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In Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, the protagonist, Stephen Dedalus, has the following daydream while gazing at a flock of birds:

A sense of fear of the unknown moved in the heart of his weariness, a fear of symbols and portents, of the hawklike man whose name he bore soaring out of his captivity on osier-woven wings, of Thoth, the god of writers, writing with a reed upon a tablet and bearing on his narrow ibis head the cusped moon.

He smiled as he thought of the god's image for it made him think of a bottle-nosed judge in a wig, putting commas into a document which he held at arm's length, and he knew that he would not have remembered the god's name but that it was like an Irish oath.

What is this oath that sounds like "Thoth"? Is it in Gaelic or is it an English colloquialism from Ireland?

2 Answers 2

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An explanation of this point is given by Don Gifford in his work Joyce Annotated, who in turn refers back to P.W. Joyce's reference work English as we speak it in Ireland, in particular to chapter VI "Swearing".

Gifford identifies the Irish oath as being thauss [Thoth] ag fee, meaning "the deer knows". PWJ explains this as:

The original express is thauss ag Dhee (given here phonetically), meaning "God knows"; but as this too solemn and profane for most people, they changed it to thauss ag fee, i.e. the deer knows, and this may be uttered by anyone.

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    Can you find info on exactly how "thauss ag Dhee/fee" is pronounced? The connection between spelling and pronunciation in Irish Gaelic is notoriously laden with pitfalls, including the fact that "th" (at least in written Gaelic nowadays) is silent.
    – Rand al'Thor
    Jul 6, 2023 at 10:16
  • PWJ said that wrote the phrase phonetically. I've rewritten slightly to make this clearer. The original would presumably have been written very differently in the original Gaelic (fiadh instead of fee, for example). Jul 6, 2023 at 10:51
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    Interestingly, wiktionary gives the 'god' word in the Irish original as 'fiadha', which is much closer to the word for deer than 'Dia' which is the word represented by 'dhee' and which this Wikipedia article en.wikipedia.org/wiki/F%C3%A9th_f%C3%ADada identifies as having 'originally meant "knower"' before it then came to mean "lord, master, possessor" in reference to a magical race of what have been described as pre-christian deities. That would make the phrase something like 'the knower knows'
    – Spagirl
    Jul 7, 2023 at 13:29
  • @Randal'Thor Irish ⟨th⟩ is not silent, but pronounced /h/ – at least syllable- or word-initially. Word-finally, it is usually silent. Jul 8, 2023 at 0:25
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    PWJ was actually wrong here, as @Spagirl indirectly says. Tá a fhios ag fiadha (fia in the modern spelling) is not a bowdlerisation of Tá a fhios ag Dia meaning ‘the deer knows’. For one thing, it would require a definite article for that to work, and there isn’t one. For another, the older spelling fiadha was not generally used for deer – but it was used consistently in these expressions all the way back to Old Irish, where it was also found elsewhere. The word means ‘lord’, so the phrase simply means ‘lord knows’, just as we’d say in English. Jul 8, 2023 at 0:37
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"Tá a fhios ag fia" in modern Irish. "Fiadh" is an old spelling. Check the fourth entry for "fia" here: https://www.teanglann.ie/en/fgb/fia.

The "th" in "thauss" is not meant to be the fricative but rather a stop. "Thoth" is similarly sometimes pronounced "toth" and seems to be intended as such in your passage. The "fh" in "fhios" is silent and the string of vowel sounds are blended, so that is why there is only one "f" in the phonetic representation.

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  • It’s true that fiadh is a somewhat older spelling used before the major spelling simplifications of the 1950s, but before that, the spelling was fiadha – that’s the form given in Dinneen, for example, and it’s also the most common Old Irish form. As mentioned in Spagirl’s comment to the other answer, the meaning was originally ‘knower’ (from the same root as fios) but came to mean ‘lord’ and be used in reference to God. Jul 8, 2023 at 0:31

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