18: Some Pre-Indo-European etymologies of South Uist Gaelic
Written and published by Linden Alexander Pentecost on the 2nd of September 2023.
This section includes: a brif introduction followed by etymological notes around 32 primary etymologies, each of which is numbered going down this page, followed by references and a short end note in italics. This section contains 2868 words.
This page or section of the website is an investigation into possibly pre-Celtic and pre-Indo-European vocabulary within the South Uist dialect of Scottish Gaelic. The words given in bold are all sourced from Gaelic Words and Expressions from South Uist and Eriskay, collected by Rev. Fr. Allan McDonald of Eriskay (1859-1905) and edited by J. L. Campbell, D. Litt (Oxon.) LL.D. (Antigonish).
Some of the vocabulary seems to unique to South Uist out of the 32 primary etymologies listed below. As can be seen through my etymological comparisons, there is the possibility of an interesting link between some of these words and Uralic words, as well as potentially to Afro-Asiatic and to others. I think that some of these word examples such as gròmar given asprimary etymology number 16, are unique to South Uist and are likely from an ancient pre-Celtic and Pre-Indo-European culture.
Even though most of these words or related words exist in other dialects, they still help us to understand what kind of language specifically the ancient people of South Uist spoke. Other etymological notes are also included within the text sometimes describing other etymological links.
- Note I do not always comment on how a word occurs more generally in Scotland and have only chosen to explain this with regards to certain words.
1: bligh - to milk, found in various forms sporadically in other dialects, through consonant-reversal perhaps connected to Proto-Afro-Asiatic *ḥalib- milk or fat (2), and even more semantically closer to Proto-Uralic *lüpsä - milk, to milk (3).
2: buidseir - wizard, also occurs in other dialects, it can also translate to sorcerer. The first syllable is perhaps connected to Proto-Uralic *pača - soul of a dead person (3). Other similar forms of this in other dialects, include buisneach, buisleach, buistreach, bustrach, buisreach and buistear (all from source 5), some of these can also mean "witch". The initial syllable seems to be based upon the same word root, perhaps meaning something like "sorcery, magic, witchcraft" or perhaps more specifically a kind of sorcery or magic connected to the dead and ancestors. May we respect them.
3: cearban - a basking shark, word also found in other dialects. Possibly connected to English 'carp', with some other Indo-European forms. According to wiktionary this word may be from a substrate language in the Danube and the Alps, but this is assuming that the word was "brought" from the east to the Celtic and pre-Celtic areas, which I think is an incorrect assumption, I think it more likely that it is indigenous to Atlantic and North Sea coastal Europe as well. Perhaps related to Proto-Afro-Asiatic: *ka(w)r- fish (2), and Proto-Uralic *kärV - a kind of fish (2), and to Proto-Uralic *korV - a small fish (3), and to Proto-Uralic *särkä - a kind of fish (3), perhaps also related to English 'shark' and perhaps to German shark - scoundrel, although this implies a large symbolic change in semantics.
4: cia - show me or hand me, perhaps a pre-Indo-European word although I have been unable to find any possible cognates.
5: cnuimh - a worm specifically that causes tooth pain, generally means "worm" or "maggot" elsewhere in Scotland. This word is also connected to cruimh which means 'worm' in Scottish Gaelic and in Irish, where the k-r-m consonants likely in some way relate to the word 'worm' in English and to many other so-called Indo-European words for 'worm' but this is a whole different discussion entirely and I have talked elsewhere about similarities between the words "warp", "worm", "wort" and *war as a place-name element referring to a kind of etheral, growing afterlife power present in prehistoric burial mounds, hence why the root *war appears often. Compare also Tashelhit Berber warg "to dream" because people used to lie on these mounds to receive dreams, and this is in turn connected to the idea of the worm or serpent being an entity that acts as a mediator between us and the world of the dead.
