Eilean Donan Castle
Five-Minute Friday

Five-Minute Friday: A Quick Look at Scottish Gaelic

Hi there! So, a quick intro for this post/series idea: I thought it would be fun to just take a quick look at anything language-related that interested me and deliver a post that answers questions and which can be read in around five minutes or so.

Hopefully, you’ll manage to get through this in that time, I hope you enjoy it, and if you have any suggestions for what I should look at, feel free to drop them in the comments or email me.

Onward with Scottish Gaelic!

So, I wrote a very, very brief intro to the language in this post last year, when I started my 20 Endangered Languages in 2020 project. I’ve been learning the language since, and although I’m still a beginner, it’s been a fun journey.

Onto the questions:

What is Scottish Gaelic called?

In English – Scottish Gaelic, or sometimes Gaelic, though it’s pronounced differently depending on whether you’re referring to Irish or Scottish Gaelic (and, of course, Irish Gaelic is often just called Irish). When you’re speaking Scottish Gaelic, it’s Gàidhlig – pronounced the same as if you say it the ‘correct’ way in English!

Where is Scottish Gaelic spoken today?

In Scotland, the 2011 census found among the 87,503 people who have some Gaelic skills, the highest number of speakers could be found in the council areas of Highland, Eilean Siar, and Glasgow City. Eilean Siar is the council for the Outer Hebrides and is based in Stornoway, on the Isle of Lewis (off the northwest coast of Scotland); it boasts the best figures, with 61% of people over the age of three having some skill in the language.

There are also dialects of Scottish Gaelic spoken in Atlantic Canada, particularly in Cape Breton. The 2011 census found there were a total of 7,195 speakers of ‘Gaelic languages’ in the country, though this could, of course, also include speakers of Irish.

Find out more about Gaelic in Scotland here.

Why are Scottish Gaelic and Irish so similar?

Both are descended from the same language! Like Irish – and Manx – Scottish Gaelic is a Goidelic language, and all three developed out of Old Irish. Scottish Gaelic became its own language at some point during the 13th century, the Middle Irish period, but the Gaels who lives in Scotland and Ireland shared a common literary language for around another 300 years. Obviously, Scottish Gaelic and Irish Gaelic are not the same language, but they still share many similarities even today.

Is Scottish Gaelic hard to learn?

If you’re a native English speaker, then Scottish Gaelic likely won’t be any more difficult for you than most other European languages. Pronunciation might be a hurdle at first, but a lot of modern words are borrowed from English and, once you learn the alphabet, that’s an easy problem to solve. There are a fair few high-quality resources available too, so although it may not have the same depth of materials as French or German, you won’t really go without!

Is Scottish Gaelic a dying language?

UNESCO classifies the language as endangered and, sadly, a study from last year suggested that without some radical action, it will have died out within a decade. This is because, despite the increasing numbers of people claiming some knowledge of Scottish Gaelic, only around 11,000 are habitual speakers. We’ll have to wait and see the numbers from this year’s census but experts believe that if the proportion of people in the Western Isles who speak Scottish Gaelic has fallen to around 45%, then the language will be on the verge of non-viability.

How many letters are in the Scottish Gaelic alphabet?

There are 18 letters – compared to the 26 we use for English. These letters are:

A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H, I, L, M, N, O, P, R, S, T, U

The others are not used, except for certain loanwords. Vowels can also have an accent (called a stràc in Gaelic), which usually makes it longer. Don’t forget the accents, because they can change the meaning of a word!

Traditionally, each letter of the Gaelic alphabet was named after a tree. Although these names aren’t used every day, it’s still an interesting fact to know about.

The tree names are:

A – Ailm – Elm

B – Beith – Birch

C – Coll – Hazel

D – Dair – Oak

E – Eadha – Aspen

F – Feàrn – Alder

G – Gort – Ivy

H – Uath – Hawthorn

I – Iogh – Yew

L – Luis – Rowan

M – Muin – Vine

N – Nuin – Ash

O – Oir / Onn – Gorse

P – Peith bhog – Downy Birch

R – Ruis – Elder

S – Suil – Willow

T – Teine – Whin

U – Ur – Heather

If you want to learn how to pronounce the tree names in Scottish Gaelic, then go here.

Oh, and here’s a Scottish Gaelic alphabet song, if you want to give it a try!

How can you learn Scottish Gaelic?

Fortunately, there are more and more good online resources for Scottish Gaelic.

Apps

  • Duolingo, obviously, made headlines when they first released their Scottish Gaelic course. It features audio from native speakers, too, which is nice. However, make sure to use the desktop version to get the full experience!
  • uTalk has Scottish Gaelic on their app, again featuring native-speaker audio. This app will teach you commonly-used words and phrases. You won’t learn grammar, but you’ll manage a lot of solo speaking and listening practice.

Online Resources

  • Learn Gaelic has it all! There are courses for various levels, grammar explanations and pronunciation guides, and a large dictionary. The dictionary is sadly not perfect, but it’s one of the better ones out there.
  • Sabhal Mòr Ostaig has a great list of resources here. I haven’t been through all of them, but there’s bound to be a lot of good stuff.

Textbooks

The two I’m using are:

Both work well alone, or together – check out the Look Inside on Amazon for a sneak peek!

I hope you’ve enjoyed this; I’ll be back next week with a quick look at Korean!

Author

xuexisprachen@gmail.com

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