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Gaels of the World – Lenite! – beginning my journey into Scottish Gaelic

By David Carr

Halò. ‘S e Daibhidh an t-ainm a th’ orm – or Hello. My name is David. Literally ‘It is David the name that is on me.’  I have absolutely no reason to learn Gaelic. None whatsoever.

When I first came to live in Scotland, bilingual road signs were something I noticed that gave a sense of place. As we drove north from Glasgow, the signs would charmingly change as we passed by Inbhir Nis (Inverness) and over to Geàrrloch (Gairloch) on the north west coast. There was, I confess, a certain romance in it – something that must do at least as much for the Scottish tourist economy as the appurtenances of monarchy.

As a ‘New Scot,’ I knew nothing of Gaelic. I developed instead an interest in and love for the Scots language – as a vernacular, and in poetry. Scots has the advantage over Gaelic of being mutually intelligible with English. But Gaelic was still a mystery. As with most Scots, my Gaelic was limited to ‘Slàinte mhath’ (Cheers) – which few Scots can spell –  and Bunnahabhain, a species of malt whisky. 

So alien is Gaelic to the vast majority of  Scots that there’s  even uncertainty over how Gaelic – Gàidhlig, in Gaelic – is pronounced. It’s ‘Gallic’, not ‘Gaylick.’ Some Scots may know that their country is named ‘Alba’ – but few, not even a certain former First Minister, know how to pronounce it. There’s an ‘epenthetic vowel’ – think of the way some Scots and Irish say ‘fillum’ for ‘film’. it goes something like ‘Aluh-pah.

I have no Gaelic in my family. I have no great connection to the Gàldhealtachd – the Highlands and islands of Scotland where Gaelic still clings on. I don’t even watch Outlander. Like most  Scots my only encounter with it was on unpronounceable signs and on hillwalking maps..

And why would anyone even want to earn Gaelic? The question is often asked by those who judge a language merely by its ‘usefulness’. What’s the point of learning a dying language that is only spoken by a few thousand people, all of whom also speak English natively?  There is contempt for Gaelic.

The contempt spills into politics. Some begrudge the spending – actually trivial – by the Scottish Government to promote Gaelic as a national language. They deride such things as the use of ‘poileas’ and ‘ambaileans’ on police cars and ambulances. Some even project onto Gaelic the idea that it is being kept alive only to make a pro Scottish independence political point. In truth – Gaels are as divided as anyone on independence and there is absolutely no mileage in learning Gaelic for ‘patriotic’ reasons. I don’t do patriotism anyway.

If I’m honest, my initial reason for becoming interested in Gaelic was idle curiosity. To an amateur philologist with a love of words,  languages are simply lovely. Gaelic is lovely. The way I see languages is that they are intricate, human-made edifices, like cathedrals of the mind. Aren’t cathedrals cool? Aren’t cathedrals worth conserving?

I only approached Gaelic very slowly, after almost thirty years in Scotland. A holiday on Skye found me next to Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, the Gaelic college, which hosted performances by esteemed Gaelic singers. This piqued my interest and I tried a few taster sessions before, eventually, joining a class.

Inevitably when learning Gaelic you immediately start to encounter a little of the culture that is woven into the language. A very early thing I learned was the practice of having a Gaelic name to use in Gaelic and an English one for English. I was to be Daibhidh – a name intimidating in both its pronunciation and spelling.

So first things first – how to unlock the sounds of Gaelic. The Gaelic alphabet has only eighteen letters (no j, k, q v, w, x, y or z) Gaelic words look super complicated to the uninitiated – and you’re on a hiding to nothing if you try to pronounce them as though they were English. Try getting your head around a word like ‘searbhadairean-shoithichean’ (dishcloths). But the rules are straightforward – and once you learn to read words in clumps, it begins to click. 

