Irish Language Blog

An Dara Díochlaonadh, Firinscneach: Lambs of Butter, Mountains of Butter Posted by on Apr 15, 2011 in Irish Language

(le Róislín)

Second-declension nouns — mostly feminine, right?  Right!  Mar shampla: spúnóg, bróg, ubh, feirm.  Tuiseal ginideach, uatha? Sodhéanta: spúnóige, bróige, uibhe, feirme, etc.

I mentioned in an earlier blog that at least two 2nd-declension nouns are masculine, “im” and “sliabh.”  Let’s start with “im” (butter), if for no other reason than that it has an Easter tie-in, albeit perhaps one that’s more Eastern European than Irish.  Also, if we do “im” first, and master its genitive case (ime), then we can launch right into the phrase “sliabh ime” (mountain of butter).  Who would ever be talking about a “mountain of butter,” you might ask.  Well, the English version of this phrase, “mountain of butter,” brought up over 6,000 hits in a recent search when paired with “eu” (for European Union).  But that’s not all!  Broadening the search, we get thousands more hits, many to do with “Salm 68 (67),” but specifically in An Bíobla Douay-Rheims or sna Bíoblaí Ceartchreidmheacha, not An Bíobla Naofa (Caitliceach, leagan Gaeilge), or, for that matter, i mBíobla Rí Séamas.  A healthy 37 hits also showed up for the search in Irish, “sliabh ime,” mostly EU references; none appeared to lead back to the Psalm itself.  Fiosrach?  Cad í an tagairt bhíobalta?  Read on, but, basics first (parsing butter lambs and butter mountains), and then the special phrases.  Starting with “im” (butter):  

an t-im: the butter.  Remember, it’s masculine, even though it’s in the second declension, so it follows the patterns for masculine nouns in prefixing a “t-” before initial vowels, like an t-úll (the apple), an t-uisce (the water), and an t-uisce beatha (the whiskey).

ime: of butter, pronounced, as typically in Irish, with a short “e” or schwa at the end [IM-uh], not at all like English “time” or “lime.”  Irish may have a lot of silent letters but it has no pattern like the English “silent e” phenomenon.  A final “e” is always pronounced, even if it’s just slightly.

Some practical examples of “im” sa tuiseal ginideach could be “blas an ime” (the taste of the butter) and “praghas an ime” (the price of the butter).  A few more specialized examples follow:

uan ime: a lamb of butter, i.e. a lamb made of butter in a three-dimensional mold.   Familiarity with the Easter tradition may be necessary to clarify that a food item is meant, not some sort of fantasy character in a cartoon.  The heartland of this tradition seems to be Eastern Europe, where butter lambs are popular at this time of year.  In Polish, they’re known as Baranek Wielkanocny; I can’t say the Irish term is particularly widespread but it could be useful to describe a béile Cásca (Easter meal).  The butter lambs are for sale in some American supermarkets, and perhaps more broadly.

cam an ime, literally, the cresset of butter.  Now there’s an off-the-beaten track translation for you!  “Cam” also means melting pot in Irish.  To cut to the chase, ”cam an ime” means “buttercup.”

imeanna: the word is not real widely used in the plural, unless perhaps one is involved in stocking differing types of butters in a store, but it can mean “quantities of butter” or “casks of butter,” to hark back to older methods of storage.  Today, I suppose butter would be shipped i mboscaí cairtchlár rocach. 

As for the concept of the “butter mountain,” there are two main references, the European Union issue, which has to do with food surplus,  and the biblical description found i Salm 68 (67).  The EU references I found in my search are mostly in English, as one might expect, but I did find a thread that discussed the issue in Irish, “sliabh ime,” together with “loch fíona” and “sruth na meala,” neatly providing more examples of the genitive case. 

As for the biblical reference, you may find it as puzzling as I initially did.  I didn’t find any discussion of it in Irish, so it’s not as though this is a hot Easter topic “as Gaeilge.”  But it’s interesting to ponder nonetheless, and gives us more practice with an tuiseal ginideach.  And it will segue us into discussing the word “sliabh.” 

Apparently the Douay-Rheims and the Orthodox Bibles refer to the mountain of God being a butter or fat mountain, and continue on, describing it as “a curdled mountain.”  Quirkily, in the Irish-language Bible, An Bíobla Naofa, the adjectives used are “beannach” and “maorga,” completely different from butter or curds, so it’s not as though this “butter mountain” idea will resonate strongly, unless you’re really familiar with the Douay-Rheims or Orthodox texts.  But having heard the concept, I find it unforgettable!  Butter, of course, would have been a luxury in ancient times, and that was the case in much of rural Ireland, at least through the 19th century.  Most farm wives there made butter to sell, an important part of their income, so relatively little was consumed at home.  An Bíobla Naofa here is similar to all the other bibles I checked for this passage, and far be it from me to attempt to explain the whys and wherefores of biblical translation.  But, suffice it to say, “mountain of butter” in Irish would be “sliabh ime,” same as in discussing the European Union situation.  As for the continuation (in case I’ve got you hooked), the “curdled mountain” would literally be “sliabh gruthaithe,” from the verb “gruthú” (to curdle).  I think “curdled mountain” really mean “a mountain of curds.”  Sounds more appetizing, anyway.  Any takers for translating that?  Freagra 1 thíos.   

Anyway, that’s butter in its various incarnations.  Let’s briefly look at our other 2nd-declension masculine noun, “sliabh,” and then we’ll say “sin sin” for this topic for now.

an sliabh, the mountain

sléibhe, of a mountain, sampla: bóthar sléibhe, a mountain road

an tsléibhe [un TLAY-vuh], of the mountain; sampla: droim an tsléibhe, the ridge of the mountain

sléibhte, mountains; na Sléibhte Creagacha, the Rocky Mountains

Did I say “Sin sin” a few lines back, indicating that we’d wrap up really quickly?  Oooh, didn’t really mean it, of course, since there are at least two more irresistible “butter” words in English, but neither turns out to involve “im” in Irish.  Ever wonder about “butterfingers”?  In Irish, it’s not based on “im” but it’s equally vivid, lámha leitean (uaim dheas, nach ea?), literally meaning “porridge-hands.”

As for “butterfly,” nope, no connection to “butter” in Irish.  Not that there’s really a connection to “butter” in English either, except in the beautiful mind of Lewis Carroll and a few other punsters throughout the ages, who wrote about “bread-and-butterflies.”  So what’s “butterfly” in Irish, just out of curiosity, you ask?  Féach sa ghluais thíos, faoin litir “f” (ní faoi “p”).  Hint: think French (papillon), Latin (papilio), or even the English/French word “papillon” for the dog type, based on the shape of its __________ (líon an bhearna, freagra 2 thíos).

Sin é.  Tuilleadh téarmaí Cásca ag teacht.  SGF, ó Róislín

Freagra 1: sliabh grutha [SHLEE-uv GRUH-huh], from “gruth.” 

Freagra 2: cluasa (ears); Tá cluasa an fhéileacánaigh cosúil le féileacán.  Loighiciúil go leor, nach ea?  An dá chluas le chéile atá i gceist.  Níl cruth féileacáin ar chluas amháin ina haonar. 

Gluais: beannach, many-peaked; féileacán, butterfly;  féileacánach, papillon (dog breed), féileacánaigh, of a papillon; leite, porridge; leitean, of porridge; maorga, majestic, rocach, corrugated; sin sin, that’s a wrap, lit. that’s that; sodhéanta, easily done; uaim, alliteration (this is not the prepositional form “uaim,” meaning “from me,” which is perhaps more familiar).  Homonym time!

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