Irisleabhar na Gaedhilge/Imleabhar 5/Uimhir 2/Notes on Irish Etymology

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search
Irisleabhar na Gaedhilge, Imleabhar V, Uimh. 2 by Tomás Ó Flannghaile
Notes on Irish Etymology
[ 25 ]


By Tomás ó Flannaoile.

I. Earraċ, saṁraḋ, foġṁar, geiṁreaḋ.

It is pretty certain that the ancient pagan Irish reckoned at first but two seasons in their year—summer and winter Not to mention other authorities, the Harleian MS. (British Museum), H.I.B. 5280, p.38—quoted by O’Donovan in the Introduction to his edition of the “Book of Rights”—gives the following: “Ar is dé roinn no bid for in m-pliadain and .i. in samrad ó Beiltine co Samain, acus in geimred ó Samain co Beltine,” i.e., for it is two divisions used to be on the year then, namely, the summer from May to November, and the winter from November to May. We know too that other ancient nations recognised but two seasons in the year. In the Bible only two seasons are mentioned, summer and winter, and in many languages to this day the expression ‘summer and winter’ is popularly used for ‘the whole year.’

The oldest and simplest Irish names for these two seasons were sam=summer, and gam=winter. In later times the compounds sam-rad=‘summer-part,’ and gem-red=‘winter part,’ became more usual in Ireland. They are the forms used in the extract given above, and it is from them that we have saṁraḋ and geiṁreaḋ, the present Irish names for summer and winter respectively. The original simple names, however, survived for a long time after the fuller compound forms came into use. These primitive words, sam and gam, also belonged originally to the Cymric Celts. and they are substantially the forms still used in Welsh for the names of the two chief seasons. They have, however, suffered more change in Welsh than they suffered in Irish, for instead of sam and gam, or even samh and gamh, the Welsh say and write hâfand gauaf.[1] The f in these words sounds as English v; and represents the aspirated m, which we express by or mh. Initial S in most Celtic words has been preserved in Irish, but became permanently changed to h in Welsh at an early period—though there is evidence to show that the change occurred later than the Christian era. Thus, our salann (salt), sean (old), síol (seed), are weakened in Welsh to halen, hen and hìl respectively. This, it will be remembered, is what the Greeks also did with their initial S as a general rule, whilst the Latins retained it—which is one of the proofs that Latin is in many respects older than Greek. Irish, however, has some forms which are older than Welsh, Greek or Latin—but this is not the immediate point in hand.

In Irish the forms sam and gam continued—as I have already said—to be used for a long time after the adoption of the compound forms samrad and geimred. Though they are no longer in actual use with us, they are found in ancient literature. In the Aṁra Choluim-ċille, as given in the Liber Hymnorum, there are some verses quoted (in a gloss on the words “sceo rein riṫ”) where the line occurs: “ro faeṫ sam snigid gam,” i.e., gone hath summer, snoweth winter—in which happily we have examples of both words. In the Leaḃar Laiġneaċ, or ‘Book of Leinster,’ there is a poem which we are told St. Molling compelled the devil to recite—perhaps I should say compose—and in which occur the lines:

“Dogní toil maicc dé do nim
Is grian etroċt imbí sam—”

that is, as translated by O’Curry, Who doth the will of the Son of God of heaven, is a brilliant sun, around which is summer.[2] In the Annals of the IV. MM., under A.D. 1151, we find the entry—“Gaṁ ilṡíonaċ, gaeṫaċ, ainḃṫionaċ co ffolc ndearṁair”—translated by O’Donovan: A changeable, windy, stormy winter, with great rain. The Four Masters, one might expect, would write their annals in the language of their own time, but from their profession, and from their long study of ancient writings, they often used, and could scarcely help using, old words, old idioms, and old grammatical forms in their seventeenth century Irish, the result being a style of very mixed character. The word gaṁ was no doubt practically obsolete in their time, but, if used, the form would be gaṁ and not gam, whilst there is little doubt it was still [ 26 ]used in the twelfth century, though as yet probably in the unaffected form gam.

With regard to this word gam, although this is the more usual ancient form, still from the analogy of the Welsh gauaf for an older *gaiam, the Latin hiems, the Greek χεῖμα (winter), the Sanscrit, hima (snow), found in Hima-laya = ‘snowy mountains’ or ‘snow’s abode,’ from the analogy, too, of our own gem-red) (whence geiṁ reaḋ), we should expect rather a form with a slender vowel, as ‘gaim’ or ‘geim’. As a matter of fact, this very gaim is also found: e.g., the line quoted above from the Aṁra, reads in O’Beirne Crowe’s edition from Leaḃar na h-Uiḋre: “Snigid Gaim, rofaiṫ sam.” So also we find gem in other compounds besides gem-red, for instance, gem-aidċe[3] = a winter’s night (Leaḃar breac).

