LinguNorth: Scottish Gaelic

(INTRO: This post was first published on May 10, 2007. I am officially re-using it today)

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.)


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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.


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