The Gaelic form cnuimh is interesting because it shows an alternative initial consonant cluster pronounced approximately [kn] rather than approximately [kr], the latter having an apparent so-called Indo-European origin. Perhaps related to Proto-Uralic *kunčV ~ *kučV - a worm (living in things) (3), the meaning of which is semantically similar to cnuimh in South Uist Gaelic and to cnuimh in other dialects with the sense of "maggot". Perhaps also related to Proto-Uralic *tońćV, ? *sońćV - worm (3), found only in Mansi. It would appear in this case that the later part of the word with -m is inherited with so-called Indo-European, but that the consonant cluster in cnuimh is of a different origin and semantic meaning to that in cruimh, even though the latter parts of the words are connected. Could the name "Cromm" as well as meaning "crooked" also have a meaning connected to words for "worm" in some sense?
6: coite - a small boat, perhaps connected to Proto-Uralic *šakče - vessel, boat, ship, Finnish haaksi.
7: crogan - the taste of the chamber pot, also meaning "disgust" on Lewis, perhaps connected to Proto-Afro-Asiatic *ḳuʕar- pour, urine (2), specifically meaning "urine" in West Chadic (2).
8: deiseag - the velvet swimming crab, necora puber, possibly a noun formed from a cognate to the Proto-Uralic *čačV - to hit, strike (lightning) (3), perhaps owing to the velvit swimming crab's quick lightning-like movements which appear akin to striking its own shell and the surrounding water. In this case it would be the deis- part of deiseag that is the cognate to the Proto-Uralic etymology. Also déiseag in other dialects can mean a strike of some kind.
9: fàlan - childrens' teaparty, also meaning a picnic, easter egg rolling or "healthy" or "wholesome" in other dialects of Gaelic. Unknown etymology but perhaps connected to English "full" and other related Germanic forms, through the sense that "full" is connected to meanings of "being full from a teaparty" or "being full" as in being "whole". The -n in fàlan is perhaps a suffix deriving a noun from the sense of being full.
10: farspag - black headed gull, also found in some other Hebridean dialects, including on Harris. Difficult to determine the full etymology, but the initial 'far' part of the word may be related to the br in English 'bird' and Proto-Afro-Asiatic *pVrw/y- small bird (2), and *pVr- fly, soar (2), or more likely to Proto-Afro-Asiatic: *wary- a kind of bird (2), including Egyptian wr - swallow (2), and Western Chadic *war- eagle (2), and Beḍauye (Beja): ḗrʔe 'white-tailed sea-eagle' (2), or perhaps to Proto-Afro-Asiatic *ʒar(ʒur)- a kind of bird (2). The -ag or -pag or -spag may be a pre-Celtic suffix. Possibly also connected to English 'freight' from the root *fr- found in Germanic languages, connected to the word 'from'. If this is true then perhaps farspag is derived from a word meaning to "move" or go from place to place, and also connected to Afro-Asiatic words for 'bird', a meaning which may be specified in Gaelic through the -ag or -pag or -spag suffix.
11: flinneadh - sleet, normally flinne in other dialects. Possibly connected to Proto-Uralic *lume - snow (3) and Finnish lumi - snow, and even more closely to Proto-Uralic *ĺomćV (3) - thin snow (similar to sleet).
12: geadag - a tuft of hair, related to geadag in other dialects meaning arable land, and to gead in the sense of a lock of hair, although gead in South Uist seems to refer more generally to 'hair'. Other related words with similar semantics include geadadh in other dialects, meaning 'cutting off hair'. The semantics of the South Uist words are perhaps particular to South Uist, Compare Proto-Afro-Asiatic Proto-Afro-Asiatic: *gadum- cut, axe, hoe (2), and the Cornish dialect of English word gad - a pickaxe. The Gaelic and Cornish dialect meanings of these words appear to be quite different and separately developed from the Afro-Asiatic meanings, but I think it likely they are related.
13: glòr - a word, can mean 'speech' or 'language' in other dialects. I have no thoughts on the eymology of this word.
