Irish Language Blog

Eavesdropping “as Gaeilge” But Not Exactly Under the Eaves Posted by on May 24, 2012 in Irish Language

 (le Róislín)

A few blogs ago, in the discussion of “rusticles” on the Titanic, we also talked about the various Irish words for “icicle.”  For the full list, féach ar an nóta “Súil Siar” thíos.  It does seem unusual to me to have that many words for “icicle” when I don’t associate icicles with the (formerly) archetypal Irish dwelling place, the thatched cottage.  I assume that something about the texture of thatch, as opposed to shingle or tile roofs, discourages icicle formation, combined with the (usually) relatively mild winters, compared to places like Talamh an Éisc or An Iorua or Bostún.   At any rate, that triggered a reference, in the nótaí tráchta, to the “bunsop,” also spelled as “bun tsop” [say: bun top], which can be translated either as “eaves” or “the lowest layer of thatch.”

So that got me thinking about words for “eaves” in general, and, of course, “eavesdropping.”  As Gaeilge?  Let’s start with “eaves.”  It’s an unusual word in that in English it looks plural (think “sheaf/sheaves”) but, fad m’eolais, this is one of those words that stays the same in the singular and the plural.  Kind of like “sheep” and “deer,” but they don’t end in “-s,” so they’re a little more straightforward.  Always one for checking, I figured I’d better Google that before proceeding.  Na torthaí?  Despite whatever the gramadóirí and foclóirithe say about the topic, Google gives me about 116K hits for “under the eave,” singular, particularly as an adjectival phrase (m. sh. under-the-eave vent), and about 603K for the standard phrase, “under the eaves.”  Also, <osna>  a couple hundred examples of uaschamóg ghrósaeir na nglasraí (the greengrocer’s apostrophe) in phrases like, “under the eave’s” [sic] and “rotting eave’s” [sic arís].  Anyway, what that leads to, Irishwise, is a note that “bunsop” basically refers to the lowest layer of thatch in a thatched roof, which by default, also comprises the “eaves.”

Bunsop” can also be plural, but its use appears limited.  Na hamais i nGaeilge do “na bunsoip”?  Ceithre cinn, go díreach, agus trí cinn acu ón téacs céanna.  Mar sin, dhá amas maidir le úsáid phraiticiúil.  One of those two is thanks to Cathal Ó Searcaigh’s poem, “Séasúir,” with the line “bíonn na bunsoip trom le sioc,” which Ó Searcaigh himself translates as ” thatch-eaves are heavy with frost.”     The plural follows the standard, first-declension pattern: na bunsoip.  And for thoroughness’s sake, for genitive singular, “the texture of the lowest layer of thatch” would be “uigeacht an bhunsoip” and, for the genitive plural (of the lowest layers of thatch, presumably talking about multiple roofs), we would have “na mbunsop.”

All that assumes the one-word form (bunsop).   For the two-word form, bun tsop (lit. bottom  wisp/straw/thatch, with the prefixed “t”), we’d have “bunanna sop” for the plural.   And how often does that actually get used?  Grand total of amais Google for “bunanna sop“?  Diabhal ceann (divil a wan).   Not even putting “sop” into the genitive singular (soip), even though it should be genitive plural “sop” (think “bottom layers of wisps,” more than one wisp needed, like way more).  No hits either for “bunanna soip.”  Hmmm,  with that prefixed “t” perhaps, though that’s usually triggered by a preceding “n” (as in “bun“) and so should disappear if we’re using “bunanna.”  Anyway, “bunanna” with “tsop” or “tsoip“?  Not even close to any todóg (cigar).  Tada (nothing).

So where does that leave us?  The word “bunsop,” grammatically speaking, can take a plural form, but at best, it’s not really that common today, at least as we see in online usage.  Of course, if we had been present when thatched cottages were being built, especially several at a time, for example when Folk Parks or Folk Villages are being developed, there might have been plenty of speech events using “bunsoip” or “bunanna sop,” or some such phrase, assuming the thatchers spoke Irish.  But that, like most actually spoken speech, goes unrecorded and therefore unconcordanceable.

