17 May 2014

The swallow

Some years ago, Kim McCone1 noticed the striking similarity between the Insular Celtic (Old Irish fannall, Welsh gwennol) and the Basque (enara, ain(h)ara, etc.2) words for 'swallow', thus reconstructing a Celtic protoform *wannālā/*wennā. It also becomes apparent that the Basque word must be a loanword from Celtic, although with an unusual loss of *w-, which we would expect to surface either as b- or m-3 in Basque.

For the Celtic word, Ranko Matasovićdevises an IE etymology from *wes-r-/-n- 'spring' plus the adjectival suffix -ā, implying a semantic development from 'messenger of spring'. A-sn- regularly gives Celtic -nn-, we also need to assume the variant *wannāarose from *wennāfrom vowel harmonizationHowever, this proposal has been objected by some scholars, namely David Stifter5, who thinks both Celtic and Basque are loanwords from a substrate language, presumably non-IE.

Although I also disagree with Matasović, I think an IE etymology (although not a native Celtic one) is still possible from the root  *wand-/*wend- 'to weave, to twist', with -nd- > -nn- in an unidentified IE language. As swallows are seasonal birds, semantics would be parallel to Old High German wantalōn 'to be back and forth; to change' > German wandeln.

On the other hand, French vanneau 'lapwing' (linked by some scholars to the Celtic word) derives from Late Latin *vannellus, a diminutive form of vannus 'winnowing basket', which I'd adscribe to the above etymology. The Latin word was borrowed into Old English fann 'winnowing basket' > English fan6.
1 K. McCone (2005): 'Mögliche nicht-indogermanische Elemente in den keltischen Sprachen und einige frühe Entlehnungen aus indogermanischen Nachbarsprachen', in G. Meiser and O. Hackstein (eds.), Sprachkontact und Sprachwandel. Akten der XI. Fachtagung der Indogermanischen Gesellschaft, 17.-23. September 2000, Halle an der Saale, Wiesbaden, p. 395-435.
2 Variants include ainhara (L), ainhera (LN), aiñara (LN), aiñera (LN), añhá(r)a (Z), añhé(r)a (Z), enara (B,*A, G, HN), txenara (G), enada (B, G, HN,*L), txenada (G), einhara (L), ernara (B), enere (HN), inara (HN), iñara (HN), inhara (L, LN), iñare (Aezk), inhade (L), iñar (R, S), aiñari (S), elae (*B), elai (B, G), alae (B), alai (B, G), añai (R), which refer to either 'barn swallow (Hirundo rustica)' or (less frequently) to 'common swift (Apus apus)'.
3 Maybe reflected in Roncalese maiñari 'bat', whose semantics is parallel to the compound gau-enada (*L), gabenara (HN), gau-inhara (*L), gau-iñara (HN, Bazt) 'bat', from gau 'night'.
4 R. Matasović (2009): Etymological Dictionary of Proto-Celtic, p. 416-417.
5 D. Stifter (2010): The Invisible Third: The Basque and Celtic Words for 'Swallow', Ériu 60, p. 145-157.
6 Other words for 'fan' in Romance languages such as Spanish abanico, Catalan vano, are ultimately derived from vannus.