14: gnògan - a large whelk that enters lobster pots, unknown etymology but likely pre-Celtic in my opinion.
15: gròb - to sew or bind a torn slit, Perhaps connected to Proto-Afro-Asiatic: *ʔVrib- - sew, tie (2), in which case the initial [k] in the South Uist Gaelic word would be equivalent to the glottal stop in Proto-Afro-Asiatic. Perhaps also connected to Proto-Uralic *workV - to sew (3), in this example the Proto-Uralic w-r might be equivalent to the gr in the Gaelic form. This word also exists in other Gaelic dialects, but arguably it is a different word, because the meaning is completely different.
16: gròmar - a specific type of food associated with the ancestral spirit beings of South Uist, this is at least how I have attempted to summarise it, in the original source (1) the story behind this is given. I have no thoughts on the etymology of this word, but from the context of the word, it appears that this word belongs to the ancient spirits of the land, and to their culture, which is likely represented in our world via the archaeological record, although since I do not know where the original story has set, I think it would be hard to date to what archaeological culture in our sense of linear time, this word might be connected to. I believe that we owe those ancient spirits our respect. This word is not found in other dialects to my knowledge, and thus it seems even more likely to me that this word might be connected to the ancient peoples of South Uist who became in a sense the ancestor spirits of the land.
17: lorc - a hand, perhaps connected to Proto-Uralic *lOlkV - foot, hand or paw (3), in other language families it may relate only to the foot or leg, from what I can gather (4). Perhaps also related to South Uist Gaelic lorg - a stout stick or cudgel (1).
18: los - as in the phrase air a los - seeking for, perhaps connected to Finnish löytää - to find, the etymology of which is suggested to be Germanic, but I think this is highly unlikely.
19: màgan - as in air a mhàgan - on all fours, perhaps connected to Proto-Uralic *mata - to crawl (3) or to Proto-Uralic *puke ? - to crawl (3). In other dialects màgan can mean a paw.
20: plaibean - a wretched, soaked creature, perhaps connected to Proto-Uralic *loppa - wet, wetness (3), with the latter part of the Gaelic word being a derivational suffix, with the whole word perhaps meaning something like "thing that is wet", "that that is wet" deriving a noun with the suffix. Note the similarity between the initial pl and fl in Gaelic fliuch, but in terms of connection to the Uralic form I think it likely that the lVb consonants in the Gaelic form are those that correspond to the lVp consonants in the Uralic form.
21: pleadhag - dribble, perhaps connected to Proto-Uralic *palV - spit (3).
22: pliut - a paw, a seal's paw, perhaps connected to Proto-Uralic *lVmp3 - flat surface of hand or foot (3), the meaning of which is obviously quite close to that of 'paw'. The initial p- in the Gaelic form is of course not present in the Uralic, but the mp syllable in the Uralic form may be connected to the pl in the Gaelic form.
23: plùm - the sound of a thing falling into water, unknown etymology but possibly a pre-Celtic word.
24: seac - to wither, related to Irish sioc - frost, perhaps connected to Proto-Uralic *ćaka - drift-ice or thin ice (3), with thin ice having close semantics to sioc. Perhaps also connected to Proto-Afro-Asiatic: *kVʒ- - be dry (2), and to Proto-Afro-Asiatic: *ʕVĉ̣kā/īĉ̣k - bone (2), Ancient Egyptian sheṭ-t – mummy, and Guanche xaxo - mummy. Because prehistoric mummies were found on South Uist, could the difference in the Gaelic semantics of this word on South Uist towards "wither", perhaps in the sense of "turning into a mummy", have something to do with this?
25: smid - syllable, also found on Lewis but not in the rest of Lewis, Barra, Tiree and parts of the mainland, can mean a "small thing" in some places. Compare Finnish sana - word and Quechua simi - language.
