Is it Irish to be Cuil?

Wilson Gray hwgray at GMAIL.COM
Wed Jul 30 18:46:46 UTC 2008

Needless to say, I admire the clarity of your analysis, Paul! ;-)


On Wed, Jul 30, 2008 at 9:01 AM, Paul Johnston <paul.johnston at> wrote:
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> Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
> Poster:       Paul Johnston <paul.johnston at WMICH.EDU>
> Subject:      Re: Is it Irish to be Cuil?
> -------------------------------------------------------------------------------
> "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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