Prosthetic f, backformation or eagal and feagal

O Goireasan Akerbeltz
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Gearr leum gu: seòladh, lorg

Prosthetic sounds are nothing unusual in the… ah OK, right you are. A prosthetic sound is a "random" sound that gets stuck in front, the middle or at the end of a word to make it conform better with the sound rules of whichever language.

Many languages do this, such as Spanish. Spanish phonology has a rule saying that no word may begin with [sp] [st] or [sk]. However, there are words in Spanish which either have these initials historically or have them from loan words coming into Spanish. To get around this problem, Spanish phonology says "prefix [e]" … so Latin spīritus, scola, stabilis become espirito, escuela, and estable. Similarly Scandinavia, spot and Stockholm become Escandinavia, espot, and Estocolmo.

Errr and backformation?

Backformation means that speakers of a language take a native or adopted word and re-analyse it, as it were. This often happens in loanwords or native words whose meaning has become opaque. Opaque, when a linguist uses the word, means that the meaning is not clear from just looking at the word. For example, you can look at the word drumstick and figure that it's a stick that's used with a drum. But no matter how hard you stare at a hot toddy, chances are you won't figure it comes from a Hindi word for a palm-tree.

Where was I? Ah, backformation. English, for example, adopted the French word for cherries, cerise from Latin ceresia, both mass nouns which means there is no singular form. But because English has a very prominent -s plural, English speakers figured that the s must obviously be a plural. So, if many of those little fruits are cherries, one must obviously be - a cherry. This is called backformation. Gaelic does that too, but because it has the phenomenon of lenition at the beginning of words, unlike English, it tends to create backformations at the beginning of words.

Now, Gaelic phonology does not forbid words beginning with a vowel (don't laugh, some languages have no words beginning with vowels!) but it does have something like prosthetic sounds. Most notably [f]. In the case of Gaelic this comes about when native speakers re-interpret words beginning with a vowel as "a word which has lenited X". However, there is more than just one backformation. Let's have a quick look at what can happen:


[h] ⇨ [t], [d] or [s] because lenited [t] or [s] yields [h], failing that, you drop it. [d] is rare, possibly via [t].
[ð] ⇨ [d] because lenited [d] used to yield [ð]
[θ] ⇨ [t] because lenited [t] used to yield [θ]
[v] ⇨ [u] or [b] because lenited [b] yields [v] or failing that, sounds a bit like [u]
[j] ⇨ [g] because lenited [g] yields [ʝ]. This happens in words with a soft onset which is an almost [j] sound, as in English iota, which to Gaelic ears sounds like the word begins with gh th or dh
initial vowel ⇨ [f] because lenited [f] is silent - and this is by far the most common one, and about the only one, still active in modern Gaelic
initial vowel ⇨ [t], [s] or [ʃ] Because the masculine article in front of a vowel is an t- and the t- is sometimes wrongly attached to the noun itself. In rare cases, via t » t-s » this might become [s] or [ʃ]
[sw] ⇨ [sb] This is rare but works on the basis that [sw] is not a permissible initial in Gaelic but the phonetically close [sb] is, i.e. a simple de-lenition of [w] ⇨ [b]

There are more, but those are the most common ones.

Examples

Examples to your heart's content, most of them are loanwords, except the ones beginning with f + vowel from Old Irish. Note that in most cases it's almost impossible to tell if a loan was from Scots or English, so they're usually listed together unless it's very clearly a Scots word. English can also stand for Old or Middle English. It's not that relevant to this topic, so I'm taking shortcuts!

