Scottish Gaelic

Mar 30, 2010 by

Scots (discussed in yesterday’s posting), spoken in the Scottish Lowlands, is not to be confused with Scottish Gaelic, spoken mostly in the Highlands. It is a completely different language, and is much more distantly related to English: while English, Scots and Scottish Gaelic are all members of the Indo-European language family, English and Scots belong to the Germanic branch and Scottish Gaelic to the Celtic branch. Other Celtic languages include: Irish Gaelic (spoken by about 260,000 people in Ireland, according to the 1983 census), Breton (spoken by about 500,000 in France) and Welsh (spoken by about 500,000 people in Wales). The Celtic family also included such languages as Manx and Cornish (all but extinct, but used to be spoken on the Isle of Man and Cornwall, respectively) and Gaulish (extinct now but that was the language of Asterix and Obelisk).

While Scottish Gaelic was once the language of the Scottish Highlands and of the Scottish pride, for several centuries it was losing ground due to both socio-political developments and negative attitudes towards Celtic culture that were common in the past. The most serious socio-political development that affected the status of Scottish Gaelic was the depopulation of the Highlands in the late 1700s and in 1800s. As a result of the failed Jacobite rising (1688-1746), which was aimed at returning the Stuarts to the thrones of Scotland, England and Ireland and was finally quashed at Culloden in 1746, the Act of Prosciption was adopted in 1747, prohibiting Highland dress and the bearing of arms. What followed were Highland Clearances – a series of forced displacements of Scottish Gaelic-speaking population in 1780-1860 – and Ireland’s potato famine (caused by potato blight) reaching the Highlands in the mid-1800s. All of these developments led to the destruction of the traditional clan system, a high emigration rate and the near death of the Scottish Gaelic language.

Nor did the negative attitudes towards things Celtic help: in the 17th-19th centuries it was common to view Celtic languages, culture and traditions as “corrupt” and “uncivilized”, as is evident from the following quote from Matthew Arnold, a literary critic writing for The Times in 1867:

“The Welsh language is the curse of Wales. Its prevalence, and the ignorance of English have excluded… the Welsh people from the civilisation of their English neighbours. An Eisteddfod [the annual Welsh literary and musical festival] is one of the most mischievous and selfish pieces of sentimentalism which could possibly be perpetrated. It is simply a foolish interference with the natural progress of civilisation and prosperity. If it is desirable that the Welsh should talk English, it is monstrous folly to encourage them in a loving fondness for their old language…”

Today, the tides have changed and Celtic languages, traditions, music and applied art are seeing a revival. For example, music groups like Runrig (named after an old land-usage system) and Capercaillie, and the music festival “Celtic Connections” do a great deal to popularize Celtic culture. Serious efforts are underway to strengthen Scottish Gaelic: TV and radio programs are made in the language, magazines and books are published, adult language classes are organized. Furthermore, in 1973 a Scottish Gaelic medium college Sabhal Mor Ostaig has been founded near Armadale on the Isle of Skye, and since 1986 Scottish Gaelic has been reintroduced as the language of primary school education. Still, Scottish Gaelic is confined mostly to remote and rural areas of the Highlands, where it is spoken by about 75,000 speakers, of whom about 95% are bilingual in Scottish Gaelic and English (see the map).

Finally, let’s consider a couple of the grammatical features characteristic of Scottish Gaelic. Like other Celtic languages it exhibits the Verb-Subject-Object order (found in only about 10% of the world’s languages). So the Scottish Gaelic rendition of ‘John drank milk’ is dh’òl Iain bainne (literally, ‘drank John milk’). Also, Scottish Gaelic and other Celtic languages lack the verb ‘have’ and use a prepositional construction instead to express possession and ownership. For example, ‘I have a house’ is Tha taigh agam (literally, ‘Is house at-me’ – note that the verb comes first in these sentences as well; agam is a preposition expressing agreement with first person singular complement, thus rendering ‘at me’ in one word). However, Scottish Gaelic “makes up” for the lack of the verb ‘have’ by having two verbs ‘be’: one of them – bi or tha, depending on the form – is used if the predicate is an adjective or a prepositional phrase, while the other – which happens to be is – relates two nouns (things are actually a bit more complicated than this statement would have one believe, but we will leave it at that for now). For example, ‘I am tired’ in Scottish Gaelic is tha mise sgìth (literally, ‘am I tired’; note again that the verb is sentence-initial and this is not a question!), while ‘I am John’ is is mise Iain (literally, ‘am I John’).


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