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Scottish Gaelic language

Scottish Gaelic, Scots Gaelic or just Gaelic (Gàidhlig; SAMPA: /"gAlIk/) is a member of the Goidelic branche of Celtic languages. The Goidelic (northern) branch includes Scottish and Irish Gaelic as well as Manx, and is distinct from the Brythonic branch which includes Welsh, Cornish, and Breton. Scottish, Manx and Irish Gaelic are all descended from Old Irish.

Scottish Gaelic is the traditional language of the Gaels, the race of Celtic Scots now mainly in the Scottish Highlands, and the historical language of most of Scotland. As such, it occupies a special place in Scottish culture, and is recognised by most Scots, whether they speak Gaelic or not, as being a priceless part of the nation's culture. Gaelic has a rich oral tradition (beul aithris), having been the language of the bardic culture of the Highland clans for several centuries. The language suffered as the Highlanders and their traditions were persecuted, especially after Culloden and since the Highland Clearances, but despite lingering prejudices, the language is now achieving greater cultural and official recognition.

Scottish Gaelic may be more correctly known as Highland Gaelic to distinguish it from the now defunct Lowland Gaelic. Lowland Gaelic was spoken in the southern regions of Scotland prior to the introduction of Scots. There is, however, no evidence of a linguistic border following the topographical north-south differences. Similarly, there is no evidence from placenames of significant linguistic differences between, for example, Argyll and Galloway.

There is also a Scottish Gaelic Wikipedia.

Scottish Gaelic (Gàidhlig na h-Alba)
Spoken in: Scotland, Canada
Region: Scottish Highlands, Nova Scotia
Total speakers: 61,000
Ranking: Not in top 100


Official status
Official language of: Scotland
Regulated by: Bòrd na Gàidhlig
Language codes
ISO 639-1 gd
ISO 639-2 gla



The Gaelic alphabet has 18 letters (the usual 26 except j, k, q, v, w, x, y, and z). The letters of the alphabet were traditionally named after trees: ailm (elm), beith (birch), coll (hazel), dair (oak), and so on, but sadly, this custom is no longer followed.

The quality of consonants is partially indicated by the vowels surrounding them. The vowels are classified as caol ("slender", i.e. e and i) or leathann ("broad", i.e. a, o and u). The spelling rule is

caol ri caol is leathann ri leathann

(slender to slender and broad to broad). This means that an interior consonant group must be surrounded by vowels of the same quality to indicate its pronunciation unambiguously, since some consonants change their pronunciation depending on whether they are surrounded by broad or slender vowels: e.g., compare the t in slàinte (/sla:ntSe/) and bàta (/ba:ta/).

In most cases, however, the rule has no effect on pronunciation. For example, plurals in Gaelic are often formed with the suffix -an. For example, bròg (shoe) and brògan (shoes); however, to comply with the spelling rule, taigh (house) must become taighean (houses).

In changes promoted by the Scottish Examination Board from 1976 onwards, certain modifications were made to this rule. For example, togte (rather than the traditional togta) is allowed.

Using the above rule, it is sometimes unclear whether a vowel has been introduced for its own pronunciation or for its effect upon a consonant. In cases where the vowel should be pronounced the fada is used in Irish to make it clear, but in Scottish Gaelic it represents the length of the vowel sound (with a few exceptions to distinguish syntax).

Consonants can also be mutated by a following h.

Consonant Normal   H-Mutated  
  Broad Slender Broad Slender
b b b v v
c k ky kh khy
d d j th y
f f f h h
g g gy silent y
A table of consonants with approximate pronunciations using English spelling

Once Gaelic orthographic rules have been learned, the written language can be seen to be quite phonetic. However this is not generally apparent to those who try to apply English spelling rules to try to decipher Gaelic pronunciations from text. Hence the widespread mispronunciation of Gaelic personal names, such as Seònaid when they are used by English speakers.


Most letters are pronounced similarly to other European languages, although <t> and <d> are given a dental pronunciation (in contrast to the apical pronunciation common in other languages), <l> is usually dark, and <r> is trilled.

The lenited consonants have special pronunciations: mh is /v/ or silent; ch is /x/; dh is / j\ / or /G/; th is /h/ or /?/.

There are a few general features worth noting.

  • Stress is usually on the first syllable: e.g. drochaid (/"droxatS/).

(Knowledge of this fact alone would help avoid many a mispronunciation of Highland placenames. e.g. Mallaig is /"malek/. Note, though, that when a placename consists of more than one word in Gaelic, that the Anglicised form can have stress elsewhere: Tyndrum (/tVin"drVm/) < Taigh an Droma (/t2i an "droma/).

  • A distinctive feature of Gaelic pronunciation (which has influenced the Scottish accent — cf. girl /[email protected]/ and film /[email protected]/) is the insertion of epenthetic vowels between certain adjacent consonants, specifically, between sonorants (<l> or <r>) and certain following consonants:
tarbh (bull) — /[email protected]/
Alba (Scotland) — /[email protected]/.

