Archive for Irish

The Irish Svarabhakti

Posted in Biographical, History with tags , , , , on October 21, 2021 by telescoper

One of the things I’ve picked up about Hiberno-English pronunciation is that Irish people tend to pronounce the English word “film” as something like “fillum”. I always thought this was just a sort of mannerism, but it turns out to be quite a bit more interesting than that.

The general term for the addition of an extra sound to the pronunciation of a word is epenthesis and it is a fairly common feature of many languages. The extra sound can be added at the beginning, at the end or in the middle. The latter case is specifically called anaptyxis or sometimes svarabhakti, which is a Sanskrit word specifically for the insertion of a vowel after the letter l or r before another consonant.

In most cases these extra vowel sounds are inserted to aid pronunciation, If you think about it the mouth and tongue have to do something quite complicated to get from l to m and a nice easy “uh” sound makes the transition simpler.

The Celtic group of languages was the first wave of Indo-European languages, to sweep across Europe. I blogged about this here. It seems the idiosyncratic pronunciation of “film” as “fillum” (which, I’m told, is also in widespread use in India) is a relic of the Irish language’s distant origins in Sanskrit, having no doubt crossed into Hiberno-English at a time when Irish was more widely spoken than it is now.

Another topical example is the name Colm (as in Colm Tóibín), which is pronounced “Collum” (or, depending on dialect, something more like “Cullum”).

Anaptyxis isn’t restricted to Irish, of course. There are examples in English. Who could forget the form favoured by football supporters? Engerland! Engerland! Engerland! (I don’t remember the rest of the lyrics to that song…)

Pronouns for Yous

Posted in Biographical, GAA, Television with tags , , , , , on August 21, 2021 by telescoper

Last night I was watching a very interesting television programme on the Irish language channel TG4. It was about the origins and history of ice hockey, which began as ice hurling as a sport played by Irish immigrants in Canada. The word “puck” comes from the Irish word poc which means to stroke or hit; in hurling the “puck out” is a free hit from the goal area by the goalkeeper much like a goal kick in soccer. The programme was called Poc na nGael, which roughly translates as “The Puck of the Irish”. I think it was repeated last night because this Sunday sees the biggest event of the year in the hurling calendar: the Final of the All-Ireland Senior Hurling Championship at Croke Park, which this year is between Limerick and Cork.

While watching that programme I got thinking about Irish language lessons and whether I will have time to continue them next academic year and then onto wider issues about differences between Irish and English. One thing that struck me was the second person pronoun, so I thought I’d do the following rambling post about it.

In English the personal pronouns I (first person) and he/she (third person) are unusual in that they change depending on their grammatical role. This isn’t unusual in other languages especially Latin where it is the rule rather than the exception. In English we use “I” in the nominative case (“I hit the dog”) but “me” in the accusative case (“the dog bit me”) or when following a preposition (“the dog gave the stick to me”). The same goes with he/him and she/her.

In the example “the dog gave the stick to me”, “me” is really in the dative case but there is no distinct word for that in English; we can only really distinguish between the nominative (subject) and “other” (non-subject) cases. The words “my”, “our”, etc are often called pronouns but they are really of adjectival form, e.g. “this is my cat” and are more correctly called determiners. There are possessive pronouns (“mine”, “ours”, etc) which are in some sense genitive cases of the personal pronouns (meaning “of me”, “of us”, etc) but I digress.

Notice also that the first person and third person plural also have distinct plural forms (we/us and they/them).

The funny one is the second person “you”, which has neither an accusative nor prepositional form nor a distinct plural: “You hit the dog”, “the dog bit you” and “the dog gave the stick to you” all employ the same word although each is in a different grammatical case.

This is by no means the only oddity in modern English, and I have no idea why it developed. In older forms of English there were distinct forms: “thou/thee” in the singular and “ye/you” in the plural. These forms persist in dialects such as Yorkshire.

For some reason, though, as English evolved these four distinct forms merged into one, i.e. “you”. One can usually tell from the context whether “you” is singular or plural or can emphasize it by adding extra words (e.g. in the American “y’all” which is a contraction of “you all”) but there is no single word in standard English that expresses the difference between singular and plural or between subject and non-subject.

Incidentally, in Irish the second person singular is in the nominative case and thú in the non-nominative cases; the second person plural is sibh which is like “ye” in that it has no distinct non-nominative form.

