Irish Language Blog

Ag Caint faoi Bhia (hunger, hungry, etc.) Posted by on Aug 28, 2010 in Uncategorized

Agus mé ag éisteacht leis an raidió le déanaí, chuala mé clár faoi neamhshlándáil bia.  Bhí an clár i mBéarla ach shocraigh mé ag an am go scríobhfainn blag faoi théarmaí Gaeilge a bhaineanns le bia.  Níl mé ag caint anseo faoi chineálacha áirithe bia mar thrátaí grianthromaithe nó vaiféil, ach go ginearálta, faoi bhia agus ocras agus a leithéid.

While I was listening to the radio recently, I heard a program about food insecurity.  The program was in English but I decided at the time that I would write a blog about Irish terms pertaining to food.  I’m not talking here about specific types of food, like sun-dried tomatoes or waffles, but generally, about food, hunger, and the like. 

So here are the basics:

Tá ocras orm [taw OK-russ OR-um], I’m hungry, lit. hunger is on me.

Hunger, like many other feelings (tart, thirst; brón, sadness, srl.), is “on you” in Irish. 

There is an adjective “ocrach” (hungry), but it is reserved more for saying someone has a “hungry appearance” (cuma ocrach) or for being abstract (na blianta ocracha, the hungry years; talamh ocrach, hungry soil, srl.).  “Ocrasach” is a variation. 

You might be asked, “An bhfuil ocras ort?” (Are you hungry, lit. Is there hunger on you?)

Possible answers could be:

Tá, tá ocras orm: Yes, I’m hungry.

Níl, d’ith mé tamaillín ó shin: No, I ate a little while ago.  But don’t try turning down a cup of tea in Ireland – somehow it’s just not done.  Actually, let me revise that.  Often what’s done is that you politely decline the tea the first time it’s offered.  Then it will probably be offered again, so turn it down again but sounding a little more hesitant.  But you’re still saying you don’t want to put your host to any trouble and your host is insisting it’s no trouble at all at all.  But the tea will probably be offered a third time, at which time most people will acquiesce and accept the tea.  Which everyone knew all along would be the likely outcome.  I know that’s a bit of a scéal thairis (digression), so let’s get back to hunger.    

If you’re really hungry, you could say:

Tá mé stiúgtha leis an ocras [… SHTYOOG-huh lesh un OK-russ], I’m perished with hunger (famished). 

So, “ocras” is the word most commonly used to describe hunger that an individual feels.  Turning to the more somber side of the issue though, and to the reason why “slándáil bia” is such an important topic these days, we have the word “gorta.”  In fact, this word has pretty much entered the vocabulary everyone should know to discuss even the basics of Irish history, when speaking English, since the phrase “An Gorta Mór” (The Great Hunger) appears to have largely replaced the term “potato famine” referring to the 1845 to 1851 time period.  

If one is very new to learning the Irish language, but has read in general on Irish history, one might well have encountered the word “gorta” before learning the word “ocras.”  In that case, it might seem surprising that there’s this shift in vocabulary, that one can’t just take the word “hunger” from the phrase “An Gorta Mór” and drop it into the everyday question, “Are you hungry?”  But this kind of thing happens regularly with languages, one word for one context and another word, meaning almost the same thing, for another context. 

So how else is the word “gorta” used, aside from the phrase “An Gorta Mór”?  Here are some samples:

bliain ghorta, a year of famine

bás den ghorta, death from starvation or famine

There’s also the phrase, “Bhí gorta air” meaning “He was weak with hunger.”  In my experience, however, that’s not used in everyday situations, even when one feels starving simply because it’s been some hours since one’s last meal.  In that case, the phrase with “stiúgtha” would be more likely.  In fact, for any of us in a country or region where “slándáil bia” is not an active concern, I think we tend to use the phrase “starving” even when we’re nowhere near the medical definition.

And having said all of this, yes, there is some overlap.  For example, there are at least two ways to say someone starved to death: “Fuair sé bás den ocras” or “Fuair sé bás den ghorta.”  In both cases, the more literal translation is “he got death from (the) hunger.”

To end on a more upbeat note, there’s also the well-known seanfhocal, “Is maith an t-anlann an t-ocras” (Hunger is the best sauce).  Nice for the thought and nice also as a reminder about inserting the letter “t-“ after the definite article (“an”) when dealing with an “ainmfhocal” which is both “fireannach” (masculine) and “uatha” (singular) and which starts “le guta” (with a vowel).  Had to end on a grammar note, didn’t I?  Bhuel, tá mé ag dul amach le haghaidh bróinse.  Tá ocras orm anois agus is dócha go gcuirfidh sin anlann ar an mbia!

Nóta ginearálta:  It’s at least another blog’s worth, but there are dozens of other terms like “An Gorta Mór” that are used when discussing Irish history (in English) that either have no English equivalent or for which the literal English translation doesn’t have the same nuance as the Irish.  The same is true, of course, for other languages around the world, with terms such as “raj,” “glasnost,” or “wampum.”  In fact, it’s also true for some English terms that might be used in discussing American history in Irish, such as “the Pilgrim Fathers,” for which the Irish term is “na Pilgrim Fathers.”  One could always take “pilgrim” (oilithreach) and “father” (athair) and construct a term, but in some cases, it’s best just to leave the term in its original language.

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