Before I leave gaṁ, I may call to mind the fact that, though the word is no longer a living current name for winter, we have at least one instance of its use in a placename—namely, Sliaḃ Gaṁ, the Irish name for the miscalled ‘Ox Mountains,’ which form part of the boundary between the counties of Sligo and Mayo. Sliaḃ Gaṁ is the name of these mountains in all our native Irish writers, and is evidently very ancient. Gaṁ here shows no trace of inflection. It is either genitive singular, with the inflection lost, the name in that case meaning ‘snowy mountain,’ or a genitive plural, the name then meaning ‘mount of snows,’ rather than ‘mount of winters.’ From the similarity, however, of gaṁ to the living word daṁ (ox), someone with little knowledge of the language—and, doubtless, with the ‘bovine cultus’ strong on his bovine brain—imagined it could mean nothing but ‘Ox Mountains,’ and the mistranslation is copied from one map to another. Sliaḃ Gaṁ is indeed, in one sense, our Irish Himalaya, and the name is to be compared with that of Sliaḃ-sneaċta = ‘snowy-mountain’ in Inishowen, Druim-sneaċta = ‘snowy-ridge’ in Co. Monaghan (O’Curry); Snae-fell (a Norse name), in the Isle of Man; Snowdon, in N. Wales, and such like.

As to the -rad in sam-rad which, owing to the law of caol le caol, became -red in gem-red, I believe it to be a shortened and broken form of ráiṫe, which, though it now only means a quarter of the year, a season, a term of three months, must originally have meant a part, any part or division. The word ráiṫe, I take it, has lost an initial p, and is for p-ráiṫ-e = prat = part-, just as is for *pró, lán for *plán, riaṁ for *priam, etc. Two classes of words are formed with this ending—(1) Collectives, as laoċ-raḋ, rioġ-raḋ, mac-raḋ, etc., which were anciently declined as feminines singular, but are now considered plurals, and written laoċ-raiḋ, eaċraiḋ, ⁊c. , and (2) singulars, like saṁ-raḋ, geim-reaḋ, son-raḋ, fuilreaḋ, ⁊c., which were sometimes used as masculines and sometimes neuters—now always masculines. Laoċ-raḋ means, therefore, as Windisch translates it, Krieger-schaar, warrior-division, hero-kind, -rad = schaar = part, share or division.

I have suggested that our word gam (winter) originally meant snow, like the hima in Hima-laya, and that most probably this is the meaning we should give the word in the name Sliaḃ Gaṁ. Gem-red would then mean the ‘snow-part,’ the ‘snowy time’ or division of the year. What did gam mean originally, or is this to inquire too curiously? There can be little doubt that it is the same word as sum in the English sum-mer, and som in the German som-mer. But what is the meaning of this sam, som or sum? I do not think it can mean anything else but sun. Sam and gam then are the sun and the snow, the sunny time and the snowy time. But sam is not the Irish word for sun, neither is it a Teutonic word, unless sum or som be the original of sun and sonne. Cormac, in his Glossary, suggested a Hebrew origin of the word sam, saying that in that language the word meant sun. It is undoubtedly true that the Hebrew word for sun may be written shimsh, shemsh, shamsh, or even sams, as in the proper name Samson, as given in the Vulgate. It is admitted that this proper name signifies either ‘sun-like’ or a ‘splendid sun,’ and that it is the first part which means sun. We will not say that the Celts and Teutons borrowed this word from the Hebrews, but is it not possible that it is a word common to all three races, only that in the Hebrew alone it has its true and ultimate explanation? In the last century and beginning of this everything in Irish was traced, without any real grounds, to Hebrew and Phœnician, but those who compared them seem to have known little of either Irish or Hebrew. But now we have gone to the other extreme, never thinking of the Hebrew, and ridiculing every comparison that is made between them. No one who knows Irish seems to learn Hebrew, and no one who knows Hebrew seems to learn Irish, or at any rate no one seems to know enough of both to make an intelligent comparison. The Aryan character of the Celtic dialects no one now doubts, but is it quite certain that the Semitic and Aryan tongues have no common roots? I do not think it is, and I believe the venerable Cormac made many a wilder shot than when he compared the Irish sam ‘summer,’ with the Hebrew Samson, the ‘sun-like.’

