I have recently been trying to improve my knowledge of Irish, and especially to expand my vocabulary. It’s a hard slog, I can tell you. Yesterday I had a bash at learning some adjectives and I suddenly got to musing on the problems that comparative adjectives cause.
In almost all the languages I know much about adjective comparison is messy. The one exception is Modern Standard Chinese, but then MSC tends not to do messy. If you want to say, for instance, “he is bigger than I” in MSC, it’s simply he compared-to I big and “he is bigger” comes out as he comparatively big. There are no exceptions that I know of. Simples!
Very many other languages, it seems, are not so simple. From minor irregularities such as those found in Italian, French, Spanish and other Romance languages, to the rather crazy dual system found in English, comparative adjectives seem to attract mess. A quick zip through some of the textbooks and grammars on my bookshelves shows that there is some degree of irregularity for comparatives in such widely differing languages as Maltese, Latvian, Russian and Hungarian, though none seems to be quite as goofy as English and Irish.
If you are native speaker of English you may not have realised what a problem there is for non-native speakers. Leaving aside good ~ better and bad ~ worse, we have the situation that some adjectives add -er to make the comparative and some need more. If the adjective is monosyllabic then the former strategy is used. I am not sure if there are any exceptions to this, but I am prepared, no I would be delighted, to be informed of any you know of. For instance, what is the comparative of the word chic? I just don’t know!
If a word has three or more syllables you have to use the more + adj strategy. But what if the adjective has just two syllables? What, for example, is the comparative form of bitter. It can’t be bitterer, can it? However, the superlative bitterest seems OK to me. You might appeal to euphony. All those er‘s don’t sound too good. No? So why is cleverer OK then?
Anyway, back to Irish. The comparative form for adjectives is a problem for learners, and that’s putting it mildly. Usually the comparative is identical with the genitive singular feminine form, but not always, and anyway the gsf form is not easy to predict from the base form. There are also quite a few wildly irregular comparatives: maith (“good”) – fearr (“better”), olc (“bad”) – measa (“worse”), beag (“small”) – lú (“smaller”) are examples. Not only this, but Irish also requires the word níos (“more”) in addition to the comparative form, so, for example, Tá an cheist sin níos deacra means literally “That question is more harder”. Moreover, níos is used in the present and future tenses, but in sentences where the verb is past or conditional a different form may be used! This is níb (if the next word begins with a vowel sound) or ní ba (if a consonant sound follows). This looks like a verb phrase meaning “was not” or “would not be”. Whew! I wish someone would tell me what’s going on.
To finish with a slightly off-topic observation: I find it rather satisfying that the genitive singular masculine form of the Irish adjective beag (“small”) is big.