Irish Language Blog

An Dearg, An Bán, agus An Gorm (The Red, White, and Blue) Posted by on Jun 17, 2013 in Irish Language

(le Róislín)

The time has come to talk … of bratacha (flags).  In the United States, at this time of year, we segue from Lá Cuimhneacháin (Luan deireanach mhí na Bealtaine) to Lá na Brataí (14 Meitheamh) to Lá (na) Saoirse (4 Iúil).  All three offer up an abundance of sraoilleáin de ribíní (ribbon-streamers) and stiallbhratacha  (that’s “bunting” as in “flags,” not “bunting” as in all those “gealóg“-type birds, like the gealóg bhuachair, gealóg dhúcheannach, and the buíóg, which, though “buí,” not “geal” as such, is still more or less a gealóg, ball den ghéineas Emberiza).  Not to mention (if you’ll indulge my apophasis), the t-léinte, balúin, caipíní, cístíní cupa, ingne péinteáilte (ingne láimhe, that is) and other venues for maisiúchán (decoration), and, of course, na bratacha iad féin.  And what colors do we find on all these festive favors?  Seo iad:

dearg {DJAR-ug], red (NB: two syllables, with an “uh” sound between the “r” and the “g”, so not like English “borg” or Klingon “targ,” which are one syllable; the same process occurs in the Irish English pronunciation of “film” as “FILL-um,” and in some American English pronunciations of “acme,” as “ACK-uh-me”)

bán [bawn], white, with fairly straightforward, almost foolproof pronunciation, but with the lips a little puffier than similar-sounding English words like “bawl” or, to get even closer, “bawn” itself, an English word derived from Irish “bábhún” [BAW-oon],  meaning the defensive wall around a tower-house

gorm [GOR-um], blue.  As with “dearg,” this word has two syllables, with the “uh” sound between the “r” and the “m.”  In case anyone’s wondering, it’s not related to or pronounced like the “gorm” of English “gormless,” which is based on Old Norse and literally means “without understanding.”   At least that would be true for the standard British pronunciation of the word, which barely has any “r” sound; Americans rarely use the word “gormless.”

So there they are, the three colors of the American flag, and of several others around the world.  Each color has an interesting further tale to tell.  For example, “dearg” is used for any brightish, Clifford-the-dog-ish red, but not for a coppery red, red hair, or, in the case of most dogs, coppery-brownish-red fur.  That would be “rua.”

Bán” has a lot of extended meanings, including “pale” (aghaidh bhán, a pale face), “clear” (lá bán, a clear day), “empty” (Tá an tsráid bán, The street is empty), “fallow” (talamh bán, fallow land), and one of my favorites, “idle” (óganaigh ag imeacht bán, youths becoming wastrels).  Two other words with overlapping, but not identical, meanings are “fionn” (generally “pale” or “fair,” sometimes “white”) and “geal” (“bright,” sometimes “white”).

Gorm” also has lots of extended meanings and derived words, one of the most recent being “Na Gormachaí” (the Blues).  In addition to “blue,” the word “gorm” can mean “livid,” “blue-tinted” (bláthach ghorm, bluish, i.e. inferior, buttermilk), “noble,” and “black,” regarding skin color (fear gorm, a black man).  That last usage was highlighted in the 2002 movie, In America, as some of you may remember.  One of the most interesting of these gorm-derived words  is “gormaireacht,” which means “seeking warmth” or “staying close to the fire,” or, really literally, “being a ‘gormaire,’ i.e. a livid/bluish-faced, lethargic person.”

And incidentally, speaking of the word “saoirse,” which is becoming increasing popular as a girl’s name, it’s worth noting the difference between a phrase like “Lá Saoirse” (Day of Freedom) and “breithlá Shaoirse” (birthday of Saoirse).  I use “breithlá” here, instead of simply “,” since I think it’s more likely that we’d be talking about a girl’s birthday than naming a commemorative event after her.  One never knows, though!

Anyway, you probably noticed the difference in the two phrases with “saoirse” above.  As a generic noun, “saoirse” means  “freedom,” based on the adjective “saor” (free, independent).   When it functions attributively (i.e. like an adjective), there’s no reason to lenite it after a masculine singular noun like “,” hence “Lá Saoirse” ([law SEER-shuh], Independence Day).   However, “saoirse” has been growing in popularity as a girl’s name, and in that case, we’d have lenition when it shows possession.  The lenited form is “Shaoirse” [HEER-shuh], as in phrases like “cóta Shaoirse,” carr Shaoirse,” and “breithlá Shaoirse.”

Probably the most widely cited example of the name “Saoirse” today is Saoirse Ronan (The Lovely Bones, Atonement, Hanna; and a 2016 Broadway update: The Crucible).  It first came to my attention as a name, though, with Saoirse Róisín Hill, daughter of Courtney Kennedy and Paul Hill, and granddaughter of Robert F. Kennedy.   Paul Hill’s life story is the basis for the 1993 movie, In the Name of the Father, based on the trial and imprisonment of the “Guildford Four,” charged with, but innocent of, an IRA bombing in Guildford in 1974.

Bhuel, sin iad na dathanna, dearg, bán, gorm, and a little background on the word “saoirse” itself.  Below you’ll find a fairly complete nascliosta of previous blogs in this series that have discussed the flag (and also the Irish flag) and the American National Anthem, “An Bhratach Gheal-Réaltach.”  Last year, a series of four Transparent Language Irish blogs presented all four verses of the American National Anthem in Irish (links below).  SGF, Róislín

Nascliosta do Véarsaí Amhrán Náisiúnta S.A.M. (ceithre bhlag, ceithre véarsa) 18 Meitheamh 2012) (21 Meitheamh 2012) (24 Meitheamh 2012) (27 Meitheamh 2012)

Nascliosta Ginearálta (an bhratach, Lá na Brataí, dathanna na brataí, srl.): (2 Iúil 2009) (14 Meitheamh 2010) (20 Meitheamh 2011) (23 Meitheamh 2011) (26 Meitheamh 2011) (28 Meitheamh 2011) (2 Iúil 2011) (30 Meitheamh 2012)

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