Feasgar math or how to start an argument

O Goireasan Akerbeltz
Am mùthadh mar a bha e 08:23, 20 dhen Fhaoilleach 2016 le Susanharris (Deasbaireachd | mùthaidhean)
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No, I'm only on a small sugar rush from the Christmas baking I've been eating. But there was a question on Facebook and it triggered such a familiar debate that I figured it's time for a write-up.

The question was about greetings and sure enough, someone mentioned feasgair math and a bit further on it got slated for non-Gaelic idiom. Emotions aside, it's an interesting question, so let's see if we can shed any light on the headache.

Virtually all textbooks and phrase books from the turn of the century will give you madainn mhath and feasgair math for good morning and good afternoon. There's also oidhche mhath but, curiously, that one does not seem to get the blood boiling.

To begin with, both madainn and feasgar are loanwords, they're very old loanwords, but still. They hail from the ecclesiastical sphere where in the early days of the Celtic church, monks were presumably the first ever in the Gaelic world to chop up the day into defined time units beyond morning/midday/afternoon/night, all of which are relatively vague. These divisions are called the canonical hours and, while across confessions, there's the usual fight in a teacup over what the units are and when they are. Broadly, they are:

  • Office of Readings (Matins)
  • Morning prayer (Lauds)
  • Midmorning prayer (Terce)
  • Midday prayer (Sext)
  • Midafternoon prayer (None)
  • Evening prayer (Vespers)
  • Night Prayer (Compline)

I'll sidestep the question about whether there's any point to that much praying but, anyway, the Latin names of some of these time units were borrowed into Irish and Gaelic. Matins became madainn or maidinn, the None became nòin or tràth-nòin, and Vespers became feasgar. These were borrowed so long ago that the p became a c/g.

Now, this is where it gets tricky because we don't really have much evidence of these being used in greetings. Part of that is a lack of colloquial texts in the older material. What we do have in texts from the 1800s are instances of the still ubiquitous Irish greeting, Dia dhuit, God be with you.

It is certainly conceivable that in pre-Reformation Gaelic speaking Scotland, this phrase was also in common use but that's just an educated guess. Either way, it has not been heard much in Gaelic Scotland for at least a century, otherwise it would have found its way into some of the older phrase books and dictionaries.

So, what filled its place? Excellent question. Nobody seems to be quite sure. When you ask native speakers who dislike madainn mhath or feasgar math, they're usually stuck for an alternative. They would have no hesitation about greeting someone they know by name - variations of A Dhòmhnaill, fada on uairsin or A Mhàiri, dè do chor an-diugh?. But ask them how to address someone you don't know by name and silence is usually what you get. Hi and Hello (however you re-spell them) are used but clearly English in origin. Some suggest latha math dhuibh, others reject it. Some suggest a reference to the weather such as latha math a th' ann, yet others claim they'd never use that.

Of course, part of the problem is the historic decline in speaker numbers through the Clearances, emigration, economic deprivation and forced anglicisation via the education system. These circumstances resulted in a society where you could no longer assume that a stranger you met was Gaelic speaking and consequently you would not commonly address them in Gaelic but in English.

We will probably never know exactly who came up with llmadainn mhath and llfeasgar math but they're certainly here to stay. They just jar a bit with some older native speakers. My personal solution to the headache is to move off madainn mhath and feasgar math with native speakers as soon as I know their name. Using their name in the vocative, followed by a variety of introductory questions such as dè do chor/ur cor, ciamar a tha thu/sibh and so on seems to go down relatively well. With that solution, personally, I haven't had the madainn mhath debate in years.

In this spirit, I bid you all oidhche mhath.

Beagan gràmair
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