Irish Language Blog

Súil Siar: Séimhiú agus Ainmfhocail Bhaininscneacha (The Infamous Lenition) Posted by on Nov 27, 2010 in Uncategorized

I was going to move right on to talking about “arbhar” (arbhar Indiach), the other main ingredient of the Native American dish, succotash, which was discussed in the previous blog.  But it occurred to me that the list of feminine nouns, all those types of pónairí (beans), would make a good opportunity to practice “séimhiú” with adjectives and after the definite article.  Also, there always seems to be interest in pronunciation tips, so I’ll give my “rough guide” phonetics with all of these.   

Here are some of the beans we discussed, in their singular form, and with the definite article.  As you can see, all of the adjectives except “leathan” (broad) and “athfhriochta” (refried) get the letter “h” added  in the singular, after the initial consonant.  Vowels cannot be lenited.  For some speakers there a slight change in the sound of an “l” where lenition would occur, but it’s not marked in writing and it’s limited to certain dialects. 

Also note that the word pónaire (a bean) is lenited after the definite article “an” (the).  Why?  Because it’s feminine and singular.    As for why these changes occur in the first place, that’s a much deeper question, which would require a much longer answer.  Suffice it to say, for now, that while in some languages the definite article itself changes to show gender (le/la i bhFraincis, mar shampla), in Irish, it’s what happens after the definite article that shows gender.   “An” is used before both masculine and feminine nouns (an phónaire, f; an fear, m). 

Let’s start with the word “pónaire” itself.  To say “the bean,” you add the definite article (an), and lenite  the main word.  The initial “p” changes to “ph,” which has an “f” sound:

pónaire [POHN-irzh-uh], a bean; an phónaire [un FOHN-irzh-uh], the bean

an phónaire mhór [wor], the butter (lima) bean

an phónaire fhrancach [RAHNK-ukh, silent “f”], the French bean

an phónaire chaife [KHAF-eh], the coffee bean

an phónaire leathan [LyA-hun]  the broad bean

an phónaire shoighe [HOY-uh], the soy (soya) bean

an phónaire bhácáilte, [WAWK-awl-tchuh] the baked bean (yup – just one!)

an phónaire athfhriochta [AH-RIKH-tuh], the refried bean (probably even harder to isolate just one than with baked beans, but after all, this is just practice)

So that’s the skinny on séimhiú, at least as far as our examples go.  “““““““““““““`    

And in case you’re wondering about that rather long adjective in the title of this blog, bhaininscneacha, it actually breaks down into logical components (Spock sona!).  And that makes it a lot easier to pronounce and remember.  The word basically consists of a prefix indicating feminine (similar to the prefix “ban-“ used in words like “banab,” “bandraoi,” and “banaltra”), the core word “inscne” (gender), and an adjective ending, “-ach.”  Then there’s an ending added to the ending because the word is in its plural form  — that’s the final “-a.”  Jumping back to the beginning of the word, we have séimhiú (lenition), but not for the same reasons we just finished discussing.  This time it’s because we have an adjective modifying a masculine noun whose plural form ends in a slender consonant, specifically, the “l” of the “-il” ending.   So we could block the word out like this:

bhain + inscne + ach + a

To pronounce it, remember the “bh” is like a “w” sound here and the “ch” is like the German “Buch” (transcribed as “kh”):


The first two syllables have equal stress (emphasis) because the prefix (eg. WAHN) generally gets the same emphasis as the original first syllable (eg. INSH)  in compound words.  Same thing happens with “drochaimsir” [DROKH-AM-shirzh] and “príomhchathair” [PREEV-KHAH-hirzh]. 

Do I hear a lone voice in the wilderness asking, “Why ‘bhain-‘ and not ‘bhan-?”  Ceist mhaith!  Sometimes the prefixes follow the rules of vowel harmony (caol le caol agus leathan le leathan), but increasingly, these days they don’t.  In this case, “bhain-“ has added the letter “I” to agree with the initial “I” of “inscne.”  ‘Nuf said for now on that, I believe. 

Just for contrast, in the singular, the word would be:

baininscneach [BAHN-INSH-knukh]

and the phrase would be:

ainmfhocal baininscneach [AN-yim-OK-ul BAHN-INSH-knukh], a feminine noun

So, next time, back to “ar ais go succotash” (hey – it rhymes!) and the answer to the ceist about the carachtair chartúin.  See you soon!

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