Ancient people names in Ireland

October 30, 2012

Gearóid Mac Niocaill’s book Ireland before the Vikings (Gill and Macmillan, 1972) has an interesting passage on the names adopted on the island during the 4th, 5th and early 6th centuries. He refers to “a mosaic of peoples” who are “dimly perceptible” amid the settlements and political changes he has been discussing, and whose names appear in various forms:

ending in -raige (‘the people of’), or as Dál (‘the share of’) or Corco (perhaps ‘seed’) plus a second element, or as a collective noun ending in -ne. Some contain animal names, such as Artraige ‘bear-people’, Osraige ‘deer-people’, Grecraige ‘horse-people’, Dartraige ‘calf-people’, Sordraige ‘boar-people’; others, such as the Ciarraige, the Dubraige and Odraige, have a colour (ciar ‘black’, dub also ‘black’, odor ‘dun’) as the first element; others, such as the Cerdraige, seem to have an occupational term as the first element.

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Octopoem

October 25, 2011

On Twitter some time ago, I had a chat with Kory Stamper and Jeremy Kahn about the plural of octopus (octopuses? octopi? octopodes?)

This prompted Jeremy to write a rhyme, Plurals of the many-footed, in which he posed the question: “Would they think us all wusses / not to embrace the octopuses?”

I responded with eight hurried lines of nonsense, reproduced here for the pleasure (or more likely pain) of posterity:

Octopodes, they swim not run,
They have a beak but not a bill.
Larger things they tend to shun,
Littler things they tend ta kill.
But what an octopus might think –
Whether singular or plural –
Is hidden in a cloud of ink
Obscuring all things cephaloneural.

Jeremy’s post links to Kory’s helpful and popular video for Merriam-Webster about the various plurals of octopus, and to an excellent Stæfcræft & Vyākarana post on the same subject.

To these I will add this useful discussion at bradshaw of the future, who notes that “usage trumps etymology every time”.

I prefer the plural octopuses, except where rhyme or rhythm warrant one of the alternatives. An adequate summary of their merits would require several paragraphs, which would be pointless given the links above: all are worth a moment of your time, if the topic interests you.

Wikipedia also has a decent, well-referenced account.


On a wing and a poem

July 24, 2010

.

You may glare
And cry “Unfair!”
I do not care.
I will not share.

.

A damselfly in no distress
Pauses now to take a rest.

.

Pink-purple funnels,
A hovering visitor:
Summer encounter.

.

[Previously: Garden haiku; more poetry.]

Darling starling

May 20, 2010

.

Sturnus vulgaris: an ill-fitting name
for so genial a bird (though you’re not quite tame)
From treetop to rooftop on sorties incessant
With firework-like feathers of dark iridescence.

.

The second verse was worse, so I’ll spare you.

The last place I lived was populated more by smaller Irish birds such as finches, pipits, tits, stonechats and wagtails; I’d forgotten just how noisy blackbirds and starlings can be.

Not that I mind. The starlings nesting in the roof are the first thing I hear when I wake up, and they hardly stop chattering all day. Or maybe one of them is making all the noise. The only time it’s not whistling, clicking or chirruping is when it has a juicy meal in its bill.

Because I eat in the garden whenever possible, I have to beware of aerial bombardment. To date I have been splatted only once, which makes me feel very lucky, though in the immediate aftermath of these events it’s hard to avoid the suspicion that the bird did it deliberately, out of mischief.


Garden haiku

April 21, 2010

.

.

Bright yellow-white cup
Hover ever closer… Now!
Liquid lunch aloft.

.

(Comments in haiku form, though not compulsory, would please me very much!)

Hoover, the “talking” harbour seal

January 26, 2010

“Imitation is as crucial to the acquisition of speech as it is to learning gesture,” writes Christine Kenneally in The First Word: The Search for the Origins of Language. As infants we mimic our parents’ or guardians’ language as part of a natural process of learning our unique version of it, going from babbling to building novel sentences in a remarkably short period of time. (Birds, bats and dolphins are also said to go through a babbling phase.)

As we get older we remain impressed by skilled mimicry, be it impressions of other accents or the more peculiar ability of certain non-humans to make sounds like we do. We are amused and intrigued by any creature that can mimic human speech despite considerable anatomical differences. Videos of “talking” cats and dogs abound on YouTube, to say nothing of birds and elephants.

A more surprising example is the seal. Kenneally’s book includes a charming account of Hoover, a harbour seal who became famous for his human impersonations:

Hoover didn’t “talk” until he reached sexual maturity, but once he started, he improved over the years. He spoke only at certain times of the year (not as much in the mating season) and would reputedly adopt a strange position in order to do so. He didn’t move his mouth. Terrence Deacon [Anthropologist at the University of California, Berkeley] recounts stumbling across Hoover while walking near the aquarium one evening. He thought a guard was yelling at him (“Hey! Hey! Get outta there!”).

Harbour seals may seem unlikely mimics, but they have a wide range of vocalisations — especially among sexually mature males. You can read a short account of Hoover’s life story at the New England Aquarium website, which also has a short audio clip of Hoover “talking”. It’s a very funny, slurring sound, like the gruff scolding of an ill-tempered janitor.

Evolutionary biologist Tecumseh Fitch hosts a few more files of Hoover’s “speech” on his page at the University of St Andrews. Fitch says that Hoover’s ability is all the more interesting because “vocal learning of complex sounds” has not been found in any non-human primate, and the animals skilled in such learning — such as song birds and cetaceans — do not use the same organs that we do.

Hoover died in 1985 but his legacy continues in his grandson Chacoda, AKA Chuck, who seems to have inherited this remarkable ability.

Edit: Another note on Hoover’s vocalisations, and accent, from Terrence Deacon’s book The Symbolic Species:

Opinions were mixed on where and how he learned these phrases. Some were convinced that he learned them from the staff, or was taught by them as he began to vocalize in ways that sounded speechlike; but the story that seemed to ring true was that he sounded just like the old fisherman who originally took him in, years before. I thought from the beginning that he had sort of a down-east, old-salt accent.


Irish winterlude

January 22, 2010

We had an unusually cold winter in the west of Ireland. Layers were worn, walks were taken, fires were lit.

It felt like this, and it looked like this:

Ghostly faces in a frozen puddle. How many do you see?

Blue tit enjoying provisions from the bird feeder.

The view across Lough Corrib on New Year’s Day.

Click for more photos


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