A Focus on Scots Gaelic
Guest Post by D. Rowen Grove
Over the years, I have studied a number of European and non-European languages. I lived in Puerto Rico for five years in my teens, and the study of Spanish was both required by my high school and very useful for living in the culture. This was my first experience in understanding the differences in thought-patterns induced by extensive study of another language. Although I am not now as fluent as I was then, I continue to have some random practice with the language, and occasionally a fragment surfaces in my dreams.
In the late 1990s, I took up the study of Scots Gaelic, at first in order to sing Hebridean music correctly, and continued because I became enamored of the language itself. I tried adding Welsh a few years ago, but discovered that I was not happy with this, as my Gaelic was becoming increasingly rusty and tangled with the Welsh, so have reverted to working on the Gaelic on my own, as my teacher is no longer in the area.
Scots Gaelic, or Gàidhlig, is one of the three languages of the Goidelic branch of Celtic Languages, the other two being Irish [Gaelige] and Manx [Gaelgey]. Both the Scots and Manx forms, as well as modern Irish, are descended from Sengoidelc, the Old Irish. The language was brought into the area which became Scotland by the Scoti, the Irish settlers / invaders of western Scotland in approximately the fifth century CE.
Gaelic shares a considerable amount of vocabulary and grammar with other Indo-European languages, such as the Germanic or Latinate language families, but differs significantly in a number of respects. Some of these are as follows:
1. The usual word order in Gaelic is Verb, Subject, Object, unlike the typical English word order of Subject, Verb, Object. (Gaelic word order is occasionally altered to Subject, Verb, Object, for purposes of emphasis or identity.)
2. Gaelic has no indefinite particle “a” or “an” as in “a house”, which would simply be “taigh”. “The house” would be “an taigh.” “The house is small” is “tha an taigh beag.” (However, “caite a’bheil an taigh beag?” would be understood as “where is the toilet?” – a useful phrase in any language, although not one of ritual character.)
3. Gaelic lacks the equivalent of the verb “to have,” using a construction such as, “tha taigh agam” – literally “[a] house is at me”, rather than “I have a house.” This form is consistent for most things one “has”; a house, a cat, a spouse; an illness, however, is “on” the individual. Other things, such as hunger or thirst, are also “on” or “in” the person (or thing.) One says, “tha an padagh orm” – “the thirst is on me”, rather than “I am thirsty.” [See Appendix A for the different forms of the prepositions aig (at), air (on), le (with, by), ann (in), and do (to).]
4. Gaelic has no exact equivalent to “yes” or “no”; instead, most questions are answered by repeating the verb in the appropriate manner. “A bheil thu a’dol anise?” (“are you going now?”) would be answered with “tha” (literally “am”) or “chan eil” (“am not”).
5. In common with other modern Celtic languages, Gaelic words often have initial mutations, called lenitions, which depend on the preceding word or on their syntax. The two most common of these are caused by the possessives mo (my), do (your) or a (his), and the vocative case. As an example of lenition, Talamh-Màthair, (Earth Mother) becomes Thalamh-Màthair when addressed; the initial T is then silent, shifting the pronunciation from TA-lahv to HA-lahv. If one were simply addressing “Màthair”, the word would mutate as “a Mhàthair”, and the pronunciation would change from MAH-hair to VAH-hair. (A full survey of lenitions would be too extensive to attempt here.)
6. In common with many other Indo-European languages, although not English, Gaelic nouns have gender, and there is no neutral gender or “it” in the language. The gender of inanimate objects must be learned by experience, as there seems to be no particular order, and unlike the Latinate languages, the gender is not indicated by the orthography.
7. Most Gaelic adjectives, like those of many European languages (although again, not English) follow the noun they modify. Thus, “an cù dubh” literally, “the dog black.”
8. There are two forms of the verb “to be”, the more common being “tha”, and the other “is”, which is used for persons or other animate things, as in “is mise Rowen”, “I am Rowen”, or “is an athro a tha ann”, “it is the teacher that is in him”, i.e. “he is a teacher.”
