eDIL and the Unshared History of Irish and Scottish Gaelic

by Sep 18, 2019

This month it’s an eDIL takeover! I’ve asked my good friend and fellow word nerd Dr. Sharon Arbuthnot to talk to us again about a major Irish historical dictionary project that she has worked on, and the ways that it’s relevant to Scottish Gaelic. Sharon and I first met in 1990, in the first Gaelic language class that we both had ever taken in university. That feels like ancient history, but it’s not as ancient as some of the Gaelic words she’s going to tell you about here. Take it away, Sharon!

An updated historical dictionary

Tapadh leat, Emily! On 30 August 2019, a newly-updated version of the historical dictionary, the electronic Dictionary of the Irish Language (or eDIL, as it’s usually known), was officially launched in the Royal Irish Academy, Dublin, and simultaneously released free online. Back in 2015, shortly after work began on this new version began, Dr. Emily McEwan interviewed me about it for Gaelic.co. She has asked me back again this month to look briefly at what the updated dictionary reveals about past differences between the vocabulary of Gaelic Scotland and that of Ireland.

Dr. Sharon Arbuthnot, eDIL staff member since 2009

Dr. Sharon Arbuthnot, eDIL staff member since 2009

Irish vs. Scottish Gaelic

Modern Irish and Scottish Gaelic are distinct, though related, languages. In terms of vocabulary, the two sometimes have separate words for objects and concepts that appeared relatively recently. A kettle, for example, is generally known in Scottish Gaelic as coire whereas the term citeal, a borrowing from English, is common in Ireland. Scottish Gaelic coire ‘kettle’ derives from the medieval word coire ‘a cauldron’, though, and the same medieval word gave rise to Modern Irish coire ‘large pot’. What we see in the distinct uses of coire today, is how the modern languages have branched in different directions from a common core. This branching must have been ongoing since early medieval times, but evidence of distinctly ‘Scottish’ lexical items from past centuries is still in short supply, and there is a great deal of interest in Gaelic words that have a long history of use in Scotland but seem little-known or entirely unknown in Ireland.

Cho pailt ri ‘pailt’?

When I first studied Scottish Gaelic in the 1990s, discussion of words that were well-established in Scottish Gaelic but more or less absent from Irish almost inevitably included a reference to pailt ‘abundant’. Back in 1927, William Watson had suggested that pailt was a distinct marker of Scottish Gaelic and that view has been frequently read and repeated over the years.

Pailt is, of course, common in Scottish Gaelic today and can be found in almost any lexicographical resource for the language. Manx, a Gaelic language spoken on the Isle of Man, also has the related word palçhey. No equivalent for pailt was given in the most-used dictionary of Modern Irish, Foclóir Gaeilge-Béarla, however, and the only instance of the word cited in the historical dictionary came from a 17th-century poem attributed to Niall Mac Mhuirich, who belonged to a professional family of poets employed by the MacDonalds of Clanranald in Scotland. Although some glimpses of pailt have been recorded from the Modern Irish dialects of Raithlin Island, Antrim and Inishowen, the word’s history and health seemed firmly bound up with Scotland.

It came as something of a surprise, then, when I found myself recently updating the historical dictionary with evidence which showed that the phrase paltlám fial ‘generous-handed and bountiful’ had been used, perhaps around the 8th century, by a poet identified as Blathmac son of Cú Brettan. Paltlám is a compound word made up of pailt ‘abundant’ and lám ‘hand’ (an early form of Scottish Gaelic làmh). However, Blathmac is associated with the modern countries of Louth and Monaghan in Ireland, north of Dublin along the modern border with Northern Ireland, so his use of the phrase paltlám fial suggests that pailt was known in the northern part of Ireland at least 1200 years ago.

Blathmac's poem in MS G50, p. 133, in the National Library of Ireland, Dublin

Blathmac’s poem in MS G50, p. 133, in the National Library of Ireland, Dublin. (You can see the name “Blathmac” is part of the section title in the lower half of the page!)