I was brought up on Tyneside and it is a feature of the Geordie dialect that people use the word “yous” to denote the second person plural. It’s definitely a working-class slang, and was very much frowned upon at school, but it was very commonplace when and where I was grew up. I thought it was only in Newcastle that people used this form but when I worked at Sussex a while ago my boss, originally from Glasgow, also on occasion used “yous”. When I asked here about it she explained that it was common usage in Glasgow but didn’t think it was widespread in other parts of Scotland. Geordie and Glaswegian are thus two regional dialects I know that use this form but there may be others. I’d be interested to know so please feel free to comment via the box below!

Anyway the reason for going off on this tangent was that I’d already noticed that a few Irish people use “ye” in Hiberno-English for the second person plural, it was only yesterday that I noticed some using “yous”. I wonder how widespread that is in Ireland and is it regional or more of a class divide?

Would any of yous like to comment?

Celtic Europe

Posted in History with tags , , , , on February 6, 2021 by telescoper

The Extent of Celtic Europe, from “Dictionary of Languages” by Andrew Dalby

Following on from Thursday’s post I thought I’d show the above map that shows the spread of Celtic languages in Europe. I’m sorry that the picture isn’t great but I scanned the map from a big hardback book and the map spreads across the fold as you can see.

The Celtic languages at the time depicted in the map (1st Century BC) were all oral languages, but when the Roman Empire spread across Europe about two thousand years ago it came into contact with the major dialects. Evidence for these can be found in place names, from Mediolanum (modern-day Milan, originally in cisalpine Gaul) to Singidunum (the Roman name for modern-day Belgrade) and Laccobriga (Lagos in Southern Portugal).

Belgium gets its name from the Belgae, regarded by Julius Caesar as the bravest and most fearsome of the tribes of Gaul. There are also words recorded in early inscriptions and in reconstructions based on later texts from which it is possible to glean clues about these languages. The picture that emerges is of a network of dialects spoken by Celtic peoples that inhabited a swathe of Continental Europe from the Iberian peninsula in the West to Galatia in the East, much of the Danube valley, and from Cisalpine Gaul (now part of Italy) in the South to modern-day Germany in the North.

Galatia (in classical Asia Minor) merits a special mention. St Paul’s Letter to the Galatians was addressed to the young Christian churches in this Celtic-speaking enclave which was then a distant province of the Roman Empire.

Linguists refer to the language that was spoken in Ireland at this time as Goidelic and it sits apart from the others because Ireland was never part of the Roman Empire. Brythonic is the name given to the dialects spoken in Britain. Continental Celtic is the name given to the dialects stretching all the way from Spain to Galatia of which the largest group was Gaulish. The language of the Scottish highlands Pictish may have been a separate subdivision but I don’t think anybody really knows because the language is extinct.

None of these groups was homogeneous. The Celts lived in relatively small communities and there were many regional variations even within each major group. Irish has four main dialects, roughly aligned with the four provinces. In Description of Ireland (1577), Richard Stanyhurst wrote:

As the whole realme of Ireland is sundred into foure principal parts so eche parcell differeth very much in the Irish tongue, euery country hauing his dialect or peculiar manner in speaking the language.

Our Irish teacher speaks the Irish of Connacht in which some pronunciations are very different from Leinster, which is the province I live in. As an absolute beginner this is the least of my worries at the moment.

The Goidelic group 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. It stems from the fact that the “q” in Indo-European languages morphed into a “p” in the Brythonic languages. The number five in Irish is a cúig which has a q sound (though there is no letter q in the Irish alphabet); five in Welsh is pump. Contrast with the number two: a dó in Irish and dau in Welsh.

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 due to migration and trading contacts. The Ulster dialect of Irish is in turn much influenced by reverse migration from Scotland. Languages do not evolve in isolation or in any simple linear trajectory.

Contrary to popular myth, Breton is not a Continental Celtic language but was taken to Brittany by a mass migration of people, which peaked in the 6th Century AD, from South-West Britain, fleeing the Anglo-Saxons. The Saxons won a great victory in battle at Dyrham (near Bath) in 577 after which they advanced through Somerset and Devon, splitting the Celts of Cornwall and Wales and leading to the formation of two distinct Brythonic language groups, Welsh and Cornish. Breton is much closer to Cornish than Welsh.

