Irish Language Blog

Cén Áit? vs. Cén Fhad?: Two Different Questions That Sound Almost Alike Posted by on Jul 31, 2013 in Irish Language

(le Róislín)

Lately I’ve been wondering if there’s a good Irish equivalent for the English expression, “to put your foot in your mouth.”   The main ingredients are straight forward enough.  The usual word for “foot” is “cos,” although that can also mean “leg,” which could suggest that one is even more of a “freangálaí” than the original expression “foot-in-mouth”  suggests.  The standard word for “mouth” is “béal.”  But I’ve never seen an Irish expression that uses these elements to suggest the verbal gaffes to which we are all prone, even in high places (like the classic response “A pissometer?” to being shown a piezo-meter water gauge).  Cé a dúirt é sin?  Go ahead, just Google it.  It’s a classic!

Of course, come to think of it, the Irish for a “piezo-meter” gets even closer to the misinterpretation–it’s “písiméadar.”   For pronunciation, I’d just note that the first “i” is long, so the pronunciation is “PEESH-ih-MAYD-ur.”  Anyway, a lot of cases of “foot-in-mouth” disease are much more benign, and certainly much less publicized.  Given the number of words that sound alike in many languages, it’s not surprising if people hear one thing when someone has said something else.  There are many famous examples of misheard lyrics (aka musical “mondegreens”), ranging from “Gladly, The Cross-Eyed Bear” to “She’s Got a Chicken to Ride.”  But what if someone asks you something that sounds like ” kayn-ahd” In Irish?

This phrase can be especially challenging if the question is simply asked as a phrase, without an actual subject, verb, or object.   Many people will recognize that it’s either “Cén áit?” (What place? Where?) or “Cén fhad?” ([kayn ahd] How long?–remember the “fh” is silent).  In my experience most people settle for “cén áit” (what place?, where?), and answer accordingly, regardless of which question was actually asked.

Let’s look at the role of pronunciation here.  In theory, at least, the “slender t” sound of “áit” should come through clearly, but for some speakers it’s clearer than for others.  The sound approximates the English cluster “-tch” but keeping more of the “t” and not simply settling for the “ch” of “church” or “child.”

In practice, however, it happens often enough that someone asks “Cén fhad?” (How long?) and gets a place name as an answer, like, for example “i mBostún” or “Baile Átha Cliath.”

My own solution to this problem has been to ask people “Cé chomh fada?” for “How long?”  It’s a perfectly legitimate alternate to “Cén fhad?” and seems to cause less ambiguity.  Of course some people ask “Cá fhad?” for “How long?”, and often give the “fhad” [normally pronounced “ahd”] an actual “h” sound [kaw hahd], which doesn’t help matters, especially since some people say “Cá háit?” [kaw hawtch] for “Where?” (What place?).

What’s my bottom line solution to this dilemma, especially for learners?  Repeat the question you think you’ve been asked.  This is actually done often enough in English, as in, for example:

A: What time does the train leave?

B: What time? (probably with extra rising intonation).  At four o’clock, I think.

So in Irish we could have:

A: Bhí mé ar saoire sa Fhrainc.

B: Cén fhad?

A: Cén fhad? (repeating the question but not answering it)

B: ‘Sea. (at this point, B might even restate the question to help out A, when it becomes clear that A is a learner).  Cé mhéad seachtain?

A: Á, tuigim anois, coicís.  Bhí mé ansin ar feadh coicíse.

In a slightly different scenario, B might simply repeat “cén fhad” or might try “cé chomh fada.”

Of course, if one is living in a small Irish-speaking community, misunderstandings like this are not likely to occur.  It’s mostly when people from different places around the world have gathered together for an Irish language event.

As for my own linguistic gaffes, the most unforgettable one for me, and probably for my interlocutor at the time, was actually in Welsh.  I mixed up “arlywydd” and “arglwydd.”  I knew I couldn’t remember which was which, although I could always interpret them in context.  So I was talking about an American president, which should have been “arlywydd,” and called him “arglwydd,” which actually means “lord.”  It probably came across as even funnier in a place like Britain where there plenty of people who really are lords.  Cén t-uachtarán a deir tú?  Bhuel, my lips are sealed.  But it was a good few years ago.  That gaffe, at least, wouldn’t be likely to happen in Irish, where the words for “president” (uachtarán) and “lord” (tiarna) are quite distinct.

I was also a bit startled one time to realize that in Welsh, a word that I was quite accustomed to using, “rhyw,” means not only “sort,” “kind,” “some,” and “certain,” but also “sex” and “gender.”  I’ve wondered, in retrospect, what some of my earliest Welsh may have sounded like.  Hopefully context clarified everything (rhywle, rhywbeth, rhywun, rhywfaint, rhywfodd, vs. rhyw-wr, etc.).  If not, my interlocutors were too kind to let me know.

The bottom line for Irish?  There are two ways (at least) to ask “which place” (where) in Irish: “cén áit” and “cá háit.”  There are also at least two variations for “what length” (how long): “cén fhad” and “cá fhad.”  “Cén áit” may sound like “Cén fhad” (because the “fh” is silent) and “cá háit” may sound like “cá fhad.”  One solution–repeat the question back for clarification.  The phrase may be clearer a second time or your conversation partner may use another phrase that will clarify what they really want to know.   Eventually it all sinks in.  Ach glacann sé am.  De réir a chéile a thógtar na caisleáin.   Which is basically the Irish equivalent of “Rome wasn’t built in a day,” although, as you can see, the word “Rome” (An Róimh) isn’t mentioned.   Bhuel, sin é don bhlag seo.   Ádh mór oraibh!  — Róislín

P.S. as for “foot-in-mouth” disease, if you know a traditional Irish equivalent, please write in and let us know.  It may just be one of those untranslatable idioms, which, if translated literally, fall sort of flat.

Gluais: freangálaí, contortionist

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  1. Owen Kelly:

    This is off topic but since you mentioned “Rome” in the last line it reminded me of a old query I had regarding the Irish word for it. Why didn’t they use the original Italian word for Rome which is “Roma”, thereby fulfilling the rule of broad with broad etc.? “Roimhe” is just a weird word.

  2. Art:

    Only a problem for canúint Uladh no confusion if canúint na mumhan is used

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