Irish Language Blog

When Is A ‘Máthair” Not A ‘Mother’ (literally, that is) Posted by on May 7, 2013 in Irish Language

Cathain nach 'máthair' í 'an mháthair'? (When is 'the mother' not 'a mother'?)

 (le Róislín)

No, this blog isn’t going to be about toircheas fireann (à la Trip Tucker and the Xyrillians in Star Trek: Enterprise, The Unexpected).  Nor will it be about capaill mhara or snáthaidí mara or the possibilities of toirchis eachtópacha i bhfir as postulated in our homeworld or as speculated about i bhficsean eolaíoch.

What we will do in this blog is look at some words or phrases based on “máthair” (mother) in Irish but which don’t get translated into “mother” in English (1a-d, below).  And we’ll look at the opposite situation also, terms that include “mother” in English, but not in Irish (2a-d below).

Before we even do that though, let’s do a quick review of the “mother / mom (mam, mum) / mommy (mammy, mummy)” continuum in Irish.  The basic words are:

máthair [MAW-hirzh], mother; an mháthair [un WAW-hirzh], the mother

máthar, of a mother (gach mac máthar, every mother’s son, everyone); note that the final “-r” is no longer “slender” (since it’s no longer next to the letter “i”), so it doesn’t have that buzzy “zh” quality to it

na máthar, of the mother (muintir na máthar, the mother’s people/kin)

máithreacha [MAW-hrzhuh-khuh], mothers; note that we’re back to the “slender r” sound, since the “r” is now wedged between “i” and “e,” which are slender vowels  (ár máithreacha romhainn)

na máithreacha, the mothers (Tá na máithreacha sacair ag tiomáint a gcuid SUVanna)

máithreacha, of mothers; na máithreacha, of the mothers; note that there’s no change from the two plurals given above so we rely on word order and context to tell if these forms are possessive (staid máithreacha singile, “Lá na Máithreacha Sona!”)

A diminutive form is “máithrín,” literally “little mother,” typically with implication of “darling mother,” or “mother dear” (but hopefully not “Mommie Dearest” in the full sense of the word!).

On the less formal side of things, we have “mam” (pl: mamanna), with “maime” as a variant.  Forms typically used by younger children include mamaí (pl: mamaithe), with the variant “maimí.”  “Maime” can be a variant for either “mam” or “mamaí.”

Now, on to our main topic, examples where we have the word “máthair” in Irish, but we don’t have “mother” in English.  An dtuigeann tú iad seo?  (Aistriúcháin thíos)

1a) máthair abhann

1b) máthair shúigh <OK, yes, this one does make me chuckle>

1c) máthair na mballach

1d) máthairábhar

There are also a few situations, where we have the word “mother” in English, but not in the traditional Irish equivalent.   An dtuigeann tú na cinn seo?  (Aistriúchán thíos).

2a. Múineann gá seift. 

2b. long choimhdeachta

2c. teanga dhúchais

2d. gus (Yes, just “gus“)

That’s just a selection, of course, of some of the possibilities.   As we approach “Lá na nAithreacha” in June, maybe I’ll try the same approach for “athair” (father).  And then, hmm,  do we have a “Lá na nUncailí” or “Lá na nAintíní“?  There are a least a couple of good “uncle/non-uncle” phrases out there, and then, of course, there’s Shakespeare’s slightly overuncled phrase from Richard II, “Uncle me no uncle.”  That could be an interesting phrase to translate into Irish.  And the “Tut, tut!” part that precedes it will no doubt provide an interesting reason to explore some “intriachtaí Gaeilge.”  Bhuel, bhuel, don daighe! Féach air sin anois!   A Mhuiricín!

For “aunts,” though, frankly it seems to me that an aunt is an aunt is an aunt.  I don’t see much figurative use of the expression, short of, perhaps, the use in some cultures of “aunt,” or especially “aunty,” as a term of respect from children to adult women not related to them.

At any rate, the examples in 1a-d and 2a-d remind us that literal, word-by-word translations don’t always work.  Best rule of thumb is always double-check and don’t necessarily take the first definition you find.  Just because English has a phrase like “Necessity is the mother of invention,” doesn’t mean the Irish equivalent will use the word “máthair” or the word “fionnachtain” (invention).  As the translation below will show (2a), Irish simply uses “” and “seift” to express the same concept.  Of course, it’s basically a good thing that the English phrase is what it is.  Otherwise, we might never have had the Mothers of Invention, which might then mean that Frank Zappa’s career path wouldn’t have followed the same trajectory.  “Máithreacha Fionnachtana” doesn’t seem to have quite the same linguistic panache!    SGF, Róislín

Gluais agus nótaí: capall mara, a sea-horse, quite literally; snáthaid mhara, pipe-fish or needle-fish, lit. sea-needle, both species in which the male carries the young.  “Romhainn,” means “before us,” so the phrase “ár máithreacha romhainn” means “our mothers before us.”  It could also be translated as “our foremothers,” although I can’t say I’ve heard “foremother” used much in English, except by Vulcans (T’Pol talking about T’Mir in “Carbon Creek,” Star Trek: Enterprise).


1a) máthair abhann, source of a river, lit. “river-mother”; “foinse abhann” is another option

1b) máthair shúigh [… HOO-ee], squid.  This apparently breaks down literally to “mother of sucking” based on the verb “súigh” (suck, absorb) or its verbal noun “” (absorption, suction). Of course, with “máthair” also meaning “matter,” “source,” or “cause,” the interpretation could be more like “cause of suction,” referring more specifically to the súiteoirí.  At any rate, “scuid” is another name for this cephalopod.

1c. máthair na mballach, sea-wife (type of fish), lit. “mother of the wrasse” (“wrasse” being a fish whose name, ironically, comes from the Cornish, “wrach/gwrach“.  Note to self: future blog, wrasse, gwrach, Cornish sea creatures names translated into Irish (porbeagle et al. !), and whether sea-wives are similar to ale-wives.  That is the Pomolobus pseudoharengus type of ale-wife, not the “bean a’ leanna‘ type!

1d. máthairábhar (lit. mother-material), primary cause, cause, parent material, the last meaning somewhat ironic because the English word “material” ultimately derives from Latin “mater” (mother).

2a) Múineann gá seift.  Necessity is the mother of invention, lit. Need teaches shift/device/resource.

2b. long choimhdeachta [lung KHIV-djukh-tuh], mothership, based on “coimhdeacht” ([KIV-djukht], accompaniment), although apparently the new term for “mothership,” in space travel, is “máthair-árthach

2c. teanga dhúchais, mother tongue, native tongue, lit. language of heritage (aka “teanga mháthartha,” which does have the reference to “máthair,” albeit in adjective form, “máthartha,” lit. “maternal”)

2d. gus, mother wit (i.e. common sense).  For pronunciation, remember this more like the “u” of English “put” than the “u” of English “putt.”  In other words, it’s not really pronounced like the English man’s name “Gus” or the adjective “gusty,” but, reasonably enough, it sounds like the “-gus” part of “agus.”

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