LinguNorth: Scottish Gaelic

Let us start this language lesson with a brief moment of applied imagination:

You are visiting a famous place of interest in Scotland, a large circle of auld stones. You walk between two of the standing stones and you suddenly feel terribly dizzy and fall on the ground. When you open your eyes, reluctantly, asking yourself who and where you are, there is this Scottish hero in tartan, kneeling at your side and saying tenderly: “Ciamar a tha tu, mo chridhe?”1. Time to lose consciousness once more.2

But don’t tell me the above question in a foreign language does not look very interesting to you, intriguingly nice and … different. I wouldn’t know anything about the sound of it, let me admit – Scottish Gaelic pronunciation really is a difficult topic.

So, what on Earth are we going to do here? Trying to find out some other interesting facts about Scottish Gaelic, of course. I am not going to write a real linguistic analysis of it, though. Allow me to share some trivia instead. Vita brevis, anyway.

1. ALPHABET: The official modern Scottish Gaelic (SG) alphabet cannot be the reason the language is disappearing. It has only 18 letters, none of them unusual in any known way. They are: A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H, I, L, M, N, O, P, R, S, T, U and they were traditionally named after trees. Thus, the SG name for the letter a is ailm – elm; followed by beith (birch), coll (hazel), dair (oak) and so on. On the other hand, SG also has 23 diphthongs … But we were going to omit the pronunciation part, anyway. Have a look at the Gaelic script instead.

2. GRAMMAR of SG: very interesting, indeed.

2.1. GENDER: SG has no neutral gender, only masculine and feminine nouns. Not all of the gender classification of living beings sticks to the facts of life, though. Thus, duine (man) is of course masculine, but so is boirenach (woman)3. Some scholars claim the masculine gender paradigm is suppressing the feminine one. Sisters, don’t let it happen.

2.2. NUMBER: SG still has some forms of dual, notably after the numeral two.

2.3. ADJECTIVES: They always follow the noun. So you say “Morning good” in SG: Madain mhath! And if you consider yourself a good man, you are not – you are “A man good” instead: Duine math. Sounds like a question to me.

2.4. CASES: SG has 5 cases: nominative, vocative, genitive and dative aka prepositional case, with corresponding declension patterns. It has no accusative, though.

2.5. WORD ORDER: Apart from adjectives following their nouns, cf. 2.3. above, in SG the subject will follow its verb. Example: Tha an duine reamhair (lit. Is the man fat – The man is fat).

2.6. BE, HAVE: SG has two verbs meaning “to be” (tha, is) and none meaning “to have” – they will say things like “x is at/on the person”. Example: tha taigh agam – I have a house (lit. a house is at me).

Scottish Gaelic … nice! Time to open your eyes and say A bhalaich to your hero. (O boy.)



– – – – – – – –

1 How are you, my darling?

2 This scene is more or less similar to the beginning of the Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon.

3 Apart from my beloved Wikipedia, I also used The Outlandish Companion by Diana Gabaldon as a source for some language facts in this post.


11 responses to “LinguNorth: Scottish Gaelic

  • ka-ma

    Wait, wait…. I think I can see Sean Connery there in the distance, wearing a kilt and being super charming…I wonder if he could speak SG, though.

    Great post, I enjoyed it a lot. Can’t help but love those quaint languages!

  • alcessa

    Thank you. Yes, there are quite a few fascinating languages out there 🙂

  • pengovsky

    Wow! Thanks… That’s one of the parts of Scotland that – alas – remained unexplored during my trip to the country…

  • alcessa

    Well, that’s no surprise, unfortunately… If I remember correctly, there are round 70.000 speakers of SG, but all of them speak English, too. Probably most of the time.

    Where were you in Scotland?

  • DarkoV

    Is the SG word for “Darling”, masculine or feminine?
    Just want to keep it clear in case a man in kilts and a pint in hands (after many repeated pints) starts throwing the “darling” around.

  • alcessa

    DarkoV: you do no tend to faint, do you? 😈

    (I think “mo chridhe” is something a man says to a woman, but I am not sure)

  • lisa

    Seems to me that Sean is a big Scottish nationalist, so he’d likely speak a bit of the Gaidhlig, no? Neat post. I’ve made a few brief forays into Irish, but have retreated for now (not having access to native speakers makes learning the pronounciation impossible). I’ll pick up my studies again when I have a chance to visit a gaeltacht.

  • alcessa

    Hóigh Lisa, glad you feel well in close proximity to Gaidhlig… 🙂

  • Tomaž Z.

    If I remember correctly, there are round 70.000 speakers of SG, but all of them speak English, too. Probably most of the time.

    While the majority of them *might* speak English as well, SG is the first official language of the Western Isles, and getting around there requires one to understand at least the basics ;P (Sure, you can get along with English in some parts) You can, however, explore on your own, but I somehow doubt the experience would be as pleasurable as it would’ve been with the basic knowledge of SG. 😉

  • alcessa

    That is good news, Tomaž. I sincerely hope they will preserve the language as long as possible.

  • LinguNorth: Scottish Gaelic « moosings

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