Interrogatives or Who the what why?

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Interrogatives are those little words that introduce questions, like who, what, why, which in English or có, càite, ciamar in Gaelic. On the whole these are pretty straight forward but first let's take a quick detour into history, as there are some historical oddities which are bound to confuse you at some point.

Interrogatives followed by a relative clause

This is by far the largest group of interrogatives. Well, 5 of 6:

Interrogative Meaning Example
có (a) who? có thuirt seo?, an neach a bhuail mi?
(gu) dé (a) what? (gu) dé thuirt thu?, (gu) dé an rud a thuirt thu?
ciamar a how? ciamar a bha sin?
cuin a when? cuin a bha sin?
carson a why? carson a bha sin?

So the only thing that's potentially confusing here is that the relative particle a which follows all of these interrogatives is dropped both in speech and writing if it immediately follows an interrogative that ends in a vowel, so and (gu) dé. But note (see the second example) that if the sentence structure forces the a into a position where it can't be gobbled up by the interrogative's vowel, it's there both in speech and writing.

Interrogatives followed by a dependent clause

Well, technically it's just one interrogative, càit(e), which takes the dependent form of a verb:

  • càit a bheil thu?
  • càit an robh thu?
  • càit am bi thu?
  • càite fon ghrèin an robh thu?

As with the others, the final -e drops off in speech and writing if there's another vowel right next to it but where it's "buffered" by consonants (see the last example), it sticks around.

The history of interrogatives

Interrogatives are not the most stable of words, strange as that may seem. Think about it; for example, no one uses wheretofore or whence any more. So, interrogatives can fall out of use, fuse, or do other funny stuff. A lot of that has happened in Gaelic over the centuries. For those reasons, some of the usages around interrogatives in Gaelic seem downright weird, such as asking có ás a tha thu when is normally reserved for who or why people in Lewis say [deː] when everyone else says [dʲeː]. So, without much further ado, here's a family tree:

That's pretty much it. So in fact, it's not the expression có ás a tha thu that's weird but actually using for "who" that's an odd innovation.

About càite...

Indeed, càite... So a question that arises very often is why on earth all bar one interrogative require a relative clause to come after i.e. why is it we say có (a) chanas seo?, carson a chanas tu seo?, ciamar a chanas tu seo? and cuin a chanas tu seo? but càit an can thu seo?. Excellent question. In fact it's so good, I had to email my old prof and ask because I didn't have a scooby (I always just accepted that that's how it was, but then I'm more into sounds than word order).

So it turns out that Old Irish was thin on interrogatives compared to other languages and that cía and its unstressed siblings ci/ce/ca had to cover a lot of ground. One way in which this worked was that it could combine with a noun in a very familiar patter: slap méit (our modern meud) onto cía/ce and you get cía mméit/ce méit for "how many" (our modern co mheud). Thing is, even in Old Irish these were followed by relative clauses, so the above mentioned co for "where" aside, what was drafted in for "where" a lot was cía airm/c'airm (airm being an old word for "place).

But then something fun happened in Middle Irish. It had a relative construction áit i raibhe sé "the place in which it was" (i being the preposition "in" which eventually morphed into (ann) an. You still get the same sort of construction in modern Gaelic of course, an t-àite san robh e, naturally with a dependent verb form. Now to turn that into a question, slap on c' (the pre-vowel form of ce) and you get c'áit i raibhe sé. Over time, this fused into one word càite, followed by a dependent verb because that's what this construction required back in the day, even though it no longer looks like it used to at all and even though it doesn't behave like the other question words.

The memory of Gaelic for things that were there a looong time ago eh, what can you say?

Beagan gràmair
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