Thursday, June 29, 2017

To Gaelic or Not to Gaelic

In the immortal words of Seosamh an Crúca Ó Máille, "Friends don't let friends pick Gaelic names."

All kidding aside, there is a lot of confusion both about Gaelic and about the several other languages spoken in medieval Ireland and Scotland.  This confusion is compounded by fantasy novels and "Celtic" websites, most of which are written by people who aren't specialists in naming.

This post is part of my larger class notes on Irish and Scottish naming.  It is intended to help a person looking for a name (or a consulting herald working with that person) choose the right kind of name for the right place and time.

Did your persona speak Gaelic?  Not everyone in Ireland or Scotland did.

  • Gaelic was the majority language only in Ireland; in Scotland it was spoken by a minority.
  • Gaelic was not the only language spoken in Ireland.  After the first Norman invasion in the late 12th century, you also find Anglo-Norman names entering the naming pool.  Also, when the Norman and later English invaders starting trying to write down Gaelic, a distinct language called “Anglicized Irish” came into being.
  • In Scotland, very few people spoke Gaelic and we have very few written records in Gaelic.  A Scottish person is more likely to speak Scots and/or English.  Scots is a language distinct from, but related to English.  During period it was spoken in the lowlands of Scotland and major Scottish cities.  Official records began being kept in Scots rather than Latin after about 1400.
  • Some Scots also spoke forms of Norse, particularly in the Orkney and Shetland Islands. 

If you’re Irish, are you native or from an Anglo-Norman family that has been living in Ireland since the invasion?

  • Irish names like Fitzgerald or Butler aren’t Gaelic.  Those are Anglo-Norman family names borne by invaders who settled and stayed.
  • The Anglo-Norman families in Ireland had a distinct culture that wasn't Gaelic but also wasn't English.  
  • Irish Anglo-Normans used given names that looked more or less like English given names.  Anglo-Norman families did not use Gaelic given names.
  • However, some Anglo-Norman names, such as William (Uilliam) and Alice (Ailis), were adapted into Gaelic.  

How do you decide between Ireland and Scotland?

  • If you want a name that starts with O’ like O’Toole, you can only be Irish.  That construction did not exist in Scotland.
  • By the way, O'Toole is the Anglicized Irish form; the Gaelic (male) form was Ua Tuathail (pre-1200) or Ó Tuathail (post-1200).[1]
  • Because we have very few good Gaelic records in Scotland, for SCA purposes we generally assume that Gaelic given names that existed in Ireland were also used in Scotland.

How do you decide between Gaelic and Anglicized Irish?  Does it matter for your persona?

  • Even if your persona was an Irish Gael, there’s a good chance that your name was recorded (effectively phonetically) in Anglicized Irish after about the 14th century.
  • Anglicized Irish is vastly easier for modern English-speaking eyes and ears to understand.  For example, consider two forms of the same name: 

                       Connor mac Machan O Devany = Anglicized Irish

                       Conchobhar mac Mathghamhna  Dhubhánaigh = Gaelic

  • If you want your name to be pronounced correctly by someone who hasn't studied Gaelic, you want your name in Anglicized Irish.
  • However, if you want a persona who lived prior to the 12th century invasions, your only option is Gaelic.

What about Scotland, then?

  • In Scotland, it is far more likely that your name will be in Scots than Gaelic.
  • While we don't have a lot of evidence in Gaelic for Scotland, we do have renderings of Gaelic names in both Scots and Latin (just not very many of them).
  • Just because a Scottish name starts with Mac- doesn't mean that it is in Gaelic.  It could be either: (1) a Scots rendering of a Gaelic patronymic or (2) a formerly Gaelic patronymic that has now become an inherited surname.  Mac- style surnames became inherited surnames (rather than literal patronymics) as Gaelic speakers settled in cities and the Scots-speaking lowlands.
  • For example, my surname Mackyntoich is based on the Gaelic mac an toisich or "son of the chieftan."  However,  I'm not anyone's son.  Instead, Alys Mackyntoich is likely the daughter of a family that is descended from a son of a chieftan.  As her family moved into one of the bigger cities, like Inverness, the byname ceased to be literal and became an inherited surname.

What about the women?

  • In Gaelic, patronymics are literal.  In other words, Niall mac Briain is literally the son of Brian.  A woman can't be someone's son.  For "daughter," Gaelic uses the marker ingen (pre-1200) or inghean (post-1200).  Thus, Niall's sister Sorcha can't be mac Briain, she has to be inghean Bhriain.[2]
  • Likewise, a Gaelic man can use a Clan byname marked with  Ó (that's an acute accent, not an apostrophe).  A woman cannot.  Because of the wonderfully weird rules of Gaelic grammar and name construction, a man can be Donnchadh Ó Conchobhair, but a woman from the same Clan has to be Dearbhorgaill inghean Uí Chonchobhair.  
    (This is post-1200 construction.  In pre-1200 construction, the man's marker is Ua and the women's marker is ingen Uí.  Because Gaelic).
  • In the SCA, we often have women who want to have Mac- or O- style bynames.  This is possible BUT NOT IN GAELIC.   The woman has to use a Scots (Mackyntoich) or Anglicized Irish (O Brady) byname instead.
  • Yes, the SCA's rules permit you to combine Gaelic elements and Scots or Anglicized Irish elements together in certain ways.  But Gaelic-Scots or Gaelic-Anglicized combos are inelegant and poor re-creation.  That being said, it's your name not mine, and if Fionnghuala O Cassidy feels right to you, have at.  

    (FYI, the wholly Anglicized Irish form would be Finola O Cassidy; the wholly Gaelic form would be Fionnghuala inghean Uí Chaiside)

"But I found it on the Internet!"

  • The Internet is the Land Of Bad Gaelic[tm].  Here are a few helpful research hints.
  • If the spelling is the one your grandparent used when s/he came over from the Old Country, it's almost definitely Anglicized Irish, not Gaelic.
  • Names of Gaelic saints may be registerable; names of figures from Irish legend, like Cu Chulainn or Émer are not.
  • Baby naming websites, "clan history" websites and Behind the Name are generally not reliable.
  • Amateur-prepared genealogies are not necessarily reliable, but they may help an experienced herald to find a reliable source with the same information.

[1]  For reasons we are not getting into right now, Gaelic spelling had a major shift around 1200 C.E.  As a result, pre-1200 and post-1200 Gaelic words are spelled quite differently.  This matters for SCA naming.  

[2]  That extra h is because of a concept in Gaelic grammar called "lenition."  But that's a story for another time.


  1. Hi Alys, I have a question which is sort of not really related to names, but I saw this article because it was linked on the Baby Heralds FB page (and asked the question there, but was encouraged to contact you directly). The softening H is in there for the post-1200 spelling (but not the pre-1200 spelling). Was it actually written? As far as I was aware, the dot-above-the-letter spelling was used until the printing press (in Scotland) and until very, very recently (in Ireland) - is it that the H is then retrospectively being written for the post-1200 spelling which had the softened consonants, in contrast to earlier language, even if it notated them differently? (Yes, my knowledge of historical (pre-Clearances-era) Gaelic is Uabhannach [CM]).

  2. Sometimes the h was written out. Sometimes it was rendered with the punctum delens (essentially a dot after the letter being lenited). However, the punctum delens is considered a scribal abbreviation by the SCA. So, for SCA registration, we register the lenited form of of Briain as Bhriain, not B.riain. Once the name is registered, if the person wants to write his/her name with a punctum delens, that's cool.