Irish Language Blog

Stella, Étoile, Estrella, Stea … Réalta! Posted by on Jun 20, 2011 in Irish Language

(le Róislín)

Sandwiched between Lá na Brataí (an American holiday celebrated on June 14th) and Lá na Saoirse (4 Iúil) might be a good time to talk about “réaltaí agus riabha” (stars and stripes).  So we’ll take a sos (break) from the díochlaontaí for a while, and address, first, the “réalta” component.  The “riabha” will have to wait for another blog.

An interesting aspect of the word “réalta” is that it is completely separate from both series of cognates for “star” in the Romance and Germanic languages.  Often words for things that our ancestors held in common (sun, moon, stars, horses, cows, mothers, fathers, etc.) are quite similar as you traverse the Indo-European panorama of languages.  So you may have recognized “stella” (Laidin, Iodáilis), “étoile” (Fraincis), “estrella” (Spáinnis), or “stea” (Rómáinis), in the title of this blog, but “réalta” clearly just “doesn’t belong.”

How ‘bout the Germanic series: “stjerne” (Danmhairgis), “steorra” (SeanBhéarla), “ster” (Ollainis), and “stern” (Gearmáinis), mar shampla.  Again, a lot of internal consistency, but nothing resembling the Irish “réalta.”

It’s not as though the word “star” is the only one that presents us with this quandary.  While the word for “sun” is also fairly consistent throughout the Indo-European languages (sol, sole, soleil, soare, haul, heol, solnce, and, most historically of all, suar in Sanskrit, etc.), Irish gives us “grian,” perhaps based on a word that means “heat.”  For “moon,” we bridge the gap a bit.  The most widely used Irish word, “gealach” (moon, lit. bright thing), is not tied into the Indo-European set, but there is a second Irish word, mostly reserved for literary usage, “luan,” which is tied in with “luna,” “lune,” etc.  Some of this linguistic uniqueness is due to Ireland being an island, with some natural isolation, but some of it is simply inexplicable, with origins lost in the mists of preliterate prehistory.  In certain other cases, though, Irish clearly shares its vocabulary with other Indo-European languages (capall, horse, cf. caballus, cheval, caballo, ceffyl, etc., and máthair, mother, cf. mater, mère, madre, and Sanskrit “matar-,” etc.).  Whenever this linguistic sharing occurs, it certainly makes vocabulary-building easier.  Where it exists in Irish, I’d say relish it.  Where it doesn’t, with words like “réalta” (or “grian” or “gealach,” etc.), it just makes the challenge of learning Irish all the more interesting, doesn’t it?

Do we have any idea about the history of the word “réalta?”  There is at least one theory – that’s it’s a compound of very old forms of the words “rud” (thing) and “glan” (clean, bright, pure).  Seems plausible to me, though probably hard to prove.

Getting back to “réalta” itself, the plural is “réaltaí.”  It’s a 4th declension noun, so (hurá!), the endings for possessive forms are the same as the singular and plural forms themselves.  It’s feminine, so to describe a star further, you could say:

an réalta bheag

an réalta mhór

an réalta gheal

an réalta thimpholach


To make the same phrases plural, you’d say:

na réaltaí beaga

na réaltaí móra

na réaltaí geala

na réaltaí timpholacha


All well and good, and quite predictable.

To show possession:

méid na réalta, the size of the star

ainm na réalta, the name of the star

méid na réaltaí, the size of the stars

ainmneacha na réaltaí, the names of the stars

Some related words are:

réalteolaí, astronomer

réalteolaíocht, astronomy

réalta, star (in movies)

sár-réalta, super-star (celebrity)

réiltín, starlet, also, an asterisk

réaltbhreac, star-spangled (lit. star-specked, since the actual word for a “spangle” in Irish is “spaglainn”!)

réaltbhliain, sidereal year

réaltbhuíon, constellation

réaltfhisic, astrophysics.

One of my favorites is:

réaltóireacht, star-gazing, which also means “mental confusion” and “absent-mindedness.”

And so, would that last entry shed some new light on how to translate the intriguingly named “starry-gazy pie” into Irish?  It’s actually a Cornish specialty, as immortalized in at least one children’s book, The Mousehole Cat, but that’s no reason for it not to have an Irish name.  If “starry-gazy pie” sounds delightfully philosophical, it’s actually quite a down-to-earth phenomenon.  The “starry-gazy” aspect is caused by fish heads sticking up through the pie’s crust, as if they’re gazing at the sky.  So despite its celebrated iconic Cornishness (featured in Poldark, etc.), it also showed up in the New York Daily News’s series, “Yuck! Disgusting Things People Eat!” based on Neil Setchfield’s book of the same name (tagairt thíos)

A quick search through all the dictionaries, online and hard-copy, that I have at my disposal fails to yield a name for this pie in Irish, or for that matter, even in Cornish.  So may I suggest, for Irish, *pióg réaltóireachta?  Part of me keeps wanting to specify the main ingredient, typically pilséir or scadáin, but I have to remind myself that the English name doesn’t specify the fish either, so, just “starry-gazy,” no details!  And may I inquire of any cainteoirí Cornaise on this list, if they know how to say “starry-gazy” pie in Cornish?  Just curious!

As for “star-spangled,” to return to our flag theme, there is at least one other way that this concept has been expressed in Irish: gealréaltach (lit. brightly-starred).

Generally, when using either “réaltbhreac” or “gealréaltach,” the basic word for “flag” (bratach) is used.  The English phrase “star-spangled banner” feels extra poetic, substituting “banner” for “flag.”  In Irish however, the most specific word for a “banner,” is “meirge” (also a “standard” or “ensign”), but I don’t see any evidence of it in discussion of the American “Stars and Stripes,” or in fact, of the American national anthem.

And finally, foláireamh homagraif.  There is another word in Irish, réalta, which is an adjective meaning “real” or “developed” (in photography, etc.).  This is based on the verb “réaladh” (to make clear or manifest, to develop).  No relation to réalta (star) – it’s just that the “–ta” ending of this adjective mimics the “–ta” ending of the noun.

Next up, “riabha,” and perhaps some other vexillogical vagaries.  SGF, ó Róislín.

Gluais: bratach, flag; brateolaíocht, vexillology; foláireamh, an alert; pilséar, pilchard; saoirse [SEER-shuh] freedom, independence; scadán, herring; timpholach, circumpolar

Nasc don tsraith sa New York Daily News:

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  1. Mise Áine:

    @ réaltóireacht

    Ainm maith le haghaidh blag, b’fhéidir…:-)

    @ it’s a compound of very old forms of the words “rud” (thing) and “glan”

    Ní chuirfeadh sé sin iontas orm, caithfidh mé a rá.

    @ SGF

    Mo chuimhne, a Róislín, céard is brí le SGF? Scairteadh gáire de shaghas éigin?

  2. Dónal Welsh:

    Wow! Nach breá gur bhuail mé leis an gcómhrá suimiúil seo. Beidh mé á léamh go cúramach as seo amach. Is amhlaidh go bféadfhainn roinnt mhaith a fhoghlaim uaigh. Maith thú, a Róislín! Go raibh maith agat.

    Buile scuir: Aha! Is dóigh liom SGF= Slán go fóill? Is breá liom bheith ag imirt le teanganna agus logic puzzles éagsúla.

    • róislín:

      @Dónal Welsh A Dhónail, a chara,
      Go raibh maith agat as an “Wow!” sin. Tá áthas orm gur bhain tú sult as an mblag.

      Áthas orm freisin go bhfuair tú amach cad is “sgf” ann? Ceist r b eile agat? Má tá, fáilte rompu!

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