Source Meaning Gaelic Irish Manx
Brythonic linn pool, lake (cf. Welsh llyn Gleann Iucha Linlithgow
with linn being re-interpreted as lenited and slenderised ghlinn
Latin fundus foundation bonn; fonn bonn
Latin Ianuarius January Gèanair, Gion-bhair, Gineamhair Eanáir
Latin jocosus droll geocach itinerant, vagrant
(original meaning referred to a town crier/street performer)
geocach
Latin iūdaeus Jew Giúdach
Latin Thūlē or Greek Thȳlē Thule Tìle
though this may already have had initial /t/ when borrowed from Latin. It depends largely on the exact pronunciation in the giver language at the time
Tuile
Latin vāgīna vagina faighean faighin fine
Latin vanus empty fànas fánas gap faanys gap
Latin vēlum veil fial fial
Latin vesper evening feasgar feascar vesper fastyr
Latin (in) vetere lege (in) old law peitearlach
Latin vicus village fìch fích
Latin vigilia vigil féill féill feaill
Latin vīnum wine fìon fíon feeyn
Latin vulpēs fox (possibly whelp/hvelpr) uilp
Norse eyrr gravel bank tiùrr
Norse haf sea, ocean tabh, also tabh-bhéist, seal; tabh-uan seal pup
Norse háfr hand-net tàbh/àbh tábh, abhadh
Norse hár + bolstaðr high + farm Tàbost
Norse haugr howe, mound Togha Mòr/Beag, Toghsgaig
Norse hjálm helm failm/ailm
Norse hjalt + land hilt + land Sealtainn Sealtainn
Norse hlíð gap (in a fence) (cachai)leith
Norse hnúkr knoll cnuachd
Norse hǫll hall talla (halla) (halley)
Norse holmr holm, small island tolm, An Talm Holme tolmán
Norse hóp small land-locked bay tòb/òb1
Norse hvalr whale Bhàlasaigh, Valasay; Bhàlaigh, Vallay
Norse hvarf turning Am Parbh, An Carbh Cape Wrath
Norse jarl iarla iarla eearley
Norse þeisti black guillemot taibhse
Norse þerna tern *teàrn » steàrn(ag) *tearn » stearnal
Norse þili (or poss. OE deal) wainscot déile tile
Norse þingvǫllr assembly field
There are even examples of delenition in Scots here: Dingwall, Tinwald, Tingwall
Cnoc an Tiongalairidh Tiongal, Eilean Thingeartsaigh Eilean Thinngartsaigh Tinvaal
Norse þópta/þófta thwart tobhta tochta, tafta thowt, taft
Norse Þórkætill Thor's cauldron (name) Torcall
Norse Þórir Thorir (name) Tòrasdal, Torsa
Norse Þórmóðr Thor's courage (name) Tormod
Norse Þorolf Thor's wolf (name) Torolbh
Norse þorskr cod trosg trosc
Norse Þrasi Thrasi (name) Trosaraidh
Norse þræll slave, serf tràill, Tràilligil tráill
Norse Þrondr Thrond/Trond (name) Tròndairnis, Tranntail
Norse Þrum Thrum (name) Truimisgearraidh
Norse þurs giant, ogre tursa (tursaichean/tursachan)
Norse þytr whistling sound sitrich seitrighim
Norse svartbakr black-backed gull farspag/arspag; farspach
Norse vaðill ford fadhail
Norse vágr bay bàgh/-bhagh/-bhaigh baie
Norse vík bay, cove ùig
Norse víkingr viking Ó hUiginn Higgins, uiging pirate fleet
Norse vindáss windlass unndais undás
Norse vindauga window uinneag/fuinneag fuinneóg uinnag
Norse Vörðufjall ward-fell Barrool
Norse wrek wreck frac/fracas/fracaid raic
Old Irish abra eyelid fabhra/abhra fabhra/abhra
Old Irish acallam addressing, conversing agallamh agallamh taggloo
Old Irish (f)acus nearness fagas fogas faggys
Old Irish aicill preparing, readiness faicill faichill
Old Irish aicsiu seeing faic(s)inn feicsin(t) fakinagh
Old Irish áinne ring fàinne/àinne fáinne fainey
Old Irish airiugad perceiving faireachadh aireachtáil
Old Irish all cliff faill/aill; mac-alla/mac-talla
(cf. Norse fjall which itself got borrowed in place names as -bhal, for example Ceapabhal) and mac-alla in Gaelic, which then either via the old aspiration of -c- as /kʰ/ or backformation of -alla as -talla has yielded mac-talla)
aill/faill; macalla mactullagh
Old Irish allas sweat fallas/allas allas
Old Irish anad staying, remaining fanachd, fantainn etc fanacht tannaghtyn
Old Irish ásaim I grow fàs fás aase
Old Irish atúd kindling fadadh/adadh fadú foaddey
