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The Feminine Dative in Gaelic | Macgeoffster's Blog

The Feminine Dative in Gaelic

So in class the other night, the topic was the Feminine Dative in Scottish Gaelic. The Dative Case is also known as the Prepositional Case in some circles. The concept is not that difficult - feminine nouns traditionally are slenderized in Gaelic in the dative.

Note: I learned from Scottish teachers and the use of the Feminine Dative has fallen out of use. For me, personally, all nouns operate the same in the dative case, regardless of grammatical gender. However, it's useful to know about the Feminine Dative, especially if you read older books. Otherwise, you might be confused about the unusual spellings.

Note: In contemporary Gaelic, indefinite nouns remain in the nominative form in the dative case. The dative form is only used when the definite article is present (Progressive Gaelic 2, by Moray Watson, 2012, p. 133). Also, the plural dative forms faded from use last century, except in a few fossilized phrases (Progressive Gaelic 3, by Moray Watson, 2017, 2017, p. 86). Plural dative forms are the same as in the nominative case.

The implementation is probably more difficult than the concept for a couple reasons. First, it means that one has to remember which nouns are grammatically feminine. I covered the topic of grammatical gender in another blog post.

The second thing that must be remembered is the process of slenderization. Remember, lenition is a front-end mutation, and slenderization is a back-end mutation. Slenderization occurs in several grammatical contexts (Vocative Case (masculine), Genitive Case, and often when making comparative forms of adjectives, just to name a few), so one must know how to do it.


At its most simple, slenderization is inserting the letter 'i' after the last broad vowel in a word. But…

  • If the last vowel in the word is already 'e' or 'i', the word is already slender and we don't add another 'i'.
  • If the word ends in a vowel, we don't add an 'i' to the end.
  • If the word ends in -chd, we don't add the 'i'.
  • There are irregular slenderizations, too

Slenderization Matrix:
Sometimes an internal vowel change is necessary to implement slenderization and this process follows a regular pattern. These were the changes examined in class:

a oi
o ui
ea ei
ea i
ia èi
ìo ì

For the sake of completeness, there are three more of these vowel changes that occur for slenderization:

eu eoi
eu ei
eo iùi

NOTE: Another comment on completeness - in a couple grammatical situations, slenderization is completed by adding an 'e' to the end of the word on grammatically feminine words. This is not necessary for the Feminine Dative, but I thought that while we were talking about slenderization, I would mention it. The 'e'-thing will be brought up in other posts as it is needed.

Examples of Feminine Dative

I have scoured the sources that I have in my library and found these examples of the Feminine Dative.

Note: The examples below have number in parentheses, the numbers represent the source (see the list in the next section), and the page number of the example.

