Màthraichean-céile or Kinship

O Goireasan Akerbeltz
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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 most unusual grammatical feature of kinship terms is, that depending on your view 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 (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 and simply two nouns, so there is no reason for peathar to lenite. Well, that is 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 these nouns are in the genitive. In this settings, 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. From your great-great-great-grandfather/mother onwards though you insert seachad-. So she would be sinn-seachad-sinn-seanmhair. Some people, incidentally, lenite after sinn-, so you get sinn-sheanmhair etc.

There is slight confusion when it comes to husbands and wives, incidentally. Bean and fear are the prototypical "man/woman" word pair. In Irish bean and fear still mean exactly that - even though curiously enough bean has the secondary meaning of "wife". In Gaelic there has been a slight shift of meaning however. Bean still means woman, but it primarily means "wife". Fear on the other hand still means "man". "Husband" has been taken over by duine - which confusingly also can mean "person" - depends on the context. An duine agam always means "my husband" - but na daoine a chaidh a Ghlaschu means "the people who went to Glasgow". So what is the man/woman word pair then? Well, you can use fear for "man" but in the modern language boireannach/fireannach has largely taken on that 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 come across two words used for "daughter" - nighean and inghean - and gotten slightly confused by this. They are 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]. The initial [i] subsequently got dropped and 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 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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