Although the phrase in question from Blathmac’s poem had already been noted in a scholarly article, the fact that we have included this evidence in the newly-updated dictionary should help to dispel the common perception that pailt was only ever used in Scotland. Like coire and many of other words currently in use in Scottish Gaelic, pailt clearly belongs to the shared heritage of Ireland and Scotland.

Unique Scottish Gaelic words… in an Irish dictionary

More than 5000 changes were made to eDIL in the latest revision, and some of these did bring to light other words which may well have been unique to the Gaelic of Scotland in past centuries.

It might seem unusual to find evidence for specifically Scottish Gaelic vocabulary in a resource that is designated the electronic Dictionary of the Irish Language, but this dictionary actually covers the Gaelic language of Ireland and Scotland up to the early 17th century. In the dictionary title, ‘Irish’ is employed as an umbrella-term in a way that was not untypical of the 1850s, when the idea of creating an historical dictionary was originally conceived. The fact that eDIL draws evidence from medieval texts written in Scotland as well as Ireland means that dictionary users who are familiar with the sources can see at a glance when all examples of a particular word or meaning come from material composed, compiled or translated by a Scottish Gael, and no examples come from Ireland.

The advanced search page for the electronic Dictionary of the Irish Language (eDIL) - 2019 update

The advanced search page for the electronic Dictionary of the Irish Language (eDIL) – 2019 update

Amongst the newly created or expanded entries in ‘eDIL 2019’, the following are remarkable in that the only evidence that we have for these words right now comes from Scotland:

1. scaitech ‘sharp-tongued, abusive’ survives in modern Scottish Gaelic as sgaiteach. The earliest example located so far is contained in John Carswell’s translation of the Book of Common Order, Foirm na n-Urrnuidheadh, which dates back to 1567 and was the first book to be published in either Irish or Scottish Gaelic;

2. aibél ‘able’ obviously derives from English. It is used in 17th-century Scottish Gaelic with the preposition do ‘to’ in phrases such as aibél do thuigse ‘able to understand’, which suggests that the translator of the text in question was less concerned about Beurlachas – the direct translation of English constructions and idioms into Gaelic – than we sometimes are today!

Olcmhar! (Wicked!)

Olcmhar! (Wicked!)

3. The adjective olcmhar ‘wicked’ and corresponding abstract noun olcmhaireacht ‘wickedness’ are attested in Scottish Gaelic religious literature of the 16th and 17th centuries, but neither was listed in Dwelly’s Illustrated Gaelic-English Dictionary at the start of the 20th century, so perhaps these words were never widely used; and

4. coibnius has been around since the 9th century. Originally, the word meant ‘a blood relationship’, but later it was used to refer to ‘a related person’. The additional sense of ‘kindness’ has been added to eDIL from John Carswell’s book, showing that in Scotland this term developed in a similar way to English ‘kindness’, which has its origins in words to do with kin and feelings for kin. Modern Scottish Gaelic coibhneas ‘kindness’ is of course in everyday use.

Ironically, the electronic Dictionary of the Irish Language turns out to be a fantastic resource for locating words which may never have been in use in Ireland! In addition to the items mentioned above, anyone in search of distinct ‘Scottish Gaelic words’ might be interested in the dictionary entries on cumanta ‘common’, cumnant(a) ‘covenant’, cúrsa ‘a curse’ and cúrsad ‘cursing’, prostáil ‘prostration’, lagamail ‘lawful’, and siurtaidecht ‘fornication’ At present, the historical dictionary has no attestations of any of these words except from Scottish sources. That said, it is perfectly possible that evidence for the use of one or more of them in Ireland will turn up eventually – just as it did for pailt.

More about the eDIL Historical Dictionary

The eDIL project (2014-19) was based at Queen’s University, Belfast, and at the University of Cambridge. It was funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (UK). Access the dictionary free online: www.dil.ie. Find us on Twitter: @eDIL_Dictionary

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