Interestingly, this feature, which is common to the Celtic languages, also appears in Indian languages, from which it gets its name, svarabhakti. Since it only appears now in the westernmost and easternmost Indoeuropean languages (the extremities of the Indoeuropean sprachbund), this suggests that it occurred in Proto Indoeuropean but was lost in the centre where the languages have changed most.

  • The letters <b>, <d>, and <g> are voiced in initial but unvoiced in medial and final positions:
duine — /[email protected]/
bradan — /bratan/
balach — /[email protected]/
Alba — /[email protected]/.

For <p> and <t>, the rule is that they are pronounced in the usual (voiceless) way in initial position, but pre-aspirated in medial and final position (to an extent which varies between dialects):

cat — /kaCt/ or /kaxt/.


Gaelic has a number of interesting grammatical features:

  • Verb-Subject-Object word order; a relatively uncommon typology among the world's languages.
  • Prepositional pronouns: Gaelic combines pronouns and most prepositions into compound forms, such as agam (at me), agad (at thee), ris (to him).
  • Gaelic has no verb to have. Instead possession is expressed by saying that something is at a person:
tha taigh agam — I have a house (lit. a house is at me)
an cat aig Iain — Iain's cat (lit. the cat at Iain)
  • Emphatic pronouns: A distinction is made between the ordinary pronouns, like mi and thu, and their emphatic counterparts, mise and thusa, etc., which express a contrast to other persons.

For example:

tha i bòidheach — she's beautiful
tha ise bòidheach — she 's beautiful (as opposed to somebody else)

Grammatical emphasis carries over into other situations:

an taigh aicese — her house
chuirinnse — I would put
na mo bheachd-sa — in my opinion
  • "To be": Gaelic has two forms of the verb "to be": tha is used to ascribe a property to a noun or pronoun, whereas in general usage is is used to identify a noun or pronoun as a complement. ('Is' can be used to ascribe a description to a noun or pronoun, but generally this usage is restricted to ossified forms, e.g. 'Is beag an t-iongnadh' lit. 'Is small the surprise'
tha mise sgìth — I am tired
is mise Eòghan — I am Ewen.

It is, however, possible to use tha to say that one thing is another thing by turning it into a property:

tha mi nam Albannach — I am a Scot (lit. I am in my Scot)
Is e Albannach a th'annam — I am a Scot (lit. it's a Scot that's in me).


Gaelic has a range of definite articles but no indefinite article:

an taigh — the house
taigh — a house

The form of the (definite) article depends on the number, gender, case, and initial letter of the noun.

(i). For masculine, singular, nominative nouns use an, am, and an t-:

an cat (also for nouns which cannot be lenited)
am balach (nouns which begin with labial consonants)
an t-òran (nouns which begin with vowels)

(ii). When the noun can be lenited, a' is used in two cases:

a'chaileag (feminine nominative and dative)
leis a'bhalach (masculine dative and genitive)

(iii). For feminine, genitive singular it is na, and na h-:

na mara — of the sea
na h-Alba — of [the] Scotland

(iv). For plurals (nominative and dative), the situation is simpler. The article is normally na, but is na h- if the noun begins with a vowel:

na cait — the cats
na h-àireamhan — the numbers

(v). The form of the genitive plural (nan or nam) just depends on whether the noun begins with a labial:

nan cat — of the cats
nam balach — of the boys

Differences between Scottish Gaelic and Irish

Scottish Gaelic is similar to Irish, although most dialects are not mutually comprehensible. the closest is the dialect spoken in Donegal, as illustrated by the sentence "How are you?"

Scottish Gaelic — Ciamar a tha thu?'
Ulster Irish — Caidé mar a tá tú?
Standard Irish — Conas atá tú?

However, there are some important differences. The most obvious is that the accent, or fada, is written as a grave accent in Scottish Gaelic, as opposed to the acute accent of Irish, hence the word for "welcome" is written as fàilte in Scottish Gaelic and in Irish as fáilte. Also, the negative participle in Scottish Gaelic is cha(n) eil whereas in standard Irish it is níl, (a contraction of chan eil), as illustrated by the sentence "I have no money" (cha is still a legitimate Irish word, though):

Scottish Gaelic — Chan eil airgead agam.
Standard Irish — Níl aon airgead agam.

Some words have "a" in Irish but "u" in Scottish Gaelic, for instance the word for the English language Béarla in Irish and Beurla. This is due to a spelling reform and standardisation which has taken place in Ireland under the auspices of the Irish government during the 20th century.

