Svarabhakti or The Helping Vowel
Admit it. You've always wanted to know what the difference between svarabhakti and epenthesis is. Well, that part is easy, there isn't any, they're two terms for the same thing. Svarabhakti comes from the Sanskrit (as in, Old Hindi) tradition of grammarians and means "loyal vowel". Hm ... epenthesis on the other hand is Greek and means something like "to stick in afterwards".
Departing from xenologomania (the excessive love of foreign words) we have English helping vowel and Gaelic fuaimreag-chuideachaidh. In other words, we're going to talk about those odd extra vowels that you get in Gaelic words like gorm and dearg.
- First question: Do all Gaelic speakers do this? Yes
- Second question: Do they all do the same thing? Silly question, of course not!
So ... let us first discover when we put in what.
The rule in a nutshell is:
|Ø -> Vx /||VC1 ______||C2|
Or, before you clobber me: If, in the stressed syllable of a word, you get two consonants, one of which is or used to be voiced, stick in the extra vowel as long as the two consonants are not homo-organic.
Ok, step by step. Sometimes we get consonant clusters in Gaelic: rb, rc, rd, sg, st ... As most people who have done Gaelic for even a few weeks only know, there are some words where you are supposed to stick in an extra vowel when you get these clusters, for example gorm [gɔrɔm]. Ask your teacher when or why and you'll get the famous blank face. Not, incidentally, that that's their fault, most native speakers of any language can't explain why they say stuff.
We'll sidestep the why this time but we can certainly tell you when.
Mostly this happens when you get l n r and /ʃ/ coming together with b, bh, ch, g, gh, m, mh. What generally happens is that the vowel immediately preceding this sequence is simply repeated (exceptions see below).
Let's look at some examples:
So ... I think you get the idea.
Now what was that I said about exceptions? Not too tricky, most dialects don't like the [ɛCɛ] (C stands for any consonant) sequences, so they have [ɛCa] for example dearg [dʲɛrag]. The other exception are slender consonant clusters where the second vowel is generally [i], not a repeat of the first eg tairbh [tɛrʲiv]. The latter does not apply to most Hebridean dialects, so it's really up to you what you want to do. In general, people seem to find the [i] variant easier to say.
And I can tell you're an attentive audience because I can see scores of people scratching their heads, thinking of words like Glaschu, calpa and mialchu. Glaschu is easy, it's just one of those strange exceptions every language throws up. Calpa now is interesting but easy to explain because it derives from an earlier colbthach, which had the voiced stop.
Mialchu doesn't have the helping vowel because you don't get the helping vowel after long vowels or diphthongs.
And just a final note on dialects: most living varieties of Gaelic do what was described above. There are/used to be a few though which had either very little in the way of helping vowels or none at all. In these "very little" dialects, the helping vowel was simply a schwa:
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