26: taca - time, found commonly elsewhere as tacan - a spell of time, possibly connected to Proto-Uralic *čäčke - while, a certain time (3), and Finnish hekti - moment. I think that the kt in hetki may be what correspond to the t and c in tacan.
27: tat - to make attached to or to attract, exists in other dialects as tadaidh or tataidh. Possibly connected to Proto-Uralic *takka - to hang, be attached (3). Possibly existing in other language families with different semantic meanings (4).
28: taom - to pour out, also with the specific meaning of a thought or notion in South Uist Gaelic, which helps perhaps to understand how the ancient Gaels may have conveived of "thought" as "flowing out". Compare English teem - to pour, in many dialects, and possibly to Hausa zuba - pour, with the consonants z-b in this word perhaps being equivalent to the t-m in the Gaelic and traditional English dialect forms. Also possibly connected to Proto-Afro-Asiatic: *ʒam- (?) - think, remember (2), in terms of the South Uist meaning, with Semitic *zVm- ponder, plan, fornication (2) having the most similar Semantic meaning to "pouring out a thought" as in the South Uist Gaelic. Also perhaps connected to Proto-Afro-Asiatic: *č̣an- - think, perceive (2). The wiktionary entry for "teem" in English has a proposed Proto-Germanic origin, but deriving this from Indo-European seems unlikely in my opinion.
29: tlàman - handfuls, related to tlàmadh and to tlam - an amount of hair, in other dialects. Perhaps related to làmh - hand via a pre-Indo-European substrate link, for this root also exists in other languages, e.g. Hawaiian lima - arm or hand. The other Indo-European forms tend to show an initial consonant cluster pl- which is represented as [l] or a variant of in Celtic languages, but this does not in my opinion discount non-Indo-European origins, especially if the initial p in other Indo-European forms served a grammatical fuction that is not present in Celtic and pre-Celtic. Note that in tlàman and related forms, the consonants of the root shown are (t)lVm and not with the -m having undergone lenition as in làmh. Perhaps also connected to Proto-Uralic *lVmp3 - flat surface of hand or foot (3), a root also given in a word above on this page.
30: pais - striking with the open hand, also found in other dialects, perhaps connected to English "bash" and to Proto-Afro-Asiatic *pac- destroy, break (2). Compare also German patschen - to slap, which shows the closest meaning in Semantics to the Gaelic forms.
31: ucsa - a full grown coalfish, perhaps related to Proto-Afro-Asiatic *gVs- (?) - fish (3), and to Proto-Uralic *kećä - a kind of fish (3), as in Finnish keso, a possibly deplicated form *kiśkV - a kind of small fish (3), as in Finnish kiiski. Coalfish have dorsal spines somewhat similar to those of the kiiski - ruffa in Finland. Distantly related to the root in iasc - fish?
32: ùgag - a great welcome, unknown etymology but possibly pre-Celtic.
(1) - the (1) only appears once in this article as this refers to the aforementioned primary source, already given at the top of the page, namely Gaelic Words and Expressions from South Uist and Eriskay, collected by Rev. Fr. Allan McDonald of Eriskay (1859-1905) and edited by J. L. Campbell, D. Litt (Oxon.) LL.D. (Antigonish).
(2) Proto-Afro-Asiatic vocabulary by Alexander Militarev, and Olga Stolbova, this vocabulary can be found at starlingdb.org, database by S. Starostin.
(3) Proto-Uralic vocabulary by Sergei Starostin, this vocabulary can be found at starlingdb.org, database by S. Starostin.
(4) refers to information that can generally be gleamed from the collective information about where root words might occur according to how they are discussed on starlingdb.org
(5) - Am Faclair Beag. This reference is only given in the text about to refer to where I found different variants of buideir in other dialects, from Am Faclair Beag. Comments on how words are distributed with different meanings on this article are checked with how widely spoken they are according to the date on Am Faclair Beag.
I hope this article was enjoyable. May the Great Spirit bless you all, and may we respect and love the land and those ancestors who guard it, and all living things therein and throughout creation.