How Gaelic is the English Language?

by | Mar 15, 2017

When I was a kid growing up near Chicago, once on St. Patrick’s Day at school I saw a banner that said “Erin go bragh.” An adult explained that it meant “Ireland forever.” I just thought of it as funny English. As a monolingual English speaker I didn’t realize that it was an Irish phrase borrowed into English (and mangled!), and that Irish it was a totally different language. Only when I started to study Gaelic later on did it occur to me that Irish and Scottish Gaelic were real languages, just like English. A lot of English speakers still don’t realize that they are.

In daily life the boundaries between languages are not as firm as they are in a dictionary or classroom. People borrow words or expressions from another language for necessity, convenience, style, or fun. Borrowing usually happens in situations that linguists call “language contact,” when there is ongoing interaction between people who speak different native languages, or when native speakers of a language learn to speak another language, as a child or as an adult. Language contact can also occur indirectly when people have contact with foreign ideas or things—for example, English speakers can talk about feeling déja vu or schadenfreude while drinking a chai latte and eating a banh mi.

Linguists and language students alike have found that the English language bears interesting traces of historical contact with the Celtic languages, as well as more widely-spoken European languages like French, German, and Spanish.

What are the Celtic languages?

The Celtic languages are a family of Indo-European languages which share a common origin and characteristics. One of the two main branches of Celtic is the Gaelic languages, which in the present day include Irish (Gaeilge), Scottish Gaelic (Gàidhlig), and Manx Gaelic (Gaelg). (See my blog post “What is Gaelic?” for more about this.)

In contrast, English belongs to an entirely different family of Indo-European languages, the Germanic family, which also includes languages like Scots, German, Dutch, Afrikaans, Norwegian, and Swedish. But a great deal of English vocabulary also derives from Norman French, due to the intensive contact that followed the Norman conquest of England.

How did the Celtic languages influence English? Ireland had been subject to intensive contact through English military conquest, colonization, and political incorporation beginning in the 1100s, while in the Gaelic-speaking Highlands of Scotland, English speakers made the most serious inroads beginning in the 1600s. English speakers thus came into contact with Gaelic culture, and ultimately borrowed words for unique or ubiquitous concepts from Gaelic culture.

At the same time, as English speakers took control of education in Ireland and Scotland, they attempted to stamp out the “barbaric and incivil” Gaelic languages. Gradually in one area after the next, mother-tongue Gaelic speakers were forced to learn English as they entered schools with English-only education, took local jobs working for English speakers, or emigrated for work. But in each area, the way that people learned to speak English was filtered through the distinctive sounds and grammar of their native Gaelic. They passed this way of speaking on to their children, who passed it onto later generations, until it became a distinctive dialect.

The main areas where you can see the influence of Gaelic on English are in vocabulary, grammar, and accent. We’ll look at vocabulary first.

Gaelic Vocabulary in English: “Whisky Galore”

Some Gaelic words have been fully absorbed into English. When a word is borrowed this way, the pronunciation and meaning are usually changed, as speakers put new English sounds and stresses on it, or perhaps even leave out bits, just as “latte” now refers to the milk-and-espresso drink which is called a caffè latte in Italian.

In fact warming drinks are a good place to start, because English speakers have always loved to import a tasty new drink as well as the word for it (tea, coffee, and hot chocolate spring to mind). Plenty of people know that “whisky” means “water of life” (uisge beatha) in both Irish and Scottish Gaelic. This compound word first came into English as “usquebaugh” in the late 1500s. Gradually this word faded out of use, with the last Oxford English Dictionary examples cited in the late 1800s. Meanwhile, “whisky” came into use in the early 1700s—and notice how the “beatha” or “-baugh” (“life”) element was dropped.

“Galore,” a frequent companion to “whisky,” means “in abundance” or “plenty” in English. The word was borrowed from both Irish go leór and Scottish Gaelic gu leòr, both meaning “enough” or “sufficiently.” Galore was first used in print in 1675 according to the Oxford English Dictionary Online, so it is a loan of long standing.

A few years ago, the company Deiseal Ltd. made some Gaelic borrowings into the focus of an advertising campaign for their Ùlpan Gaelic course in Scotland. Dàibhidh Grannd, head of Deiseal, explained why:

“Gaelic is often falsely accused of being inferior or worthless since English speakers understand the borrowed English words being used in it like telebhisean (television) and heileacoptair (helicopter).