No change
an abhainn \ the river (7, p. 29) (already slender)
an acair \ the anchor (9, p. 78) (already slender)
an anail \ the breath (9, p. 78) (already slender)
a' bhanais \ the wedding (5, p. 40) (already slender)
a' bharail \ the opinion (9, p. 78) (already slender)
a' bhàrdachd \ the poetry (5, p. 39) (ends in -chd)
a' bheannachd \ the blessing (11, p. 86) (ends in -chd)
a' Bheurla \ English (language) (7, p. 29) (ends in a vowel)
a' bhó \ the cow (5, p. 40) (ends in a vowel)
a' bhrà \ the quern, mill (9, p. 81) (ends in a vowel)
a' bhraich \ the malt (10, p. 71) (already slender)
a' bhriogais \ the trousers (5, p. 38) (already slender)
a' bhriosgaid \ the biscuit (cookie) (5, p. 38) (already slender)
a' bhuille \ the beat (music), punch (fighting) (9, p. 81) (already slender)
a' chaora \ the sheep (7. p. 29) (ends in a vowel)
a' chathair \ the chair, city (4, p. 92) (already slender)
a' chèilidh \ ceilidh, visit (7, p. 29) (already slender)
a' chìr \ comb (5, p. 38) (already slender)
a' chiste \ the chest, trunk (5, p. 39) (already slender)
a' chnò \ the nut (9, p. 81) (ends in a vowel)
a' choille \ the forest (5, p. 37) (already slender)
a' choinnleir \ the candlestick (9, p. 81) (already slender)
a' chòir \ the right (9, p. 78) (already slender)
a' chuid \ the share, portion (10, p. 71) (already slender)
an dàil \ the delay, interval (9, p. 78) (already slender)
an deise \ the suit (of clothes) (11, p.90) (already slender)
an deoch \ the drink (10, p. 71) (irregular)
an eaglais \ the church (4, p. 92) (already slender)
an earb \ the doe (9, p. 75) (irregular)
an fhaidhir \ the fair (9, p. 78) (already slender)
an fhàinne \ the ring (11, p. 90) (already slender)
an fheachd \ the cold (11, 86) (ends in -chd)
an fheòil \ the meat (4, p. 92) (already slender)
an fhiacaill \ the tooth (9, 76) (already slender)
an fhuil \ the blood (10, p. 71) (already slender)
a' Ghàidhealtachd \ the Highlands (1, p. 84) (-achd, already feminine and don't slenderize)
a' Ghàidhlig \ Gaelic (language) (7, p. 29) (already slender)
a' gheòla \ the dingy (5, p. 40) (ends in a vowel)
a' ghloine \ the glass (vessel) (5, p. 38) (already slender)
an iris \ the magazine (4, p. 92) (already slender)
an iuchair \ the key (9, p.78) (already slender)
an leabaidh \ the bed (4, p. 92) (already slender)
an léine \ the shirt (11, p. 90) (already slender)
an litir \ the letter (7, p. 29) (already slender)
an luch \ the mouse (9, p. 76) (irregular)
a' mhadainn \ the morning (4, p. 92) (already slender)
a' mhala \ the eyebrow (5, p. 37) (words ending in vowels don't slenderize)
a' mhàthair \ the mother (1, p. 85) (already slender)
a' mhil \ the honey (5, p. 38) (already slender)
a' mhìle \ the mile (9, p. 81) (already slender)
a' mhin \ the flour (5, p. 37) (already slender)
an naidheachd \ the news (7, p. 29) (ends in -chd)
an nathair \ the snake (9, p. 78) (already slender)
an obair \ the work (1, p. 84) (already slender)
an oidhche \ the night (4, p. 92) (already slender)
an oifis \ the office (4, p. 92) (already slender)
a' phàirc \ the park (5, p. 40) (already slender)
a' pheasair \ the pea (9, p. 78) (already slender)
a' phìob \ the pipe, the bagpipes (1, p. 84) (already slender)
a' phònair \ the bean (9, p. 78) (already slender)
an sgoil \ the school (4, p. 92) (already slender)
an t-slighe \ the way (11, p. 90) (already slender)
an t-sràid \ the street (4, p. 92) (already slender)
an t-sùil \ the eye (9, p. 75) (already slender)
an tìr \ the land, country (9, p. 66) (already slender)
an togail \ the building, structure (9, p. 78) (already slender)
an uaigh \ the grave (11, p. 86) (already slender)
an uair \ hour (7, p. 29) (already slender)
an ùine \ duration, period of time (7, p. 29) (already slender)

[There was an interesting guideline in Ronald Black that stated that a slender final vowel was a marker of feminine nouns in the nominative (see the post on grammatical gender)? If a word is already slender in the nominative, it's going to be slender in the dative by default, resulting in no change. That means that it's the words that don't follow that guideline in the nominative which need the slenderization matrix to make them slender in the dative.]

For the following list, this format is used: Nominative || Dative.

