Prosthetic f, backformation or eagal and feagal

O Goireasan Akerbeltz
Am mùthadh mar a bha e 23:17, 20 dhen Fhaoilleach 2016 le Susanharris (Deasbaireachd | mùthaidhean) (Let's talk about your sister)
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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 (sound laws) 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] or [s] because lenited [t] or [s] yields [h], failing that, you drop it
[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 [y] 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] Because the masculine article in front of a vowel is an t- and the t- is sometimes wrongly attached to the noun itself.

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


Examples to your heart's content, a lot of them are loanwords, except the ones beginning with f + vowel:

Source Meaning Gaelic Irish
Latin fundus foundation bonn bonn
Latin jocosus droll geòrcaire glutton
Latin iota a bit tiota* giota
Norse háfr hand-net) tàbh tábh
Norse hamarr + ey steep rock + island Hamarsaigh
Norse hár + bolstaðr high + farm Tàbost
Norse hjalt + land hilt + land Sealtainn Sealtainn
Norse hlíð gap (in a fence) (cachai)leith
Norse hnúkr knoll cnuachd
Norse hǫll hall talla halla
Norse hǫmull swingle-tree amall
Norse hrúga peat-stack ruc
Norse þeisti black guillemot taibhse
Norse þopta thwart tabhta tochta
Norse Þorketill (name) Torcall
Norse Þórmóðr (name) Tormod
Norse Þorskr cod trosg trosc
Norse Þurs giant, ogre tursa (tursaichean/tursachan)
Norse vindauga window uinneag fuinneóg
Old Irish áinne ring fàinne fáinne
Old Irish allas sweat fallas allas
Old Irish ásaim I grow fàs fás
Old Irish ecla fear (f)eagal (f)eagla
Old Irish ilur eagle (f)iolaire iolar
Old Irish osclaicim I open fosgail oscail
Old Irish rádharc vision, view fradharc radharc
Old Irish uacht cold fuachd fuacht
Old Irish uath hate fuath fuath
Old Irish urusa easy furasta furasta
French jeune young diùn-laoch young hero
Scots/English haggis taigeis hagaois
Scots/English Harlaw hard + law Arla
Scots/English harness àirneis
Scots/English hatch (n.) saidse haiste
Scots/English halberd taileabart halbard
Scots/English heckle (n.) seiceal seiceal
Scots/English hoe tobha n/a
Scots/English hogshead tocasaid oigiséid
Scots/English thaft tobhta tochta
Scots/English throng trang "busy" trang(láil)
Scots/English viscount biceas bíocúnta
Scots/English vervain bearbhain beirbhéine
Scots/English vice (tool) bidhis bís
Scots/English walewort mulabhar/mulart
Scots/English wheel cuidheall
Scots/English witch buidseach
Scots/English wormwood burmaid/mormanta mormónta
Scots/English worsted bursaid mustairt
Scots/English y(e)oman gìomanach gíománach

*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.

Or cheat

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 Tairbeart would very often have a (spoken) initial /h/: a' dol a Thairbeart, muinntir Thairbeart and so on.

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 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
Latin argentum silver airgead "money" airgead
Latin candela candel coinneal coinneal
Latin hic pāx datur peace* pòg "kiss" póg
Norse eyland island eilean oileán
Old Irish cruind 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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