This is by no means an exhaustive list, but does cover some of the most commonly encountered differences. It should be kept in mind that for Gaelic, as well as other languages, there is in most cases no such thing as an exact translation from or into English (or any other language.) Modern spoken Gaelic contains a number of borrowings from English (and occasionally other languages), many of which are for things which were not part of traditional Gaelic culture, such as cofaidh for coffee, and peatroil for petrol. Now and again English acquires a word from Gaelic, as in the word “galore”, which comes from the Gaelic gu leor: plenty, enough. Gaelic also contains a number of cognates, particularly with other Celtic languages, derived from Latin or from their common Indo-European ancestry. Once the orthography is understood (admittedly a somewhat lengthy task), the pronunciation and spelling are considerably less daunting that they often appear to learners.
As far as we are aware, there is very little surviving influence into Scots Gaelic from the Pictish language, or other languages which may have been in use in Western Scotland and the Hebrides prior to the influx of the Scoti from Ireland in the fifth century CE. There may be some remains of the Cumbric language of the Northern British culture (Newton, 227); there are many Gaelic cognates with modern Welsh, as in the words for “river”: abhainn vs. afon. (The pronunciations are very close: AH-vain vs. AH-von.) It is, however, uncertain which cognates are derived from Latin or other sources, or are similar due to a common Indo-European heritage. It is also difficult to determine when Scots Gaelic began to diverge significantly from the Irish, as the first extant Gaelic documents were written in the 12th century. (Russell, 27.) Many medieval Gaelic documents continued to be written in an Irish orthography, although the early sixteenth-century Book of the Dean of Lismore (a collection of Gaelic poetry made by two brothers, Sir James and Duncan MacGregor,) indicates a separate dialect at that point. (Russell, 28.) The original orthography of the Book of the Dean of Lismore varies considerably from that of the nineteenth century printing; I have also observed that the nineteenth century spelling varies somewhat from current practices.
The Gaelic language suffered under James VI and I, whose antagonism toward Gaelic culture was fueled partly by anti-Catholic prejudices of the Reformation, and partly by his determination to bring the Gaelic clan chieftains under his control. Nine Gaelic chieftains were abducted and forced to sign the 1609 Statutes of Iona, “designed to Anglicize leaders and institutions of Gaelic society in order to bring them under control of central government.” (Newton, 60). The travelling bards, keepers of the oral culture, were outlawed, and all families of wealth were required to send their heirs to be taught to “speik, reid, and wryte Inglische,” (Newton, 61) thus alienating the upcoming generation of leaders from their native culture.
English attacks on the language and culture continued, particularly following the disastrous Jacobite uprising of 1745, and the beginning of the Highland Clearances by absentee landlords; Dr. Samuel Johnson observed in 1773, “of what [the Gaels] had before the late conquest of their country, there remains only their language and their poverty, and their language is attacked on every side.” (quoted in Newton, 69.) Farther deliberate suppression of the Gaelic language and culture continued in the 19th and 20th centuries, until it was pushed out of most of Scotland, to survive now mostly in a few western coastal communities, some of the Hebrides, and the Gaelic-speaking cultural enclaves of Nova Scotia, Canada.
Languages may reflect, often in subtle ways, the values of their associated culture/s. For example, I would conjecture that the usage of the prepositions “at” or “on” to indicate ownership, rather than a verb meaning specifically “to have” may indicate less stress on material possessions within the culture. Also, the two common forms of “you”, which are thu (singular, informal) and sibh, (formal or plural) are still very much in use, reflecting, perhaps, the importance still given to different levels of formality appropriate in addressing those who are one’s equals, or of showing respect for elders. This distinction has largely been lost in modern English usage.
