Irish Language Blog

Níl aon “P” bréagléannta i nGaeilge (Béarla: ptarmigan vs. Gaeilge: tarmachan) Posted by on Jul 27, 2014 in Irish Language

(le Róislín)

Cén cineál éin mé?  -- Is tarmachan mé.  Agus níl an litir "P" i m'ainm mar atá sa  Bhéarla bréagléannta atá orm.

Cén cineál éin mé? — Is tarmachan mé. Agus níl an litir “P” i m’ainm mar atá sa Bhéarla bréagléannta atá orm. Image:

We recently noted some extreme examples of English spelling (like chthonic, mnemonic, and pneumonia) and a couple of English words with initial “pt” like “pteranodon” and “ptarmigan” (naisc thíos)  One of those words was an example of pseudo-learned spelling in English since the initial silent letter was added, to make the word look impressively Greek.  While most English words beginning with “pt-” do come from Greek (ptosis, ptomaine, pterodactyl, Ptolemy, etc.), there’s at least one that doesn’t.  Which one?  Kudos (arís) to Seán Ó Briain who sent in the correct answer for that: ptarmigan, with the pseudo-learned “p” prefixed to an anglicization of the solid Gaelic word, “tàrmachan” (tarmachan, with no long mark, in Irish).  Why bother, one might wonder, but what’s done is done, and “ptarmigan” doesn’t seem to be changing.

So let’s look at a few other words that start with “pt” in English,” in this case, legitimately.  In other words, these “pt” clusters do in fact go back to the ancient Greek.  And, in all cases, the Irish words are spelled without the “p,” showing us that the Irish spelling system can be straightforward and logical.  Remember the “p” of the “pt” cluster isn’t pronounced in any of these English words, so it seems consistent that all the Irish words simply start with “t.”  Here are some samples:

1) pteranodon: tearanódón.  You might remember this from the 3-part blog on “Traein na nDineasár” (nasc thíos), where I also provided the vocabulary for the very catchy theme song (téamamhrán) for the show, great in English (Dinosaur Traaaiiin!), níos fearr fós i nGaeilge (i mo bharúil féin).

2) pterido- (as a prefix): teiridea– (before broad consonants) and teiridi– (before slender consonants)

3) pteridology (the study of ferns and other pteridophytes): well, I haven’t actually found this one in print or cyberprint so far, but putting the prefix and suffix together, we should have *teirideolaíocht.  Eolas ag Gaeilgeoir/teirideolaí amuigh ansin faoi seo?

4) pteridophyte (a plant in the Pteridophyta division, including ferns, horsetails, and club mosses): teiridifít

5) pterodactyl – just a brief mention here since the topic was pretty thoroughly covered in the blog “An Éan É? An Reiptíl É? An Dineasár É? Bhuel, Ní Hea, ‘Sea, agus Ní Hea (nasc thíos): teireadachtalach, with the caveat, as discussed in that blog, that, technically, pterodactyls don’t exist.

But, as Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill wrote about in her famous essay “Why I Choose to Write in Irish: The Corpse That Sits Up and Talks Back” (New York Times, 8 Eanáir 1995), non-existent things exist, at least according to the Irish Folklore file on “Neacha Neamhbheo agus Nithe Nach Bhfuil Ann” (Unalive beings and things that don’t exist).  So we might as well deal with the word for “pterodactyl,” even if they didn’t exist.  First “Plútón,” then “domhantarraingt” (yes, that’s been challenged too, nasc thíos) then pterodactyls.  What will be eliminated next?  In my imagination (Lennonesque-ly), it would be fuath, santacht, and foréigean, but I think that’s a long way off, given the state of the world.

And boy, did I just drop a heavy dose of philosophy about human nature into our otherwise light-hearted discussion. (Hey, that was supposed to be the “brief reference.”  Ah, well, sin mar atá.  Níl aon dochar déanta.)

6) pteropod (a mollusk, with <you guessed it>, a wing-like foot): teireapódach

and irresistibly:

7) pteropod ooze (I shudder to think …): púscán teireapódach

8) Ptolemy: Tá níos mó ná ceathrar acu ann agus “Tolamaes” mar ainm orthu go léir i nGaeilge:

a) Ptolemy (an matamataiceoir Gréagach): Tolamaes

b) Ptolemy (sinsearach ríshliocht Macadónach a bhí ina rialtóirí san Éigipt ó 323 BC go 30 BC):  Tolamaes. And, yes, there’s a plural: Tolamaesaigh.  Wondering about the lack of vowel harmony there?  The vowel cluster “ae” is considered “broad” in Irish, so it does “harmonize” with the “-aigh” of the suffix.  BTW, the slender version of the suffix would be ‘-igh,” which we see in words like “Fairisínigh” (Pharisees) and “Filistínigh” Philistines), where “-igh” matches up to the preceding “-in” syllable.

