An Taoiseach vs The Taoiseach

Ken writes:

One occasionally reads sentences such as the following:

Introducing An Taoiseach to the conference delegates, The President of UCD, Dr Hugh Brady spoke of Mr Ahern’s achievements:… (excerpt)


(headline) Christmas Road Safety Message from An Taoiseach


One also sees sentences with ‘An taoiseach’ as the, or a, grammatical subject of the sentence.

The Lord Mayor of Dublin, Councillor Paddy Bourke, and An Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, TD, today officially opened Barnardos’ latest family support project in Dublin…

An Taoiseach Bertie Ahern TD welcomed the project and said…


Now, ‘taoiseach’ is a word borrowed into English, just as e.g. ‘haka’, and ‘sushi’, and ‘Blitzkrieg’ have been borrowed, and it is the title of the leader of the Irish Government, currently Brian Cowen. ‘An’ is the Irish definite article.

Here’s the question: What is going on in these sentences quoted? For example, what language are they in? Is it a mixture of English and Irish? What are the options? It’s clearly not all Irish, so either it’s all English or a mixture of English and Irish. If these sentences were all English, then either we have borrowed the Irish definite article as well as the word ‘taoiseach’ or we’ve borrowed the phrase ‘an taoiseach’ as a whole unit as a title or as a phrase meaning ‘the taoiseach’. I don’t think we’ve borrowed the Irish definite article, because you can’t use ‘an’ to mean ‘the’ in general, but examples like the Chrismas driving headline show it hasn’t been borrowed as a title (because you don’t put titles in headlines like that English. Perhaps you could just about say ‘christmas message from prime minister/prince/pope etc.’, but it would understood as elliptical for ‘…from the prime minister/prince/pope’. These words wouldn’t be functioning as titles as such). So that leaves the last option (that we have borrowed ‘an taoiseach’ for the whole phrase ‘the taoiseach’). This would be somewhat awkward, since as a phrase it would be isolated from usual combinatory grammatical functions –how do we qualify it with an adjective like ‘best ever’ or ‘late’ or ‘previous’ etc.

I prefer to follow what I take to be the usage of the Irish Times, which is to use English only and therefore the English definite article (‘the taoiseach said today that…’; ‘…critcised the taoiseach for …’ etc).


2 thoughts on “An Taoiseach vs The Taoiseach

  1. laura

    Maybe this is something entirely different, but aren’t articles from French used sometime in English.
    e.g., “We argue about ‘le fin du siecle’ and its relevance.” otherwise: “We argue about the ‘fin du siecle’ and its relevance.” I guess the first should be in caps, too. In either case, here I believe there is a difference in referent when you translate the article. Of course, ‘le’ doesn’t present the confusion (that ‘an’ does) since it’s not likely you’d read it as English. Adjectives could be tacked on in a parenthetical phrase. I guess I need to look for an instance with a proper French title or station. What do you think?

  2. ken

    Hmm. My first thought was, ‘no problem, that’s just a mixture of English and French’ –but on second thoughts maybe the phrase ‘fin du siecle’ is becoming an English phrase. Many English speakers understand it. Surely when enough do, it will be just as English as e.g. ‘nation’ or ‘philosophy’ and the like. ‘Fin du siecle’ is definitely a phrase borrowed as a chunk that stands for a whole English phrase.

    ‘Fin du siecle’ has connotations that distinguish it from ‘end of the century’. I haven’t registered a similar difference (yet?) between ‘an taoiseach’ and ‘the taoiseach’

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