This is a little interruption to my series on canntaireachd. It is not altogether unrelated. Keith Sanger recently sent me a cutting from The Scotsman that set me thinking.
Dastaram gu seinnim pìob (PS 91) literally means ‘I am seized by passion to sing the pipe’, or ‘Hurrah that I sing the pipe!’, or possibly ‘I am mad about singing the pipe’. In any case, the pipe is sung.
The idea that you sing the pipe rather than play it is very old. The Latin Bible was revised by Saint Jerome between 382 and 405. In it, two verbs are used for playing a pipe: canō (five times) and cantō (once). Both mean ‘sing, play, recite, sound’. Cantō has the additional sense of performing an enchantment or incantation.
Here are all six instances where musical pipes of some sort or other are sung in the version of the Bible that shaped European language and literature for over 1200 years. The verbs meaning ‘sing/play’ are marked in bold.
❧ 1 ❧
et nomen fratris eius Iubal ipse fuit pater canentium cithara et organo [Genesis 4:21]
❧ 2 ❧
et ascendit universa multitudo post eum et populus canentium tibiis et laetantium gaudio magno et insonuit terra ad clamorem eorum [3 Kings (1 Kings) 1:40]
❧ 3 ❧
cecinimus vobis et non saltastis
lamentavimus et non planxistis [Matthew 11:17]
The Latin here does not actually state what instrument is played. The translator may have considered that the aulos/tibia specified in the Greek (Ηὐλήσαμεν [Ēulēsamen] – we piped) was implied by the context of dancing. Note that in Latin and Ancient Greek, as in Gaelic, the pipe is generally treated as singular, even when the instrument consists of two pipes, one in each hand.
❧ 4 ❧
In the equivalent passage in St Luke’s gospel, this Old Latin translation also omits the instrument they were ‘singing’:
loquentibus ad invicem dicentes: can
tavimus vobis & non saltastis lamen
tavimus & non plorastis.
Luke 7:32 in Codex Usserianus Primus, IE TCD MS 55, folio 98r
This in one of the earliest surviving Gospel Books thought to have been made in Ireland, controversially dated to the 5th century. What it reveals is that Saint Jerome inserted the word tibia, a mouth-blown doublepipe, in his revision of the Old Latin, giving us the standard ‘Vulgate’ version:
cantavimus vobis tibiis et non saltastis
lamentavimus et non plorastis [Luke 7:32]
❧ 5 ❧
tamen quae sine anima sunt vocem dantia sive tibia sive cithara nisi distinctionem sonituum dederint quomodo scietur quod canitur aut quod citharizatur [1 Corinthians 14:7]
❧ 6 ❧
et vox citharoedorum et musicorum et tibia canentium et tuba non audietur in te amplius
[Apocalypse (Revelation) 18:22]
Two Gaelic verbs meaning ‘sing/play’: seinn and can
The column in The Scotsman that Keith sent me (above) implies that you only sing the pipes, not other instruments. This is wrong. A quick search on DASG for the word sheinneas shows that in Scottish Gaelic (as in Irish and Latin) all instruments are sung. Or at least they used to be. For example:
Ciamar sheinneas mi fidheall? Tha mo chridhe ro-bhrònach.
How can I play the fiddle? My heart is too sorrowful.
The former Gaelic Editor of The Scotsman, Ronald Black, kindly answered a query I put to him by email:
To say that the pipe is “not played but sung” is an excess of purism, in my view. Most people talk about a’ cluich na pìoba. I dare say a purist would describe that as English-based phraseology. I’m not entirely sure.
It isn’t only the verb seinn that is used to ‘sing’ instruments; there is also the verb can, meaning ‘sing, rehearse, say’. Across Europe, it was the cantor who rehearsed the choir. J.S. Bach was the Thomaskantor (Cantor at St. Thomas). Canntaireachd is what the cantor does. That includes rehearsal.
Between 1792 and 1840, Edward Bunting collected the technical terms used by harpers born in Ulster. Among them are the names of the highest and lowest strings:
For more on these musical terms, including audio pronunciations in Irish and Scottish Gaelic, there is a wonderful resource built by one of our members, Simon Chadwick: Irish harp terms.