Is it Irish to be Cuil?

Paul Johnston paul.johnston at WMICH.EDU
Wed Jul 30 13:01:19 UTC 2008

"Cuil", and certainly "Cuill" as anything close to cool sounds like a
Scottish Gaelic pronunciation to me.  I remember when I was \trying
to pronounce Gaelic names and such, a colleague of mine said that in
most (not all) cases, when you have a di- or trigraph spelling of a
vowel, usually the first symbol (first two for trigraphs like aoi)
shows the quality of the vowel, the second, the softness/hardness
(palatalization or not) of the following consonant.  Cuil would
therefore be l.ike cool with a clear /l/ (which a Scottish Gael might
use in English cool), cuill with a palatal lateral.  Wouldn't Irish
cuil be more like "keel" with a palatalized /l/ and a backer /k/
(generating a short barred i-like offglide), or in  some dialects,
with something like the Scottish "ao" sound as a vowel--a high back
unrounded one, again with a palatalized /l/..  Cuill, as Wilson says,
like queel with the palatal lateral?

There used to be an Edinburgh-based folk band who spelled the name
"Finn MacCuill" though it's "MacCumhail" in Scots Gaelic too.

Paul Johnston
On Jul 30, 2008, at 8:20 AM, Benjamin Zimmer wrote:

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> Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
> Poster:       Benjamin Zimmer <bgzimmer at BABEL.LING.UPENN.EDU>
> Subject:      Re: Is it Irish to be Cuil?
> ----------------------------------------------------------------------
> ---------
> Quite a bit more from Mark Liberman here ("Heroic feats of
> etymology"):
> --Ben Zimmer
> On Wed, Jul 30, 2008 at 12:20 AM, Wilson Gray <hwgray at>
> wrote:
>> Isn't that surname spelled _Mac Cumhail_ and pronounced [,mak
>> 'kuw at l'], where _il_ [i'] represents palatalized /l/?
>> And _cuill_ would represent a pronunciation about as close to "kweel"
>> as to "quill," in the Munster dialect, at least. Munster isn't the
>> basis of the standard language, but, outside of the Gaelteacht, it's
>> the most popular dialect.
>> The word for "knowledge" is _fiuss_, related to English _wise_, in
>> Old
>> Irish, yielding _fios_, as expected, in the contemporary remnant of
>> the language.
>> -Wilson
>> On Tue, Jul 29, 2008 at 10:13 AM, Benjamin Zimmer
>> <bgzimmer at> wrote:
>>> On Tue, Jul 29, 2008 at 8:32 AM, Joel S. Berson <Berson at>
>>> wrote:
>>>> The "About" page for the new search engine Cuil claims "Cuil is an
>>>> old Irish word for knowledge. For knowledge, ask Cuil."  Do you
>>>> experts agree, or is this another instance of the class "all
>>>> English
>>>> words derive from Irish"?
>>> "Costello's Irish heritage inspired Cuil's odd name. It was derived
>>> from a character named Finn McCuill in Celtic folklore."
>>> In beta-testing, it was spelled "Cuill":
>>> generation-search/
>>> They want us to pronounce it "cool", but "quill" would be a bit
>>> closer
>>> to the Irish pronunciation.
>>> --Ben Zimmer
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