Besides samrad and gemred, the ancient Irish had two other names for each of their divisions of the year, but still from the same roots, sam and gam. For summer they had samfuċt and samain, and for winter, gamfuċt and gamain. These names arose at different times and, perhaps, were used in different parts of the country. Samfuċt and gamfuċt are given in O’Donovan’s Essay, already referred to, quoted from the law tract, H-3-18, p. 13, T.C.D. They do not seem to have got into general use, or, if they ever did, they gave way to samrad and gemred, and became obsolete. They are, however, of the very same formation and meaning as the other names, for the one is sam-thuċt = summer time or period, the other, gam-thuċt = winter-time or period, for tuċt (O’Reilly) means time, season or period. In these two words we find a relic of old Irish pronunciation, that is the aspirated t (th) represented by f, just as in a few words yet the same thing holds. e.g., sruṫ (stream), and sruṫan (streamlet), are pronounced almost like sruf and srufan. The progress—or rather the deterioration—of the aspirated t down to a mere h, as it is at present, was probably this: At first it was a real dental aspirate, as it is in Welsh to this day (cf. mam a thâd=mother and father), corresponding to the sound of the Greek Theta and to the English th in think. This next turned into an f sound, which survived in a few words, but mostly passed into the corresponding guttural aspirate ch, which in time became weakened to h. It is well-known that the aspirates freely interchange with each other in all the Aryan languages.

And now for samain. I hold that this word was originally used to mean the summer, that it was a synonym of samrad and samfuċt, that it was probably earlier in origin than either of these, but that in its true sense it eventually gave way to the others, especially the former, and that it survived only in a very restricted sense. I do not know if anyone has as yet questioned the explanation [ 27 ]of samain given in all the old Irish authorities, and believed in apparently by O’Donovan. If not, it is time somebody did. ‘Samfuin’ or ‘summer-end’ will not do. Nothing but confusion springs from making fuin a part of this word samain. Whatever may be said of fuin—whether it is a genuine Irish word or not—as a matter of fact, samain never was the end of summer, even in its later and restricted sense it meant November, which was the first month of winter, and Lá Saṁna, or November-day, is still with us the first of winter. This is one reason why samain cannot be ‘samfuin’—now or some others. Samain exists in Welsh, and (like sam and gam) seems to have been common to all the Celts before they separated. As sam with the Welsh became hâf, so samain survived with them in the form hefin, corresponding with our word exactly, and observing the law of caol le caol, which exists to a considerable extent even in Welsh. But it does not mean winter in Welsh, nor November, it means the summer-time, though rarer than hâf and perhaps now obsolete. In the compounds, Cyntefin and Mehefin, the word plainly means summer. Cyntefin is an ancient and poetical name for May—now they use Mai—and clearly means cynt-hefin or first-summer. We have this very same word for May (as well as Bealtaine), viz., the O. Ir. céttemain = cét-samain (first summer), used in the beautiful poem on the May time attributed to Fionn son of Cumhall (in the Mac-gnímarṫa Finn), and in other old Irish writings, reduced in later times to the form céideaṁ (O’Donovan’s Irish Grammar, p. 97), but in the Highlands to Céitein, which is used as much as Bealtaine. So the Welsh Mehefin (June) is plainly ‘Medd-hefin’ = mid-summer, and the Irish Meiṫeaṁ (June) = med-sem = med-sam, or mid-summer. In middle Irish we find Meṫemin and Miṫemin (as in Mac Con-glinne’s Vision), but the forms céideaṁ and meiṫeaṁ do not necessarily imply that any syllable has been lost, but may represent older forms, céittem and meṫem (for cét-sam and med-sam respectively), before the extra syllable was assumed.

What then is saṁain or hefin? A comparison with saṁraḋ and saṁfuċt would lead us to think it probably meant the same thing, and was a similar formation. This is what I believe it is—nothing more nor less than sam-ṡín (in Welsh, hâf-hîn) = summer-wea;her or sun-weather, the O. Ir. sin (now síon) and Welsh hîn, meaning weather in general. The s of sín being aspirated. would easily disappear in composition, just as it has disappeared from saṁail (like) in such words as flaṫ-aṁail, gean-aṁail, ⁊c. The shortening of a vowel is common in Irish compounds, cf. gráḋṁar for grád-már or grád-mór, imrim for im-réim, ⁊c. The slender vowel of hîn caused the caol le caol in Welsh, so we have hefin, but in Irish the first syllable ruled the second, and so an a was inserted for leaṫan le leaṫan and sam-ín became sam-ain.

This, I hope, is a more rational and consistent explanation of samain than the old one. But how did the word come to mean winter, or rather November? I believe that Lá Saṁna was a corruption of Lá Gaṁna = winter-day, or first day of winter, but as gaṁain also meant a calf the name became disused, samain also gave way to samrad in the old sense of summer, and while people forgot the real meaning of the word, a sufficient memory of its force remained still to connect it with sam, and when the word was written samuin and saṁuin, an apparent fitness easily suggested the explanation saṁ-ḟuin—or the fancied etymology may have suggested the spelling saṁ-uin.

  1. Pronounce hâf like an Irish ‘heáṁ,’ or like the English verb halve, and gauaf in two syllables, like an Irish ‘gaiḋeaṁ’ or like an English ‘gui-av’—first syllable as in guide.
  2. See Stokes’s Goidelica, 2nd ed., p. 180.
  3. There is in Maynooth College Library a collection of stories, called “Gaduiḋe geur na geaṁ-oiḋċe.”