An/The/An Index of Confusion

The following is an article from The Annals of Improbable Research.

by Philip O’Leary
Boston College

For those working with the Celtic languages, the definite article looms large. The problems it creates are in no way balanced by the fact that the Celtic indefinite article creates no problems at all because it doesn’t exist. I recently finished co-editing the two-volume Cambridge History of Irish Literature. After five years of work, I and my colleague Margaret Kelleher saw the end in sight, particularly when Cambridge announced they would provide the index. That index, imposing in its length and detail, duly arrived. With its arrival, the end of the project quickly receded from our field of vision, to be replaced with another six months of work -- almost all of it the result of the Irish definite article (or articles, as will soon become clear).

That definite article in the singular is An, and when we looked at the proofs of the index for the first time and saw that the letter “A” went on for several pages we knew at once what had happened -- entry after entry began with An. All would need to be rerouted to their proper places under the initial letter of the following noun.

(Image credit: Flickr user One Tree Hill Studios)

An vs. An, and Worse

Nor was the job to be that simple. First of all, there were also a few entries misplaced under the English definite article “An” and under the Irish interrogative particle An (as well as titles in the interrogative misplaced under the initial letter of the word following this particle in various titles).

Moreover, Irish has a vocative particle A, which created further confusion for the indexers, who understandably enough saw it as an indefinite article and accordingly ignored it as they alphabetized those entries. Needless to say, the plural form of the definite article, Na, created its own chaos down the road in the “N” section of the index. And, to add to the confusion, since this was a history of Irish literature from its beginnings, it, and its indexers, had to deal with earlier forms of the language (and of the definite article, which can appear as – and this list is by no means complete – in, int, ind, a in the singular and ind, in, int, inna, na in the plural.

All bad enough, but it gets worse.

(Image source: Learn Irish)

Like all the Celtic languages, Irish is characterized by mutations of the initial letters of words caused by the words or particles that precede them. Thus the feminine definite article changes b to bh, c to ch, d to dh, f to fh, g to gh, m to mh, p to  ph, and t to th. What then does one do with an entry on “the cow” – an bhó? Should it be under b? bh? b(h)? The masculine article is less problematic, although it does prefix t to words beginning with a vowel, leaving the problem of where to put “the father” – an t-athair.

Incidentally, that hyphen is a useful device here as other Irish verbal particles can also create troublesome mutations. Ár nathair can mean either “our father” or “our snake,” perhaps explaining St. Patrick’s eagerness to get those confusing serpents off the island before they created major theological problems for his mission. The hyphen solves this problem, but can leave one wondering whether an t-athair should be filed under “T.” The proper listing would be “athair, an t-”.

Feminine/Masculine Awkwardness

(Image credit: Flickr user random letters)

The feminine singular article has no effect on a following vowel, but does, in certain cases, prefix t to nouns beginning with an s. (Unfortunately, the Irish word for “ant,” seangán, while beginning with an appropriate s, is masculine, denying us the convenient mnemonic an t-seangán.) The plural article in both genders prefixes h to nouns beginning with a vowel, creating a new problem since Irish really doesn’t use h except to indicate this mutation (and for a handful of often exotic loan words like héileacaptar (helicopter), hipirglicéime (hyperglycaemia), holograf (holograph), or homaisiogót (homozygote), none often heard in pubs. Thus, for all practical purposes, the h listing in a careless Irish index could include nothing but misplaced plural nouns.

Still, for all these potential pitfalls, Irish indexers can take comfort that they don’t have the problem faced by their counterparts in Wales: the Welsh definite articles y and yr could create a situation whereby readers could leaf through an index of the first 24 letters of the alphabet before meeting up with a noun at all.


This article is republished with permission from the July-August 2006 issue of the Annals of Improbable Research. You can download or purchase back issues of the magazine, or subscribe to receive future issues. Or get a subscription for someone as a gift!

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