Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Today was another day slogging through journals looking for the ever elusive Fíthal. This guy is the Irish equivalent of a ghost. Everyone knows about him but no one knows where he is. I have found a few things but nothing like what I would want to see. I have a meeting with my professor on Thursday and I have written a research notes paper to give him the day before. I hope to find something soon but I am starting to doubt that there is much. I still have to go through the Ulster Cycle tales to see if he appears there.

I did find a really funny reference from a Revue Celtique article in 1881 where the author (Whitney Stokes) states that there is a tomb in Northern Italy where the word VITOLOS was carved and he speculates that this is Fíthal. Now, let me explain this a bit. In P-Celtic languages until Archaic or Primitive Irish, there were endings on the end of a word to tell you what part of speech they are. This should be familiar to those who know Latin (-us, -a, -um). For P-Celtic, they are -os, -a, -on (thus fer 'man' would be *feros (the * marks a reconstructed form)). So when Old Irish develops, these endings are lost systematically across the language. In their place, you have lenition and nasalization of initial consonants. So for our friend VITOLOS, you now have VITOL. The next step is the lenition of the beginning consonant, namely 'V'. This thing appears in English for the word "knife" which when it is plural, the speaker places the stress on the 'f'. 'F' is a very weak consonant so it mutates easily. Thus when you place stress on it, it becomes 'V'. In English, "knife" becomes "knives". This also works the other way thus 'v' can become 'f'. For our friend VITOL, it now becomes FITOL. Now, the vowels 'a' and 'o' (say 'ah' and 'oh' sometime and you will notice) are very close in the mouth. Thus a sound can slide from one to the other. In this case, our friend FITOL becomes FITAL. Now, words with certain hard consonants like 't' when they are in the middle of a word, tend to become lenited. This also works in English, where we have "butter" but most most people actually "budder" or "better" where most people say "bedder" (this works because 't' and 'd' are also close in the mouth. In reality, 'd' is just a nasalized 't'). A lenited 't' is 'th' (in Modern Irish, this is taken to the extreme where 'th' is now sounded /h/ or a 'huh' sound). So applying this to our friend FITAL, it becomes FITHAL. There is one last bit to this puzzle. Because in Irish stress always falls on the first syllable unless it has a pre-verbal particle (like "as-" or "do-") and 'f' is a weak consonant, the stress falls on the first vowel in the word, which is I. Now the circle is complete and we have Fíthal from VITOLOS. What does this all mean? It means that I have a really good excuse to crawl around in a tomb in Northern Italy if I can get approval from the Italian government (or what there is of it).

Why does lenition happen? Because people are lazy lazy creatures. We will speak in the fastest and most lazy way possible. So what is a lenited 'f'? You ask? In Irish, a lenited f becomes ḟ (or fh in Modern Irish) which is a zero syllable (that means it makes no sound. It is as if that letter never existed at all).

I know this is all very exciting stuff but I will leave you for now to ponder why did it have to be Northern Italy rather than the nude beaches of Southern France?

posted by Chris  #6:28 PM | 0 comments |