Irish Language Blog

Ascaill, Axilla, Armpit — Who Says Irish Doesn’t Have Many Cognates with English? (Cuid a hAon/Pt. 1) Posted by on Apr 24, 2013 in Irish Language

(le Róislín)

Often students in my ranganna Gaeilge will say that one of the reasons that Irish seems hard is that words seem very unfamiliar, unrelated to other languages they know, and there’s very little to jog one’s memory.  A basic example would be “madra” for “dog.”  It’s short and straightforward enough in and of itself, but it bears no resemblance to the Indo-European trail of words for “dog, ” which includes “canis,” “cane,” “chien,” “cão,” and “svana.”  Even Spanish, with its linguistically unique “perro” for “dog,” also has a related word, “can,” although it’s now considered archaic.  These are all derived from the Indo-European root *kuon-, which also gives us the “hund” family (hound, hond, hundr, hunds, etc.), and incidentally the Irish word “cú” (hound, greyhound, hero).

If “” to “hund,” seems like a leap (a dog’s leap?  a Limavadian leap?), just remember that “” has an old possessive form “con” (cosa na con, the legs of the hound; conriocht, werewolf, lit. “hound-shape”).  “Con,” plus some of the old plural forms, like “cona” and “cuin,” show us that this word really is part of the *kuon- / canis / hund family.

Hitch is, though, we don’t usually teach people the old genitive case form “con” or archaic plural forms before we teach them “madra.”  So most learners will tend to see “madra” before “” and they’ll just figure it’s another unusual word that simply has to be memorized.  If they learned “” and “con” first, they’d get one more glimpse as to how Irish fits into the Indo-European language puzzle.

Of course, most people in Ireland probably start their Irish classes, even in primary school, knowing something about Cú Chulainn, the legendary hero, so they’ve probably got the word “” and know it means “hound” ( Hound of Culainn, Hound of Ulster).  Do they know the old possessive form “con” or the variant plurals?  Probably not.  Do they care about “” being a cognate to over a dozen other words for “dog,” Probably not.  But I think adult learners find vocabulary acquisition easier the more they can connect the new words to their existing vocabulary in their mother tongue.  I doubt if many Spanish learners have complained much about learning “curioso” for “curious” or “elegante” for “elegant.”  Not that all similar-looking words mean exactly the same thing, with Spanish “embarazada” (pregnant) being the classic example.   But most such pairs at least put you on the right track, even “embarazada,” which historically meant “impeded” or “hindered” (!) in Spanish; its near equivalent in English, “embarrassed,” can also mean “impeded” or “hindered” although these meanings are not widely used today.

So where does this leave us with cognates?  We could ponder why the Irish words for “sun” (grian) and “moon” (gealach) are completely unrelated to their typical Indo-European counterparts (sol, luna, etc.) till the ba (cognate with Latin “bovēs“) come “abhaile” (no known cognate).   And we might perk up to hear that the word “deartháir,” seemingly unrelated to “brother,” is actually short for “dearbh-bhráthair,” with “bráthair” being the root word.  But all of that can be explored in future blogs.  Right now, let’s turn to … where else but the “ascaill” (axilla or armpit)!

While “ascaill” is  usually translated as “armpit,” it also means “axilla,” “axil” (of a plant), “a recess,” “a nook,” and “an avenue.”  “Axilla” in English may not be an everyday word, but it is used in anatomy and in ornithology, spelled exactly as it is in Latin, where it also means “armpit.”  Somehow I don’t think we learned about axillae when I was in school, but hey, someone’s gotta keep those balneatrices busy and the strigiles scraping.  “Axilla” is also used in English for the area under a bird’s wing, so I assume “ascaill” would be the Irish equivalent, although I can’t say I’ve heard much buzz about that part of the bird’s anatomy.

Here are the grammatical forms for “ascaill“:

an ascaill, the armpit, etc.

ascaille, of an armpit (gruaig ascaille, armpit hair)

na hascaille, of the armpit (uaim pholl na hascaille, the underarm seam)

ascaillí, armpits

na hascaillí, the armpits

ascaillí, of armpits.  Hmm, cén sampla? Ááá, bolaitheoirí ascaillí (sea, is post é, is é “sniffologists” ceann de na hainmneacha atá orthu i mBéarla:  Fostaíonn déantúsóirí frithallasáin agus díbholaígh iad.

na n-ascaillí, of the armpits (bolaitheoirí na n-ascaillí sin, the sniffers of those armpits)

Other somewhat less common meanings of “ascaill” include:

corner, especially of a field (NB: this isn’t one of the most basic words for corner  — they are “cúinne” and “coirnéal“)

small territory (NB: this isn’t based on the most usual words for “territory” — they would be “fearann,” “ceantar,” “dúiche” [DOO-ih-hyuh], and “críocha” [KRzhEE-uh-khuh]

A related term, perhaps of special interest to any yelmers out there:

ascallán féir, an armpitload of hay (so presumably you could also have an “ascallán tuí“)

And for the medical practitioners among you, or anyone else who has reason to discuss armpits (sniffologists, etc.):

ascallach or ascailleach, axillary (as in axillary region, artery, or temperature)

As for English “axillar” (a feather growing from the area under a bird’s wing), alas, I cannot find an Irish equivalent.

As “avenue,” the word “ascaill” is reasonably widely used for places from “Ascaill Ghlas Naíon” (Glasnevin Avenue) to “Ascaill na Páirce” (Park Avenue, NY) and “Ascaill a Cúig” (Fifth Avenue).

And then, of course, there’s the immortal line from An Béal Bocht, about the “teach beag aolbhán neamhfholláin” (ceann tuí also, we presume) which is “in ascaill an ghleanna” (in the armpit or nook of the glen).  And quite a nook it was, if you follow up with the Ó Nualláin’s description that from one window of the cottage in ascaill an ghleanna, you could see na Rosann, Gaoth Dobhair, Cnoc Fola and Oileán Thoraigh (Co. Donegal), and from the other window, you could see An Blascaod Mór and An Daingean (Co. Kerry).  From the door, you could see Conamara and Árainn Mhór.   Right!  On that head-turning note, let’s bid adieu to scéal na n-ascaillí.  Maybe next time we’ll check out some more intriguing cognates.  They’re interesting in their own right, but they’re also a great help for vocabulary acquisition, even if occasional caveats are needed for the “faux amis.”   SGF, Róislín

Nóta: Limavady, in Co. Derry, is “Léim a’ Mhadaidh” in Irish, “the leap of the dog,” using the Northern form “Mhadaidh” [WAH-dee] instead of “Mhadra” [WAH-druh].

Gluais: déantúsóir, manufacturer; fostaigh, employ; frithallasán, antiperspirant; díbholaíoch, deodorant

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  1. Fearn:

    Ná déan dearúd ar:

    Chuir sé a lámh faoina hascaill !!

  2. róislín:

    Sin sampla maith, agus an h-réimír leis!

  3. Michael Costello:

    an bhfuil leabhair mhaithe, leabhair nach bhfuil ró-theicniúil, faoi sanasaíoch?

  4. róislín:

    @irish word for armpits Glad to see you found our blog!

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