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Gaelic in modern Scotland
Gaelic in modern Scotland

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2.6 The Goidelic languages

Three descendant languages of early Goidelic are spoken today and they all face significant challenges. The strongest is Irish Gaelic (Gaeilge), an official language of the Irish Republic (Éire), which was declared to be in daily use by 340,000 people in the 2002 Census, with some 1,571,000 claiming to be Irish-speaking to some degree (although many experts claim that the reality of numbers on the ground using Irish on a daily basis is much less than this). In Northern Ireland a further 167,000 people claimed to speak Irish in the 2001 UK Census, some 10 per cent of the province’s population, with some 75,000 claiming more or less total fluency. The best areas to hear spoken Irish are in the small Gaeltacht [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] areas, where the language has primacy; most of these are in rural parts of the west.

Scottish Gaelic (Gàidhlig), like Irish, is classified by UNESCO as ‘definitely endangered’ but, in reality, it is in a poorer situation than Irish, having fallen to a low of 92,400 people in Scotland who claimed some language ability in 2001. This was made up of 58,700 speakers and 33,700 who could read, write or understand it.

However, this situation is improving – between 1991 and 2001 the number of speakers fell 11 per cent, but the number of people with reading and writing ability increased 7.5 per cent and 10 per cent respectively. While it has suffered a catastrophic decline, Gaelic is still easily in the top half of the world’s languages measured on numbers of speakers and, following the Gaelic Language (Scotland) Act of 2005, it is now the recipient of significant state funding.

The primary Scottish Government agency working on behalf of the Gaelic Language is Bòrd na Gàidhlig, whose headquarters are in Inverness, the capital of the Highlands. Its website is here.

Goidelic has been on the Isle of Man since the 5th century AD and its descendant, Manx Gaelic (Gaelg), is still spoken today, having survived long periods of political domination by Norse and English. Man was part of the Gaelic-speaking Lordship of the Isles, which encompassed the Hebrides. Following the death of the last native (first-language) speaker in 1974, experts classified Manx as ‘extinct’. This, however, ignored the fact that there remained a fluent speaker community, based around people who had learned Manx as a second tongue.

UNESCO has now upgraded Manx to the same status as Cornish – ‘critically endangered’. In reality, because of language activism and support from the Isle of Man Government, Manx has come back from the brink and is in a recovery phase. There is now a limited amount of Manx-medium education, and the number of speakers has increased dramatically over the last few decades, from 165 in 1961 to 1,689 in 2001.

The differences between the three Goidelic languages have been enhanced by the loss of dialectal forms that might have acted as bridges between them. For example, the Gaelic of Rathlin Island was very close to Scottish Gaelic, while the extinct Scottish dialects of Kintyre and Galloway probably bore similarities to Irish, as well as to Manx. Even today the Gaelic of Argyll employs words and phrases which might be seen by more northerly Scottish Gaels as ‘Irishisms’, as shown by the examples below.

Table 3 Differences and similarities between Goidelic languages
Irish GaelicArgyll GaelicNorthern Scottish GaelicEnglish
cosúilcosailcoltachlike, resembling
go raibh maith agatgun robh maith agadtapadh leatthank you
gruaiggruagfalthair of the head

Similarly, most Scottish Gaelic speakers would find the Donegal (Ulster) dialect of Irish more readily comprehensible than those spoken further south in Ireland (the dialectal variance within Irish is more marked than that within Scottish Gaelic). This can be illustrated by the sentence: ‘How are you?’

Table 4 How are you?
ScottishCiamar a tha thu? / Dè mar a tha thu?
Ulster (north west Ireland)Cad é mar atá tú?
Connacht (central west Ireland)Cén chaoi a bhfuil tú?
Munster (south west Ireland)Conas atá tú?

But this is only a rule of thumb and, perhaps paradoxically, Munster forms can sometimes seem familiar to Scots; for ‘How are you?’, for example, some Scottish Gaelic speakers would say: ‘Cionnas a tha thu?’!

Despite the obvious similarities, there are some fairly significant differences between Scottish and Irish Gaelic that allow them to be classified now as sister languages, rather than dialects of the one tongue (which would have been the case a few hundred years ago, when Gaelic was spoken continously from Cork to Caithness).

The simple present verbal tense, still a part of Irish Gaelic, has been replaced in Scottish Gaelic by the present continous, employing a verbal noun. Thus, the Irish tuigim (‘I understand’) is paralleled by the Scottish tha mi a’ tuigsinn (literally ‘I am at understanding’). And an old common negative verbal form nichon has been abbreviated differently in each country, giving in Ireland and chan in Scotland (although chan is also found in Ulster). Thus we get chan eil airgead agam (‘I don’t have money’) in Scottish Gaelic and níl airgead agam in Irish.

The accents, which indicate vowel lengthening, are different in each language. In Irish they are all acute and in Scottish Gaelic, following reform of the orthography in the early 1980s, they are all grave. Thus, welcome signs in Ireland say ‘Fáilte’ whereas in Scotland they proclaim ‘Fàilte’. Some words bear emphasis on the final syllable in Irish, particularly in southern dialects, whereas Scottish Gaelic almost always places the emphasis on the first syllable of a word. Thus salmon is bradan (Scottish) and bradán (Irish); bread is aran (Scottish) and arán (Irish).

Scottish Gaelic has retained the classical Gaelic usage of the plural personal pronoun sibh in order to show respect to an individual (as with vous in French). Thus, in speaking to a person a generation older, a Scot would say ‘Ciamar a tha sibh?’ rather than using the singular, familiar ‘Ciamar a tha thu?’ In contrast, an Irish speaker would only ever use sibh to speak to more than one person.

The rules for inflexion, that is the modification of a word in relation to grammatical requirements, also vary a little between Irish and Scottish Gaelic, and their vocabularies have been differentially affected by neighbouring tongues. For example, Scottish Gaelic has borrowed loanwords from Norse and Scots, which are not generally paralleled in Irish (although Irish does have some Norse borrowings). However, they have both borrowed heavily, and similarly, from English.

The softer consonant sounds characteristic of Scottish Gaelic are the result, not only of a greater amount of lenition (a softening of consonants indicated in writing by an intrusive ‘h’ following the lenited consonant), but also of pre-aspiration (where an intrusive ‘h’ or ‘ch’ is pronounced, but not written, before the consonant). The latter is not present in Irish, but is found in Icelandic, Faroese and Norwegian (and intriguingly in philologically unrelated Arctic languages like Sami and Greenlandic). Pre-aspiration means that the word mac (‘son’) is pronounced ‘mak’ in Irish but ‘machk’ in Scottish Gaelic.

The orthographical systems of Scottish Gaelic and Irish Gaelic are quite similar, being modernised variants of what was employed for the writing of the classical Gaelic used by the educated elite of both countries; thus readers of Scottish Gaelic can get the gist of an Irish text and vice-versa. Manx, however, is substantially different and largely opaque to readers of the other two Gaelics. Its orthography was developed in the 17th century and it owes much to the English, and to a lesser degree Welsh, systems of representing sounds with letters. Some of the differences can be appreciated in the table below.

Table 5 Orthographical similarities between Scottish and Irish Gaelic, with differences from Manx Gaelic
Scottish GaelicIrish GaelicManx GaelicEnglish
a’ bheanan bheanyn venthe wife, woman
ceannceannkionea head
deochdeochjougha drink
DimàirtDé MáirtJemayrtTuesday
gu leòrgo leordi liooarenough
iasgiasceeasta fish
lochlochlogha lake
seòmarseomrashamyra room