Gael Gael Gaidheal
day latha
night oíche oidhche
inside isteach a-steach
school scoil sgoil
child páiste pàisde
authority údarás ùghdarras
office oifig oifis
open oscailte fosgailte
year bliana bliadhna
radio raidió radio
government rialtas riaghaltas
parliament parlaimint pàrlamaid
island oileann eilean

Note that lenited consonants, which can be silent, glottal stops, or act to lengthen a vowel, are written in Gaelic but omitted in the corresponding Irish words when silent (in the same sense that the t in the English word often is "silent").

in i ann
minister aire ministear
road bóthar rathad
cold (illness) slaghdán cnatan
talking caint bruidhinn
(Scottish) Highlands Garbhchríocha (na hAlban) Gaidhealtachd* (na h-Alba)
Wales An Bhreatain Bheag** A' Chuimrigh
island oileann eilean
* Similar to Irish Gaeltacht
** In Gaelic, this means Brittany

Official Recognition

After centuries of official discouragement, Gaelic is achieving a degree of official recognition. As well as being taught in schools, including some in which it is the medium of instruction, it is also used by the local council in the Western Isles, Comhairle nan Eilean. The BBC also operates a Gaelic language radio station Radio nan Gaidheal (which regularly transmits joint broadcasts with its Irish counterpart Raidió na Gaeltachta), and there are also television programmes in the language on the BBC and on the ITV commercial channels, usually subtitled in English. The ITV franchisee in the north of Scotland, Grampian Television, has a studio in Stornoway.

However, a separate Gaelic language TV service, similar to S4C in Wales and TG4 in Ireland, has been under consideration. As in Wales, the showing of programmes in the language as regional opt-outs on the main channels has been regarded as inadequate for the 60,027 who speak it, and as an annoyance to some of the English or Scots speaking 5,900,004 who do not. In fact, this annoyance is largely assumed: the evidence is that at least one Gaelic television programme produced by the BBC attains viewing figures in excess of the number of Gaelic speakers that could view it in Scotland. No complaints are being received by the BBC about Gaelic-language television programmes on BBC TV channels, perhaps because subtitling them in English makes them equally accessible to non-Gaelic speakers.

Historically, Gaelic has not received the same degree of official recognition from the UK Government as Welsh, although a Gaelic Bill has now been passed by the Scottish Parliament.

The key provisions of the Bill are:

  • Recognising in legislation Gaelic as a language of Scotland
  • Establishing the Gaelic development body, Bòrd na Gàidhlig , on a statutory basis to promote the use and understanding of Gaelic
  • Requiring Bòrd na Gàidhlig to prepare a National Gaelic Language Plan for approval by Scottish Ministers
  • Requiring public bodies in Scotland to consider the need for a Gaelic language plan in relation to the services they offer.

In Nova Scotia, there are somewhere between 500 and 1,000 native speakers, most of them now elderly. In May 2004, the Provincial government announced the funding of an initiative to support the language and its culture within the province.

The UK government has ratified the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages in respect of Gaelic.

The Columba Initiative, also known as Iomairt Cholm Cille, is a body that seeks to promote links between speakers of Gaelic and Irish.

Place names

Aberdeen — Obar Dheathain
Dundee — Dùn Dèagh
Edinburgh — Dùn Éideann
Fort William — An Gearasdan
Glasgow — Glaschu
Inverness — Inbhir Nis
Perth — Peairt
Stirling — Sruighlea
Stornoway — Steòrnabhagh

Personal Names

Gaelic has a number of unique personal names, such as Donnchadh, Dòmhnall. Some names were borrowed from Norse: Somhairle, Tormod. There are also distinctly Gaelic forms of names with cognates in other European languages: Eòghan, Iain, Catrìona, Anna.

The most common form of Gaelic surname is, of course, those beginning with mac (son (of)), such as Mac Gille Eathainn (MacLean). The female form is nic, so Catriona MacPhi is properly called in Gaelic, Catrìona Nic a'Phì.

Several colours give rise to common Scottish surnames: bàn (Bain - white), ruadh (Roy - red), dubh (Dow - black), donn (Dunn - brown).


The majority of Gaelic's vocabulary is native Celtic. There is a number of borrowings from Latin, especially in the religious domain (eaglais, Bìoball), Norse (eilean, sgeir), Scots (sgealp, briogais) and, in common with other European languages, neologisms tend to be formed from Greek and Latin roots (telebhisean). A worrying trend for some Gaelic speakers is the increasing use of English words within a Gaelic grammar. Verbs like "watch-igeadh" (watching) and "catch-eadh" (catching) are commonly used on Leòdhas (Lewis).

Going in the other direction, Gaelic has influenced Scots (gob) and English, particularly Scottish Standard English. Loanwords include: whisky, slogan, brogue, jilt, clan, strontium, as well as familiar elements of Scottish geography like ben (beinn), glen (gleann) and loch.

Source: An Etymological Dictionary of the Gaelic Language, Alexander MacBain.

See also

External Links

Last updated: 10-24-2004 05:10:45