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Lá Idirnáisiúnta na nAltraí (International Nurses Day): 12 Bealtaine Posted by on May 12, 2010 in Uncategorized

Lá Idirnáisiúnta na nAltraí (International Nurses Day): 12 Bealtaine

Bíonn Lá Idirnáisiúnta na nAltraí á cheiliúradh ar an 12ú lá de mhí na Bealtaine.  An bhfuil a fhios agat cén fáth a bhfuil sé ar an lá sin? (Freagra thíos)  International Nurses Day is celebrated on the 12th of May.  Do you know why it’s on that day? (Answer below).

The term “altra” (nurse) and the earlier term, “banaltra” (nurse), offer some interesting insight into the way languages change and evolve.  For years, generations really, the term in common usage was “banaltra,” which uses the prefix “ban-“ (woman).  More recently, the switch has been made to “altra,” which doesn’t refer to the gender of the person holding the job. 

You might know the prefix “ban-“ from other occupational terms such as bandraoi (druidess), banphrionsa (princess), and bandia (goddess).  Well, maybe that last one’s not really an occupation as such, but it fits the pattern.  In fact, I’m not sure if the first two are viable occupations today, as such, but people do hold the positions.  Anyway, note that these three terms, and most others like them, are grammatically masculine, so we say: an bandraoi, an banphrionsa, and an bandia.  In other words, no lenition is used to say “the druidess,” “the princess,” and “the goddess.”  They’re treated just like masculine nouns (an draoi, an prionsa, an dia, the last typically for “the deity” as opposed to “Dia” for “God”).  The governing principle is that the masculine core element (draoi, prionsa, dia) determines the gender of the entire compound word, although it refers to a woman. 

The word “banaltra,” however, is grammatically feminine. So you’d say “an bhanaltra” for “the nurse” (with lenition).  A few (very few) other occupational terms or titles work this way, even when the core word is masculine: “ban-ab, an bhan-ab” (abbess) and “bantiarna, an bhantiarna” (lady, lit. “woman-lord”) are the only examples that come readily to mind.  Both “ab” and “tiarna” are masculine. 

It’s interesting to note some of the other nouns that are grammatically masculine but refer to women.  These include “adulteress” (banadhaltrach), “seductive woman” “banchealgaire,” and “lady friend” (banchara).   Probably not terms you’d find in an ordinary textbook!  Remember, the grammatical gender mostly determines the possessive endings and the forms of adjectives modifying the nouns.  You’d still use the feminine pronoun “” (she) to refer to the adulteress, the siren, or the lady friend.  So it’s not as though one considers person male, just because the basic occupational term is.   

The newer term for “nurse” (altra), is grammatically masculine, so you’d say “an t-altra” for “the nurse.”  That’s the standard t-insertion-before-masculine-singular-nouns-beginning-with-a-vowel rule (an t-úll, the apple; an t-uisce, the water, etc.). 

Prior to the changeover to just using “altra,” Irish had the term “banaltra fir” for “male nurse.”  That pattern (adding “fir”) still shows up in “baintreach fir,” the term for “widower,” where the core element is feminine (baintreach).  The “fir” element is from “fear” (man), here in the genitive case.  This is similar to the process in English, which adds a suffix to make “widow” masculine–not mere coincidence, I presume, but related to demographics. 

Today we can still specify “male nurse” (altra fir), but at least the basic occupational title doesn’t presume gender.  For anyone who’s ever tempted just to look words up in a dictionary and match them up like puzzle pieces, or worse yet, to have a computer do it for you, please do note that the adjective for “male” in Irish is either “fireann” or “fireannach.” Obviously, that’s not what used here to make the Irish phrase for “male nurse,” which reflects a different thought process, and one which uses a feature English doesn’t have, an tuiseal ginideach (the genitive case). 

Getting back to saying “International Nurses Day” in Irish, the “na nAltraí” part means “of the nurses.”  It’s genitive plural, which means we:

a)      use “na” for “the” (as expected)

b)      apply eclipsis before the initial “a” of “Altraí” (giving “nAltraí”), and

c)      attach the “n” directly to “Altraí” instead of using the hyphen, since this is usage is a title and the phrase is capitalized. 

The punctuation rule described in c) above also applies to “Lá na nAithreacha” (lit. the Day of the Fathers).  In a title or proper noun, the nouns are capitalized and the hyphen isn’t used.  If the phrases were generic, the hyphen would be used, as in “hataí na n-aithreacha” or “caipíní na n-altraí.”

As is typical in Irish, there is no real word for “of” to show possession.  The idea of “of” is indicated by word order, eclipsis (for plural), and the ending of the noun. 

A final note, and a bit of a disclaimer, I translated the phrase “International Nurses Day” myself, assuming the current word for “nurse” would be used.  Diligent searching on the Internet failed to bring up any official reference to the phrase in Irish, even when I explored as many possibilities as I could think of, such as using “banaltra” (na mBanaltraí) instead of “altra” or interpreting it as grammatically singular but implying plural (as in English “Mother’s Day” and “Father’s Day).  I wouldn’t have expected the latter to crop up, since it would really translate “International Day of the Nurse,” but I tried it anyway, for good measure (with genitive phrases “na Banaltra” and “an Altra”).  The search included An Bord Altranais and various nursing websites as well as keyword searches in Irish or partly in Irish.

Nótaí: 12ú, twelfth (read as “an dara lá déag” or “an dóú lá déag”); an bhanaltra [un WAHN-AL-truh or un VAHN-AL-truh, depending on dialect]; á cheiliúradh [aw HyEL-yur-uh], lit. “at its celebrating,” i.e. being celebrated.  The long “á” at the beginning of this phrase distinguishes it from “a cheiliúradh” (to celebrate).  The slender “ch” sound is shown by “hy” (like the initial sound of English “humid” or Welsh “Huw”).  The final –dh is either silent or could be pronounced “oo.” 

Freagra: Is é 12 Bealtaine 1820 lá breithe Florence Nightingale.

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  1. Stephen Gillespie:

    Thanks again for your Exhaustive,,,,,so it seems to me,,,,,Research.

    • róislín:

      @Stephen Gillespie Go raibh maith agat, a Stiofáin. Déanaim mo dhícheall leis. Is maith liom a bheith ag déanamh an taighde. Tá suim mhór agam i stair, i gcúlra, agus i mearbhaill na bhfocal. – Róislin

      Here’s a brief “gluais” for the note above for the benefit of any newcomers to the language:
      mo dhícheall [muh YEE-hull], my best
      taighde [TAI-djeh], research. That’s “tai” like English “pie,” “Pye,” “pi,” or “pry” or Welsh “tai” (houses) — now you know why I use the IPA symbol (ai) for that sound, not one of the English choices — too ambiguous!
      cúlra, background
      mearbhaill, perplexities, wanderings

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