Irish Language Blog

Who Says Irish Doesn’t Have Many Cognates with English? (Cuid a Dó/Pt. 2: Téarmaí Gaoil, Focail Ghaolmhara) Posted by on Apr 27, 2013 in Irish Language

(le Róislín)

athair, máthair, deartháir, deirfiúr

Ascaill, axilla … in the last blog* we talked about how Irish may, in fact, have many focail ghaolmhara with other languages.  The words are just not always cognates with English, at least not basic everyday  English.  Most of us are more likely to say that “ascaill” means “armpit” than to say that “ascaill” means “axilla,” so the cognate relationship is lost, for typical everyday purposes.   But still,”axilla” is an English word, as is “axillary,” and these more scientific terms do show the relationship.

Similarly, when we translate “leabhar” as “book,” which is a reasonable and accurate thing to do, we miss out on the close connection to the Romance language words for book, which include “liber” (Laidin), “libro” (Spáinnis), and “livre” (Fraincis).   English cognates include “library,” “libel” (from “libellus,” little book) and “libretto,” all for specialized purposes, but not, of course, “book” itself.

For the word “leabhar,” this relationship to the Romance languages helps explain why there still is a “-bh-” in the spelling, even though it’s not pronounced.  The “-bh-” reminds us of the word’s history, its cousins, as it were.  Catchphrases, especially those using “rím (rhyme),” like “Leabhar Power,” from (a book-marketing initiative) remind us of how the word is pronounced today.

So, in general, recognizing cognates is a helpful way to expand vocabulary.  If we consider the word “cognate” itself, literally meaning “co-born,” it’s almost like getting to know a family by getting to know the various children in it, not just the one child who is in our particular class in school.

What happens when the spelling or pronunciation thoroughly disguises the cognate relationship?  Bhuel, we get by without that extra bit of knowledge and usually work a little harder to retain those vocabulary words.  But I’ve always found it interesting to find out that certain sets of words are in fact focail ghaolmhara (cognates), even if I’ve already been using them for years.

One set of words that is similar pretty much across the spectrum of Indo-European languages is the terms for “mother” and “father.”  And in Irish, these words are readily recognizable.  “Mother” is “máthair [MAW-hirzh]” not too far removed from “moder” (Danmhairgis) and “matar-” (Sanscrait), to push the envelope of the Indo-European package (with “māter,” “mère,” “madre,” and many related words along the way, even Tocharian “mācar” and “mācer”).  Tocáiris, by the way, is the easternmost Indo-European language,  formerly spoken in the Tarim Basin, Central Asia.  The amount of Tocharian vocabulary we know is quite limited, since the language became extinct in the 9th century AD, but we do have enough to make comparisons to a lot of core vocabulary words, like “mother,” “father,” “sister,” “brother,” “horse,” “cow,” and “name.”

How about “father” then?  Quite straightforward.  “Athair” [AH-hirzh] in Irish, with “fader” (Danmhairgis) and “pitar-” (Sanscrait) as some of its cousins.  Some of its other col ceathracha are “pater,” “père,” and “padre,” and the perhaps less familiar Tocharian “pācar” and “pācer” thrown in for good measure.  Yes, those last two are Tocharian again.  Even “Darth Vader” (“dark father”) fits the pattern, although there’s no special reason why we should expect languages from réaltraí i bhfad i bhfad uainn to be Ind-Eorpach.

What happens then when we get to “brother” and “sister”?  Here we’ll have to backtrack a little farther in the history of the language.  As explained in the last blog, “deartháir” [DJAR-harzh]  initially seems unrelated to the “broder/bhrātar-” continuum.  After all, where’s the letter “b,” which, with its counterpart “f” (frāter, frère) is one of the core letters for this word, across the Indo-European spectrum?  As mentioned in the last blog, that “b” is simply buried under the linguistic “cave-in” of various other letters that have disappeared along the way.  Irish started with “bráthair [BRAW-hirzh]” and when the religious sense of “friar, brother” came in, Irish added the prefix “dearbh-,” indicating “real” or “blood” to differentiate one’s brother by birth.  That gave us “dearbh-bhráthair” or “dearbhráthair [DJAR-uv-VRAW-hirzh], which was eventually shortened to “deartháir,” the form we have today.

Other forms of brother?  Seo iad:

an deartháir, the brother

an dearthár (note the dropped “-i-“), of the brother (this ending is also used with “of my brother,” etc., as in “An mise coiméadaí mo dheartháir?” from Geineasas 4:9)

na deartháireacha, the brothers

na ndeartháireacha, of the brothers (“An muide coiméadaithe ár ndeartháireacha?”  Cáin clónáilte?  Well, it was a good example above so why not recycle it?)

For “sister,” the same basic process has happened.  The Modern Irish is “deirfiúr” [DJER-if-yoor].  We start with “siúr,” nicely cognate with “søster” and “svasar-“.  The “sister” series has a little more variety in the initial letter than the “brother” set.  Going beyond “soror” and “soeur,” we also have “chwaer” (Breatnais), “c’hoar” (Briotáinis), “zuster” (Ollainnis), and “Schwester” (Gearmáinis), among others.  But still the core of the word is recognizable, and “siúr [shoor]” would fit nicely.  But “siúr” came to have a religious meaning and “deirbh-” (real, blood, here “slenderized, ” so the “-i-” matches the “-i-” in “siúr“) was added, giving us “deirbhshiúr.”  That got shortened to “deirfiúr.”  Like “brother,” it’s a little irregular in the genitive case, as the list below shows:

an deirfiúr, the sister

na deirféar (note the vowel change), of the sister.  “My Sister’s Keeper” has already been used in English as the title for at least 4 úrscéal, 2 scannán, agus 7 n-eipeasóid teilifíse.  I’m not sure if any have been translated or dubbed into Irish, but if so, the title would be, “Coiméadaí Mo Dheirféar.”

Curiously, the possessive for “siúr” (a religious sister) is quite different — “siúrach,” as in “aibíd na siúrach sin,” that sister’s habit)

na deirfiúracha [nuh DJERzh-if-yoor-ukh-uh], the sisters

na ndeirfiúracha [nuh NyERzh-if-YOOR-ukh-uh], of the sisters, which would give us “Tairngreacht na nDeirfiúracha,” for the popular new trilogy by Michelle Zink, if it were to be translated into Irish (tairngreacht [TARzh-in-guh-rukht, prophecy)

For “sister ships” though, sorry, no “sisters” involved in Irish.  That’s “comhlonga” (lit. “co-ships).

So there you have it – two readily detectable téarmaí gaoil (máthair, athair) and two that are less obvious but still a part of the Indo-European picture (deartháir, deirfiúr).

There are plenty more focail ghaolmhara out there, but it’s also interesting to consider which Irish words are not cognates.  In a future blog, we’ll take a closer look at the Irish words for sun and moon, and see how they differ from most of their Indo-European counterparts.  Meanwhile, to paraphrase the late astronomer Jack Horkheimer, “Keep looking up [words, that is].  SGF, Róislín

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