Insert 'i' after last broad vowel
an adharc || an adhairc \ the horn (11, p. 86)
a' bhanarach || a' bhanaraich \ the milkmaid (5, 38) (throwback!)
a' bhròg || a' bhròig \ the shoe (1, p. 90)
a' bhruach || a' bhruaich \ the bank (of a river) (1, p. 82)
a' chlàrsach || a' chlàrsaich \ the harp (5, p. 39)
a' chluas || a' chluais \ the ear (2, p. 68)
a' chraobh || a' chraoibh \ the tree (1, p. 82)
a' ghaoth || a' ghaoith \ the wind (11, p.86)
a' ghealach || a' ghealaich \ the moon (3, p. 117)
a' ghlas || a' ghlais \ lock, canal lock (5, p. 38)
a' ghruag || a' ghruaig \ the hair, wig (6, p. 31)
an làmh || an làimh \ the hand (1, p. 82)
an lùb || an lùib \ the loop, curve (1, p. 82)
a' mhuc || a' mhuic \ the pig (6, p. 31)
an òrdag || an òrdaig \ the thumb (11, p. 86)
a' phiuthar || a' phiuthair \ the sister (1, p. 85)
an rionnag || an rionnaig \ the star (3, p. 117)
an t-slat || an t-slait \ the rod (9, p.68)
an t-sròn || an t-sròin \ the nose (1, p. 82)
an tuagh || an tuaigh \ the axe (11, p. 86)
an tunnag || an tunnaig \ the duck (11, p. 86)

a oi
a' bhas || a' bhois \ the palm (of a hand) (2, p. 68)
a' cas || a' chois \ the leg/foot (1, p. 82)
a' chlach || a' chloich \ the stone (9, p. 68)
a' chlann || a' chloinn \ the children (2, p. 68)
an fhras || an fhrois \ the shower (9, p. 69)

ea ei
a' chaileag || a' chaileig \ the wee lassie (1, p. 82)
a' choinneamh || a' choinneimh \ the meeting (5, p. 39)
a' chreag || a' chreig \ the rock, cliff (5, p. 39)
an fhaoileag || an fhaoileig \ the seagull (5, p. 37)
an uinneag || an uinneig \ the window (1, p. 84)

ea i
a' chailleach || a' chaillich \ the old woman (1, p. 84)
a' chearc || a' chirc \ the hen, chicken (5, p. 37)
an neas || an nise \ the weasel (11, p. 87)
an nighean || an nighinn \ the daughter, girl (7, p. 29)

eu → ei
a' bhreug || a' bhréig \ the lie, falsehood (9, p. 74)
a' gheug || a' ghéig \ the branch, bough (1, p. 82)

ia èi
a' ghrian || a' ghrèin \ the sun (7, p. 29)

ìo ì
a' chrìoch || a' chrìch \ the border, boundary (9, p. 74)

o ui
an long || an luing \ the ship (11, p. 87)
an lorg || an luirg \ the staff, stalk, shaft (11, p. 87)

a' bhean || a' mhnaoi \ the wives (2, p. 69)
an sgian || an sgithinn \ the knives (2, p. 69)

It's almost disappointing to see the relative proportions of each category, considering the perceived difficulty of the topic. I didn't even find examples of feminine nouns that applied to every entry in the slenderization matrix! Granted, this isn't a complete list and may not include a proper sample, however, it seems that most feminine words either don't change, or they slenderize in the basic way. Also, I did not include every example that could be found in the books, especially if only the nominative and genitive forms were given.


Let's see what the sources have to say.

Disclaimer: I consider all these sources to be treasures in my library and refer to them often. All these sources are useful in varying ways and I hope that my comments will be taken in the manner they are intended - simply as a useful guide to learners who want to research more. This also functions as a kind of bibliography for the information in this post.

Note: Most of the older books discuss noun changes (sometimes called inflection) using declensions. Just as verbs are conjugated, nouns are declined. However, discussing declensions has fallen out of favor in recent decades and I can't remember being in a language class which presented this material in that way. One day I would like to spend the time to wrap my head around it to see what magic occurs. Also, different sources have differing numbers of declensions, adding to the joy.

I think one of the reasons that the presentation of declensions has fallen out of favor is because it frequently uses the genitive case as a foundation. I think that the discussion of the genitive - and the fear of it, should be reserved for another blog post.

