Irish Language Blog

Who Says Irish Doesn’t Have Many Cognates with English? (Cuid a Trí/Pt. 3: Grian, Gealach, Sol, Luan) Posted by on Apr 30, 2013 in Irish Language

 (le Róislín)


Continuing the quest for cognates (naisc thíos), let’s look at another pair of words, sun and moon, each of which typically has many similar-looking cousins throughout the Indo-European language family.  Given that the Irish word for sun is “grian” and the Irish for “moon” is “gealach,” it looks like we have a bit of a puzzle on our hands.

Typical cognates for the English word “sun” include Latin “sol,” Icelandic “sól” and Sanskrit/Hindi “surya/suraj.”  All of the sun/zon/Sonne-type words are also included in this family, since the original root (*sawel) had a variant (*sulno-).  In some languages the “-l” ending predominated, in other cases, the “-n” ending, and Russian “Солнце” (solnce) seems to straddle the fence, with both the “l” and the “n.”

For “moon,” there are two main roots found in the Indo-European family.  One is *mēnes-, which also gives us the word “month.”  From *mēnes-, we get English “moon,”  German “Mond,” Danish “måne” (maane),  and Lithuanian “mėnulis.”  The other major root for “moon” in Indo-European is *leuksnā-, which gives us Latin “luna” and Russian Луна (luna), and many words in between, such as French “lune,” Welsh “lleuad,” and Romanian “lună,” as well as various words for light (lux, luz, luce, lumière, Licht).

While it’s likely that no one will ever be able to say exactly why the Irish words “grian” and “gealach” don’t fit this pattern, we can say that they both have interesting origins and “relatives” within the Celtic and Indo-European language families.

Let’s look first at “grian” (sun).   It is related to various words for “heat,” including the Modern Irish word “gor,” whose meanings range from “incubation” or “broodiness” in hens (a bheith ar gor) to “inflammation” (gor i gcneá, pus in a wound); cf. also “gorlann” (a hatchery) and “goraí” (a hatching hen or a brooding impatient person).   Also coming from the same Indo-European root (*gwher-) are English “warm” and “furnace,” Greek “thermos,” and Sanskrit “gharma-.”

So much for the history of the word “grian” (nutshell version, of course).  What are its basic forms and how do we use them?  Seo iad:

an ghrian, the sun (“g” becomes “gh” because “grian” is feminine — unlike most words for “sun” in languages that have grammatical gender); Tá an ghrian ag soilsiú.  The sun is shining.

gréine, of sun; na gréine, of the sun (lá gréine, a sunny day; luí na gréine, the setting of the sun)

grianta, suns.  “An bhfeiceann tú grianta Tatooine?”  Do you see the suns of Tatooine?  In contrast, to say, “Tatooine has two suns,” we go back to the singular form, as is standard with counting things in Irish, “Tá dhá ghrian ag Tatooine.”

na ngrianta, of the suns.  “Tá teas na ngrianta sin an-te.”  (The heat of those suns is very hot), another one for móidíní ficsean eolaíoch.

btw, “grianta” can also mean “having been solarized,” as in photography (probably no longer relevant in this digital age, but remember, “photograph” in Irish remains “grianghraf,” lit. “sun-graph).

As for “moon,” the Irish word “gealach” is related to “geal,” bright, not very far afield at all.  “Geal” in and of itself also has cousins in other languages, although the meaning has definitely taken a twist (not at all uncommon when unraveling word histories).  “Geal” is related historically to various words for “yellow” in different Indo-European languages, including German “gelb,” Italian “giallo,” and Latin “galbinus.”  It is not at all related to the usual Irish word for “yellow,” which is “buí.”

Here are the forms for “gealach“:

an ghealach, the moon (“g” to “gh” because it’s feminine).  An bhfeiceann tú an ghealach?  Do you see the moon?

gealaí, of moon; na gealaí, of the moon; tús gealaí, first phase of [the] moon; solas na gealaí, the light of the moon

gealacha, moons.   Tá gealacha go leor ag Iúpatar.  Jupiter has plenty of moons.

na ngealach, of the moons.  Tá na heachtardhomhandaigh ag caint faoi chuma na ngealach (The extraterrestrials are talking about the appearance of the moons).

From these examples, we can see that a seemingly anomalous word like “grian” may not be part of the typical Indo-European pattern for “sun,” as such (“sol,” etc.), but it does have “kin” within Irish (gor, et al.) and in other languages, as noted above.  Likewise, “gealach” is not part of the *mēnes– or  *leuksnā– families, which give us “moon” and “luna,” but it does have “relatives,” in “geal” and more distantly, in words like “yellow,” “gelb,” and “giallo.”

But if we probe further in Irish, into the realm of less commonly used synonyms and archaic, poetic, or literary vocabulary, lo and behold, we find “sol” and “luan” in Irish.   “Sol” is virtually extinct in Modern Irish and I don’t see it listed in any of the current dictionaries, but it appears occasionally in Old Irish and through the 18th and 19th centuries.  I wouldn’t recommend using it instead of “grian,” by any means, but it is interesting to see that the *sawel-/*sulno– family does have a representative in reasonably recent Irish.  I’ve seen conflicting accounts as to whether this is connected to another basic Irish vocabulary word, “solas” (light).  It would easily appear to be the case, but some linguists say that the “so” of “solas” is a prefix, with no relation to “sol” as a root.  Ábhar blag eile, b’fhéidir.

As for “luan,” the situation is quite different.   While “luan” is not the basic word for “moon” (that remains “gealach“), it’s not that uncommon in Modern Irish, most notably in “An Luan” (Monday, i.e. “moon-day).  Today, it often means “halo” or “aureole,” and it also shows up in compound words like “luanlus” (moonwort) and “naomhluan” (lit. “saint-moon/halo”).  Just don’t mistake this “luan” for that in “luanghríscín,” which comes from a completely different “luan,” meaning “loin.”  So “luanghríscín” means “loin-chop.”

So there we have it, the basic words for “sun” and “moon” in Irish, a bit about their linguistic background, how they do or don’t fit into the Indo-European picture, and some sample phrases or sentences.   I guess I should quote Jack Horkheimer again, “Keep looking up!”   B’fhéidir go bhfeicfidh tú dhá ghrian Tatooine nó gealacha Iúpatair.   SGF, Róislín

Image from <a href=””></a>


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

Ascaill, Axilla, Armpit — Who Says Irish Doesn’t Have Many Cognates with English? (Cuid a hAon/Pt. 1) Posted on 24. Apr, 2013 by róislín in Irish Language (

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Keep learning Irish with us!

Build vocabulary, practice pronunciation, and more with Transparent Language Online. Available anytime, anywhere, on any device.

Try it Free Find it at your Library
Share this:
Pin it


  1. Mark:

    Great read! And a lot of fun for my surroundings, as I read most of it aloud to myself 🙂
    Only, the Danish “månen” is “the moon”, “måne” is “moon”.
    Looking forward to the next installment!

  2. Seosamh Ó hAnnáin:

    Not forgetting that the word for eye in Irish, namely súil, is also derived from the archaic word for sun, sol. The sun is the “eye of the sky”. This is an example of where a word originally meant one thing but came to mean another. The Irish for star, realtà, is also at odds with most European languages. But the Middle Irish for star is “ser”, as with modern Welsh.

Leave a comment: