Old Irish

Old Irish (Old Irish: Goídelc; Irish: Sean-Ghaeilge; Scottish Gaelic: Seann Ghàidhlig; Manx: Shenn Yernish; sometimes called Old Gaelic) is the name given to the oldest form of the Goidelic languages for which extensive written texts are extant. It was used from c.600 to c.900. The primary contemporary texts are dated c.700–850; by 900 the language had already transitioned into early Middle Irish. Some Old Irish texts date from the 10th century, although these are presumably copies of texts composed at an earlier time period. Old Irish is thus the ancestor of Modern Irish, Manx, and Scottish Gaelic.

Old Irish is known for having a particularly complex system of morphology and especially of allomorphy (more or less unpredictable variations in stems and suffixes in differing circumstances) as well as a complex sound system involving grammatically significant consonant mutations to the initial consonant of a word. Apparently, neither characteristic was present in the preceding Primitive Irishperiod. Much of the complex allomorphy was subsequently lost, but the sound system has been maintained with little change in the modern languages.

Contemporary Old Irish scholarship is still greatly influenced by the works of a small number of scholars active in the late 19th and early 20th centuries such as Rudolf Thurneysen (1857–1940) and Osborn Bergin (1873–1950).

Notable characteristics of Old Irish compared with other old Indo-European languages, are:

  • Initial mutations, including lenition, nasalisation and aspiration/gemination.
  • A complex system of verbal allomorphy.
  • A system of conjugated prepositions that is unusual in Indo-European languages (although they are found in many Semitic languages such as Arabic): dím “from me”, dít “from you”, de “from him”, di “from her”, diib “from them” (basic preposition di “from”). There is a great deal of allomorphy here, as well.
  • Infixed object prepositions, which are inserted between the verb stem and its prefix(es). If a verb lacks any prefixes, a dummy prefix is normally added.
  • Special verbal conjugations are used to signal the beginning of a relative clause

Old Irish also preserves most aspects of the complicated Proto-Indo-European (PIE) system of morphology. Nouns and adjectives are declined in three genders (masculine, feminine, neuter); three numbers (singular, dual, plural); and five cases (nominative, vocative, accusative, dative and genitive). Most PIE noun stem classes are maintained (o-, yo-, ā-, -, i-, u-, r-, n-, s-, and consonant stems). Most of the complexities of PIE verbal conjugation are also maintained, and there are new complexities introduced by various sound changes.

Classification

Old Irish was the only member of the Goidelic/Gaelic branch of the Celtic languages, which is, in turn, a subfamily of the wider Indo-European language family that also includes the Slavonic, Italic/Romance, Indo-Aryan and Germanic subfamilies, along with several others. Old Irish is the ancestor of all modern Goidelic languages: Modern Irish, Scottish Gaelicand Manx.

A still older form of Irish is known as Primitive Irish. Fragments of Primitive Irish, mainly personal names, are known from inscriptions on stone written in the Ogham alphabet. The inscriptions date from about the 4th to the 6th centuries. Primitive Irish appears to have been very close to Common Celtic, the ancestor of all Celtic languages, and it had a lot of the characteristics of other archaic Indo-European languages.

Sources

Relatively little survives in the way of strictly contemporary sources. They are represented mainly by shorter or longer glosses on the margins or between the lines of religious Latinmanuscripts, most of them preserved in monasteries in Germany, Italy, Switzerland, France and Austria, having been taken there by early Irish missionaries. Whereas in Ireland, many of the older manuscripts appear to have been worn out through extended and heavy use, their counterparts on the Continent were much less prone to the same risk because once they ceased to be understood, they were rarely consulted.

The earliest Old Irish passages may be the transcripts found in the Cambrai Homily, which is thought to belong to the early 8th century. The Book of Armagh contains texts from the early 9th century. Important Continental collections of glosses from the 8th and 9th century include the Würzburg Glosses (mainly) on the Pauline Epistles, the Milan Glosses on a commentary to the Psalms and the St Gall Glosses on Priscian’s Grammar.

Further examples are found at Karlsruhe (Germany), Paris (France), Milan, Florence and Turin (Italy). A late 9th-century manuscript from the abbey at Reichenau, now in St. Paul in Carinthia (Austria), contains a spell and four Old Irish poems. The Liber Hymnorum and the Stowe Missal date from about 900 to 1050.

In addition to contemporary witnesses, the vast majority of Old Irish texts are attested in manuscripts of a variety of later dates. Manuscripts of the later Middle Irish period, such as the Lebor na hUidre and the Book of Leinster, contain texts, which are thought to derive from written exemplars in Old Irish now lost and retain enough of their original form to merit classification as Old Irish.

The preservation of certain linguistic forms current in the Old Irish period may provide reason to assume that an Old Irish original directly or indirectly underlies the transmitted text or texts.

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