Vowel Length, Stress Placement and Compound Nouns

O Goireasan Akerbeltz
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Gearr leum gu: seòladh, lorg

Most of us have come across this problem in various shapes and guises. Not so much vowel length and stress placement which learners, and indeed native spearkers, often consider to be somewhat "esoteric" issues. But, questions often arise regarding whether or not to use a hyphen or whether lenition affects the second word of a hyphenated word. Case? We can't promise to reveal all, but we'll have a go at giving a few good pointers. To begin with, I'm afraid that we have to consider the two "esoteric" issues because they're crucial for understanding and applying the third and fourth issues.

Dim Sum?

Before you groan and click somewhere else, consider that every language has sound rules. Phonology is the study of sound rules. Many phonological rules are specific to the respective language. These rules are just as much part of a language, and important to it, as a case system, tenses, or the words themselves. Bugger them up and you mess with the language, big time. So, even though it may be more elusive than the genitive case, phonological rules are very important.

Generally this isn't an issue for healthy languages because the rules are in the speakers brains. The rules get applied unconsciously and correctly. So, neologisms that the language may have to come up with, or words that get borrowed from other languages, get remodelled to fit and conform to the native rules. For example, consider Cantonese which has phonological rules drastically different from English (and vice versa) but has borrowed a number of words from English (and vice versa). Because these languages are so different, borrowing in either direction involves streamlining word pronunciations. The result of streamlining is sometimes rather amusing to the speaker of the other language. Consider these examples:

English Cantonese
sofa sō fáh
lift (elevator) līp
taxi dīk síh
cream soda geih līm sō dá
Jesus Yèh Sōu
Spain Sāi Bāan Ngàh
chocolate jyù gū līk
Cantonese English
wohk wok
Hēung Góng Hong Kong
dím sàm dim sum
gām gwāt kumquat
Bāk Gīng Peking
màh jéuk majong
Hàhng Sàng Hang Seng

Wonderful, isn't it? Cantonese words can't be any longer than three sounds, so any long foreign words have to be broken up. Consonant clusters are not allowed and neither are words ending in anything but vowels, n, m or p, t, k. So lift becomes *lif and then līp because -p is the closest thing Cantonese has to a final -f. On the other hand, English just flounders with the tones. Completely. What's a clear vowel? And why doesn't Cantonese have any voiced stops??? ... But I digress.

And no, this isn't a diatribe against loanwords either. All languages borrow, unless they're in complete isolation, a privilege few enjoy. But to get back to the actual question.

Unaccented Syllables and Long Vowels

Most Gaelic textbooks will go as far as telling you that Gaelic is very neat and always has word stress on the first syllable. And perhaps they may even add that a hyphen indicates that the stress has shifted to the second element. But that's generally as far as they go and assume "you'll just pick up the rest by ear". Sorry, you won't.

First, to sum up the basics. Indeed, Gaelic has primary stress on the first syllable of a word when there is no space, hyphen, or anything like that in the word. Here are some prototypical words: taigh, cù, màthair, bàta, craobhan, cupannan, iarraidh, agam, leabhraichean and so on. Now, think hard. Have you ever seen a Gaelic word (that wasn't a loanword, in case you were going to say tombaca or buntàta) with a long vowel anywhere but the first syllable? Don't spend too long looking for one, you won't find one. That's because Gaelic phonologocal rules reveal that a native or nativised word may not have a long vowel in an unaccented syllable. This is important.

Second, there is a small, easily identifiable group of adverbs that have forward stress, indicated either by a hyphen or a capital letter in the middle of the word: a-màireach, an-dé, an-uiridh, an-asgaidh, an-còmhnaidh, DiLuain, DiMàirt (and that's why they have the capital letter and that's also why GOC stinks), and so on. So far, life is pretty straightforward.

However, life gets complicated once we go beyond straightforward "words". Let's try and be systematic about this. We can distinguish four broad categories:

True Compounds

These are words, which are prefixes plus words, that have merged together in such a way that they are regarded as one single word. Their main characteristics are:

  1. Stress on the first syllable
  2. Long vowels only occur in the first syllable, all other vowels are short
  3. Short vowels are often reduced to weak vowels such as [ə] for example eu [eː] + trom [trɔum] » aotrom [ɯːdrəm]
  4. Compulsory lenition of the second element

aotram (eu=trom), dùbhlan (dubh=slàn), eucoir (eu=còir), anmoch (an=moch), earthuath (ear=tuath), neochiontach (neo=ciontach), mórchuis (mór=cùis), seanair (sean=athair), cùlaist (cùl=àite), leisgeul (leth=sgeul)...

