Irish Language Blog

The Case of the Missing ‘P’ or, Ó ‘Tharmachan’ (Irish) go ‘Ptarmigan’ (English) Posted by on Jun 23, 2013 in Irish Language

(le Róislín)

In the last blog, we looked at a few of the more unusually spelled words in the Irish language (aghaidh, bratach/bhratach, buachar/bhuachair lámh/láimhe, Saoirse/Shaoirse and saoirse/shaoirse, sráid/tsráid).  Not that these are overly long or unusual words in Irish.  They’re mostly very basic vocabulary, except perhaps for “buachar” (cow-dung) which is no doubt ordinary enough in the appropriate agricultural context (see nóta a haon below for a few more details on “buachar“).

Please note that the pronunciation issues for these words don’t really have to do with length, although Irish does have some impressively long words.  One oft-cited example is “grianghrafadóireachta” (“of photography”), which is the genitive case of “grianghrafadóireacht” (photography).  Even though it’s a long word, it’s actually relatively straightforward in terms of pronunciation: grian + ghraf + -adóir, an occupational suffix + –eacht, a suffix to indicate an activity + -a, the genitive case ending).   For an even longer version of the same word, see nóta a dó (thíos).

The examples discussed in the last blog are relatively short words, simply one or two syllables.  It’s the combination of letters, rather than sheer length, that gives us pause when learning words like “aghaidh” or “tsráid.”  We closed, last time, with a little amalgamation of English words with unusual consonant clusters, among them, “ptarmigan” and “pterodactyl.”  These words aren’t exceptionally long–they’re just unusual in starting off with “pt.”

So what happens when we look at these words in Irish?   Irish may seem to be full of silent letters, but one arena where it doesn’t follow this trend is in the Greek and Latin borrowings.  The Irish for “pterodactyl” is simply “teireadachtalach.”  It’s a longish word (16 letters) as opposed to the eleven of “pterodactyl.”  Some of that is due to vowel harmony, which we could say gives us two additional vowels here.  And the other additional letters are due to the Irish “dachtal” being one letter longer than its English counterpart (dactyl) and the to the need for an ending (-ach) to make this word into a creature as opposed to a concept.  But most significantly, the silent initial “p,” a carryover from the Greek “pterón” (wing), is no longer present.

Looking over this material got me curious, so I took a quick gander (ach, just bird imagery) through some other languages.  My short, but hopefully representative, search reveals that most other languages have not made the same decision.  In other words, they’ve kept the initial “p,” at least in writing (Spáinnis, Portaingéilis: pterodáctilo, Iodáilis: pterodattilo).  And then there’s Haváis, which actually splits the “pt” suffix apart: peterodaketila.  Japanese, intriguingly, has both options, one keeping the “p” sound and adding a vowel behind it and the other removing the “p;”: in roman letters, the two forms are “puterodakutirusu” and “terodakutiru.”   As for Breatnais, the singular form is the same as English “pterodactyl,” but it has a distinctively Welsh plural: pterodactyliaid.   And, i nGaeilge na hAlban, the word is completely transformed into traditional Gaelic components:  sgiath-mheurach (lit. wing-digital).  In Irish, by the way, that would be nearly identical: *sciath-mhéarach [SHKEE-uh VAY-rukh], and if you went back, say, 150 years ago, you might have found the same spelling in use in Irish.

So, so far, we have “pterodactyl,” which, in Irish, loses the Greek initial “p.”  How about “ptarmigan,” which one might think had followed the same etymological path?  Not so!  In fact, an mhalairt!

The English word “ptarmigan” comes from the Scottish Gaelic “tàrmachan.”  The “p” of “ptarmigan” was apparently deliberately added to the English in the 17th century, partly based on the Greek “pterón” (wing) and probably, in part, to make the word look more scientific.  Perhaps even to make it look less Gaelic, but that can probably never be proven.   The Irish is basically identical (tarmachan), except for the long mark in the Scottish Gaelic version.  Like any good Irish word worth its salt, though, the word “tarmachan” can get its share of prefixed letters, since the initial “t” is both lenitable and eclipsable.  For example, we have:

an tarmachan, the ptarmigan (no change yet, that’s just for a base-line)

And now a lenited example (t changes to th, the “t” is now silent):

mo tharmachan, my ptarmigan (not that they’re domesticated, but they are hunted).

More lenited examples:

ó tharmachan, from a ptarmigan

dhá tharmachan, two ptarmigans (or just “two ptarmigan,” depending on which plural you use in English)

And now eclipsed (t changes to dt, the “t” becoming silent):

i dtarmachan, in a ptarmigan

cleití na dtarmachan, the feathers of the ptarmigans

As for “ptarmigan” in other languages, well, it looks like the original Scottish Gaelic didn’t travel that far.  Most of the Romance languages I’ve been able to check have a variation of “Lagopus” (part of the Latin taxonomic name for ptarmigans), like French “Lagopède alpin.”  Some of the Germanic languages use a compound word meaning “Alpine Snow Hen,” as in “Alpensneeuwhoen” (Ollainnis) or “Alpenschneehuhn” (Gearmáinis).  In some other Germanic languages, there is another root word for this bird, “rype” as in “fjeldrype” (Danmhairgis) and “rjúpa” (Íoslainnis).  Anyone else have any more background for the name of this bird?   Someday, maybe I’ll pursue the spread of the word “ptarmigan” further.  Have other words gotten false prefixed letters to look like Greek when they’re really not?   It’s a mind-boggling concept, but one best left to blaganna eile.

So there we have two different flying creatures whose names both start with a silent “p” in English — definitely unusual, but perfectly logical once you know the background.  And neither word starts with a “p” in Irish, but for completely different reasons.

All of which probably leads me to the only opportunity I’ll ever have for this newly minted riddle, if you care to grace it with that courtesy:

What did the pterodactyl say when the ptarmigan asked him why his name started with the letter “p”?  “I don’t know, it’s all Greek to me.” <rimshot>

I could translate that into Irish, but I think the effect would be “caillte san aistriúchán.”  C’est la vie!  Most jokes don’t translate well.  SGF, Róislín

And a P.S. now that you’ve made it down to bun an bhlag seo.  That wasn’t by any chance a “ptarmigander” a few paragraphs earlier, was it?  <ba-dum chishhhh, I suppose>

Nóta 1: buachar is used in both Irish and Scottish Gaelic and derives from Old Irish “bóchar,” based on “” (cow) and an early form of “cur” (putting, placing).  I’d be tempted to postulate “cow-pat” as some obscure past tense of “cow-put,” but, alas, that would really be a far-fetched etymology!   A useful Scottish Gaelic verb is “buachair” (bedaub with dung).  Irish has at least four other words for dung, including specific terms distinguishing bovine from equine contributions.  Scottish Gaelic has at least five.   Ábhar blag eile, no doubt.

Nóta 2: I can actually “one-up” the standard example of the longest word in Irish, by adding the prefix “príomh-” (príomhghrianghrafadóireachta, “of principal photography”), referring to film-making.  Ah, the wonders of réimíreanna, if there’s a competition for word length!  So far I find only a handful of examples of this word online, both in the nominative, not genitive form, but it is a legitimate word (Naisc: and

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