c) Ptolemy I (Ptolemy Sotor): rí na hÉigipte (306-285 BCE): Tolamaes I

d) Ptolemy II (Ptolemy Philadelphus): rí na hÉigipte (285-ca. 247, BCE): Tolamaes II

9) ptomaine (poison produced during putrefaction of animal or plant proteins): tóiméin, with a variant, tóimín.  Cheerily, this derives from “ptóma,” a ancient Greek word for “dead body”

10) ptyalin (enzyme which converts starch to dextrin and maltose): tiailin

And finally, an ironic note: the English word “pseudo-” includes the silent “p,” as do so many other Greek borrowings.  But in the case of the word “bréagléannta” (pseudo-learned), Irish jumps to a more traditional word, based on “bréag” (a lie).  So the “learned P” isn’t even an issue for that word.

So, what’s the takeaway here?  While Irish has plenty of silent letters (just think of “fadhb,” “fhadhb,” and “bhfadhb,” for starters), it doesn’t have a pattern of using “pseudo-learned” prefixes with silent letters.  The silent letters in Irish mostly occur for grammatical reasons (“sráid” becoming “an tsráid,” with the “s” becoming silent, but not “pseudo-learnedly”).  I’d hazard a guess that the pseudo-learned prefixes aren’t part of modern Irish spelling at all, but there could always be a stray example, so I won’t say never.  I never say “never” when it comes to language issues.  The pattern seems pretty clear as we look at words like “néamónaic” (aka cuimhneolaíocht) and  “niúmóine,” where the Greek “m” and “p” respectively have disappeared.  We certainly see the trend there.

And the final takeaway?  Now you say things like:

Tá cnámha na dtearanódón agus iontaisí na dteiridifítí sa phúscán teireapódach.

So just when you got used to discarding the silent pseudo-learned English “p,” in jumps the Irish “d” for eclipsis, making the original “t” of “tearanódón” and “teiridifít” silent.  Remember, Irish, logically and consistently, makes certain letters silent to show what’s happening grammatically.  Cén córas is fearr leat?  Which system do you like better?

So what did that sentence mean anyway?

The bones of the pteranodons and the fossils of the pteridophytes are in the pteropod ooze.

If you don’t imagine taking part in too much discussion on the “paleo” side of things, at least that last sentence gave you the imminently useful words “cnámha” (bones) and “púscán” (ooze).  I see there are at least five other types of “ooze” we could potentially discuss, but they’ll have to wait for blag éigin eile.  And that’s not even counting “Armus” from the “Skin of Evil” episode (Craiceann Oilc, b’fhéidir) of “RéaltAistear: An Chéad Ghlúin Eile.”  Or was Armus more “sláthach” (slime) than “ooze?”  Why does every topic seem to take me back to Star Trek.  Hmmm, I wonder.  Anyway, stay tuned, since we can’t let that topic go undiscussed.  It might even take us back to that baker’s dozen of words for “mud” in Irish, which some of you might remember from a couple of years ago (nasc thíos).

I can potentially see the pailé-ointeolaithe and teirideolaithe challenging me for my probable telescoping of geologic time periods in the sentence above, but, my main goal was simply to use these words in a somewhat plausible context.  And if “pteropod ooze” isn’t an engaging topic of conversation, I don’t know what is.  On that slithery note, SGF – Róislín


How To Say Irish Words Like ‘Aghaidh,’ ‘Bhratach,’ and ‘Shaoirse’ (Pronunciation Guide for the Red, White and Blue Blog)  Posted on 20. Jun, 2013 by róislín in Irish Language

Athphostáilte ar 31 Iúil 2014 mar: How do you pronounce that? A sample Irish pronunciation guide:

An Éan É? An Reiptíl É? An Dineasár É? Bhuel, Ní Hea, ‘Sea, agus Ní Hea  Posted on 27. Jun, 2013 by róislín in Irish Language

Traein na nDineasár: Gluaisín do Théamamhrán an Chláir Teilifíse (Cuid 1/3) Posted on 07. Jul, 2013 by róislín in Irish Language .  If you open the first of the three, you’ll be able to link to the other 2 in the series), which quotes physicist Erik Verline as telling a New York Times reporter, “We’ve known for a long time gravity doesn’t exist. It’s time to yell it.”  To which my humble response is, “Say what?”  But then, ní fisiceoir mé.

Maidir le “Mud” (Muck, Mire, etc.) Posted on 23. Mar, 2012 by róislín in Irish Language


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