In Gaelic, as in other languages, there may be many ways to say a given thing, and context is important in any translation; a literal word-for-word approach is seldom satisfactory. Several years ago, I was asked to assist a young couple, who (although they did not speak Gaelic) wished to renew their wedding vows in that language, and had attempted their own translation. For the phrase “body and soul” they had used Gaelic words which would have been understood by a native speaker as “corpse and ghost” – literally correct, but hardly what they wanted to convey. My own suggestion was “spionnadh agus spiorad,” literally, “strength and spirit”; this was closer to what they wished to say, and in addition included the alliteration often found in Gaelic poetry. When making my own translations, I had to look up many words for which I did not know the Gaelic equivalent. In many cases, the English word had several possible translations, so for each of these, I first checked the English-to-Gaelic translation, then for each Gaelic word given, checked multiple Gaelic-to-English sources, until a good match was found.
The initial “O” in the English translation of many phrases below corresponds to the vocative particle “a” in Gaelic. (See note on lenition in the vocative case above.)
1. A Thalamh-Màthair, is mise / sinnse do leanabh / clann.
O Earth Mother, I am / we are your child / children.
2. Tro Teine ‘s tro Uisge Coisrigte, rinn an t-àite seo glan ‘s naomh.
By Fire and by sacred Water, this place is made pure and holy.
3. A Thobar Coisrigte, ruithibh a’annam / a’annain.
O Sacred Well, flow within me / us.
4. A Theine Coisrigte, loisgibh a’annam / a’annain.
O Sacred Fire, burn within me / us.
5. A Chraobh Coisrigte, cinnibh a’annam / a’annain.
O Sacred Tree, grow within me / us.
6. Tro talamh, tro muir, ‘s tro na speur,
By land, by sea, and by the heavens;
7. tro Teine, tro Tobar, ‘s tro an Craobh Cosrigte,
by Fire, by Well and by (the) Sacred Tree,
8. rinn an Coille Cosrigte naomhaich.
the Sacred Grove is made holy.
9. Cuireadh mi do ___________________, thoir dhomh còmhnadh ann an obair seo.
I call upon __________________, to aid me in this work.
10. mo shinnshearan ur sinnshearan
my Ancestors our Ancestors
11. càirdeas-fala no càirdeas-cridhe
blood-kin or heart-kin
12. na Sluagh na Fearann
the Folk of the Land
13. na Diathan àrd deàrrsach
the High and Shining Gods
14. Cuir mi fàilt’ aig mo theine coisrigte.
I give welcome at my sacred fire.
15. A’ Chàirdeach-trioblaich, Diathan àrd, tuath a’ talamh,‘s na sinnshearan seann, cuireadh mi / sinn dhuibh.
O triple Kindreds, High Gods, Land-folk and Ancestors, I / we call to you.
16. A’ ______________, cuireadh mi / sinn dhuibh
O ________________, I / we call to you.
17. Failte dhuibh fhein, a Dhiathan, a thuath a’ fearann, a mo shinnshearan seann.
Be welcome, o Gods, o Land Folk, o my ancient ancestors.
18. Dèan mi / sinn an ìobair seo.
I / we make this sacrifice.
19. Leigaibh mo labhairt èirich suas air a’ Teine,
Let my voice arise on the Flame,
20. leigaibh mo labhairt fuamnach ann a’ Tobar,
let my voice resound in the Well,
21. leigaibh an Craobh dèan cinnteach
let the Tree hold fast
22. an slighe sa’ mheadar.
the way [road] between.
23. A Dhiathan àrd, gaibhaidh mi / sinn ìobairt dhuibh.
O high Gods, I / we have given sacrifice to you.
24. Bitheadh an dha-Sealladh orm, bitheadh an Fios ceart annam.
Be the true Sight on me; be the true Knowledge in me.
25. Dè fàisneachd thoir dhomh / dhuinn cuir air ais?
What omen do you give me / us in return?
26. A Thuath Primideach, gaibhaidh mi oigheam ‘s urram dhuibh.
O Ancient Ones, I have given homage and honor to you.
27. Dèan mi / sinn ùrnaigh anise, thoir dhomh / dhuinn do bheannachadh,
I /we pray now, give me / us your blessing,
28. cho tabhartas iarr tabhartas air ais.
as a gift calls for a gift in return.
29. Tha an pathadh orm / oirnn air nan Uisgean Beatha.
I / we thirst for the Waters of Life.
30. Bitheadh na sòlas-speur deàrrsaich, losgadh,
May the light of the heavens shine and burn
31. ann an cupa beannaichte seo.
in this cup of blessing.
32. A ______________________, mo / ar bhuideachas airson do chòmhnadh.
O ______________________, my / our gratitude for your aid.
33. A ______________, coimheadair mòr a’ na geataichean, mo bhuideachas a-rithist airson do chòmhnadh.
O ______________, Great Gatekeeper, my gratitude again for your aid.
34. Bitheadh an Teine Coisrigte a-mhàin teine,
Be the Sacred Fire only flame,
35. Bitheadh an Tobar Coisrigte a-mhàin uisge,
be the Sacred Well only water,
36. bitheadh an Craobh Coisrigte a-mhàin fiodh,
be the Sacred Tree only wood,
37. ach air na draoidheachd de rinn mi.
except for the druid-magic that I have made.
38. Tha an obair seo seachad.
This work is finished.
Interestingly, I have as yet found no specific Scots Gaelic term for “inspiration” which would correspond to the Irish term Imbas, or the Welsh Awen. “To inspire” is “cuir ann an inntinn,” literally, to put on the purpose or will. Two Gaelic terms for “inspiration” are àrdachadh-inntinn and dùsgadh-inntinn. “Àrdachadh” is to advance, to elevate; dùsgadh translates as regeneration or revival; but intinn on its own signifies intellect, mind, purpose, or will, not inspiration. For ritual purposes, I tend to borrow the Irish term, Imbas.
Appendix A: Gaelic forms of common prepositions
Aig Air Le Ann Do
(at) (on) (with, by) (in) (to)
Mi (I, me) agam orm leam annam dhomh
Thu (you*) agad ort leat annad dhut
E (he, him) aige air leis ann dha
I (she, her) aice oirre leatha innte dhi
Sinn (we, us) againn oirnn leinn annain dhuinn
Sibh (you**) agaibh oirbh leibh annaibh dhuibh
Iad (them, they) aca orra leotha annta dhaibh
Thus, “at me” is agam, “to us” is dhuinn, “with her” is leatha, and so forth.
* “you” singular, informal
** “you” formal or plural
Bannerman, John, Studies in the History of Dalriada, Edinburgh, Scottish Academic Press Ltd., 1974. Print.
Dwelly, Edmund, The Illustrated Gaelic-English Dictionary; 11th ed., Glasgow, Gairm Publications, 1994. Print.
Evans, H. Meurig, Y Geiriadur Mawr: The Complete Welsh-English / English-Welsh Dictionary, Llandybie, Cyhoeddwyer, 1994. Print.
MacGregor, Sir James, and Duncan MacGregor, ed. Rev. Thomas M’Lauchlan and William F. Skene, The Dean of Lismore's Book: a Selection of Ancient Gaelic Poetry, From a Manuscript Collection Made by Sir James M'Gregor, Dean of Lismore, in the Beginning of the Sixteenth Century, Edinburgh, Edmonston and Douglas, 1862. Print. (This is now generally referred to as The Book of the Dean of Lismore.)
MacLeannan, Malcolm, A Pronouncing and Etymological Dictionary of the Gaelic Language, Glasgow, Gairm Publications, 1997. Print.
MacNeill, Morag; Everyday Gaelic, Glasgow, Gairm Publications, 1984. Print.
Mark, Colin B. D.; Gaelic Verbs: Systemized and Simplified, Edinburgh, Steve Savage, 2006. Print.
Newton, Michael, A Handbook of the Scottish Gaelic World, Dublin, Four Courts Press, 2000. Print.
Russell, Paul, An Introduction to the Celtic Languages, London and New York, Longman, 1995. Print.