“The Ùlpan posters turn this on its head by pointing out that English speakers already have some Gaelic in their English. Languages borrow words from each other; that’s normal, says the posters.

“English, and the numerous languages English has borrowed from, have been assimilating Celtic and Gaelic innovations since the Iron Age: càr (a wheeled vehicle), rìgh (a king), uisge-beatha (whisky) – we have led the technological race at times! As an adult language course largely aimed at English speakers, we’re saying that you already know some Gaelic, but perhaps you weren’t aware of it. Come and discover some more.”

Sporran, a Gaelic loan-word in English

Sporran, a Gaelic loan-word in English

Loch, a Gaelic loan-word in English

Loch, a Gaelic loan-word in English

“I’m after going”: Gaelic Dialects of English

While Gaelic loanwords often go unnoticed in English, Gaelic grammar used in English attracts attention. Other English speakers often see it either as a quaint reminder of regional origins, or a mistake that must be corrected. Given the common Gaelic influence, it is unfair that in North America, an Irish person’s accent is seen as interesting and mildly prestigious, while in Canada, a Cape Breton or Newfoundland accent shaped by Scottish Gaelic or Irish may have branded the speaker as a hick.

Nowadays Cape Breton’s Gaelic English can also be a point of regional pride. The well-known Cape Breton song “It’s a Working Man I Am” sung by the late Rita MacNeil provides a good example of Gaelic grammar in English. An emphatic statement like this (in contrast to “I am a working man”) closely resembles emphatic constructions in Gaelic which use a special form of the verb called the copula (is e or ’s e in the present tense—e.g., ’S e duine gasda a th’ann, It’s a fine man that is in him). While this statement can also be made in other dialects of English, it’s a very good bet that in this case, the influence is directly from Gaelic.

One more version by the Men of the Deeps for good measure:

An idiomatic Gaelic expression also accounts for one of the most common aspects of Cape Breton English. Nova Scotia judge Jamie Campbell, who grew up in Port Morien, recalled:

“I once cut up all of my father’s seed potatoes just because I had a sharp knife and nothing else to do. He didn’t say ‘You ruined my seed potatoes.’ He said, ‘You’re after ruining my seed potatoes.’”

Bagpiper and author Barry Shears, originally from Glace Bay, also recalled of this turn of phrase: “We always used ‘he was after dying,’ or ‘she was after going downtown.’ Using such phrases was always said to be a sign of incorrect English.” But this construction was the proper Gaelic equivalent to using either the present or past perfect with the adverb “just” in English, in order to express a recently completed action with ongoing effects. In other words, “I’m after doing something” means “I have just done something,” and “she was after doing something” means “she had just done something.”

Lewis MacKinnon, executive director of Gaelic Affairs with the Nova Scotia Government, offers another example of Gaelic grammar in English: “I frequently hear a distinctive expression from people who come from a Gaelic background. It’s the way they use the verb ‘wanting’. They tend to say ‘I am wanting [to go, etc.]’ instead of ‘I want [to go etc.]’”

MacKinnon believes this is due to the influence of the frequently used Gaelic structure “Tha mi ’g iarraidh [a dhol]” which is literally “I am wanting [to go, etc.].”

The unique Gaelic aspects of English in Nova Scotia are becoming more widely known and appreciated now. Gaelic Affairs sponsored a temporary museum exhibit a few years ago titled “The Gaels in Nova Scotia” which included a section on the Gaelic influences on English. It turns out that as well as the grammatical patterns already mentioned, commonly heard English phrases like “Who’s your father?” (Có a b’ athair dhut?) and “There you have it” (Sin agad e) are translations from frequently used Gaelic expressions.

Other varieties of English that linguists call “Celtic Englishes” include Hebridean English and Highland English as spoken by Gaelic speakers and their descendants in Scotland, the Hiberno-English or Irish English of modern Ireland, and some varieties of English spoken in Newfoundland, Canada. The Celtic Englishes project at this link provides many academic studies on this broad topic.

Whether it’s borrowed Gaelic words or the unique patterns of Gaelic speech, the Gaels have imparted a colourful and lasting Celtic legacy to English.

Car, an indirect Celtic loanword in English!

Car, a Celtic loanword in English!

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