Irish Language Blog

Dhá Lá Dhéag na Nollag (The Twelve Days of Christmas) Posted by on Dec 25, 2010 in Irish Language

(le Róislín) 

For the next few (six really) blogs, I thought I’d check out the gifts mentioned sa charúl Nollag, “The Twelve Days of Christmas.”  There are so many gifts, we’ll do two per blog and see if that ends up on the actual 12th day of Christmas.

Be warned, there are at least four ways to say “turtle-dove” in Irish, none of which are based on the ordinary word for “dove,” which is “colm.”   And there are at least three ways to say “partridge.”  An bhfuil tú réidh?

Let’s first look briefly at the more recognizable word, “colm,” before moving on to the “dove” of “turtle-dove.”  “Colm” is a nice cognate of the Latin “columba” (dove), giving us a whole slew of related words and place names in English (columbarium, Colombia, District of Columbia, etc.).  You might recognize the Irish “colm” from the name of an Irish saint, Colm Cille (aka Columbkille), where it means “dove of the “cill” (church, monastic cell).  Gleann Cholm Cille, in Co. Donegal, is named after him (and is also the home of the top-notch Irish language summer program for adults, Oideas Gael).  “Colm” is the basis of the name “Colmán,” which means “little dove” (or, less appealingly, little pigeon).  There is another way to say “little dove” in Irish, “coilmín,” which, delightfully, gives us the Irish equivalent for “mare’s nest.”

Please note, that I do say “equivalent,” not “translation,” for “mare’s nest,” since the Irish expression has nothing to do with mares.  Not that mares have nests anyway, which is the point.  The Irish for a “mare’s nest” is “nead coilmín aille” (nest of a rock dove).  Now a “coilmín aille” is a little rock dove, which is, at least, a bird, so the Irish phrase “nead coilmín aille” might not seem as fantastical as the idea of a “mare’s nest.”  But we must remember that the rock dove’s nest is notoriously flimsy.  Rock doves mostly nest in cliff faces and rock ledges, or the urban equivalent, high-rise buildings with convenient ledges and crevices, so the underlying structure really provides much of the support for the “nead.”       .

By the way, this is only one way to say “mare’s nest” in Irish.  The other actually involves the word for a “gelding,” not a “mare” per se.  More on that i mblag éigin eile, about ten blogs down the line, since we’re still working on “Dhá Lá Dhéag na Nollag.”  Anyway, I didn’t really expect I’d be talking about mares’ nests in a Christmas blog, but that’s the joys (and quagmires) of focleolaíocht for you.

So, to get back to that carúl Nollag!  Curiously, the word “colm” is not part of the word for “turtle-dove” in Irish.  Nor, as one might come to expect, is “turtar,” the Irish for “turtle.”   The Irish names for Streptopelia turtur are based on the word “féarán or its variant “fearán.”  Turtle-doves can be called “féarán breac” (speckled féarán), fearán Eorpach (European fearán) or simply féarán or fearán.  The last choice is favored by An Bíobla Naofa, which gives us the phrase, “Tá an fearán ag durdáil amuigh” in “Laoi na Laoithe.”

And why was it called a “turtle-dove” anyway?  Because of its cooing sound, like “turr-turr,” which also shows up in the name in French, “tourterelle des bois,” and in Latin (and Welsh), “turtur.”  The sound is onomatopoeically recreated in one of the Irish words for “cooing,” which is “ag durdáil.”  You can hear the sound at

Since we have two of these turtle-doves in the song, we need to complete the phrase:

dhá fhéarán OR dhá fhearán OR dhá fhearán bhreaca OR dhá fhearán Eorpacha (or dhá fhéarán, etc.)

Sin an líne sin!

As for the partridge in a pear tree — piece o’ cake, except possibly for which word to use for “partridge.”  Most common is “patraisc,” which, like the English also, is closely connected to the Latin, perdīx  This Irish word has a couple of variant spellings, like “paitrisc” and “paitriosc.”  Some completely different phrases for “partridge” are “cearc ghearr” (lit. short hen), “geirrchearc” (also lit. short hen), and “cearc choille” (lit. hen of woods).  The latter can also mean “pheasant,” especially in Cois Fharraige, introducing a note of non-Linnaean folk-taxonomical ambiguity.  So, for convenience’s sake and clarity, I’d opt for “patraisc” for translating the Christmas carol.  .

The pear-tree part is pretty straightforward, “i gcrann piorraí” (lit. in a tree of pears).  This is also a classic example of urú (eclipsis), following the word “i” (in).  Just like you would do in the phrases “i gCorcaigh” or “i gCeanada.”

Why, you might ask, did I do the turtledoves before the partridge?  Níl a fhios agam.  I don’t really know.  Maybe for the same reason I tend to look at the end of a book before the beginning.  Not to actually read the last page, mind you – I would never knowingly inflict spoilers on myself.  Just to check if there are any enticing glossaries, colophons, or other interesting bits of “end matter.”

Slán go fóill — Róislín

P.S. As for the forms of the phrase “an Nollaig” in this song, there are two approaches one could take for translating “of Christmas.”  One method uses an tuiseal ginideach, with the word “an” switching to “na,” dhá lá dhéag na Nollag (note that the “i” has disappeared from the second syllable of “Nollaig” to create the genitive).  The other uses the preposition “de” (of) and keeps the basic form of “Nollaig” (with the letter “i”).  “De” would get the ending “-n,” giving us “dhá lá dhéag den Nollaig,” since we’re essentially saying “of the Christmas.”

Gluais: aill, cliff, but here used for “rock,” which is usually “carraig,” or sometimes “cloch;” focleolaíocht, philology; réidh, ready

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