Old Irish ecla fear eagal/feagal feagla/eagla aggle
Old Irish filliud folding filleadh/pilleadh filleadh filley/pilley
Old Irish forud shelf, bench àradh/fàradh aarey
Old Irish fuiseóg/uiseóg lark uiseag/fuiseag fuiseog ushag
Old Irish ilur eagle iolaire/fiolaire iolar urley
Old Irish nóinín daisy neòinean/eòinean/feòinean nóinín neaynin/eaynin
Old Irish osclaicim I open fosgail foshil foshil
Old Irish rádharc vision, view radharc/fradharc radharc reayrt
Old Irish taidbse ghost taibhse/aibhse taibhse
Old Irish uacht cold (n.) fuachd fuacht feayght
Old Irish uar cold (adj.) fuar fuar feayr
Old Irish uath hate fuath/uath fuath
Old Irish urusa easy furasta furasta
French jeune young diùn-laoch young hero
Welsh Gwgan gwg "frown" Úgán "Wogan"
Scots hough toch/spaoileadh
Scots swele swaddle spéileadh/spaoileadh
Scots swearing swearing speuradh
Scots webster weaver buabastair
Scots yair fishing weir geàrr geárr
English advantage buntáiste
English flat blad-
English flatter bladar (?) flatter
English haar càrr
English hackle (?) sisteal siostal
English haggis taigeis (hagaois) (haggish)
English haggle taglainnich
English hail goal tadhal
English handsel sainnseal
English Harold Arailt Arailt
English harlot tàrlaid
English hasp deasp / iosp
English hatch (n.) saitse haiste
English halberd taileabart/aileabart halbard
English hay (n.) saoidh(e)
English heckle (n.) seiceal seiceal
English hoe tobha
English hogshead tocasaid oigiséid
English hoist soidhseadh
English hops top/sop/op ob
English jot (poss. L. iota)2 a bit tiota2 giota
English joust giústáil
English osprey fáspróg/ospróg
English thaft tobhta tochta
English thank taing
English thole dola thole-pin tholley thole-pin
English thrang trang "busy" trang(láil)
English throat troat
English throng drong "busy" drong
English tuck(er) stretch cloth (i.e. fulling) tùcadair/ùcadair/fùcadair úcadair tucker
English use/usage (Possibly)3 ùsaigeadh/ùisneachadh úsáid
English vassal basaille basáille
English vault buailt
English venturing meantraig
English verdict béirdict
English vervain bearbhain beirbhéine
English vestry beastraidh beistri/beistéir
English vicar biocáire
English vice (tool) bidhis bís baise
English victuals biotailt
English vigil bigil
English village biláiste
English viol biol bíol biall
English viscount biceas bíocúnta
English voyage(r) bàidse/bàidsire
English waggon baighein báigin
English walewort mulabhar/mulart
English wall balla balla boal
English waistcoat siosacot/siostacot bástchóta
English ward bàrdaig/bàrdainn warning barda, bárdaim
English wardship warning bárdéis
English ware(s) bathar, bàirig
English warn/warning bàrnaigeadh, bàirligeadh
English warrants barantas guarantee barántas barrant
English wear baarail
English welt balt bálta quelt
English whack faic anything
English wheel cuidheall faoileáil (?) queeyl
English whig A' Chuigse Whigs uig/fuig, An Fuig Whigs quig
English Wight Wight Inis Iocht Isle of Wight, Muir nIcht The English Channel
English whinger whinyard cuinnsear
English whip cuip fuip kip
English whisk fusgan
English whisker foisgear
English whisk(e)y fuisce
English whisper (probably) piosarnach
English whist fuist quiss
English wick buaic bite (?)
English win buinnig
English William Uilleam Uilliam Illiam
English wish bwooishagh
English witch buidseach buitseach buitçh/buitçheraght
English woad bód
English woodcock fudagag/udacag/budagoc
English wormwood furmailt/burmaid
English wormwood mormanta mormónta
English worsted bursaid mustairt
English wrack bruig
English yacht geat
English Yankee Geangach
English yeast giost/giosg giosta jiastyn/jastee
English y(e)oman gìomanach gíománach
English yoke geòc yoke but also geòcaire etc
(semantic shift from yoke to throat, neck)
geoc jokal