A lot of the letters that remain appear to be h’s. This brings us to joys of lenition, the ‘softening’ of certain consonants by adding an h and thereby changing their pronunciation.  Bh and mh become v; sh and th are h’s, fh is silent –  and so on. It’s all very complicated. Lenition has a myriad of grammatical uses – an easy one being adjective agreement – ‘là math’ (good day) versus ‘oidhche mhath’ (goodnight). You first encounter lenition on day one. To talk to me, you would have to use the vocative case – ‘a Dhaibhidh.’

A challenging part of Gaelic is the idiosyncrasies and irregularities that you ‘just have to learn.’  My teacher – who, as a native Gael and of an older generation, can get away with perpetuating potentially offensive stereotypes – speaks of ‘the drunk man who invented Gaelic’

Gaelic irregular verbs, for example, are a world of fun.  In principle, Gaelic verbs are easy enough. They don’t conjugate, there is no present tense as such – you have to use a verbal noun construction. Verbal nouns –  yup –  ‘just have to be learned’  All you have to really know is that there are positive, negative, question and negative question forms. But would you ever guess that ‘a’ dol, a dh’ fhalbh, deach, chaidh, tèid, thèid, rach! And thalla! are all parts of the same verb (to go)?

Wait  – did I mention that there is no word for Yes or No in Gaelic? So when you answer a question, you have to repeat the verb. ‘An deach thu dhan Barraigh’?’ (‘Did you go to Barra’) must be answered ‘Chaidh‘ for ‘Yes’ (‘went’ ) or ‘Cha deach’ for ‘No’ (‘didn’t go’). That one blew my mind.

I’ve become an enthusiast for Gaelic. I’m not saying that my Gaelic is up to much, but it was at least a thrilling Achievement Unlocked moment when I was able to make complicated  WhatsApp arrangements to meet Barra friends in a pub (’taigh-seinnse’  – literally ‘house of singing.’)

It is now a joy  for me  to be able to spot rare examples of Gaelic ‘In the wild’. For example – to see a poster promoting Gaelic on Glagow’s ‘Clockwork Orange’ underground which read  ‘Fo-rèile Ghlaschu’ (er…Glasgow Underground) and to now know that the G of Glaschu (another epenthetic vowel in there!) is lenited because ‘rèile’ is feminine. 

And I like to think I add to the joy with my ‘Luchd-obrach an t-saoghail thigibh còmhla’ t-shirt (Workers of the world unite). I get a rosy glow of smugness from knowing that ‘luchd’  is the irregular plural of ‘neach’ (person) – and ‘obrach’ the irregular genitive of ‘obair’ (work). It’s a great t-shirt for making friends.

My ambition is to read Somhairle MacGill-Eain (Sorley MacLean) – one of the big three twentieth century Scottish poets, along with Norman McCaig (English) and Hugh McDiarmid (Lallans Scots). With the help of an amazing charity shop find of a parallel text of his Selected Works – I’m on my way. There is a whole Gaelic world out there – that I’m not yet a part of – but I now get glimpses.

So that’s where I am now. Amongst Gaelic-speakers there is an inevitable distinction between native Gaels and Gaelic Learners. I’m proud that I can count myself amongst the learners. There is a Gaelic saying ‘Is fheàrr Gàidhlig bhriste na Gàidhlig sa chiste.’ – loosely, ‘Better broken Gaelic than dead Gaelic’ . Well – at least mine is broken.

Do you want to learn some Gaelic? You can! For those who like their language learning gamified (I don’t, personally), the Duolingo Scottish Gaelic course is free, in support of endangered minority languages. There you will learn the usual Duolingo delights such as ‘Tha taigeis bhlasta!’ (haggis is tasty) and ‘Òbh! Òbh! Chan eil Mairi drathais oirre.’ (Oh dear! Mary isn’t wearing pants.) But what I really recommend is the wealth of free resources at learngaelic.net. They have online courses, a good dictionary – and you can even learn Gaelic through the medium of song.

Tioraidh!

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