  1. Cothrom Ionnsachaidh, by Ronald Black, pp. 82-84, 1997.
    (A) Instead of a specific section for the Feminine Dative, information can be found in Section 7.8 - Slenderisation. The slenderization matrix is given (the best table, with examples, anywhere). Section 7.9 - Sample Declensions provides more examples, but beware that the examples include nominative, genitive, and dative - in that order. A 'Declension So Far: Quick Summary' flow chart is given on page 90 which is useful. There are other declension sections in following units, too.
  2. Scottish Gaelic in Twelve Weeks, by Roibeart Ó Maolalaigh and Iain MacAonghuis, p. 68, 2011.
    (A-) The Feminine Dative is mentioned briefly on page 68 and the point is made that its' use in spoken Gaelic is declining but it is often retained in literary Gaelic. Appendix 1, on page 183, contains the slenderization matrix.
  3. Complete Gaelic (Formerly Teach Yourself Gaelic), by Boyd Robertson and Iain Taylor, pp. 116-118, 2010.
    (A-) There is a brief discussion of the Feminine Dative within the discussion of the dative case on pages 116-118 and pages 185-186. I didn't find a discussion of the slenderization matrix or a section specifically on slenderization - and I searched in the ebook version as well. Slenderization is not listed in the index of the book.
  4. Progressive Gaelic 1, by Moray Watson, pp.90-98, 2012.
    Unit 11 is titled "Feminine Dative." It has a nice discussion about slenderizing feminine nouns in the dative, and that accompanying adjectives that directly modify feminine nouns also slenderize (agreement of adjectives is really best left for another post). While a few examples are given, there isn't much discussion of internal vowel changes or the slenderization matrix. There is a 'Dative recap' on page 133 of Progressive Gaelic 2. Progressive Gaelic 3 has a larger discussion on the dative, but not a lot of discussion or examples on internal vowel changes. This may be because the author downplays the slenderization of feminine nouns in the dative in contemporary use.
  5. Teach Yourself Gaelic, by Roderick Mackinnon, pp. 36-37, 1971
    (B) This old book provides general rules for forming the Feminine Dative case. There are a few additional points on p. 61. It does not present the slenderization matrix here, though. It reserves that for the nine lessons on the genitive.
  6. Gràmar na Gàidhlig, by Michel Byrne, p. 31, 2004.
    Slenderization in the Feminine Dative is briefly mentioned on page 31. No slenderization matrix is given, but in the section on the genitive there is a discussion of internal vowel changes (due to slenderization).
  7. Bun-Chursa Gàidhlig, by Bill Blacklaw, pp. 28-29, 1991
    This book mentions the topic and gives the most basic idea of slenderization. It doesn't provide the slenderization matrix and takes the approach of listing the 'words presented so far' with the dative form. There are exercises, which is always nice.
  8. Colloquial Scottish Gaelic, by Katherine M. Spadaro and Katie Graham, p. 123 & p. 244, 2001
    There are brief mentions of the topic in two places in this book where the dative case is discussed.
  9. Elementary Course of Gaelic, by Duncan Reid, 1968.
    Being an old book, it takes the old school route of 'Declensions of Nouns.' This means that the presentation groups words together as they behave similarly in each case (of nouns). It lists five declensions, and the nominative, dative, and genitive appear in each declension, so it is not possible to look up 'Feminine Dative' easily.
  10. Beginner's Gaelic, by James MacLaren, 1999.
    Another old book and it 'slices and dices' this topic among declensions as well. It is not easy to extract 'Feminine Dative' out of this.
  11. A Gaelic Grammar, by George Calder, 1990.
    This is an older book as well, and 'slices and dices' this topic among declensions, too. Slenderization matrix on page 80. Feminine declensions pp. 86-98.
  12. Gaelic without Groans, by John Mackechnie, 1981
    I could not find any specific mention of the topic in this book, and there is no index or table of contents.
  13. Everyday Gaelic, by Morag MacNeill, 2007
    I could not find any mention of this topic in the grammar section of this book.


Remembering that for most people these days, the feminine dative doesn't change, and both grammatical genders behave the same in the dative case.

When implementing the slenderization of feminine nouns in the dative, it seems most words either don't change, or slenderize in the basic way - adding an 'i' after the last broad vowel. The slenderization matrix, used for implementing internal vowel changes, seems to be used in perhaps a quarter of the feminine nouns. It would be good to study slenderization as it is used in other grammatical settings. Don't be afraid of the slenderization matrix!

This exercise has been really interesting for me and if you've read this far, perhaps it was interesting for you, too.