1 So basically some areas dropped the h- and some turned it to t-, which is also the explanation for those awful spellings with t-H or weird t- initials you sometimes see on Gaelic street signs like An t-Òb/Muinntir an t-Òb (Leverburgh on Harris for example). It's nothing of the sort, it's just a case of tòb i.e. the place is actually called An Tòb - which makes muinntir an Tòb a totally regular form without any need for grammatical contortions.
2 Although tiota in Gaelic is conceivable a case of the t of the definite article latching onto the noun i.e. an t-iota > an tiota. But with Irish giota clearly a backformation, it could equally be iota > *thiota > tiota.
3 It depends on the timing - modern English has a /j/ at the start of use but the original loan from Norman French us did not have this initial /j/. So if it is a really old loan, the ù just represents English /u/. If it's a more recent loan, it's a backformation of /ju/ » /uː/.

What on eart?

On occasion, this also took place in the middle or at the end of a word, though much more rarely:

Source Meaning Gaelic Irish Manx
English broth brot brat broit
English Cromwell Crombail/Crombalach Crombeoil
English privet priobaid
though it's not entirely clear if this was deliberately backformed

Of course in Hiberno English (the English spoken in Ireland), this particular change is so common it's practically the default i.e. wherever in the word English has a /θ/, you get dental /t̪/ and where English has /ð/ you get dental /d̪/, so not onöy does three become tree but also math becomes mat.

English Hiberno-English
English cloth *clot
English earth *eart
English lethal *letal
English math *mat
English thick *tick
English third *tird
English this *dis

I thought Gaelic had words with f and p or indeed s?

Yes, it does, but initial f seems to occupy a strange space, perhaps because it is the only initial that actually lenites to zero (linguist speak for "it lenites and leaves no sound trace") and because p itself lenites to /f/. As a result, there is a regular merry-go-round between words with f, p and initial vowels - and on occasion even m:

Source Meaning Gaelic Irish
Latin fenestra window seinistir
Latin fūstis sùist súiste
Latin marculus small hammer fairce/fairche fairce/fairche/farcha
Latin parochia parish fairche fairche
Norse floti fleet plod plod
Norse hjálm helm palmair (via failm) pailmaire/failmaire
Norse páll hoe or spade fàl fál
Norse wrek wreck prac/pracas
English fencing pionsóireacht
English ferret peireid
English fine/fining paighne / paighneachadh
English Flemish (language) Pléimis
English floating plodadh
English (the) flux pluicis
English flour plùr plúr
English flower plùirean plúr/plúirín
English Frances Proinseas
English fry praighig priáilte
English mint pionnt
English pewter fleòdar/pleòdar
English pheasant piasún
English physician pisicidhe
English powder pùdar/fùdar púdar/fúdar
Spanish patata/batata
(poss. via a 3rd language)
fata

Add a pinch of madness...

Even without turning to loanwords, this can get downright crazy when you throw the effects of nasalization and rebracketing into the equation. The Old Irish root of the word nettle is nenaid which eventually yields neannt + ag. But this is where the fun starts. Because this is very common with the definite article, an neanntag quickly results in people thinking of this as an eanntag. Which some folk of course mis-interpret as a case of an fheanntag, giving rise to feanntag. Not to be outdone, some folks took an neanntag and considered it to be the result of nasalization i.e. they assumed the word had to be an deanntag. The only ones missing for a full set are *teanntag and *peanntag!

