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The Irish For: How Beyoncé is helping to get fadas in formation

Thanks to Queen Bé, April 2019 has been an interesting month for accessorised letters, writes Darach Ó Séaghdha.

Darach Ó Séaghdha

This is the latest dispatch from our columnist Darach Ó Séaghdha, author of the award-winning and bestselling Motherfoclóir. Every Sunday morning, Darach will be regaling (re-Gaeling?) us with insights on what the Irish language says about Ireland, our society, our past and our present. Enjoy.

THERE WAS EXCITEMENT this week among music lovers when Beyoncé’s acclaimed album Lemonade became available on all streaming platforms. However, this could not compare to the excitement of language nerds when it came to a certain detail in the Associated Press’ announcement of this news.

AP tweeted “with our new rules on using accent marks in names, the Beyhive will notice we’re spelling her name Beyoncé”, adding that their style guide has been updated as of this April to “use accent marks or other diacritical marks with names of people who request them or are widely known to use them, or if quoting directly in a language that uses them”.

April 2019 has certainly been an interesting month for accessorised letters, and it’s fitting that Queen Bé (bé being an old Irish word for a muse or most remarkable woman) finally gets a fada given that her song If I Were A Boy has been used to teach the Modh Coinníollach.

Béarla is unusual in its distaste for (if not complete rejection of) accents and diacritical markings. Readers of the New Yorker will be familiar with that publication’s loyalty (fuelled by an office superstition) to the diaeresis, a simple, useful yet bafflingly unpopular pair of dots over the second in a pair of vowels, advising the reader of a syllable break – reëlection, coöperation and so on.

For a learner of English, this diacritic would be a valuable tool to flag that these words sound different to reel and cooper, if only more people would use it. Sadly, the outlook is not good for this little pronunciation helper in a world where em dashes, en dashes and hyphens are interchangeably thrown like custard pies at unsuspecting sentences.

Just as useful as the diaeresis (pronounced die, heiresses) is the fada, which has been in the news a good deal lately. It’s ironic in a way that I often get asked to spell Irish words based on English phonetics when those English phonetics make far less sense; Gaeilge is better at following its own rules. But if it helps anyone at all on their learning journey, I suppose it’s worth a try.

The following pairs of words have a difference of one fada that changes both their sound and their meaning.

Fan/Fán: These two are awfully topical at the moment. Fan (sounds just like in English) means to stay and fán (sounds like fawn) means to go, leave or wander A spailpín fánach was a wandering worker.

Baile/Bailé: If you live in a town whose names begin with bally, you’ll know that baile means town. More precisely, it means home and can also refer to things that have been domesticated; a beach bhaile is a bee from a hive and a cat baile is a house cat. With a fada on the end, this becomes the Irish word for ballet (pronounced just like it is in French or English).

Siúil/Síúil: I’m sure you remember the verb to walk from school. If you add a fada to the first I, you get síúil (shee-ool), an adjective describing something elfish or fairylike.

Lon/Lón:  Another schoolday favourite is lón (sounds like loan), the Irish word for lunch. Without its fada it is the word for a blackbird… or an elk, for some reason.

Tur/Túr: Finally, the Irish for a tower is túr (sounds like tour in English or French). If the fada is not included it becomes the adjective to describe dry food without any flavouring or seasoning- almost like eating a piece of turf (which it is pronounced like, without the f).

Darach’s new book Craic Baby is the follow-up to his acclaimed Motherfoclóir and is out now under the Head of Zeus imprint.

He runs @theirishfor Twitter account and the @motherfocloir podcast.

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Darach Ó Séaghdha

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