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20.05.23 Moran, De Origine Scoticae Linguae (O'Mulconry's Glossary)

20.05.23 Moran, De Origine Scoticae Linguae (O'Mulconry's Glossary)

Ireland--more properly the Gaelic world including parts of northern Britain--produced the largest body of vernacular literature surviving from the early medieval period. Such is the extent of this material--and the relative lack of scholarly attention given to it in the modern period--that many texts remain either unedited or available only in less-than-satisfactory editions of the nineteenth century. The most famous examples of this vernacular tradition are the sagas and pseudo-historical narratives that were long seen as providing access to a Celtic Heroic Age. Other genres have received far less attention from scholars, among them glossaries, vernacular examples of a common Latin genre that are monuments to the keen interest taken by the Irish learned class in the origins and workings of their own language. These glossaries are not as obviously exciting as sagas and other narratives, at least to modern tastes. But in reality, they are rich repositories of information on a wide range of topics, especially the nature of the intellectual culture that produced them.

The publication of a new edition of an early medieval vernacular glossary from Ireland is therefore very welcome. Long known to students of early Ireland as "O'Mulconry's Glossary," for good reason it is here published under the manuscript title De Origine Scoticae Linguae. It includes nearly nine hundred entries, each one based on a headword and listed in roughly alphabetical order. The text was previously edited in 1898, though without translation or detailed commentary. In this new study, Pádraic Moran has provided us with what will remain the authoritative edition of this intriguing text for generations. Unlike its predecessor, it is accompanied by a translation, detailed introduction and thorough notes. As an added bonus, he has also included an edition and translation of a shorter, related glossary known from its opening headword as Irsan (an additional two hundred and thirty-two entries).

The extensive Introduction discusses previous scholarship on the text, its manuscript tradition, layered structure, sources and etymological methods. It also provides a detailed linguistic analysis. Based on this analysis, Moran argues for an initial date of compilation in the Old Irish period (c. 600-c. 900), possibly in the province of Leinster, with a secondary phase of activity in the late ninth or early tenth century. Certainly, some of the language in the text is early Old Irish, though this may have been borrowed from the sources used by the compilers. In any case, the compilation must postdate the writing of late seventh- or early eighth-century legal and other texts quoted in the first stratum. The development of the text, and the various ways glosses may have been collected and etymologies sought out, is also explored in detail.

The edition and translation together take up fewer than one hundred and fifty of the book's nearly six hundred pages, with roughly twice as much space being devoted to very extensive commentary. This commentary analyzes individual entries--most, though not all of them--in detail. Moran provides thoughtful and insightful analysis, but even with all of this, the meaning of many words and their origins remain uncertain.

The text itself, illuminated by Moran's discussion of the sources and methods, throws up evidence for the nature of the learned culture of early Ireland. The glossary as a genre was not invented in early Ireland, and the compilers drew consciously on Latin models. Their approach was omnivorous; they gathered headwords and information about their origins from an impressively wide array of sources. Most entries across both texts provide an etymology of one kind or another for an Irish headword, while some also explain the meaning of what were apparently difficult or uncommon words. These etymologies and explanations refer to a vast array of topics, from ale (159) to gardening tools (270) to theological concepts (270), each one a little nugget of information.

That the compilers were engaged with both local cultural traditions and the international learned culture of Late Antiquity is apparent from the range of sources used, the identification of so many of which is one of Moran's great achievements (see especially the index of sources and parallels, 572-88). These included vernacular sagas, including the famous Táin Bó Cúailgne (Cattle raid of Cooley), origin legends of various population groups in Ireland, and vernacular legal texts, another genre in which early Irish literature abounds. But alongside these, it is also clear that the compilers also drew on the work of a host of Latin authors. These included Isidore, of course--an important influence on the genre and the techniques developed by Irish etymologists--but also Charisius, Priscian and Jerome.

Moran's identification of these sources reinforces the impression given by the compilers of their language and the culture it embodied. The Prologue claims that "the Irish derived their origin from the Greeks, and likewise their language," and the main text goes on to claim Greek, Latin, Hebrew and even British and Norse origins for Irish words. An origin legend preserved in an Old Irish text that has been dated to c. 700 claims that the Irish language was invented in a school ten years after the confusion of languages at the Tower of Babel, through a process of extracting what was best of each of the other languages and combining them to create something new. The compilers of this glossary took this message to heart and seem to have set about identifying the roots of Irish words in foreign languages. There is no pretense here of linguistic purity; for instance, the Irish phrase Arg fíann (champion of war-bands) is said to derive from the name of the Argives "on account of the excellence of their warriors" (134).

Even when examining at their own language, in other words, the medieval Irish scholars who compiled this glossary saw themselves as part of an international, cosmopolitan culture, outward- as well as backward-looking. They certainly looked to the pagan past as an important source of information about the origins and meanings of words. But the allusions are as likely to be to the gods and heroes of Greece and Rome as they are to those of pre-Christian Ireland. So, for example, we find references to the supposedly "Celtic" goddess Macha (235) alongside others to Bacchus (143) and Castor (192), and references to pagans are at least as likely to mean those who worshipped Apollo and Diana (197, 224) as the Irish Biel (146). The compilers also assumed that their readers would be literate in Latin as well as the vernacular. The brief entry Fecht a uecho only makes sense in explaining the Irish headword, which means "journey," if the reader understands that the Latin verb (more correctly ueho) means "I convey" (198). The fact that--as Moran demonstrates in his detailed notes to the text--many of these etymologies are inaccurate, hardly diminishes the impression given that the compilers were anxious to depict their language and culture as part of a wider world of learning.

Questions remain that one might have liked Moran to deal with. For instance, what audience does he imagine for this text? It would not be a very useful guide to the language of any single text or genre, so what, if any practical use did it have? No such questions surround the book Moran has produced. Its readership ought to include all students of the learned culture of early Ireland and that of early medieval Europe more generally. With this is mind, it is pleasing to see this Irish text edited as part of the Corpus Christianorum series, which ought to bring it to a wide audience. The unfortunate side-effect of this is that the book is expensive; at €230, it will be beyond the financial capacity of most students and scholars.