Irish Language Blog

“Ór,” “Óir” or “Órga”? “Fáinne” or “Éan”? Éan?! (Cuid a Trí: Dhá Lá Dhéag na Nollag) Posted by on Dec 31, 2010 in Irish Language

We’re up to day five of “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” usually sung as “five gold rings,” with the word “gold” stretched into two syllables (go-old) to fit the song’s meter.   Some people sing “golden,” which will slightly change our translation into Irish.  Of special interest, though, at least don aistritheoir seo, is the theory that we’re not really talking about fáinní at all here, but piasúin, or perhaps lasracha coille. 

We may as well cover all bases, and translate all the possibilities.  Why not?  All the more practice with séimhiú agus lenár seanchara, an tuiseal ginideach!

cúig fháinne óir, five gold rings (lit. of “ór,”gold, using an tuiseal ginideach)This is the most typical translation.

cúig fháinne órga, five golden rings.  This phrase uses the adjective “golden,” which ends in a vowel, so joins adjectives like “fada” and “uaine” in not having a plural ending.  Remember, even though the noun, “fháinne” is singular, we use the plural adjective to modify it, after cardinal numbers.  But órga doesn’t change, period.

I’ve also seen “cúig fháinne bhuí” (lit. “five yellow rings,” understood to be gold).  I’d say this is a little more poetic, since “buí” mostly means “yellow.”  “Buí” can be understood as “of gold,” at least figuratively, in certain phrases, usually literary, like “Lá buí Bealtaine”(a golden May Day).

But if we follow the bird theory, we won’t be dealing with any sort of fáinní.  Here are some possibilities:

cúig phiasún mhuinceacha, five ring-necked pheasants (yes, that’s the theory – since the song has so many birds, this line is really about, well, more birds)

piasún, pheasant; here it’s lenited (phiasún), because it’s being counted, but not plural (because it’s following a number, according to the standard rule for counting things in Irish: keep ‘em singular).  Just for reference, but not needed here, the plural form would be “piasúin,” which could also be lenited, as “phiasúin.”

“Muinceach” is used to describe most ring-necked birds in Irish (not that that’s any huge number, at least not that I’ve come across).  It’s based on the word “muince,” meaning a necklace or metal collar (like a torque).  It can also be combined with the word for feather, cleite, as in “muince chleití, to mean a “feather-boa.”  Why did I mention that?  Just in case you have to compliment Miss Piggy on her outfit in Irish.   From there, we could go on to discuss “buachrapairí” and why English uses the idea of a boa-constrictor to describe this lady’s accessory, but Irish bypasses the snake imagery and simply calls it a “feather necklace.”  Ach sin ábhar blag eile.

As if pheasants weren’t enough to deal with, this stanza has also been interpreted as being about goldfinches.  That would be “lasracha coille” in Irish, which literally means “flames of (the) forest.”

“Lasracha coille” is plural, so what do you do if you’re counting them?  Revert to the singular form, lasair choille, which also means adding lenition to the word “coille,” since it’s functioning as an adjective.  “Lasair” (flame) is feminine, so adjectives modifying it are lenited (as in “lasair bheag,” “lasair mhór,” “lasair dhóchais,” etc.).  Remember that that lenition rule only applies to feminine singular nouns, not to feminine plural ones, so, to recap: lasair choille, but lasracha coille. 

cúig lasair choille, five goldfinches

Hopefully this is supposed to be the Old World goldfinch, not the New World one, since that would add five more syllables to the equation and be much less singable:

cúig lasair choille Mheiriceánacha, five American goldfinches

There’s at least one other way to say “goldfinch” in Irish, so there’s one more choice:

cúig bhuíán óir, from buíán óir, goldfinch, (lit. golden yellow-one).  “Buíán” on its own means “yellowhammer” or “yellow bunting;” adding the “óir” part changes the term to refer to a different bird.

Muna luíonn aon bhuille ort (if you’re a glutton for punishment), here’s one more possibility:

cúig bhuíóg an chinn óir, five goldfinches (lit. five yellow-ones of the golden head, from “ceann óir”)

For both “buíán” and “buíóg,” in my literal translations, I’ve just used “yellow-one,” since that’s about as close as one can get in English.  Both “-án” and “-óg” are typical suffixes in Irish, often making something tangible out of something abstract, sometimes including a diminutive aspect.  Other examples of these suffixes are “claonán” (an inclined plane, from “claon,” a slope), “glasóg” (a wagtail, yet another bird, from “glas,” green) and “fadóg” (an elongated thing, from “fada,” long).

Bhuel, sin véarsa a cúig, agus fada go leor do bhlag amháinAn iomarca féidearthachtaí, b’fhéidir, ach cén dochar?  Tá siad go léir suimiúil, sílim.  Next verse, next time.

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