The Continental Celtic languages are all extinct, except for fascinating remnants that linger here and there in local dialect words in French and Spanish.

Language Lessons

Posted in History, Maynooth with tags , , , , , , , , , , on February 4, 2021 by telescoper

Thursday is Computational Physics Day this term so this morning I delivered the first Panopto lecture of that module and in the afternoon we had our first laboratory session. The students are all at home of course so we had to run the lab with them using their own laptops rather than the dedicated Linux cluster we have in the Department and interacting via Microsoft Teams.  The first lab is very introductory so it was really just me presenting and them following on their machines without too much interaction. The ability to share a screen is actually very useful though and I imagine using it quite a lot to share Spyder. It went fairly well, I think, with all the students getting started out on the business of learning Python.

In between lecturing the morning and running the laboratory session this afternoon I had the chance to study another kind of language. Soon after I first arrived in Maynooth I got an email from Maynooth University about Irish language classes. 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 I couldn’t do it. That  happened a couple of times, in fact. This year however I’ve managed to register at a time I can make, though obviously the sessions are online.

I’m not sure how wise it is for me to try learning a new language during a term as busy as this, but I have to say I enjoyed the first session enormously. It was all very introductory, but I’ve learnt a few things about pronunciation – unsurprisingly the Irish word for pronunciation fuaimniú is unsurprisingly quite difficult to pronounce – and the difference between slender and broad vowels. I also learnt that to construct a verbal noun, instead of putting -ing on the end as you would in English, in Irish you use the word ag in front of the verb.

That’s not to say I had no problems. I’m still not sure I can say  Dia duit (hello) properly. The second “d” is hardly pronounced. 

Irish isn’t much like Welsh, which I failed to learn previously.  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 fleeing the Anglo-Saxons 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). The modern versions of Irish and Welsh do contain words borrowed from Latin, French and English so there are similarities there too.

Only a diacritic mark appears in Irish, 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). The word sean (meaning old) is pronounced like “shan” whereas Seán the name is pronounced “Shawn”.

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.

Anyway, I’ve seen Dia duit written Dia dhuit which might explain why the d sounds so weak. We live and learn. If I keep at it long enough I might eventually be able to understand the TG4 commentary on the hurling..

It’s raining…

Posted in Biographical, Maynooth, Poetry with tags , , , , , , on January 19, 2021 by telescoper

Taking a short break from examination marking I had a look outside. I’m not sorry to be cooped up indoors given that it’s pouring with rain. In fact it rained all night and morning and is set to continue in the same vein until tomorrow.

While I was waiting for my coffee to brew I was thinking about some idiomatic expressions for heavy rain. The most familiar one in English is Raining Cats and Dogs which, it appears, originated in a poem by Jonathan Swift that ends with the lines:

Drowned puppies, stinking sprats, all drenched in mud,
Dead cats and turnip tops come tumbling down the flood.

My French teacher at school taught me the memorable if slightly indelicate Il pleut comme vache qui pisse, although there are other French expressions involving, among other things nails, frogs and halberds.

One of my favourites is the Welsh Mae hi’n bwrw hen wragedd a ffyn which means, bizarrely, “It’s raining old ladies and sticks”. There is also Mae hi’n bwrw cyllyll a ffyrc – “It’s raining knives and forks”.

Related idiomatic expressions in Irish are constructed differently. There isn’t a transitive verb meaning “to rain” so there is no grammatical way to say “it rains something”. The way around this is to use a different verb to represent, e.g., throwing. For example Tá sé ag caitheamh sceana gréasaí which means “It’s throwing cobblers’ knives”.

Talking (of) cobblers, I note that in Danish there is Det regner skomagerdrenge – “It’s raining shoemakers’ apprentices” and in Germany Es regnet Schusterjungs – “It’s raining cobblers’ boys”.

Among the other strange expressions in other languages are Está chovendo a barba de sapo (Portuguese for “It’s raining toads’ beards”), Пада киша уби миша (Serbian for “It’s raining and killing mice”),  Det regner trollkjerringer (Norwegian for “It’s raining female trolls”) and Estan lloviendo hasta maridos (Spanish for “It is even raining husbands”).

No sign of any husbands outside right now so I’ll get back to correcting exams.

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.