Irish Language Blog

Samhain (1 Mí na Samhna): The First Day of Winter Posted by on Oct 29, 2010 in Irish Language

(le Róislín) 

Not only was Samhain the first day of the traditional Celtic year – it was also the first day of winter, fitting neatly with the rest of the laethanta trascheathrún (cross-quarter days) san fhéilire Ceilteach.  The others are Imbolc (1 Feabhra/February, now usually called Lá Fhéile Bríde), Bealtaine (1 May), and Lughnasa (aka Lúnasa, 1 August).

The idea that November 1st is the beginning of Winter is also shown in the Welsh terms for Halloween (Nos Galan Gaeaf or Gŵyl Calan Gaeaf) and for November First (Calan Gaeaf).  As you might expect, “nos” is “night” in Welsh. Gŵyl is “festival” and is related to the Irish “féile” (despite only having one letter in common!) and both are related to the Latin “vigilia.”

Calan Gaeaf” means “the first day of winter.”  It comes from “calan,” (first day of a month, like “Calan Mai;” related to Calends, calendar, etc.) and “gaeaf.”  “Gaeaf” is pronounced like English “guy” + “of,” with the final “f” like a “v,” or silent (for once I’m just using English analogies rather than phonetics or my phonetics “rough guide” since it seems more straightforward for this case).

Gaeaf” is related to the Irish word for “winter” as well as to the term in Scottish Gaelic and Manx.  And Breton and Cornish.  So what’s the Irish word for “winter.”  Ná bí buartha – I’ve just given your memory a chance to be jogged and the various Celtic terms for “winter” are in the note below.  Just out of eye-drift range.  Not sure if “eye-drift range” is really a term in English, but it seems to fit the bill.

Whether you observe the day as Samhain, Calan Gaeaf, or Lá na Naomh Uile, bain sult as (enjoy it).  And although it’s not particularly traditional in Irish, one could always say “Oíche Shamhna shona [happy] duit” (on a analogy with “Nollaig Shona duit”).  It would seem like a contradiction in terms to use “beannachtaí” as one does with Easter (Beannachtaí na Cásca).  Greetings for holidays in Irish usually involve either the word “sona” (happy, or “shona” [HUN-nuh], the feminine form) or “beannachtaí” (blessings), so there’s not much choice!  SGF —  Róislín

Nóta a hAon: winter: Irish: geimhreadh (geimhridh, of winter; an gheimhridh, of the winter etc.); Scottish Gaelic: geamhrach, Manx: geurey; Cornish: gwav, Breton: goañv.  An example of very consistent pan-Celtic vocabulary, despite all the spelling differences!

All these words derive from an early Celtic form, *gaimo, or its variants.  You might be thinking “gaim” to “geimh-” or “geamh-“ for the Irish and Scottish forms, OK, but “m” to “f” in “gaeaf” for the Welsh?  Hunh?  “Elementary, my dear foghlaimeoir / fòghlumach / dysgwr!”  The letter “m” regularly changes to “f” [pronounced “v”] in Modern Welsh (as in merch, daughter, dy ferch, your daughter; mam, mother, dy fam, your mother, etc.) so it’s not too surprising that the “m” of “*gaimo” ends up as an “f” in Modern Welsh.  Remember how the pronunciation has ended up in Modern Irish, with the “-mh-“ also pronounced like a “v”.  And, sure, that explanation is not for the saineolaithe teangeolaíochta out there, just the bare bones to reassure learners that these mutation of letters are not random and unpredictable.  They’re actually quite logical and predictable.  I suppose I should add, “in their own special way.”

Nóta a Dó (Fuaimniú): geimhreadh [GyEV-ruh, GEER-uh, GyEV-roo, etc. – I don’t always try to do multiple dialect pronunciations as I’ve done here, but for this word they all seem quite prominent]; trascheathrún [TRASS-HYA-hroon] cross-quarter, from tras + ceathrú (quarter portion, here lenited to start with “ch” since it’s the second element of a compound word).

And for those who want to master the Welsh phrases: in gŵyl, the circumflex above the “w” indicates that it is pronounced “oo,” not like the typical Welsh combination of “gwy” as in “gwyn” (white, also a man’s name), “gwynt” (wind), or “Gwyddel” (an Irishman).

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  1. Ruthan:

    Great explanation! Thanks 😉 (I’m studying Celtic Studies in Germany, it’s great to see things we learn outside of the university…)

    • róislín:

      @Ruthan Go raibh maith agat! Glad you found it helpful. Ádh mór leis an chúrsa staidéir sa Ghearmáin!

  2. Niki:

    Go raibh maith agat! Living in Wales at the moment, and couldn’t figure out why my English housemate was insisting that 1st December was the start of winter. Glad to know it’s just cultural differences. =)

    • róislín:

      @Niki Sea, sin é, difríochtaí cultúrtha. Cén áit sa Bhreatain Bheag a bhfuil tú? Where in Wales are you? Chaith mise bliain in Aberystwyth. Thanks for writing in!

  3. Karen Roberts:

    Diolch yn fawr. I studied Celtic Studies (and Eng. Lit) at UCLA in the 1970s; the languages have always been harder for me, since – until the internet- it was hard to find people to speak with. But I’ve always kept up with the history, culture and politics, and greatly appreciate your contributions and thi explanation, in particular.

    Gŵyl Calan Gaeaf Hapus

    • róislín:

      @Karen Roberts Annwyl Karen,
      Diolch yn fawr iawn am eich neges.

      Agus i nGaeilge: Tá áthas orm go dtaitníonn na blaganna leat.

      Gŵyl Calan Gaeaf Hapus i chi hefyd, agus Oíche Shamhna Shona freisin.

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