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 it turns out that Old Irish was thin on ready-made interrogatives compared to other languages. There basically was one question word (cía) which had to cover a lot of ground. Of course it being Old Irish, it started off by making things more complicated by factoring in stressed and unstressed forms and gender and number. So first off, there was the basic stressed form:

  • cía "who, what, which". This was the masculine form and it would prefix h to a following word. In the plural, this gives citné "what/what are they?"
  • cesí, cessi, cisí - same meanings, but used with feminine nouns. This one caused lenition.
  • cid, ced - same meanings, used with neuter nouns.

and the unstressed forms

  • ci/ce/ca "who, what, which"

First off, as you may already have wondered based one citné "who/what are they?", all of these are actually a combination of an interrogative and the copula verb, so all of these forms technically are "who/what/which is".

So inflection and all that aside, the way in which Old Irish made this work was by combining cía with another word, usually a noun. Which should feel very familiar, as many modern Gaelic interrogative are still blatantly obvious combinations of a c and some noun, like the àit(e) càit(e). So you get things like

  • ce méit, cía mméit (our modern co mheud) "how many?"
  • cía airm, c'airm (airm being an old word for "place) "where?"
  • ce chruth "how?"
  • cissi chonar (conar "way, path", which still appears on Uist and Barra as conair with the same meaning) "which way?"
  • cissi aimser "when, what time?"

What about though? Well, in later stages of Old and Middle Irish, ía regularly developed into á (for instance, also in día » "two"), so we got and from there's it was only a bunny hop to . You can see the intermediate stage by peeking over to Modern Irish which was cá as for "where from?", the cognate of our có ás. So có ás isn't particularly weird because the is basically just the modern version of the old cía "who, what, which" plus ás "from". And by itself, is the heir of cía, though in modern Gaelic this has largely dropped all other meanings apart from "who" except where it combines with a noun.

The rest of the modern set of question words is slightly different from that of Old Irish but overall, pretty obvious in its derivation:

  • cuin "when?" « c' + ùine
  • carson "why?" « c' + air + son (a now pretty obsolete word for "account, sake")
  • ciamar "how?" « c' + mar, from Old Irish immar "like, as"
  • có mheud "how many?" «  + meud. The now rare Argyll variant ce meud is even closer to the Old Irish form
  • "who?" This is pretty archaic now in Gaelic but it also is from the same root

The neuter form cid survived into the modern era in the form of ciodh, meaning "what?", but is now largely obsolete.

Some regions use the form cia instead of in front of a noun, but the basic principle of formation is the same:

  • cia meud "how many?"
  • cia fhad "how long/far?"
  • cia lìon "how many?"
  • cia minig "how often?"
  • cia (bh)uaithe "whence?"
  • cia ás "where from?"
  • cia an taobh "whither?"

Some use the very reduced form c' and ce:

  • c' fheadh "how far?" « c' + feadh "extent"
  • c' ainm "what name?"
  • cuime "about whom/what?" « c' + uime "about him/it", an inflected form of mu
  • cuige "why?" « c' + uige "to him/it", an inflected form of gu
  • ce ann "wherein?"

A few words which also carry a form of the old cía at heart are a little less obvious:

  • ge be "whatever", in older Gaelic cibe « ci + bíth "existence"
  • cionnas "how, in what manner?" « a direct inheritance from Old Irish cindas, from indas "method, way", with the common nd to nn change
  • "what?". Now the emphatic "fuller" form of this is gu dé and this itself is a re-interpreted form of ciod e (which is why Lewis with broad /d/ is actually the more conservative (i.e. historical) pronunciation), which Old Irish cote, cate meaning "what kind, of what nature", a combination of the interrogative plus the proposition de "of, from".
  • ge-tà, from older ged tà, which is from Middle Irish ciod tá "though"
  • creud "what?", from Old Irish crét, which is c + rét "thing" (modern rud)

In Old Irish these interrogatives were followed by relative clauses, which is the reason we still do that today.

But càite isn't follwed by a relative clause!

Indeed, what about càite... So 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).

But then something fun happened in Middle Irish. It had a relative construction áit i raibhe sé "the place in which it was" (raibhe being the ancestor of robh and 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?

An aside

Old Irish cía (and of course its descendents) are part of the group of words which share a common ancestor with words in other Indo-European languages - even though that's not obvious at first glance. Cía goes back to a Proto-Celtic root *kʷēs (from where Welsh gets pwy "who?" when kʷ became p in Brythonic), which in turn comes from Indo-European *kʷis "who, what?". Now those of you with French or Latin are probably sitting up and going "oh!" - because this is indeed the word from which Latin gets quis "who, what?" and French qui.

But funnily enough, it even throws an arc over to English, because *kʷis became hwaz in Proto-Germanic (also meaning "who, what?"). This came with a full set of fairly complicated inflections for lots of cases, three genders and so on but the masculine nominative singular hwaz became hwa (now all the Scots speakers can sit up and go "oh!") and eventually who. The neuter paradigm of hwaz first gave us Old English hwæt and then of course what.

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