Archive for Irish Language

Institutes, Acronyms and the Letter H

Posted in Education, Maynooth with tags , , , , , on June 25, 2019 by telescoper

Here’s a rambling and inconsequential post emanating from a coffee-room discussion yesterday.

The latest round of guff about University Rankings, in which Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) came top and Irish universities didn’t  prompted a strange letter to the Irish Times about the status of the Irish Institutes of Technology some of which have merged, or are planning to merge, to form Technological Universities.

Among the list of Irish Institutes of Technology, I found that sadly there isn’t an MIT in Ireland (Mullingar would be a good place for it!) but there are, for example:

Cork Institute of Technology (CIT)

Waterford Institute of Technology (WIT)

Limerick Institute of Technology (LIT)

Athlone Institute of Technology (AIT)

and so on, as well as..

Institute of Technology Tralee….(:-)

I wondered whether there might be some other potentially unfortunate acronyms  to be had, I hoped for example for a South Howth Institute of Technology but sadly there isn’t one; nor is there a Sligo Higher Institute of Technology. There’s no Galway Institute of Technology either.

In the course of that exercise in silliness I discovered how few towns and villages there are in Ireland whose names begin with the letter H. Moreover all of those listed on the Wikipedia page are in the Sacs-Bhéarla (English language) rather than genuinely Irish names.

I’m sure Irish speakers will correct me on this, but I guess this lack of Irish proper names beginning with H may be connected with the use of h in denoting lenition. When used in this way the `h’ always appears after the consonant being modified and so never forms the initial letter. There are plenty of words in Irish beginning with H, though, so this is either a red herring or something specific to place names.

Comments and corrections are welcome through the box below!

 

UPDATE: I’m reliably informed (via Twitter) that all words in modern Irish beginning with H are borrowings from other languages, and the h was only introduced into Irish words for the reason mentioned above,

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A Sign of Ireland

Posted in Maynooth with tags , , on December 15, 2018 by telescoper

Following my post earlier this week about Irish orthography and related matters, I thought I’d share a couple of random thoughts inspired by the above road sign.

First, notice the font used for the Irish names, which is a variant of the UK Transport typeface, but is notable for the absence of any tittles (a ‘tittle’ being one of those little dots above the i and j in standard type).

The other thing, which I only found out a few days ago, is that`Leixlip’ is a name of Norse origin – it means ‘Salmon’s Leap’. Apparently there was a viking settlement there, positioned because of the abundance salmon in the River Liffey which flows through on the way to Dublin. `Leix’ is similar to, e.g., the Danish `Laks’, meaning salmon, and ‘leap’ is similar to many words in modern European languages derived from proto-Germanic sources.

There is a Salmon Leap Inn in Leixlip. I have heard very good things about the food but not yet dined there. Nowadays however Leixlip is best known for the presence of a huge Intel ‘campus’, which is home to a large semiconductor fabrication facility, among other things.

The Irish Accent

Posted in History, Maynooth with tags , , , , , , , , on December 11, 2018 by telescoper

It’s been a very busy day, as Tuesdays tend to be this term, so I thought I’d wind down with a little blog post.

Some time ago I got an email from Maynooth University about Irish language classes. Still feeling a bit ashamed about not having learned Welsh in all my time in Cardiff, I thought I’d sign up for the Beginners class and fill in a Doodle Poll to help the organizers schedule it. Unfortunately, when the result was announced it was at a time that I couldn’t make owing to teaching, so sadly I’m not learning Irish properly yet.

I have picked up a few things about the language, however, which it might be worth passing on here. Although Irish and Welsh are both Celtic languages they are from two distinct groups: the Goidelic group that comprises Irish, Manx and Scottish Gaelic; and the Brythonic group that comprises Welsh, Cornish and Breton. These are sometimes referred to as q-Celtic and p-Celtic, respectively, although not everyone agrees that is a useful categorization. Incidentally, Scottish Gaelic is not the language spoken by the Celtic people who lived in Scotland at the time of the Romans, the Picts, which is lost. Scottish Gaelic is actually descended from Middle Irish. Also incidentally, Breton was taken to Brittany by a mass migration of people from South-West Britain which peaked somewhere around 500 AD. I guess that was the first Brexodus.

Welsh and Irish don’t sound at all similar to me, which is not surprising really. It is thought that the Brythonic languages evolved from a language  brought to Britain by people from somewhere in Gaul (probably Northern France), whereas the people whose language led to the Goidelic tongues were probably from somewhere in the Iberia (modern-day Spain or Portugal). There are nevertheless some similarities. For example, `Merry Christmas’ is Nadolig Llawen in Welsh and Nollaig Shona in Irish..

Anyway, back to the topic of this post, there is only one accent in Irish (in the sense of a diacritic mark), which is the síneadh fada (`long accent’), sometimes called the fada for short, which looks the same as the acute accent in, e.g., French. There’s actually one in síneadh if you look hard enough. It just means the vowel is pronounced long (i.e. the first syllable of síneadh is pronounced SHEEN).

One does find quite a few texts (especially online) where the fada is carelessly omitted, but it really is quite important. For example Cáca is the Irish word for `cake’, while the unaccented Caca means `excrement’…

I took the above text in Irish and English from the front cover of an old examination paper. You can see the accents as well as another feature of Irish which is slightly similar to Welsh, the mysterious lower-case h in front of Éireann. This is a consequence of an initial mutation, in which the initial character of word changes in various situations according to syntax or morphology (i.e. following certain words changing the case of a noun or following certain sounds). This specific case is an an example of h-prothesis (of an initial vowel).

In Welsh, mutations involve the substitution of one character for another. For example, `Wales’ is Cymru but if you cross the border into Wales you may see a sign saying Croeso i Gymru, the `C’ having mutated. The Irish language is a bit friendlier to the learner than Welsh, however, as the mutated character (h in the example above) is inserted in front of the unmutated character. Seeing both the mutated and unmutated character helps a person with limited vocabulary (such as myself) figure out what’s going on.

Mutations of consonants also occur in Irish. These can involve lenition (literally `weakening’, also known as aspiration) or eclipsis (nasalisation). In the case of eclipsis the unmutated consonant is preceded by another denoting the actual sound, e.g. b becomes m in terms of pronunciation, but what is written is mb. On the other hand, lenition is denoted by an following the unmutated consonant.

In older forms of Irish the overdot (ponc séimhithe) -another diacritic – was used to denote lenition. Had this practice continued into the modern era there would be two Irish accents, but nowadays there is only one.