Màthraichean-céile or Kinship

O Goireasan Akerbeltz
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Gearr leum gu: seòladh, lorg

The famous mother-in-law. No, don't worry, this is going to be completely unbiased, but it IS about kinship terms in Gaelic, which can be a bit tricky. Why? Well, I was hoping you'd ask that question.

For the most part, it's just vocabulary learning, but as always, there's more to it than that. To make it easier, we've drawn you a picture, which you can download here. The ‡ symbol by the way marks there the possessive pronoun goes, so you know that it's mo mhac but nighean mo bhràthar rather than *mo nighean bràthar.

The most unusual grammatical feature of kinship terms, depending on your view, is that they either break the rules of lenition or they break the rules of not having two genitives in the same noun phrase. Let me give you an example or two:

mac mic-peathar great nephew
nigheann mic-bràthar great niece

Now there are two ways of looking at this.

We assume that mac-peathar "nephew" is a compound noun and stress shift seems to indicate this. If this is the case, -peathar functions as an adjectival noun. In other similar noun compounds, the adjectival noun is lenited if the preceding noun is feminine or has slenderised for genitive/plural, e.g. bileag-fhiosrachaidh, cinn-chinnidh. But, in compounds like nighean-peathar "niece", or mac mic-peathar "great nephew", we don't get lenition.

You might say, hang on, maybe mac peathar isn't a close-compound, but simply two nouns, so there's no reason for peathar to lenite. Well, that's possible, but in this case, we violate another rule - that there may not be two genitives in the same noun phrase. Mac peathar on its own already contains a genitive, peathar. So mac mic peathar would therefore contain two genitives, mic and peathar.

The solution? There isn't one. It's just one of those cases where a language just goes and does something just because. So, you just have to remember to put all nouns following other nouns into the genitive e.g. nighean mic nighinn bràthar m' athar. I'll leave you to figure out who that is.

This also applies to genealogical phrases - Eòghann mac mhic Dhòmhnaill mhic Theàrlaich mhic Dhonnachaidh ... until you run out of breath. All of those nouns are in the genitive. In this setting, mhic is pronounced as [ĩçgʲ] which is why you sometimes see it written as 'ic.

The only exception (what would life be without them!) is céile, which behaves regularly. So, we get màthair-chéile but athair-céile, piuthair-chéile but bràthair-céile etc.

What else? Beyond grandmothers and grandfathers, just stick another sinn- in front of it. However, from your great-great-great-grandfather/mother onward you insert seachad-. So she would be sinn-seachad-sinn-seanmhair. Incidentally, some people lenite after sinn-, so you get sinn-sheanmhair etc.

Notice there's slight confusion when it comes to husbands and wives. Bean and fear are the prototypical "man/woman" pair. In Irish, bean and fear still mean exactly that, woman/man. Curiously enough, bean has the secondary meaning of "wife". In Gaelic, however, there's been a slight shift of meaning and although bean still means woman, it primarily means "wife". One the other hand, fear still means "man". "Husband" has been taken over by duine but confusingly it can also mean "person", depending on the context. An duine agam always means "my husband" but na daoine a chaidh a Ghlaschu means "the people who went to Glasgow". Then what is the man/woman pair, in Gaelic? Well, you can use fear for "man" but in the modern language boireannach/fireannach has largely taken on the pairing function. Notwithstanding, toilets are still labelled Mnathan/Fir - or Mná/Fir, in Ireland.

If you are into traditional songs or sometimes read older materials, you may have been slightly confused when you came across two words used for "daughter" - nighean and inghean. They're both the same word. Inghean is the older form, derived from Old Irish ingen, but, at some point, the helping vowel that got inserted turned [iNʲjən] into [iNʲijən]. Modern Irish reflects this "halfway point" with iníon [iNʲiːn]. Subsequently, the initial [i] got dropped, the [j] vocalised, and we were left with the more familiar nighean [Nʲĩː.an]. This is also the reason for the two varying genitive forms given in dictionaries - nighinn and ìghne and the two varying plurals nigheanan and ìghnean. Ìghne is a reflection of the older inghean, which quite regularly adds -e and shortens a final syllable ending in a nasal or lateral, whereas nighinn reflects the attempts of the language to "bring the genitive in line" with the nominative.

If you want to know why the word piuthar is irregular, read our page on backformation.

That's it really, the rest of the "family tree" is self explanatory. You may want to have a quick look at the possessive pronouns page though, as it is very relevant to this topic.

Beagan gràmair
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