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Ulster etymology

An interesting question raised in my mind by Morgan Llewellyn's Red Branch: what is the origin of the name Ulster?

She has a throwaway reference to the Ulaid being named for the wool they produced - this would link the word to modern Irish olann, which is a cousin of Welsh gwlan and goes all the way back to Proto-Indo-European *wlna and thus English woollen, and (dropping the initial w) Latin lana and French laine.

But not everyone believes this; the shift from the initial o of olann to u of Ulaid seems unpopular among linguists. Instead the received wisdom, including that of the great Pokorny, is that the ul of Ulaid is from Irish ulcha meaning "beard". This root supposedly comes from Proto-Indo-European *pul- which otherwise has only an obscure Greek cognate transcribed as pylinx and meaning hair on the posterior, and an Old Indian root pula meaning when your hairs standing on end.

Ptolemy calls the people of the northern part of Ireland the "Uoluntii", which doesn't help as it is evidence in both directions.

I was a bit dubious about the idea that Celtic words drop an original Indo-European “p”, but this turns out to be reasonably well attested – the root *palam turns into Latin palma and thus English “palm”, but Irish lamh; likewise father/pater/athair and first/primus/roimh. So I am convinced by that bit.

But for some reason I prefer the idea that the Ulaid were so-called because they were wool producers rather than because they had beards (which would I suppose make them equivalent to the Lombards). It seems more convincing to derive the toponym from economic activity than shaving fashions. (However, if there is no other case of an initial o shifting to u in Irish names, I shall have to concede to the beard theory.)


( 8 comments — Leave a comment )
Feb. 26th, 2009 06:37 am (UTC)
It would, of course, be stupidly pedantic to point out that your icon is actually of Northern Ireland, rather than of the historical province of Ulster. So I won't...
Feb. 26th, 2009 09:17 am (UTC)
One of the other points of interest from the Red Branch legends is that the boundaries of Ulster were clearly different then. Cuchulain's base is at Dundalk, and his epic combat with Ferdia took place at Ardee (Áth Fhirdhia) which are both in County Louth. The Black Pig's Dyke earthwork is not at all congruent with today's county boundaries (compare Offa's Dyke which defines substantial parts of the English-Welsh border). At least all of what is now Northern Ireland was always in Ulster; the same is not true of the Nine Counties!
Feb. 26th, 2009 07:50 am (UTC)
I have to admit that, after the pogonophobic ranting of some Unionist/Loyalist politicians, I would be tickled to pieces by the thought of beardedness as a distinguishing mark of the Ulaid.

And as for beards and economic activity, surely you've heard of the Lombard & Ulster Group....

[Steve wanders off to create entirely spurious history of banking in which the Lombard & Ulster logo is a cunnningly interlinked arrangement of three false beards, even though it's quite clearly a version of the pure wool logo]
Feb. 26th, 2009 09:06 am (UTC)
Bearded sheep?
Both of these theories have a little merit, and there's pretty much no possibility of any strong evidence for or against either of them. I don't see any reason to believe either.
Feb. 26th, 2009 09:12 am (UTC)
In terms of archaeology and evidence from law codes (the latter are surprisingly good for telling us about what was farmed and what was valuable), sheep rearing wasn't a major activity in early Ireland -- as in Wales, it tended to expand from the 12th century, with the rise of the Cistercian monastic order. The primary animals were cattle and pigs. So beards are more likely on those grounds too. (If one accepts either, but all argumetns from prot0-Indo-European tend to be tenuous in the extreme.)
The p-shift is very well attested and established, and it the major distinction between the Gaelic Celtic languages (Irish, Scots Gallic, Manx) which are all Q-Celtic, and the Welsh/Cornish/Breton languages, which are P-Celtic.
Kari (Celtic historian by profession).

Edited at 2009-02-26 09:14 am (UTC)
Feb. 26th, 2009 09:45 am (UTC)
I think we are talking about two different P-shifts here. The first one, the dropping of initial p, affects all Celtic languages:
  • *peh₃i-, to drink -> Ir. ibim/ibh, Welsh yfed, Lat. bibere
  • *pel-, gray -> Lat. palleō; pullus, Ir. liath, Welsh llwyd, Eng. fealu/fallow
  • pelh₂- , flat -> Ir. lian/; lethan/; lethaid/, Welsh lleyn; llwyn; lledu, Eng. feld/field; /flat Gk. platýs, Lat. plānus
  • etc
The other is indeed the shift between P-Celtic and Q-Celtic, where Indo-European *kw becomes Irish c but mutates into Welsh p: ceathair/pedwar, ceann/penn, mac/map, etc. That didn't affect the beards.

But I'm interested in what you say about the sheep. It is striking that both Irish and Welsh have moved away from the Indo-European root vocabulary (caora / dafad, though I find Old Irish ói meaning sheep and Welsh ewig meaning a doe which are thought to come from IE *h₂ówis/*h₃éwis). Though I'm not sure what can be read into that.

Edited at 2009-02-26 09:46 am (UTC)
Feb. 26th, 2009 09:58 am (UTC)
Whoops. I do tend to get the shifts muddled -- I'm a political historian rather than a linguist.
Sheep vocabulary may have been influenced by Norman French in both cases. But that's one for the philogists.
Feb. 26th, 2009 12:43 pm (UTC)
Of course, it may have been named after a beard but because of it's geographical location - at the (bearded?) head of Ireland, perhaps?

Uh, this is me, clutching at straws....
( 8 comments — Leave a comment )

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