There are several other close contenders for the Top Morpher prize though:

Root Modern Gaelic Meaning Variants Notes
Old Irish ech "horse" feachaireachd horseplay, based on eachaire "equerry" peachaireachd though the root seems fairly obvious, *eachaireachd is actually unattested
Old Irish nenaid "nettle" feanntag nettle eanntag, deanntag, neanntag oddly enough, the form closes to Old Irish, neanntag, is very rare today


  • builmean, a word for bubble, which you also get as puilmean, fuilmean and cuilmean which makes you suspect the form *uilmean was also around but which didn't get documented.
  • failm, a rudder or till, also shows up as ailm and the derived form failmadair has a de-lenited form palmadair and the form talman (glossed as "rudder bar") is also almost certainly related.
  • feaman, a word for tail/stump (and ultimately from the same root as feamainn) which also shows up as eaman and seaman, presumably via *teaman or directly via an t-eaman.
  • naosg, the snipe, also shows up as faosg though *aosg oddly enough does not seem to be attested
  • peucag, a peacock, which also shows up as eucag
  • pullag, fullag/fulag and ullag/ulag - though there's probably two different roots here, one derived via English 'pulley' and the other via the root ullamh 'ready'.
  • sail-chuach, a violet, which historically is Old Irish sal- (related to salach, so something like "filthy bowl") and cuach but also shows up as dail-chuach and fail-chuach. Presumable we're looking at an t-sail-chuach giving an dail-chuach via eclipsis and via an unattested *tail-chuach » *ail-chuach we get fail-chuach. Ay dios...
  • falmaire (a hake) is possibly also one of these, it also has the forms talmadan and colmaire (including Irish colmóir) from Norse kolmúli (cf Danish kulmule ("coal snout"). The o <> a variation (cf fola/fala could easily yield *calmair(e) and from there *almair(e) and finally falmair(e). The form talmadan makes makes it look a tad shaky though.
  • seillean, a bee, also shows up as teillean.
  • maighdeag, a cowrie (lit. small maiden), also shows up as baighdeag and faighdeag
  • feilmigear, a ridgeling, also as seilmigear and teilmigear - and I haven't got a clue what the underlying word is for once!
  • triullasg/friollasg/iollasg, astray/awry but don't ask me what the root is

A group of words for weather-gall probably fall into this category too: adag-chruaidh, fadag-chruaidh, badag-chruaidh though it's hard to tell what the underlying words here are.

When it comes to verbal nouns, rebracketing can lead to some interesting ... detours due to the historic -g in ag/a':

  • ràdh/gràdha, selling
  • reic/creic, selling
  • ulfhart(aich)/gulfhart(aich)/sgulfhartaich, howling

Now in theory it's conceivable that a word like gulfhart could morph into something even weirder such as *dulfhart (via /g/ » /ɣ/ » /d/) which could conceivably result in *tulfhart (via re-analysis of *dulfhart as *an tulfhart) but to date, I haven't spotted one. But I'll keep looking. But sgulfhartaich where there g from the particle ag has picked up a prosthetic s- isn't bad for starters.

So English may excel at punning but there's nothing quite like the interplay between lenition, nasalization and rebracketing in Goidelic languages to delight the phonologist and to drive etymologists to substance abuse...

How about without?

Sure, that works too, depending on the combination of sounds, an offending initial can also just get dropped:

Source Meaning Gaelic Irish Manx
Latin habitus dress, attire eabaid/abaid aibíd
Latin hecticus hectic (in the medical sense) èiteag
Latin Hilarius (name) MacEalair
Latin hora hour uair uair oor
Norse haf sea, ocean abh
Norse hattr hat ad háta
(prob. via Middle English hat)
edd
Norse hábura rowlock adhbhar
Norse hálsa slacken allsadh/abhsadh
Norse Hildulfr Iondolbh
Norse hlunnr oar-handle lunn
Norse hǫmull swingle-tree amall
Norse hóss river mouth ós
Norse hrams-á ramsons river Rhumsaa
Norse hrókr croaker ; rook ròc(as) rúcach
Norse hrosshvalr walrus rosualt/ruashual/rochuaid rosualt
Norse hrúga peat-stack ruc
Norse hrukka wrinkle roc, rug roc, ruc
Norse hrútr ram rùt(a)
Norse húfr hull ub (prow)
Norse ulfr wolf uilbh/ulbh
Norse ulfr wolf ulfhart (possibly)
English haddock adag cadóg/hadóg7feadóg addag
English handspike annspach/ann-spéic
English Harlaw hard + law Àrla
English harness àirneis
English harpy arpag airp

Most likely the Gaelic words for St Kilda and St Kildans also belong in this category. There is Hiortach, Iortach and Tiortach but nobody is exactly sure as to which one is the underlying one. Oddly enough, there is no attested form with a C- or Ch- (odd because one of the main theories of the origin of the place names revolves around the Norse word kelda "well, spring" - though there are other, phonetically more convincing ones such as the theory of it being linked to Norse hjǫrtr "hart, stag").

And yes, Welsh is just as much fun

Because this remodelling of sounds is not even exclusively Goidelic. Welsh and the other Brythonic languages do it too, with their own twist (having 3 mutations helps): On occasion, even the permissible fricative f- turns into, well, other stuff, through the same process:

Source Meaning Welsh Cornish Breton
Latin februārius February Chwefror Hwevrel C'hwevrer
Latin habēna rein afwyn
Latin ianuārius January Genver Genver
Latin mespilum medlar mesper, gwesper
Latin vāgina sheath gwain gweyn gouin
Latin venēnum poison gwenwyn gwenon
Latin Veneris Friday Gwener (dy') Gwener Gwener
Latin verbum verb berf
Latin vestis vest gwest
Latin vīcus village gwig gwig
Latin vīnum wine gwin gwin gwin
Latin vīpera viper gwiber gwiber
Latin viridis green gwyrdd gwer gwer, gwyrdh
Latin vitrum glass gwydr gweder gwer
Latin vīverra ferret gwiwer gwiñver
Anglo-Saxon wealhstōd interpreter gwalstod
Norman French vilein peasant milain/bilain bilen
English vicar bicar
English quail chwail
English ware(s) gwâr gawara gwara
English waste gwast gwastya (v.) gwastañ
English wipe chweip

And French, Italian, Spanish and so on as a matter of fact

Even outside Celtic this is not unheard of. People just don't think about it. Many Romance languages borrowed foreign words (especially Frankish words) beginning with /w/ with a /g/ and Basque, due to a lack of f at one point, strengthened loanwords from Romance languages to b or p:

Language Meaning Borrowed into Word/Meaning
Frankish *wad ford French gué (ford)
Frankish *waddi pledge French gage (pledge)
Frankish *waidon (v.) graze French guéder (v. sate)
Frankish *waigaro a lot French guère (hardly)
Frankish *wahtōn (v.) watch (for) French guetter, guette (watch for)
Frankish *waidanjan get food Italian guadagnare (earn)
Frankish *walha non-Germans, foreigners French Gaule (Gaul*) and via French also Spanish Gales (Wales)
Frankish *walhlaup (v. gallop) French galoper (v. gallop)
Frankish *want glove Catalan guant (glove)
Frankish *wardon (v.) guard Italian guardare (earn)
Frankish *warjan protect French guérir, guérison (v. cure)
Frankish *warjan protect Italian guarire (get better)
Frankish *warnjan protect Italian guarnire (v. garnish)
Frankish *waskan (v.) wash Italian guazzare (v. wallow)
Frankish *wastil nourishment French gâteau (cake)
Frankish *wenkjan vacillate French guincher (v. boogie)
Frankish *werra war French guerre, guerroyer (war)
Frankish *weron adorn French guirlande (garland)
Frankish *wespa wasp French guêpe (wasp)
Frankish *wid-malve marshmallow French guimauve (marshmallow)
Frankish *wigila ruse French guile (deception)
Frankish *wīhsela sour cherry French guigne (sour cherry)
Frankish *Willahelm William French Guillaume (William)
Frankish *wimpil headscarf French guimpe (wimple, gimp etc)
Frankish *wingjan wink French guigner (v. eye)
Frankish *wīsan fashion, manner French guise (way)
Frankish *wīpan (v.) wrap French guiper, guipure (cover with silk)
Frankish *wītan know French guide, guider (v. guide)
Frankish *withthja
(influenced by Latin vitica)
osier French guiche (strap)
Frankish *wrakjō servant, boy French garçon (boy)
Frankish *wrist instep French guêtre (gaiter)
Gothic waida woad French guède (v. dye)
Gothic wīmon leap French guimbarde (Jew's harp)
Middle High German Welfen Guelphs Italian Guelfi (dynasty)
Middle High German Wibellingen Ghibelline Italian Ghibellini (dynasty)
Latin faba bean Basque baba (bean)
Latin fāgum beech Basque pago (beech)
Latin ficu fig Basque piku (fig)
Latin fīlum thread Basque biru (thread)
Latin fortis strong Basque bortitz (strong)
Latin Vascōnēs Basques French/Gascon Gascon, incl. the derived surname Gascoigne
Latin vigilāre (v.) watch Basque begiratu (watch)
Latin vīpera snake French guivre, givre (snake)
Latin viscum
(influenced by Frankish *wīhsala)
mistletoe French gui (mistletoe)
Latin voluntātem will Basque borondate (will)
Norse vík bay French guichet (gate, wicket etc)
Norse vinda (v.) wind French guinder (v. hoist)
Nahuatl ahuacamolli** avaocado sauce Spanish guacamole
Nahuatl huacalli calabash tree Spanish guacal (calabash tree)
Nahuatl huaxin white leadtree Spanish guaje (white leadtree)
Nahuatl huexolotl turkey Spanish guajolote (turkey)
Nahuatl huīpīlli woman's blouse Spanish güipil/guaypil (traditional Mexican woman's blouse)
Spanish fraile brother Basque praile (friar)

*The similarity to Latin Gallia is a coincidence, these are two different roots.
**Nahuatl hu represents /w/

I don't want to go overboard with examples but just to make the point, you can find this kind of thing all over the planet. Say European loanwords in Asian languages, often related to /f/ or /v/ sounds which often don't exist in the native sound system or are not allowed in certain positions (initially, finally etc):

Source Meaning Target language Term Meaning
English lift Cantonese 𨋢 līp lift, elevator
English offside Cantonese 噏西 āp sāi offside
French vacances holidays Japanese バカンス bakansu holidays
Portuguese vidro glass Japanese ビーdama marbles
Portuguese veludo velvet Japanese ビロード birōdo velvet

Or cheat

Returning to Gaelic, cheating works too of course, just as an aside. This happens particularly with loanwords which have an initial h. Initial h does make a regular appearance in Gaelic - but only in certain grammatical contexts, such as the genitive of feminine nouns or the plural if there's a definite article, for example doras na h-eaglaise or na h-ùbhlan. So in some cases, when Gaelic borrowed words which began with h, it slaps an extra article on which wasn't there in the language it borrowed from. For example:

Source Meaning Gaelic
Norse hǫfn harbour Na Hann
Norse haugr mound Na Hogha Bheag
Norse hérað type of administrative unit Na Hearadh
Scots Foxhole A' Bhogsolla

Often, like in Na Hogha Bheag, you're left with a word which obeys the sound rules of Gaelic but has what looks like shifty grammar (you'd expect *Na Hogha Beaga) which is often a telltale sign of a fricative-initial loanword that was squeezed into a corset to make it sound ok.

But why are there so many place-names with initial h?

