Gaelic, the present tense and ‘X is Y’

I was having a chat the other day to someone about differences between Gàidhlig (Scottish Gaelic) and Gaeilge (Irish Gaelic), and also some of the issues with the grammar introduction sequencing in Duolingo.

Duolingo, as far as I can tell, built its core model tree on mapping English to the main European languages: Spanish, French, Italian, and German. In quite a few of those languages, the Present tense doubles as a Present continuous/progressive. So English “I eat” and “I am eating” can both be, say, “(Io) mangio” in Italian. Usually English speakers don’t have *too* much problem with this. Similarly, in most of those languages, the Present tense is fairly simple morphologically. So the first few lessons involve the present tense, and later on in the DL learning trees, you encounter other tenses. Participles come quite late.

Though, if you’re an English speaker, you don’t actually use the present tense for present continuous/progressive actions. You use the Present tense primarily for habitual/gnomic statements. “I eat cheese” is a habitual/general statement. We use participles, “I am eating” to form our present continuous/instantaneous tense.

This is problematic if one were to build a Gàidhlig course, because Gàidhlig doesn’t have a present tense except for the two “to be” verbs. So it’s actually quite difficult to build a course that starts with the ‘present general/habitual’ tense, so this would in fact be the non-past a.k.a. future/habitual tense. Most Gàidhlig courses teach the ‘to be’ verbs first and then introduce the ‘participle’ (actually a verbal noun), since all progressive/continuous tenses are formed with this combination of periphrastic tense.

At the same time, when you look at Direct Method readers of the kind of which I am so fond, one of the fundamental structures is something like “This is a boy”, “Donald is a man”, etc, X is Y. Unfortunately, Gàidhlig has what appears to be a grammatically complex way of expressing this. Firstly, there are two verbs to express “to be”, as in some other languages, but secondly the type of expression is varied based on whether the “Y” component is (i) adjective, (ii) definite noun, (iii) indefinite noun. And since people often want to start with (iii), this becomes:

‘Se duine a th’ ann an Dòmhnall

In literal English: It is a man that is “in” Donald.

If you parse out that sentence, it’s:

Contraction (Se + e), which is Copula Verb Is + pronoun marker e

noun: duine (man)

relative pronoun: a (who/that)

verb: tha (“to be”)

preposition: ann an (in, used existentially for phrases of the type “there is X)

noun: Dòmhnall (proper noun)

(This is part of a strong tendency to use cleft-structures and fronting in Gaelic, if you’re wondering)

That’s not easy to grammar out, certainly not for a beginner, but it’s the standard way to say X is Y (indefinite noun).

These two reasons are part of the reason I’ve never really embarked on writing a Direct Method reader for Gàidhlig. You would just have to start differently to circumvent these two issues which lead to accelerated complexity at just the very point one doesn’t want such complexity.

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