Irish Language Blog

How To Say “Uncail” (Uncailín, Amhnair, etc.) i nGaeilge Posted by on May 20, 2013 in Irish Language

(le Róislín)

Uncailí i nDubh? (Uncailí agus Cultacha Dubha orthu)

First, let me clarify that in this blog we’ll just be saying “uncle” in a very straightforward way, no implication of “crying uncle” (yielding, giving in).  Even though the Irish language is incredibly rich in idioms and figurative expressions, I haven’t really found much use of the word “uncail” in such expressions.  Perhaps it’s because “uncail” is a relatively recent borrowing into the Irish language and a lot of the “nathanna cainte” are much older.

So “saying uncle” here will deal primarily with the modern word “uncail,” its various forms, and alternate ways to say “father’s brother” and “mother’s brother” in Irish.  At any rate, this blog continues an ad hoc series on kinship terms that began with discussing “Lá na Máithreacha,” “Lá na nAithreacha,” and “Lá na nAintíní (or “na nAinteanna“).

Let’s start with “uncail” itself.  I see no evidence of it before 1900.  Prior to that the typical terms were “dearbhráthair-athar” (lit. brother of father) and “dearbhráthair-máthar” (lit. brother of mother).  In today’s spellings, those would be “deartháir-athar” and “deartháir-máthar.”   To indicate the exact relationship with those phrases, the possessive adjective would be inserted between the two elements “dearbhráthair m’athar” (the brother of my father) and “dearbhráthair mo mháthar” (the brother of my mother), etc.  Even if further searching does produce some early examples of “uncail” as such, I think the trend will remain: little or no use of “uncail” before 1900 and increasing displacement of the more traditional kinship terms during the 20th century.   My search included early variant spellings, like “ongcail” and “onncal” but to no avail.

Here are the forms for “uncail“:

an t-uncail, the uncle.  Remember why the “t-” is prefixed?  Masculine singular nouns beginning with the vowel get the “t-” (an t-uisce, an t-úll, an t-am, srl.).

uncail, same as the root form, also means “of an uncle” (ról uncail sa teaghlach, an uncle’s role in the family)

an uncail, of the uncle (moncaí an uncail, the uncle’s monkey; note that the “t” disappears when the phrase is possessive)

uncailí, uncles; na huncailí, the uncles

uncailí, of uncles, like the singular above, this possessive form is no different from the regular subject form (róil uncailí sna teaghlaigh, uncles’ roles in the families)

na n-uncailí, of the uncles (comhairle na n-uncailí, the advice of the uncles)

An alternate plural form is “uncaileacha,” which would give us forms like “na huncaileacha” and “na n-uncaileacha.”

I can’t say I’ve heard the diminutive form “uncailín” used much in real life.  But it is interesting that many English kinship terms, except “uncle,” i.e. dad, mom/mam/mum, aunt, grandmother, and grandfather have diminutive forms (daddy, mommy/mammy/mummy, aunty, grandma/granny, grandpa/granddad).   But not “uncle.”  I did look into “unky” but I’ve never heard it used myself in a family context, and most uses of it that I find are more Urban Dictionary-ish slang, rather than a meaningful diminutive.  Is it that the spelling of the word “uncle” doesn’t lend itself to having a pet form or suffix?  Or is there something in the relationship that discourages having a diminutive?  At any rate, it seems the situation is sort of similar in Irish, with “uncailín” existing as a word, but not, in my experience, very widely used.    One place it shows up consistently, though often anglicized, is in a stretch of woods west of Galway (Rosshill/Roscam area).  Mostly I see this described as having two sections named “aunteen” (sometimes “auntleen”) and “uncleen” but sometimes the actual Irish spellings are used.  Why these names occur remains a mystery, at least for me, although there are a few suggestions online.  One is that “uncailín” isn’t really related to “uncail” but rather that it comes from “uaimh” (cave).  Suimiúil!  But then, why “aunteen”?  By analogy?  Folk etymology extension?  Ábhar blag eile, b’fhéidir?   Eolas ó dhuine ar bith ón gceantar sin?