Close Compounds

This is where the people from Faclair na Pàrlamaid should tune in, as they didn't explain this bit at all. These are still regarded as compounds by native speakers and fluent speakers and are characterised by:

  1. Primary stress on the first syllable with secondary stress on the second element
  2. Short vowels of the second element are reduced slightly without obscuring their quality - for example, an [u] may get shorted slightly but will not be reduced to a schwa [ə]
  3. Formerly long vowels of the second element are reduced to half-long or shorter vowels - for example, leth [Lʲe] + sùil [suːl] » leth-shùil [ˈLʲeˌhuˑl]
  4. Compulsory lenition of the second element

leth-shùil, dealbh-chluich, droch-rud, beul-aithris, ionmholta/ion-mholta...

Quasi Compounds

These are very much like Close Compounds, only their stress falls on the second element and the first element is reduced; so, you could regard them as a subclass of close compounds:

  1. Primary stress on the second syllable with secondary stress on the first element
  2. Short vowels of the first element are reduced slightly without obscuring their quality - for example, tìr [tʲiːrʲ] + mór [moːr] » tìr-mór [ˌtʲirʲˈmoːr]
  3. Formerly long vowels of the first element are reduced to half-long or shorter vowels
  4. Compulsory lenition of the second element except in compounds of a Noun-Adjective nature

taigh-beag, taigh-sgoile, tìr-mór, co-dhùnadh...

Loose Compounds

It's a moot point whether you want to call them compounds or not. They are compounds in the way that lenition occurs and the meaning of the second element is modified, but no stress shift occurs. Because these rules are a bit tricky to understand, people often hyphenate these words which would indicate stress shift, thus giving them the appearance of Compounds from groups 1-3. This group seems to contain most of the prefixed words in Gaelic, that is words which have bits like ath-, do-, eu-, droch-, and so on, preceding them. This is also another reason why these are often hyphenated, as there are a number of prominent ones which have become quasi-compounds, such as do-dhèanta. Characteristics are:

  1. No stress shift occurs, for example sàr-mhath [saːr va]
  2. No vowel reduction occurs
  3. Lenition occurs but to a large extent depends on the prefix

sàr-mhath, droch-thubaiste, sìol-fhàs...

So what?

Before we launch into more examples, why is this important? Because it explains why we have to be careful about when to use hyphens. Care is needed not only because incorrect use of them tells a reader that stress is somewhere that it isn't but there is also a question of meaning involved. Consider the following English examples for a moment:

fish knife fishknife
key board keyboard
french man frenchman
dung beetle dungbeetle
green fly greenfly

Same words, but spelt differently - you tell me whether a green fly and a greenfly are the same things? And while a dungbeetle may not be pleasant, it's better than a dung beetle, and a fishknife better than a knife made of fish. English has the added problem of sometimes using stress within a word to differentiate meanings, seen with pairs like permit and permit, construct and construct, and so on.

Gaelic, in fact most languages, does something similar. Sp far, the most obvious example I have come across is the difference in meaning between Tha mi a' fuireach ann an taigh beag and Tha mi a' fuireach ann an taigh-beag. I'd rather not live in the second. In writing Gaelic, you can afford not to pay attention to stress placement and simply learn that the word for toilet has a hyphen. However, when it comes to speaking, you have to know where to place the stress unless you want to make people quietly move away from you when you tell them about your new "home", at the next party you go to.

Sooo ... in order to learn when to place hyphens, you really have to pay attention, first, to the way a word is pronounced and then deduce the spelling from that, not the other way round.

Native speakers have a clear advantage; however, there are a few tricks for the learner that can hep.

In English, if you spell a word together (with no hyphen) or if there's stress shift in the English compound, you can be relatively sure that if the corresponding Gaelic word is composed of two words there will be stress shift, for example, glasshouse - taigh-glaine [təˈgLaNʲə] as opposed to a glass house - taigh glaine [tɤj gLaNʲə].

If both words are nouns, the first one feminine and the second one behaves like an adjective after a feminine noun, you have a close compound because nouns only behave like adjectives in close compounds. Unfortunately, this doesn't help if the first element is masculine: cainnt-chluich 'play on words' [ˈkaiNʲdʲxLɪç] but uisge-beatha.

Beagan gràmair
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