Irish Language Blog

Cearca Francacha agus Lonta Dubha (Cuid a Dó don tSraith: Dhá Lá Dhéag na Nollag) Posted by on Dec 29, 2010 in Irish Language

(le Róislín)

Two birds down, done in an earlier blog, and deich mbronntanas fágtha (idir éin agus dhaoine).  This blog will deal with the “French” hens (3) and the “colly” birds (4).  And how to use adjectives with nouns that are being counted.  So buckle up for more lenition!

Véarsa a Trí: “Three French Hens”

There’s a lot of dispute about what exactly (note: I didn’t yield to the temptation and say “eggzactly”) a French hen is.  Among the suggestions I see on English-language websites are the following actual breeds of hens from France: Faverolles, La Fleche, Crevecoeurs, Marans, and Houdans.  Tricky thing from my viewpoint, though, is that in Irish, there are two extremely similar terms “cearc fhrancach” and “cearc Fhrancach,” one with a lower-case adjective and one with an upper-case adjective.  “Cearc fhrancach” (French hen, lower-case) is understood to refer to a turkey-hen, which is actually a guinea-hen (not a turkey as known in America), and which is not specifically French in origin. Guinea-hens are also known in Irish as “cearca guine” but it’s not uncommon to have two (or more) names for the same thing (like “pismire” and “emmet” for “ant” in English).  In contract, a “cearc Fhrancach” would normally be understood as a hen from France, either literally or originally (in breed).    

“Cearc,” as you probably deduced, is the Irish for “hen” and it is, quite logically, a feminine noun.  So adjectives following it are lenited (cearc bheag, a little hen, cearc mhór, a big hen, etc.), as they would be with comparable nouns (muc bheag, a little pig; bó mhór, a big cow).    

In Irish, the adjective “French” inherently has the two forms, as stated above, whether you’re talking about hens or other topics.  This is even before you start making adjustments for gender (masculine, feminine), number (singular, plural), grammatical case (nominative, genitive), or position in sentence (predicate, attributive).  When the word for “French” is capitalized, “Francach,” it usually refers to something that is actually French, or was originally French (like a “fuinneog Fhrancach,” French window).  When it’s lower case, it typically refers to something that is large for its type or “foreign” or “exotic.”  The latter two, of course, are a matter of perspective, since one person’s “foreign/exotic” is another person’s “native,” but for practical purposes here we’ll just say not particularly representative of Ireland, or at least of Irish-speaking Ireland.

So here’s the dilemma.  If we say “cearc fhrancach” in Irish, we’re not really referring to any of the breeds above (Faverolles, etc.).  We’re referring to turkey-hens (aka guinea hens).  So quite a few people have already been singing this song in the various translations that exist, with the phrase in lower case (trí chearc fhrancacha).  They’re actually singing about guinea-hens, as far as I can tell.  I’ll leave it at that and let the éaneolaithe amongst our readers sort it out further.  That is, if there’s aon éaneolaí amongst you!  If so, I’d love to hear the viewpoint of a professional ornithologist.  Maybe there’s an even more specialized term for the field, a gallinologist (hen specialist) perhaps?  Or maybe a “cogarnach cearc” (hen whisperer), who could give us dearcadh na gcearc (the hens’ viewpoint) on what this song is really about.

What I can do, though, is tell you how to count the French hens, whatever they are, and what to do with the adjective, whatever it means.  I’m going to assume that these are hens from France and use the upper-case “Francach.”:

cearc Fhrancach amháin, one French hen, straightforward enough once one has mastered the bunuimhreacha in Irish.  Note that the adjective “Francach” is lenited here (“F” changing to “Fh”) because it is modifying a feminine noun.  This “Fh” is completely silent, so the first syllable sounds like “rank.”

To say “three French hens,” we have lenition of the letter “c,” so it becomes “ch” (as in trí chearc).   This “ch” is “caol” (slender), pronounced like the “h” in “hew” or “Hugh.”  That’s in contrast to the Irish “broad ch” as in “loch,” which is also like the German “Buch” or “Ach-du-lieber.” The “broad ch” is the one that is often described as “guttural” or “throaty.”

