, un-inflected form of the verb that you can use like sit/eat/drink/run/read/like.

What about a dhol and a bhith?

It wouldn't be Gaelic now if there wasn't an odd one. Normally, if there is no object you just slap the verbal noun after your modal verb or expression, such as

bu toigh leam seinn
COND agreeableness with.me singing
faodaidh tu falbh
may you going
chan urrainn dhomh snàmh
NEG ability to.me swimming

But if the verbal noun happens to be dol or bith (and in some dialects tighinn is also affected), the infinitive particle gets slapped in front of dol, bith (and tighinn):

bu toigh leam a dhol dhan sgoil
COND agreeableness with.me INF LEN.going to.the school
I would like to go to school
bu toigh leam a thighinn dhachaigh a-rithist
COND agreeableness with.me INF LEN.coming homewards again
I would like to come home again
an caomh leat a bhith ag éisteachd?
INTERR gentle with.you INF LEN.being PARTICIPLE listening
would you like to be listening?

Just those two. Don't ask me why. Of course you can combine them:

bu toigh leam a dhol a Ghlaschu
COND agreeableness with.me INF LEN.going to(wards) LEN.Glasgow

But I have a book which says there is an infinitive

Paper is patient as the Germans say. It will hold E=m2 just the same as an election leaflet promising a land of milk and honey.

Firs of all, there are many different particles in Gaelic which are just written a and keeping them apart. Secondly, many people writing about grammar have come from a university background where traditionally the description of grammar (of any language) is or was heavily influenced by Latin and Greek. Like a pair of shades, it kind of colours your vision without thinking. I had the same issue when I ran into Native American languages the first time where very few of the European concepts of grammar go very far.

So one is a bit prone to seeing these Latin and Greek categories and trying to make them fit and describe everything else as "exceptions". Take unit 95 from (the otherwise excellent) Scottish Gaelic in Twelve Weeks where you're told that:

Infinitive are used with the following auxiliary verbs and idioms:
(a) the modal verbs feum and faod
(b) modal idioms expressing obligation
(c) a number of idioms expressing 'wanting, liking, hoping, capability, remembering, obligation, managing'
(d) verbs expressing motion or intent
(e) the verb sguir 'cease'

This list unfortunately conflates at least three different things, which isn't helpful. To begin with, (a), (b) and (c) are really the same thing. It's a longish way of saying "modal verbs and expressions" - for starters, there are others aside from feum and faod.

The fourth one, (d), kind of refers both to a-c (the intent) part and expressions of motion - which is something else as we saw. The examples in Scottish Gaelic in Twelve Weeks under (d) are really what we already talked of above, instances of the reduced form of do "to(wards)":

chaidh Iain a cheannach
(PAST).go Iain to(wards) LEN.crying

This is blatantly obvious in the third example:

thàinig Anna a dh'fhaicinn
(PAST).come Ann to(wards) dh'.LEN.seeing

The combination of dh' appearing alongside lenition is textbook behaviour for do "to(wards)". Compare sentences like the following you'll be very familiar with:

thoir an leabhar do dh'Fhionnlagh
give DEF.ART book to(wards) dh'.LEN.Finlay
thug e ubhal do dh'Fhearchar
PAST.give he apple to(wards) dh'.LEN.Fergus

And (e) is again a misreading of the a that appears in such constructions. Some verbs simply take certain prepositions, sguir normally taking de. So the a in the case of sguir is just the worn down form of de. So re-analysing the example from Scottish Gaelic in Twelve Weeks, it's a simple case of:

sguir iad a chaoineadh
(PAST).stop they PART LEN.crying

being the shortened version of

sguir iad de chaoineadh
(PAST).stop they PART LEN.crying

Scottish Gaelic in Twelve Weeks then goes on to talk about Indirect objects of infinitives - there isn't a hint of anything infinitive-ish in the Gaelic and the only reason why the chapter is called thus is because the English translation uses infinitives. In Gaelic, it's just our friend the verbal noun:

bu toil leam bruidhinn ri Seumas
COND.copula pleasant with.me speaking against James

But because the translation of this is I would like to speak to James, this is suddenly labelled an infinitive.

In a word

Practically speaking, this means:

  1. don't go hunting for references to the infinitive in Gaelic. You're wasting your time. There is nothing approaching this kind of basic verb form in Gaelic. That's just the way it is.
  2. the dictionary form of a Gaelic verb is the imperative (order form).
  3. after a verb of motion (most commonly a' dol) the a is a reduced form of the preposition "to(wards)"
  4. in inverted phrases (such as bu toigh leam leabhar a leughadh), what you get is the relative particle a plus a verbal noun. Which is often translated into English with an infinitive but that doesn't make Gaelic have one of those.

So the whole hunt for a Gaelic infinitive is fuelled mainly

  • by learners hoping for a quick fix
  • and by linguists (in the old days) trying to squeeze all languages into the corset of grammatical terms that work in Latin and Greek.
  • by various people looking at the English sentence and thinking "English has an infinitive here, so Gaelic must have one too"


Now, what's inversion?