But there other types of roofs in Ireland, of course, not just thatch, especially these days.   There are at least two more words for “eaves,” neither of which is specifically for thatch:

bunsileán, pl: na bunsileáin, this is usually used in the plural,

sceimheal, pl: sceimhleacha, as in “sceimhleacha an tí” (the eaves of a house) or “sceimhleacha na cruaiche” (the eaves of a stack).  The stack being …?  Presumably, árbhar (corn).  Presumably also before the days of mechanical baling.  “Sceimheal” can also be used in the charmingly collegial phrase “Bhainfinn an sceimheal díot” (I’d knock your block off).  If you hear that, my advice would be, “Crom do cheann!” (“Duck!”).

So how about “eavesdropping?”  Are Irish eavesdroppers literally “under the eaves?”  Or if we go back to original version of the English word, under the “eavesdrip,” i.e. where the water dripped down from the eaves.   No, not really, though close.  The Irish for “eavesdropping” is “cúléisteacht” (lit. back + listening, that’s “back” as in “far side,” not the back of a person or animal, such as the notorious pig of well-being, on whose “muin” or “droim” we all hope to find ourselves.   A few related forms:

ag cúléisteacht leo, eavesdropping on them, listening in on them (with the preposition “le,” lit. “with)

cúléistim, I eavesdrop (usually or habitually)

cúléisteoir, an eavesdropper

And there’s at least one more way to say “eavesdrop,” although it’s not as widely used, in my experience, at least:

cluasaíl [KLOO-us-eel], based on the word “cluas” (ear).  I’ve also seen “cluasáil” [KLOO-us-awl] for this, but “cluasaíl” seems to me to better fit the pattern of “feadaíl” (whistling), geonaíl (whining, as of a dog; whimpering, droning), and “cuachaíl” (snorting or whinnying or whining or speaking in a falsetto voice — hunh?  go figure — beats me!).  Although it’s not any absolute guideline, the “-aíl [-eel]” ending seems to me to apply to a very “bodyish” body of words, especially involving body sounds, as opposed to “-áil” [awl or aw-il], which is much more common and very multi-purpose, including as the suffix of primary choice for many direct borrowings from English (páirceáil, péinteáil, landáil, lódáil, and, though I’m not totally sure how to spell it, “smileáil” (smaidhleáil? – I’ve never seen it written)

cluasaí [KLOO-us-ee], a listener (probably mostly in a negative sense), an eavesdropper; alternately, and a bit archaically, this could also mean a dull silent person (in a country that thrives on conversation)

So, the upshot of it is that “eavesdropping” as an Irish word has more to do with being in the back of or behind the speakers (cúléisteacht) or with revving up one’s ear power, to make one an “earer” as well as a “hearer.”  Shades of Harry Potter with the “cluasa insínte” (extendable ears)?

Well, I never woulda thunk it from the outset, but with all the vocabulary that’s on the go these days, I might have known that eventually I’d end up bringing in the “eaves.”  Joyfully!

Up next?  Tairr (soffits), anyone?

A “Post-Pun” Note: the word “sop,” one of the elements of the compound word “bunsop,” can also mean a “sheaf of corn.”  So the imeartas focal actually has a real-life application.  Especially if we imagine the sheaf of corn to be on the roof.  Just in the imagination, mind you!  Also, Meiriceánaigh especially should take note, “corn” in Irish and UK English can mean “edible grain” in general, including wheat.  So we’re not talking necessarily talking “sheaf of maize” here.  What Americans usually know simply as “corn” is typically called “Indian corn” or “maize,” or sometimes “sweet corn” in other Englishes.

Súil Siar: Dhá Fhocal Déag ar “icicle” i nGaeilge (aon fhocal déag acu ó mo bhlag ó 15 Aibreán 2012,, agus ceann eile ó nóta tráchta Áine): a) biorán seaca, lit. pin (hook) of frost; b) birín seaca, lit. little pin (hook) of frost; c) coinlín oighreoige, lit. little stalk of ice; d) coinlín reo, lit. little frost-stalk, e) coinneal bhraonáin, lit. droplet-candle;  f) coinneareo, lit. frost-candle; g) maide seaca, lit. stick of frost; h) oighreog (from “oighear,” ice); i) reodóg (from “reo,” frost); j) siocán, more typically “frost” itself or a “frozen person;” k) spiacán, more typically “sharp spiky object” in general; l) spincín seaca, lit. little point of frost

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