An bhfuil cead agam dul go dtí an leithreas? — a primer on Irish syntax
Some claim that An bhfuil cead agam dul go dtí an leithreas? (May I go to the toilet?) is often the only phrase that people remember from their Irish lessons in school, and some use it to prank people unfamiliar with the language by claiming that it's how you say “You will forever be in my heart” or similar. However, that phrase actually makes an excellent illustration of the basic Irish morphology and syntax, so let's examine it in detail.
Obligatory disclaimer: I’m not actually a linguist, I just play one on the Internet, so things I say may not be fully correct.
That phrase is pronounced more or less like this: [ɔn wilʲ cʲad əgɔm dɔl go dʲi: ən lʲehrʲas].
One thing of note is that many sources, like the Wikipedia article on Irish phonology, put the velarization sign (ˠ) on every consonant that isn’t palatalized. I don’t know why — the n in the Irish an doesn’t sound any more velar to me than that in the English indefinite article “an”. It may be just to remind the reader that there’s a systematic contrast between palatalized and velarized consonants in Irish or to mess with their eyes. In any case, if no one minds, I will use that sign only when there’s clearly audible and semantically significant velarization, like in cill [cʲillʲ] (church) versus coill [cˠillʲ] (forest).
We will go from the end. Leithreas [lʲehrʲəs] means “toilet”. I’m pretty sure it’s cognate with “latrine” — but I’ll save the discussion of reasons for this guess for my upcoming article on Irish phonology and pronunciation.
An in an leithreas is the definite article, so an leithreas is “the toilet”. There is no indefinite article in Irish, for better or worse. The article “an” is also used for both feminine and masculine nouns, but you still need to know the noun gender to use it correctly. The reason is that in feminine nouns, it triggers an initial consonant mutation. Specifically, it triggers lenition (séimhiú) — a mutation that, generally, turns occlusives into fricatives.
For example, suppose you want to go to a more pleasant place — the kitchen. The Irish for kitchen is cistin [kʲiʃtʲinʲ] and it’s a feminine noun, so with the definite article, it would be an chistin [xʲiʃtʲinʲ].
Go dtí [go di:] is “to”. It’s largely a fossilized form, so we will not dwell on it too much. This form is commonly used when the noun has something in front of it, like a possessive pronoun of the definite article. If it doesn’t, “to” is usually just go: go Corcaigh (to Cork), go Luimneach (to Limerick), and so on.
Dul is a verbal noun that means (the act of) “going”.. Its verb is téigh — the dictionary form of the verb is normally the second person present tense imperative. You can look up its other forms in a dictionary. Thankfully, not so many verbs in Irish are that irregular. However, some are irregular in ways that don’t have equivalents in other languages, as we’ll see a bit later. Verbal nouns are incredibly widely used in Irish compared to many other Indo-European languages. For example, they are used to express the progressive aspect: “are you going to the toilet?” would be an bhfuil tú ag dul go dtí an leithreas?.
Now let’s examine the cead agam part. Cead is the Irish for “permission”. In a Germanic language like English or German, you normally use modal verbs to talk about permissions, obligations, and similar concepts: “I may go”, “I must go”, and so on. Irish is strangely devoid of modal verbs and those ideas are expressed with nouns instead: you say that you have permission, or love, or hate for something.
You may be worried that we are almost done with the sentence and we still haven’t found the pronoun “I” in it. Well, it’s because there’s no pronoun in that sentence. Irish has inflected prepositions that change for number and person. Agam is “at-me”. The base form of it is ag. If your hypothetical friend Seán wants to go to the toilet but he’s too afraid to ask, you can do it for him like this: an bhfuil cead ag Seán dul go dtí an leithreas?. Check out the dictionary entry for “ag” and you’ll see its seven inflected forms.
Now let’s examine the remaining words: an bhfuil [ɔn wilʲ]. Let me say up front that bhfuil is the verb in that sentence. More specifically, it’s a form of the verb bí — the Irish for “be”. Again, not for “to be” — there are no infinitives in Irish. Bí is a second person imperative that could be used in a phrase like bí linn! (“[you a single person,] be with us!”). Things get funny from there.
That an is not the same as an in an leithreas. An in an leithreas is the definite article. Since bhfuil is a verb, it cannot come with an article, right? Indeed, that an is a completely different word that just happens to look the same. In that context, it’s a preverbal particle that is used for questions. Another preverbal particle is nach [nax]: nach bhfuil cead agam dul go dtí an leithreas? would mean “don’t I have permission to go to the toilet?”.
So, suppose the person you are asking grants you permission to go to the toilet. What would the answer sound like? In its fullest possible form, it’s going to be tá cead agat dul go dtí an leithreas. In the real speech, it’s probably going to be tá cead agat or just tá.
Like all Insular Celtic languages, Irish is a VSO (verb-subject-object) language. The verb always comes first. So, tá is a verb — and it’s another form of the verb bí.
The reason is that in Irish, some verbs have distinct forms for use with preverbal particles. Such forms are called “dependent forms”. The present tense dependent form of “bí” that is used in statements is “tá”. The dependent form is, technically, fuil. However, preverbal particles trigger mutations so you never actually see that pure form: it’s either an/nach bhfuil or níl. Níl is technically ní (a negative particle) plus fhuil — fuil with the “f” rendered silent by lenition.
I can’t promise that this knowledge will open the doors of every toilet in Ireland for you, but it certainly will not hurt.