Irish Language Blog

Géanna agus Ealaí (Cuid a Ceathair: Dhá Lá Dhéag na Nollag) Posted by on Jan 4, 2011 in Irish Language

(le Róislín)

Time to give “faoistin ghearr” to “Dhá Lá Dhéag na Nollag,” at least, perhaps, until next year when we can resume looking at some of the féidearthachtaí eile.  Before we start, you might like to know a more folksy way to refer to “short shrift:”

Níor thug sé saol práta i mbéal muice di.  Equivalent toHe gave her short shrift,” but literally, “He didn’t give her (even) the life of a potato a pig’s mouth”  With all that pig and potato imagery, you probably noticed that there’s no mention of an actual confession (faoistin).  Traditional sayings like this rarely translate literally from language to language.

As for why some people were shriven in a short time period, and how to describe the situation in Irish, let’s hold that topic for another time, say, An Inid.  Specifically, we could say Máirt Inide, which this year will fall ar an 8ú lá de mhí an Mhárta, a little late compared to some years.   But we’ll get there. 

Anyway, so much for prátaí agus muca, and back to the topic at hand, géanna agus ealaí.

Looking at the song from a language point of view, we’ve now gotten to some verses where the grammar isn’t quite as complex.  The reason is simply that the geese and swans in the next two verses aren’t described with adjectives, which, as you may recall, may need séimhiú or plural endings applied.  The song doesn’t specify that the geese are géanna tí (aka géanna clóis) or any other particular type, such as “ gé Cheanada” or “gé ghobghearr.”  Just, “six geese.”

The main grammatical point that arises with counting “six geese” and “seven swans” involves using the numbers with the nouns.  In fact, the song is ideally written to illustrate what happens when counting things in Irish.  As many of you know, if you have two to six of an item, you apply lenition (séimhiú) wherever possible (dhá bhád, trí chat, srl.), keeping in mind the important exceptions (“trí bliana,” mar shampla).  

So, “six geese”?  Delightfully, it rhymes:

sé ghé (lenition of “gé” after “sé”).  Remember the sound for the slender “gh,” like English “y”?  So “ghé” sounds pretty much like English “yay!” (as opposed to the broad “gh,” which, in Irish, is guttural).  Of course, this is the “sé” meaning “six,” not the “sé” meaning “he, it.”  For better or for worse, Irish throws a comhainm at learners in what is often one of their first lessons, “sé” as a pronoun (“he”) and “sé” as a number (“six”).

Once you hit seven, you no longer use “séimhiú” but “urú” (eclipsis) instead.  So instead of “softening” the initial consonant, shown in spelling by adding the letter “h” (bád / bhád, cat / chat), you cover over the original letter, just like an actual eclipse, except we’re adding letters to the word, not heavenly bodies.  This process also occurs for many other reasons in Irish, and you’ve likely seen some of them (i mBostún, ag an bPaorach, an dtógann, srl.).  There are seven possible combinations for applying eclipsis to consonants, and we can’t treat all of them here, since we’re only talking about geese and swans.  For the examples just given in parentheses, we had “m” eclipsing “Bostún,” the letter “b” eclipsing “Paorach” (Mr. Power), and “d” eclipsing “tógann.”

Seven swans?  The word for swan, “eala,” begins with a vowel, so we’re not using the rules for words that begin with consonants.  Vowels can also be eclipsed in Irish, but unlike the consonant system, it’s always with the same letter, “n.”  You might remember “seacht n-úll” and “naoi n-oráiste” (7 apples, 9 oranges) as examples.

seacht n-eala (eclipsis of “eala” after “seacht”)

Remember that in both these cases, the noun (gé, eala), stays singular after the number.  That’s the process in Irish, even if it seems unusual to an English speaker.

And what were these birds up to?

sé ghé ag breith.

Interestingly, the archaic style of the English “a-laying” isn’t really a feature of the Irish version.  In Irish, it is quite normal to use the preposition “ag” (at) before the rangabháil láithreach (present participle, i.e. the “–ing” form of the verbal noun), as you’ve no doubt seen (Tá mé ag rith, Tá sé ag ithe).  So, the “ag + verbal noun” structure fits the rhythm of the song perfectly, without any need to deliberately archaize it.  English actually used to have a similar feature, which survives i bhfrásaí iontaisithe today, in the other verses if this song, as well as elsewhere (“a-swimming,” etc., and more generally, “a-wassailing” and “a-maying”).  Admittedly, the fossilized survivals of this structure are somewhat old-fashioned in English – I’ve never heard of anyone going “a-texting.”  In English, this “a-“ was originally the preposition “on.”  Over time, it got reduced to “a-“ and eventually dropped altogether, except in phrases like the ones just given.

If these geese were actually hatching their eggs, instead of laying them, we could use a fascinating Irish word, “gor,” which refers to broodiness, clocking (clucking), or hatching (regarding poultry), or medically, pus or inflammation.  It gives us a great figurative expression, máthair an ghoir, which means both “the root of all evil” and “the core of an abscess.”  But I suppose any further discussion of that topic should be ábhar blag eile.

As for the swimming swans, oops, “swans a-swimming”:

seacht n-eala ag snámh

The most basic meaning of “snámh” is “swim,” but don’t be too surprised if you see it used to describe land animals though.  On land, it can mean “creep” or “crawl, as in, ”Tá an leithphéist stríoca candaí ag snámh ar an ngaineamh,” which means “The candy-striped flatworm is creeping on the sand.”  Why the *candy-striped flatworm?  I guess I like the image.  If ever there was a worm name designed to tempt the proverbial worm-eater of the proverbial worm-eating song (“Nobody likes me, everybody hates me …”), I guess this would be it.  But this worm is especially interesting for our purposes since it can also swim.  Hmm, I see potential issues in **distinctio here, but will also save that for ábhar blag eile.

One last point about the word “snámh.”  Students (at least in my classes) seem to find it an unusual-looking word, but it is a nice straightforward cognate, minus the initial “–s,” to the Welsh “nofio” and to related words in other languages like both “natare” and “navigare” in Latin, as well as “nadar,”nager,” and “nuotare,” etc.

Bhuel, that may not have been such “short shrift” after all.  Cúig véarsa fágtha!  Práta crua i mbéal muc mhantach, is dócha.  — Slán go fóill — Róislín

*  I wrote about the candy-striped worms in this blog for Halloween 2009.  B’fhéidir gur cuimhin leat é?  The general topic was “Lá Náisiúnta Candaí Arbhair,” which is on October 30th of every year.  That’s “náisiúnta” of the U.S.  Something tells me that no other countries have a “National Candy Corn Day.”  The general context was the use of the word “candaí” as opposed to “milseáin” in Irish.

** I don’t see any Irish word for the rhetorical device “distinctio,” as opposed to “distinction,” but I suppose “idirdhealachas” could do in a pinch.  That, at least, would be distinct from “idirdhealú,” which is simply “distinction” (or differentiation) and “idirdhealúchán,” which is basically the same thing, but a little more concretely stated.

 Gluais: comhainm, homonym; géanna tí or géanna clóis, domestic geese, lit. “house geese” or “yard geese,” gobghearr, at least in reference to geese, literally means “short-beaked” but is used in Irish to refer to the pink-footed goose” (Anser brachyrhynchus); iontaisithe, fossilized; mantach, toothless

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