Useful Gaelic word: fèin

Sinn Féin – ourselves <em>Picture: Keresaspa</em>
Sinn Féin – ourselves Picture: Keresaspa
fèin – self

Listen to the pronunciation guide

The word is often spelt féin in older books and the resemblance to the Irish word féin – as is Sinn Féin – is not a coincidence. Fèin and féin are the same words and mean the same thing. Sinn Féin means “ourselves” in Irish and in Scottish Gaelic.

In the modern language, the word fèin often changes. In the past, Gaels said, or at least wrote, mi féin – “myself”, thu féin – “yourself”, e féin – “himself”, i fèin – “herself”, and so forth. In the modern language, at least in most dialects, we say mi fhìn, thu fhèin, e fhèin, sinn fhìn – “ourselves”, sibh féin – “yourselves” (plural), iad fhèin – “themselves”.

Some speakers, especially in Lewis, insert a p-sound when saying sibh fèin, so that it sounds like si pèin. Readers who remember the Angus Òg cartoons in the Daily Record may recall that the islanders often use “myself”, “yourself”, “himself” and so forth in conversation when standard English would simply use “me”, “you”, “him”, “her” etc.

Gaelic speakers are keen on using different forms of pronouns in order to emphasise what they might be talking about. The English sentence “I shall do that” could be translated Nì mi sin, Nì mise sin or Nì mi fhìn sin. It depends on what the speaker wants to emphasise. With Nì mi sin, the speaker is stressing that he will do the action in question, that the action will be done – as in saying “Don’t worry, it will be done”.

With the other two, the speaker is stressing that he or she is the person who will do it, effectively saying “I am the one who will be doing that” as opposed to anyone else. These forms are called emphatic pronouns by grammar experts. The mise and the mi fhèin forms have identical meanings in modern Gaelic.

Learners of the language should not be scared of this feature in Gaelic. It takes practice to use them all in common speech. But the easy bit about these forms is that if you get them a bit mixed up, people will not misunderstand. Gaelic-speaking children often first use these emphatic forms of pronouns rather than the mi, thu, e, i etc which learners first encounter.

For completeness, here are all the forms of pronouns in modern Gaelic which we have not mentioned above. Mi/mise – I, thu/thusa – you, e/esan – he, i/ise – she, sinn/sinne – we, sibh/sibhse – you (plural), iad/iadsan – they.

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