The Breaking of Long /e:/ or Feuchainn vs Fiachainn
<bial> <sgial> <ian> <diag> <ciad> <sia> <fiar> <fiach> <sgriach> <briag> <iadail> <leum> <beum> <Seumas> <ceum> <leugh>
If some of you feel like scrambling for their dictionaries now, hang on - and those of you who are looking for a baseball bat to beat someone up calm down. The latter will be amongst those who read up the bit on our usage of pointed brackets to represent spelling ...
The above might not look familiar to you, at least some of them, but if you shut your eyes for a moment and read out the list to yourself, you will suddenly realise what this is about. This peculiar business of <eu> sometimes being pronounced [ia] ... and sometimes not.
So what is it all about and is there a rule? Well, sort of, but first of all let us depart into the foggy drizzle of Celtic historical linguistics and look at Common Gaelic, the ancestor of both modern Irish and Gaelic. Common Gaelic had words which contained a long [eː] sound: béal, scéal, éan, déag, céad, sé, féar, féach, sgréach, bréag, éadail, léim, béim, Séamas, céim and léigh. Most of these are still pronounced with a long [eː] in Irish dialects (except Munster Irish which has things like céad [kʲiad̪̊]) but Scottish Gaelic, obviously thinking life was much too boring, did something more entertaining. It "broke" the long vowel.
This isn't quite as weird as it may sound, but very common in the world's languages - think of English words like
No, actually there is sense behind it - we will spare you the full story and just tell you how to tell when to say [ia] and when not. Remember though that this is a rule of thumb in some ways - it once again depends to a certain degree on the dialect and even the individual speaker whether they break their [eː]'s or not. So if you DO have a friend who says *Siamas instead of Seumas ... put aside thoughts of sending us a virus and simply accept it as "one of those things".
Here's the rule: (C')___(C') > [eː] and (C')___(C) > [ia]
Stop sighing - all this means is that if the <eu> is followed by a broad consonant (C), chances are that the [eː] has turned into /ia/ and if the following vowel is slender (C') it is still [eː]. This accounts for beul, sgeul, eun, deug, ceud, feur, feuch, sgreuch, breug and eudail out of the above list - but what about the rest?
Well, if the /eː/ happens to be word final, it generally stays [eː] (e.g. gné, té, dé) except in a few cases which must simply be learnt as exceptions e.g. sia.
Almost there - this leaves a few oddballs like ceum and leum to be accounted for - which is easily done. Remember that Gaelic does not have a distinction anymore between broad and slender labials (b, p, f, m)? So what used to be léim became leum with a broad <m>, similarly béim > beum, céim > ceum and léigh > leugh.
And then there is a tentative "rule": if a word is high register, meaning that it is generally not used in everyday conversation and is restricted to "high functions" such as church or poetry, the pronunciation tends to be [eː]. Words like beus [beːs] or ceusadh [kʲeːsəɣ], which are quite restricted in their use, tend to have [eː].
So why do we spell it <eu> and not <èa> or even <ia>? Because being as efficient as the GOC board, the users of Common Gaelic hadn't quite worked out a standard spelling and so the Irish ended up with the <éa> variant and the Scots with the <eu>.
And why not <ia>? Well, because the GOC board of 1567 when the bible was translated into Gaelic was located in the Central Belt - the part of Scotland which spoke dialects much closer to Irish and who had retained the long [eː] ... so obviously they used <eu>. Only today with the southern dialects being moribund or dead and the majority of Gaels speaking Hebridean and Highland dialects the spelling is slowly changing to reflect that - sé for 'six' used be be quite commonly seen in Scotland, but is now completely replaced with sia, everyone writes sgian not *sgéan. But some haven't quite made it - you will see both feuchainn and fiachainn, but few people would write *bial and *sgial. Should we? Well ... maybe, today it would certainly make sense.
On the other hand, if we switched to writing <ia> instead of <eu> in all cases, we'd have a small, new problem to contend with. Anyone guess what? Well, two actually. The first one is that most words which have historic <ia>, that is, <ia> has always been <ia> and is not derived from <eu>, the second vowel is a schwa: [iə] e.g. iarr, siar etc. Words with <ia> that derive from é/eu on the other hand have a clear [a] vowel: [ia]. Point being? Well, if you write both <eu> and <ia> as <ia>, there is no way to tell from the spelling whether the correct pronunciation is [iə] or [ia].
Now, for a native speaker that is obviously no problem as he or she has fixed the correct sounds in their memory rather than the spelling, but it makes it even more tricky for learners. Also, even though some <eu> sounds have shifted in spelling to <ia>, they still form their genitives as if they were <eu> words: sgian > sgéin, fiadh > féidh etc. Knowing this can, incidentally, help you pronounce words properly, that is, if a word has <ia> in the nominative and <éi> in the genitive, it will be pronounced [ia].
Once again, there is no perfect answer ...
In any case, here's a rough map of Scotland showing you where the boundary between these two dialect areas lies: This is merely an indication of where the majority of speakers break or don't break, a more detailed map shows that speakers break their long /eː/'s to varying degrees:
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