Gaelic naming incorporates concepts unfamiliar to most American English speakers -- that's why many find Gaelic naming so confusing. This post is part of my larger set of class notes on Gaelic naming practices. Its purpose is to familiarize people with language concepts not found in English, but which need to be understood to construct a Gaelic name correctly.
This post is not intended to explain all of the various forms of name construction in Gaelic. An excellent article already exists that explains the most common constructions: "Quick and Easy Gaelic Names" by Sharon Krossa (SCA: Effric Neyn Ken3ocht Mcherrald).
Nominative and Genitive Forms: Gaelic is one of the languages in which the spelling of a name changes depending on how it is used in a sentence or in a name. The difference between nominative and genitive forms isn't just a spelling variant. It changes the role and meaning of the name.
The nominative form is the base form of the name. It is the only form that can be used as a given name in SCA naming. In a sentence such as "Hextilda built a castle," Hextilda is the nominative form of the given name.
The genitive form is the possessive form of the name. In English, the genitive is formed by adding 's to a person's name: John's or Alice's.
Why does the genitive form matter for Gaelic naming? Because mac does not actually mean “son of” – it merely means “son.” To make a byname that means “son of [father’s name],” the father’s name must be in the possessive or genitive case. For example, a byname meaning "the son of Donn" is mac Duinn, using the genitive form of Donn.
The genitive form is required whenever another person's name -- whether clan ancestor, father or mother -- is part of your byname.
Lenition: As explained by Effric Neyn Ken3ocht Mcherrald in her invaluable "Quick and Easy Gaelic Names" article, "[g]rammatical lenition involves a "softening" of the initial consonant sounds of words in certain grammatical situations. This pronunciation change in Gaelic is sometimes indicated by a changed spelling as well.”
Lenition is an issue primarily in female names, but sometimes in Clan bynames as well. Usually, lenition requires adding an “h” after the initial consonant. For example, in the byname inghean Bhriain, Bhriain is the lenited genitive form of Brian. In the byname Caitilín Mhór, Mhór is the lenited form of the descriptive adjective byname Mór.
For more guidance on when and how to lenite a name, refer to Effric’s “Quick and Easy Gaelic Names” and also to her article on “The Spelling of Lenited Consonants in Gaelic.”
Lenition is where many SCA heralds and submitters trip up in spelling a name submission. Interestingly, as more and more data become available, we are finding that the Irish did not get lenition right or consistent all the time either.
Gender Matters: The gender of the given name matters when constructing a Gaelic name because relationship bynames are literal. Women cannot use the marker mac, which literally means “son.” Nor can they use the marker Ó in a Clan surname. Instead, women have gendered markers for their bynames.
Male = mac "son"
Female = ingen (pre-1200) / inghean (post-1200) "daughter"
Male = Ua (pre-1200) / Ó (post-1200) "member of the clan of"
Female = ingen Uí (pre-1200) / inghean Uí (post-1200) "member of the clan of"
There is at least one sort of Gaelic byname available to women but not to men. The marker ben (pre-1200) or bean (post-1200) + the genitive form of the husband's name means "wife of [husband's name]." We don't have any evidence of a man being identified as the husband of a woman.
Pre-1200 vs. Post-1200 Spellings: For complicated reasons, Gaelic spelling conventions changed substantially around approximately 1200 C.E. For SCA purposes, Gaelic prior to 1200 C.E. and Gaelic after 1200 C.E. are considered two different languages.
When creating a Gaelic name, for good re-creation, you should try to make sure that all elements of the name are in the same form of Gaelic. However, pre-1200 and post-1200 spellings generally can be combined as long as there are less than 500 years between the name elements.
What a submitter cannot do is combine pre-1200 and post-1200 spellings in the same name phrase. A "name phrase" in Gaelic consists of a marker such as mac or Ó and a person's name (father or clan ancestor). The following are examples of Gaelic name phrases:
mac Briain = son of Brian
inghean Ardáin = daughter of Ardán
BUT NOT inghean Áeda = pre-1200 marker with post-1200 father's name
If there is any doubt as to whether the spelling is pre-1200 or post-1200, be sure to advise the submitter to consent to ALL changes. Many times, a Gaelic name is returned because we are not permitted to make the simple change from the incorrect inghean Áeda to the correct ingen Áeda.