Let’s actually start with “two,” since that’s how examples of counting are usually sequenced:

dhá chearc Fhrancacha, two French hens (lit. “two hen French”).  We have lenition of the “c” after the number two: dhá chearc.  We also have lenition of the “F,” not because “cearc” is feminine but because the adjective “French” here modifies a noun that is being counted with a “bunuimhir” (basically, a regular cardinal number).  Note the very important point that when counting things in Irish, they almost always stay singular, hence “hen” not “hens” (couldn’t resist using “hence” there though I agree it’s a bit formal these days!).

If we had the male of the species (whatever the species is!), we’d still have “Fhrancacha”:

dhá choileach Fhrancacha.  Strange, perhaps, but true.  Here, being counted trumps gender.

The song specifies three French hens, so let’s do that phrase now.  The same rule applies:

trí chearc Fhrancacha, or for the male, trí choileach Fhrancacha

If we were to have seven hens, we’d have a slightly different scenario, with urú (eclipsis):

seacht gcearc Fhrancacha, but that’s really ábhar blag eile. 

A final point about this phrase: although the noun, c(h)earc, appears singular, the adjective modifying it takes a plural ending.  To show it’s plural, we simply add the letter “-a” to the end of the word (Francach becomes Francacha; lenited Fhrancach becomes Fhrancacha).  This is distinctly different from how you would pluralize “Francach” when it means “a Frenchman,” but that, a chairde, is ábhar blag eile.

So, in summary, if we sing about “cearca Francacha” we’re singing about hens that are from France, by birth (hatching, really) or heritage.  If we sing about “cearca francacha,” we’re singing about guinea- or turkey-hens, which aren’t originally French.  

Why did I stop leniting the adjective “Francach/francach” in the phrases above?  Because the bunuimhir is no longer involved AND because “cearca” is plural, which shifts the rules around.   If I referred to a single French hen, we’d be back to lenition (cearc Fhrancach) and if I were referring to a single guinea- or turkey-hen, we’d also be back to lenition (cearc fhrancach).   

To summarize the summary, to make the full phrase “three French hens,” here are the key points:

  • keep the noun (hen) singular
  • lenite after the number three
  • lenite the adjective, regardless of the noun’s gender, since the noun is being counted
  • make the adjective plural if a plural ending is available (some adjectives, like “fada” or “uaine” don’t have a plural form, so there’s nothing to add)

Of course, in the title of this blog, capitalization doesn’t tell us that we’re specifically talking about hens from France as opposed to guinea- or turkey-hens because all the major words in a title would be capitalized anyway.  So there’s some inherent ambiguity.  Thank goodness the song isn’t actually named after the French hens or we’d be perpetually confused, looking at lists of song titles and dealing with other hotbeds of capitalization (speaking orthographically, not as regards finance).  As if we’re not confused enough already!

Véarsa a Ceathair: “Four Colly Birds”

The fourth verse of the song is a little more straightforward since we don’t have the issue of geographic origin.  This verse has been widely interpreted as “four calling birds,” but apparently the original is “four colly birds,” which would be birds that look sooty or “coaly,” that is to say, blackbirds.  This refers to the European blackbird, known for its singing, (as celebrated by Paul McCartney, Austin Clarke and others), not “blackbird” in the American sense.

The Irish for the common or European blackbird is “lon dubh,” with “lonta dubha” for the plural.  To specify the New World blackbird, the umbrella term is “lon dubh an domhain nua,” which is, quite literally, “blackbird of the new (nua) world (domhan, domhain).”  Since “The Twelve Days of Christmas” is an Old World song, we’ll use the Old World blackbird.

ceithre lon dhubha, four colly birds (blackbirds)

That’s assuming these black or “colly” birds are male.  If female, the word is “céirseach,” and there’s no adjective involved.  Also, with “céirseach,” the “lon” element itself has disappeared, completely replaced by the name for the female of the species.

This example uses the two-part word for “blackbird,” (lon dubh), not the single-word form, which sometimes appears (londubh).  The latter would simply give us “ceithre londubh,” with no lenition and no plural ending.  But “ceithre londubh” doesn’t fit the meter of the song very well.  The issues of “black bird” vs. “blackbird,” as they pertain to English, don’t really apply to Irish, perhaps in part because “lon” doesn’t mean “bird” as such or in general.  So “lon dubh” means the same as “londubh,” whereas in English, “black bird” doesn’t mean the same as “blackbird.”

Well, that was a bit eggshausting (couldn’t resist!), but at least we’re now four gifts down, eight to go.  Gold rings coming up, but maybe not quite in the expected manner.  SGF — Róislín


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