Good question. I'm making an educated guess here but I think it's because place names, in the past, mostly occurred in the genitive or dative. Today we put up roadsigns and have lists of place names but that's a fairly recent thing. When you're actually talking 'normally', usually place names don't appear in grammatical isolation like that. And in Gaelic, that puts the place name into a leniting environment. Let's use Glaschu as an example. You can be 'in' Glasgow, which is probably the only non-leniting example: ann an Glaschu. But if you're going to Glasgow, you're a' dol a Ghlaschu and the people or shops of Glasgow are muinntir Ghlaschu and bùithtean Ghlaschu.

So ignoring the modern past-time of writing, even a native Gaelic place name like Toirbheartan would very often have a (spoken) initial /h/: a' dol a Thoirbheartan, muinntir Thoirbheartan and so on. Plus most prepositions one is likely to use in front of a place-name (bho, do (a), tro, ro) cause lenition (the main exception being à but which is, incidentally, less common statistically than the others).

So in context, place names like the examples below don't jar as much in the ears of a native as some others might.

Source Meaning Gaelic Anglicised as
Norse hár + klettr high + cliff Hàcleit Habost
Norse heastr + staðr horse + farm Heasta (with nearby Allt na Heasta) Heaste
Norse horna + fjall horn + mountain Hòrnabhal Horneval
Scots haugh + kirk Hacraig Halkirk


Simplifly, simplify

No, languages don't always simplify stuff because otherwise we'd all be going round pointing at stuff saying 'uh' and nothing else. But let's leave that topic for another article. Another thing that effectively hides the origins of many Gaelic words is the simplification of certain sounds, either because this change happened throughout the language anyway or because it was necessary to adjust the sounds to fit the language (like the th > t change above).

For example, a language internal process changed many nd/nt sounds to nn and lt/ld to ll. You're probably aware of the coltas/collas issue. That's just an instance of a language internal simplification of lt to ll, nothing to do with English.

So here are some fun examples:

Source Meaning Gaelic Irish Manx
Latin argentum silver airgead "money" airgead argid
Latin candela candel coinneal coinneal cainle
Latin hic pāx datur peace* pòg "kiss" póg paag
Norse eyland island eilean oileán ellan
Old Irish cruind round cruinn cruinn cruinn
Scots/English doctor dotair dochtúir

*part of the old Celtic liturgy where peace was given just before Communion, involving a symbolic kiss

Let's talk about your sister

A particularly bizarre example of this is the Gaelic word for sister because it went through this several times:

  1. Indo-European used swesōr.
  2. Proto-Celtic used swesūr - Proto-Celtic, as in before Brythonic (Welsh 'n all that) and Goidelic (Gaelic 'n all that) split.
  3. Old Irish used siur AND fiur.
    OK, this requires some explaining. In the days before Old Irish, the words for my, your and his already caused lenition. So far so good, but this meant that Proto-Celtic swesūr became hwesūr, just like leniting s today. But as the hw never sat well with the language (a bit like thing becoming fing in London) it soon turned into an f, but our, your (pl.), their didn't, and didn't lenite. So, by the time we arrived at Old Irish, unlenited our/your/their sister had become ar siur, far siur, a siur, but lenited my/your/his sister had become mo fiur, do fiur, a fiur. Yes, slightly confusing.
  4. To get from Early Irish fiur/siur to the modern forms, we now have to go via the genitive forms for Gaelic (something which did not happen in Irish - don't sigh). So modern Irish just continues with the old roots using deirfiúr "sister" from deirbh fiur "true sister" and fiúr "kinswoman" (because two words are better than one…).
  5. However, Scottish Gaelic grabs the old genitives, fethar/sethar, and muscles them into piuthar. The p appears, of course, because f is quite obviously lenited p. Now why didn't you think of that before? 😂

Anyway, to get back to the point, this is the reason why you will hear some Gaelic speakers pronounce certain words with f and some without. It's a process that's still in the middle of happening, so until the language decides on whether it will stick with eagal or adopt feagal, you can take your pick about which one you prefer. It makes no difference, either way, as both are good Gaelic words.

Beagan gràmair
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