Sanas na Sengoídilce (SnaS) 15

After the infinitly sad SnaS 14, I resume the series with an item that I treated in ITS Subs. Ser. 27 (…/The_Language_of_the_Poems_of_Bla…), OIr. pailt* ‘plentiful, abundant’. The asterisk after the word indicates that this word is not attested in this form in OIr., but can be concluded to have existed at least in a section of the language. The word has an entry in eDIL (, but the sole attestation cited there is actually modern Scottish Gaelic from the Book of Clanranald. However, there is one attestation in OIr. that is not cited in eDIL. It is found as first part of the compound adjective paltlám ‘plenty-handed’ in Blathmac’s Poems l. 134: ba paltlám fíal in fodlóir ‘the distributor had a hand of plenty and was generous’. The non-palatalised -lt- in Blathmac’s paltlám (not **pailtlám) is probably due to progressive assimilation in a compound (cf. Jürgen Uhlich, Morphologie der komponierten Personennamen des Altirischen, 126–127); all other attestations of this word in the younger Gaelic languages have a palatalised -lt.

The word is very rare in Irish proper. Apart from this one example in Blathmac’s Poems, it is absent from Old and Middle Irish, and does not occur in Corpas na Gaeilge 1600–1882. It only makes its first appearance in Irish lexicography at the beginning of the 19th century. It first appeared in print in the form of the abstract noun pailtios ‘plenty’ in William Neilson’s grammar of Irish (1808: ii, 42), a work that drew strongly on dialect material from Co. Down. Edward O’Reilly’s dictionary of 1817 contains the adjective páilt ‘abundant, plentiful, copious, affluent’ and the abstract páilteas ‘plenty, abundance’. Peadar Ó Muircheartaigh (pers. comm.) believes that O’Reilly actually culled these lexical items from William Shaw’s Scottish Gaelic dictionary of 1780, where they are recorded as pailt ‘abundant, plentiful’ and pailteas ‘plenty, abundance’. Shaw never writes any length marks (and the word has a short a anyway), so O’Reilly must have added the fadas by hypercorrection, revealing that he was actually unfamiliar with them. In the 20th century, there is scattered evidence for pailt and its derivatives from various places in East Ulster, namely Rathlin Island, Antrim, and Inishowen. Almost all of these areas, including Blathmac’s putative home territory in or near Co. Louth, belong to the traditional East Ulster dialect of Irish. There is no trace of the word in the other dialects of Irish. In Scottish Gaelic (pailt, pailteas) and Manx (palçhey, palçhys), on the other hand, it is very well established. It seems, therefore, that this is a word of specifically North-East Gaelic provenance and is a tiny piece of evidence for Early Irish dialectal diversity.

As for its etymology, the one thing that is clear is that pailt must be a loan from Early British *paltV- which itself is of unclear origin. Macbain’s Dictionary of Scottish Gaelic (1911: 272) rather unhelpfully ascribes it to a loan from Pictish and compares it with clann, which does not work and explains nothing. Albert Deshayes, Dictionnaire étymologique du breton, 556, derives it from Proto-Celtic “*kʷal-to-, kʷel-to-” without further explanation. Perhaps what he means is a participal formation from the PIE root *√kʷelh1- ‘to turn, revolve’, but both the formal and the semantic side of this explanation is difficult. A formation from the root *√kʷels- ‘to plough, make furrows’ would be formally possible, but is again semantically not straightforward. Likewise difficult (phonologically, morphologically and semantically) is a connection with Latin quālis ‘what kind of? such as’. Ifor Williams (Bulletin of the Board of Celtic Studies 10 (1941), 37–8) suggested a derivation from PIE *√3kʷel- ‘flock, troop, host’, which IEW 640 sees reflected in Old Indic kúla- ‘troop, host’, kr̥ṣtí- ‘people’, Greek τέλος ‘host’, Old Church Slavonic čeljadь ‘servants’. However, all of these are connected with different other roots in modern etymological dictionaries (I can’t go into details here), and the status of this PIE root is thus very doubtful.

In the British languages, the word is found as a separate lexeme in Corn. pals ‘plenteous’, and in MBret. paout, Bret. paot ‘rich, numerous’. In Old Breton, it is once found in the artificial compound plural superlative gurpelthemion (< *gur-palt-haμ-ion), glossing Lat. confortissimis (for confertissimis ‘very dense, crowded’) in MS Zanetti lat. 349, fol. 35v (Venice, Bibl. Marciana). The status of the word in Welsh is extremely shadowy at best. Ifor Williams (Zeitschrift für Celtische Philologie 21 (1940), 302) proposes to regard the obscure phellas in the Black Book of Carmarthen 102.4 as a cognate of Gael. pailteas ‘plenty’; but this is explained as a miscopy in A.O.H. Jarman’s 1982 edition of that manuscript. An instance of pallt is regarded as a variant spelling for pall1 ‘failure, defect’ by Geiriadur Priysgol Cymru.

I am indebted to Peadar Ó Muircheartaigh for an abundance of information about the dialectal Irish evidence for pailt; for Scottish Gaelic, I received a lot of information from Roibeard Ó Maolalaigh.


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