Irish Language Blog

An tOchtú Lá is Fiche (28ú) de Mhí na Nollag i Séasúr na Nollag Posted by on Dec 29, 2009 in Irish Language

(le Róislín)

There are two names for this day, December 28th, in Irish, one the “téarma oifigiúil” and the other less formal.  Lá na Leanaí Neamhchiontacha (or sometimes “Lá na Leanbh”) is Holy Innocents’ Day, a reference to Matha 2:16-18.  The less formal term is “Lá Crosta na Bliana.” 

”Leanbh” is “child,” with the plural “leanaí,” or in possessive plural, sometimes “na leanbh” (of the children).  The latter form isn’t really the standard possessive plural, but at least it can be distinguished from the singular possessive, which is “linbh,” as in “bréagáin an linbh” (the toys of the child, the child’s toys). So, we have “bréagáin na leanaí” (the toys of the children) as opposed to “bréagáin an linbh” (the toys of the child). 


Leanbh” implies a somewhat younger child than “páiste,” the other main word in Irish for “child.”  It can also mean a baby or the youngest child in a family.  And, as I think I’ve mentioned before, it gives us the increasingly popular girls’ name, “Alanna,” which comes from the direct address form of the name.  If you were talking directly to a child, you’d start with the vocative particle (how’s that for an endearment?), which is simply “a,” pronounced like the “u” in “fun” or the “a” in “about.”  You’ve probably seen or heard it plenty, with names (“a Mháire,” “a Shéamais”), in starting emails or letters (“a chara,” “a chairde”), at the beginning of Riverdance or many other Irish events (“a dhaoine uaisle”), or in hurling derogatory epithets at someone, as in “A chluasánaí!” (You  blockhead!).  So the initial “a” of “Alanna” is the direct address particle, and the final “-bh” drops off from pronunciation, being unstressed in sound.  Anois, ar ais go dtí an frása “leanaí neamhchiontacha.”       


The concept of innocence in Irish terminology is interesting in and of itself.  There are two main terms for it in Irish:


neamhchiontacht: literally “non-guilt”


soineantacht: referring more to personality (not deed) or to guilelessness


The adjective forms (“innocent”) are “neamhchiontach” and “soineanta,” and for our phrase above, we make the adjective plural, adding a final “-a,” to give us “neamhchiontacha.”  If the term for the Innocents had somehow been “soineanta,” instead, there would be no specifically plural form, since you can’t add an “-a” ending to a word that already ends in “-a” in Irish.  


Note that in Irish, the “innocent” aspect of the phrase is an adjective, and the word “holy” is omitted altogether. 


As for an dara téarma, “Lá Crosta na Bliana,” it literally means “the cross (or adverse) day of the year,” that is, a day when it was unlucky to start new projects. 


December 28th is also known in English as Childermas, or sometimes “Childermass,”

which might jog the memories of any John Bellairs fans out there, since one of the main characters in his Johnny Dixon series is Professor Roderick Random Childermass.  And/or fans of Susanna Clarke (Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell), since she has a character named John Childermass.  While I’d love to pursue the siombalachas of these names, I’d say that’s Á.B.E. (ábhar blag eile), in the full sense of the phrase, i.e. ábhar blag duine éigin eile (someone else’s blog), since there’s no real comhthéacs Éireannach going on.  Except perhaps to note that both authors delve extensively into a wide range of folklore and legends, including, sometimes, Celtic.  And that the surname must be loaded with symbolism for the authors, since it’s not widely used as a surname in real life (if at all).  One Clarke fan (“Lillie”) researched and census reports and concluded that “[i]t’s not a name,” making it all the more interesting in literary usage.  More on her comments on The Friends of English Magic site at, má tá suim agat (if you’re interested. 


Fuaimniú: leanbh [LYAN-uv, two syllables], leanaí [LYAN-ee], linbh [LIN-iv], páiste [PAWSH-tcheh].  As for “neamhchiontacha,” why not start with the root form?  The adjective for “guilty” is “ciontach” [KYUN-tukh].  Then negate it with the prefix “neamh-“ [nyow, with the “ow” like American “cow” or “now”].  That causes lenition (softening), to give us “neamhchiontach” [NYOW-HYUN-tukh, note the “k” sound of “ciontach” is dropped].  Finally, pluralize it with that little unstressed vowel, “-a,” and you’ve got it [NYOW-HYUN-tukh-uh]. 


Pronunciation, con’d: To call someone a blockhead convincingly, you’ll need to master the voiceless velar fricative, if you haven’t already.  That’s the guttural “-ch” sound in Irish words like “ach,” “ochón,” and “buachaill.”  It’s also in German (Achtung and Buch, to trot out the typical examples), in Welsh (bach, fach, ci a chath, cath a chi), and in some pronunciations of Yiddish/Hebrew “chutzpah” and “challah,” to name just a few other languages that have this sound.  The basic word for “blockhead” is “cluasánach,” with a regular “k” sound at the beginning [KLOO-uss-awn-ukh] but in direct address it becomes “chluasánaí” [KHLOO-uss-awn-ee], losing the “-ch” at the end but gaining it at the beginning of the word. 


As you may have noticed, direct address usually causes lenition in Irish, but that, again is, ábhar blag eile.  Remind me, if you want, since we still have the remainder of the Christmas season to cover, up through Nollaig na mBan (January 6th).  And my poor patient donkey sanctuary article, that I’ve been promising for months.  Now if only someone would establish National Support Your Donkey Sanctuary Day, I’d get right on it, promise, since that long-awaited article would (finally) be tráthúil (timely)! 


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