Interrogative frequencies in DASG

One aspect of Gaelic I want to look at more closely is interrogatives. Just as all the wh- words in English (who, when, why, what, how) go to the front of the sentence, so do all the c- words in Gaelic and the word order in the rest of the sentence changes as well. This is not universal, however. In Chinese, one simply substitutes the word for ‘what’ in the ordinary sentence order, just as when we’re particularly surprised in English we might say “You ate what?”.

In order to see how they work exactly, we need example sentences, so I’ve been looking in DASG. One easy first step is to look at frequencies in this table:

Interrogative Count English Observations
9122 who noisy; lots of prefixes and parts of words
ciod 4587 what
cia 2363 how also cia mar in older texts, cia fhad ‘how long’, cia mhòr ‘how big’
403 what also ‘God’
ciamar 273 how
càit 182 where also genitive of cat meaning ‘cat’
carson 133 why
càite 90 where
cuin 59 when
cuine 15 when

These are the results of accent-insensitive searches as the older texts haven’t had their spelling modernized or made consistent. The results surprised me a great deal for a number of reasons. Firstly, ciod ‘what’, which I don’t recall seeing terribly often in the present day is the most numerous interrogative, mostly occurring in a single document, a history of Scotland. One of the very first words you learn in Gaelic is its modern counterpart , which only has about 200 (judged by eye) instances as an interrogative in DASG. This is a similar number to càit(e), carson, cuin(e), and ciamar, ‘where’, ‘why’, ‘what’ and ‘how’. Secondly, the enormous number of hits for cia ‘how’, which on a cursory inspection are often exclamations, ‘how swift’, ‘how long’, ‘how horrible’ or an old spelling of ciamar in addition to the more familiar cia mheud ‘how many’. Thirdly, nearly all of the instances of  meaning ‘what’ are from a single work, Saoghal Bana-mharaiche, describing the Gaelic from the coast of Easter Ross.

I’ll leave you with a new meaning I’d never seen before for gu. This can be gu the preposition, gu the subordinator (as in gu bheil), gu the aspect marker or gu the adverbializer, but Gu dè tha thu? from DASG31, Ugam agus bhuam, is clearly neither. As explained here, what is going on is this: the Gaelic for ‘what’ used to be ciod e, like the Irish cad é, and over time this became dè. Gu dè is a variant of this. It’s another one of those pesky multiword expressions.

[Edit 2015-01-03 to clarify reason for looking at interrogatives and add another meaning of gu.]

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