Cross-linguistic semantics

O Goireasan Akerbeltz
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Though fascinating, semantics isn't my natural haunt when it comes to linguistics, so I'm mostly musing here. Fist off, semantics is the linguistic study of meaning(s), simplifying a bit. What I'm particularly interested in are words which have highly implausible looking semantics when you're looking at them from another language but which make total sense within a language itself.

  • amasach is my favourite. It can mean both "accurate" and "accidental". Now these concepts aren't even in the same city, never mind ballpark, in English but the Gaelic base is amas, both a "target" and an "object you chance upon". With the -ach ending to make it an adjective, it's understandable that Gaelic word covers both the idea of hitting a target accurately but also the idea of hitting on something by accident, hence "accidental".
  • fàsach, a headbender par excellence. It means both "good pasture" and "desert, wilderness". In this instance, we're actually dealing with two different roots. The first is relating to fàs "grow" and gives us pasture, fair enough. But the second is related to fànas "space, emptiness" and comes from Latin vānus meaning "empty, void" and through a quirky combination of changes and affixes, the two words have ended up looking exactly the same. So without context, tha fàsach ann can quite legitimately mean both "there's a desert" or "there's a good pasture"!
  • fulangach covers both "suffering" and "hardy, tough" which is a little odd when looked at from English but the verb fulaing means "suffer" so when you stick on -ach to make an adjective, the way Gaelic looks at it, it can equally refer to someone suffering something or the ability to withstand such conditions, hence "hardy, tough".
  • guidh and grìos mean "pray" and "curse" and "beseech" and "curse" respectively. I suspect the underlying idea is the "invocation" of some supernatural force to bring down either blessings - or doom - depending on the circumstances.

In some, you can see the way we look at things change over time:

  • toirteil means "fruitful", "bulky, stout" and "tasteful". It's easy to see how toirt "giving" and an adjectival ending -eil would give you the sense of something being fruitful (think of an apple tree that gives loads of fruit) and the resulting bulkiness from eating all these apples. What's more amusing is that the concept of bulkiness would come to include the idea of tastefulness. In the age of obesity, it's easy to forget that for most of our history, the danger came from starvation, not over-eating, so in the historical context, it's much more understandable how a stout body might be an attractive feature!

Beagan gràmair
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