Minding Your Ps and Qs or Why Porcom is a Headache

O Goireasan Akerbeltz
Am mùthadh mar a bha e 19:19, 1 dhen Dàmhair 2013 le Akerbeltz (Deasbaireachd | mùthaidhean) (So what?)
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Today we'll take just a little dip into the history of Gaelic which starts about 5,000 BC so fasten your seatbelts.

The horrible history

5000 BC is roughly when the first Indo-Europeans start invading Europe. We say "invading" because we know there were people here before then. Amongst this lovely bunch of hooligans from the steppes of Central Asia there was a group which settled on the northern edges of the Alps. The Celts. Although they weren't really know as the Celts back then and the two earliest "Celtic cultures" that we know about are often called the Hallstatt and the La Tène Cultures. Irrespective of the name calling issue, this bunch did well and by the 3rd century AD they'd established quite a track record. They muscled the Etruscans out of most of northern Italy, had taken over most of Gaul, large swathes of the Iberian peninsula, Southern Germany, the British Isles, parts of modern day Slovenia, Bulgarian, Romania, Hungary, a fair chunk of land in central Turkey(!), and sacked Delphi in 279 BC and Rome, itself, in 390 BC.

Incidentally, it's from the Greeks that the Celts get their name. The historian, Hecataeus, describes them as Keltoi, the meaning of which can not be absolutely ascertained. But, seeing that they sacked Delphi, it can't have meant anything nice.

However, after that, the Celts slip a bit. In 192 B.C., Rome took back Transalpina and gradually took over... well ... really most of Europe and the decline of the Celts began.


So what about the language? Patience! The main thing that distinguished the Celts from other Indo-Europeans, in terms of their language, was the loss of Indo-European p. Pardon? Well, Indo-European, which is not recorded, but reconstructed based on what we know of its daughter languages, seems to have had an elaborate system of stops, 12 of them:

p t k
b d g


Now we come to Celtic, very old Celtic that is. They decided to drop the entire set of aspirated voiced stops and make do with just 8 stops:

p t k
b d g

Now, one thing you need to know about that little superscript ʷ is that it represents something called labialisation. It means that you round your lips when making that sound, like in the English word quick which is [kʷɪk]. This is important why? You'll see.

Late Common Celtic

Next, for whatever reason, Late Common Celtic drops p and says k wherever there was a p before. It just does. That leaves us with:

t k
b d g

Goidelic and Brythonic

Now things get interesting because this is roundabout the time when Goidelic (the granfer of Irish, Gaelic and Manx) and Brythonic (granma of Welsh, Cornish, Cumbric and Breton) put in for a divorce. Over a p. What happens is that Brythonic takes the kʷ sound and turns it into a p. That works because labialisation is made with the lips and there seems to have been a struggle between the labial nature of the ʷ and the velar nature of the k. It appears that the lips won and the k bit was assimilated into a p. It's like the word immigrate which comes from in-migrāre where the n has been assimilated into an m because it is immediately followed by one.

Goidelic on the other hand would have none of it and did not redevelop the p. However, out of sheer spite, it merged the labial series with the plain stops so that kʷ merged with k and gʷ with g.

So, this in Goidelic:

t k
b d g

But, this in Brythonic:

t k p
b d g

So what?

This is the reason for a great many things. For example, it is the reason why Goidelic is sometimes referred to as Q-Celtic and Brythonic as P-Celtic. It's based on the development of the Indo-European word for 5, penkʷe which in Q-Celtic becomes cóic (remember, Goidelic dropped p) and in Brythonic pimp (remember, Brythonic kept p). That explains the P but not the Q. Well, it does explain it in Manx because cóig is spelled queig.

So, what else does it explain? It explains why modern Brythonic languages have a gap - meaning there's no historic [kw] sound which explains why they have [p] where modern Goidelic languages have a [k]:

Indo-European Loanword from Gaelic Irish Manx Welsh Cornish Breton
five penkʷe cóig cúig queig pump pymp pemp
head ? ceann ceann qione pen penn penn
sense ? ciall ciall keeaill pwyll poell poell
who kʷos quoi pwy piw piv
wool/feather petna Lat. plūma clòimh clúmh clooie plufyn pluvenn plu

It also explains some lovely loanwords like Càisg for Easter which is derived from ecclesiastical Latin Pascha (cf. Sp. Pasqua) or even the twice borrowed Patricius who shows up as earlier Cadrach and later as Pádraic > Pàdraig.

It also makes for a headache because modern Irish and Gaelic, as we have just seen, do not retain the kʷ sound but sometimes borrow words from English which has kʷ. How to borrow? Do you borrow the sound kʷ and change the set of sounds in these languages? Or, do you adjust to Irish/Gaelic spelling? Or, do you try to come up with your own word? Tricky one. Traditionally, the second option seems to have prevailed. For example, Irish borrowed Quaker as Caecar and Gaelic turned a quadruped into ceithir-chasach. But, lately, words like quinín 'quinine' have showed up in Irish. and Gaelic now boasts cuaraidh for 'quarry' and cuòta for 'quota'. Really tricky one.

So, what on earth then is porcom? Well, in the Mesopotamian clay table of Ashur-Bannipal... just kidding. There is a 3rd century inscription in Lusitanian, a language spoken in the west of the Iberian peninsula and which is generally described as Celtic, and it goes:


etc. etc. The tricky bit is that it translates as "a sheep to Trebopala and a pig to Laebo'. And, as we all know the great clue to something being a Celtic language is the loss of p. Yet, here we have porcom 'pig' ... The answer? Actually, we don't have an answer except that there may be a question mark over Lusitanian being a Celtic language. If you find out, publish and you'll be famous!

Oh, and in case this kind of thing fascinates you, we've made a little picture for you of what happened to two words - hundred and five - all the way from Indo-European down to over 50 modern Indo-European languages as a pdf here.

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