As for as expressions with “uncle,” it’s interesting to see the “uncleless” Irish equivalents of some English “uncle” expressions.   As I said before, I haven’t really encountered any traditional Irish expressions with “uncail.”  But if you want to say that your watch is at your “uncle’s” (i.e. “at the pawnbrokers,” in English slang), you’d simply use “Tá m’uaireadóir i ngeall” (lit. My watch is in pawn.).  Of course with uaireadóirí digiteacha a dime a dozen these days, I’m not sure that the typical geallbhróicéir has much interest.  Unless it’s the Chopard 201-Carat (an t-uaireadóir is daoire ar domhan).  An luach?  Thíos, ag deireadh an bhlag.  Actually that might be too much watch for the gnáthgheallbhróicéir.  Not that anyone owning it would probably need to hock anything.  Ach sin scéal eile.

As for “saying uncle,” I’ve found no trace of the expression, as such, in Irish.  So what do you say if you don’t say “uncle”?  One traditional Irish truce term is “Méaram!” (Pax!).  Of course, in schoolyard play, a truce term isn’t necessarily the same as a complete surrender so “Méaram” isn’t necessarily exactly the same as “Uncle!”   “Trócaire” (lit. mercy) and “Síocháin!” (lit. Peace!) could also be used.  Beyond that, once could always say “géillim” (I yield / surrender).

There are various suggestions regarding the origin of the English phrase “say uncle,” including one connected to the Irish word “anacal” (alternate spelling “anacol“) which means “protection” or “deliverance.”  As far as I can tell, this theory was first proposed in 1980 in the journal American Speech, long before it was popularized by the late Daniel Cassidy, author of the highly controversial How The Irish Invented Slang.  But in reviewing this possibility, we should keep in mind that “anacal” is a fairly literary word, not in common use, and it would seem an unlikely choice to be in use among schoolchildren in the late 19th century.  Let alone that it would have traveled with immigrants to America and survived when so much of the Irish that they knew was forgotten.  There is at least one major competing theory, that “saying uncle” is derived (over a 2000-year history) from the Latin “Patrue, mī patruissime! (O uncle, my best of uncles!), used for the same function by Roman schoolboys.  Either explanation is a stretch, if you ask me.

And finally, there are other words for “uncle” in Irish, even beyond the “deartháir m’athar” and “deirfiúr mo mháthar” type combinations discussed above.  One is “amhnair,” a relatively little-used additional Irish word for “maternal uncle,” which has survived best in the Irish of Tory Island.  It links to the Welsh “ewythr” and Breton “eontr” via the Latin “avunculus,” itself a diminutive of Latin “avus” (grandfather).  I always wondered where an unusual-looking word like “ewythr” came from!  A lot of people think most Welsh words, even everyday ones like “cyllell” (knife), “cwrw” (beer), and “sglodion” (chips), look unusual, but once you get immersed in the language, there’s just a smaller number that stand out as not looking typical.  I suppose it’s all a matter of opinion.  In Welsh, there are a few words that I find especially intriguing looking, like “ysgyrnygu” (gnashing the teeth) and “llwyrymwrthodwr” (teetotaler).  Of course, I have my favorites in English too, like “chthonic” and “sesquipedalian,” but all of that must remain, sadly, not just ábhar blag eile, but ábhar do shraith blaganna eile.

Ar an “nóta” sin agus, tá súil agam, gan aon díoscarnach fiacla (“gnashing of teeth” in Irish), SGF — Róislín

Nóta: Luach an uaireadóra is daoire ar domhan faoi láthair: $25,000,000 (US).  Hmm, an ndeir muid “25 milliún fionnuar”?    Nó “25 milliún réchúiseach”?  Nó an bhfanfaidh muid just inár staiceanna (dumbstruck)?  Tuilleadh eolais faoi, má tá suim agat ann:

Nóta don nóta: both “fionnuar” and “réchúiseach” mean “cool” although I’m not convinced we can use either for mindbogglingly large sums of money.   Come to think of it, “cool” is mostly used for milliún amháin, not increments beyond one, isn’t it?  The phrase “cool million” dates back to at least June 19, 1934, the publication date of the novel of the same name by the tragically short-lived Nathaniel West.  But did he make up the term or was it already in existence?  Bhuel, sin ábhar taighde do lá fearthainne!

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