How to Use Scottish Gaelic in Your Novel, Part 2: An Example

by | May 22, 2019

I’m very pleased to introduce a guest writer for this post, science fiction author Iona Datt Sharma! This month’s post is a continuation of the theme from the previous month’s post, “How (Not) to Use Gaelic in Your Novel: A Guide for Authors”. Iona, a published author currently working on a new novel, provides an example of one way to incorporate Gaelic into English-language fiction writing:

Who I am

I’m a British-Indian draftsman and writer, mostly of literary speculative fiction. I live in London, where we have a thriving Gaelic-speaking community, and listen to a lot of folk music.

Science fiction author Iona Datt Sharma at Nine Worlds 2018 (@London_Geekfest)

Science fiction author Iona Datt Sharma at Nine Worlds 2018 (@London_Geekfest)

I’m writing a book with Gaelic in it

Dr. Emily McEwan asked me to contribute this guest post because I’m both a Gaelic learner and a professional writer and poet. My latest manuscript is tentatively titled The Listener’s Book, and although it may not see the light of day for a while as it’s very much in-progress, it’s an example of a novel-length work of fiction primarily in English that makes use of Gaelic words and phrases throughout the text. As per the previous post, “How Not To Use Scottish Gaelic In Your Novel”, this is a very easy thing to get wrong—both in terms of the accuracy of the Gaelic used, and in general. Do it lightly, without real thought, and it’s easy to be offensive and/or idiotic.

Why does this book have Gaelic in it?

Because I love Gaelic, I love its music and culture, and I wanted to write a book where it takes centre stage. I have family links to the West Highlands, Mull and Iona—hence my name—but I didn’t grow up with the language. I’ve spent a few years learning it now but I am not a fluent speaker (yet). If you’d like to hear more about how I came to it, I wrote about it for the Toast in 2016. [Editor’s note: If you haven’t already, you must read Iona’s essay!]

rainbow in the Highlands of Scotland (Photo credit: Andrew Gray)

Author Iona Datt Sharma catching a rainbow in the Highlands of Scotland (Photo credit: Andrew Gray)

So one might say it’s not my language: but then, it is, in that I do speak it. Badly, haltingly, but I’ve been to the classes and learned the irregular verbs. As a learner in London, I’m part of a local Gaelic-speaking community. And in a wider sense, I’m part of a community of speakers of colonised languages. I have written about this at length elsewhere, but in sum: I am writing a book about something dear to me, and part of me. Emily’s earlier post suggested that if you want to write a book with Gaelic in it, go and learn some Gaelic. It may be that you go and do this and find you come to love the language for its own sake. I wish this for you! It is something worth having.

Ultimately, though, it boils down to: I have my reasons for using Gaelic in fiction writing, and you will have yours. What follows is one approach to it, which in my view doesn’t treat Gaelic language and culture as magical and exotic, or in a culturally appropriative manner. It’s only my view and it’s only one approach! But here it is.

One way to do it

The Listener’s Book is science fiction, as most of my work is, but it’s fundamentally a story about one man, his dog, his best friend and his large and infuriating family. Ananth is a Gaelic poet and folk musician who lives on a smallholding on a remote, unnamed Hebridean island, where most of the events of the novel take place. This may be the first key point: Gaelic isn’t a magical language in this story because there’s no magic in the story. This is not to say you can’t use Gaelic in a fantasy book, but in this one, it’s there because it’s the natural language of the setting.

Here’s Ananth, the first time he appears on page:

After that, he tries to go back to bed but is prevented from doing so by a thirty-five-kilogram dog.

‘Fliss, siuthad.’ Ananth tugs at her collar but she doesn’t get out of his way. ‘Fliss! Thalla air ais, I’m not doing anything else today.’

Fliss bites his sleeve and pulls. Ananth sighs, fetches his boots and yesterday’s clothes and lets his insistent Labrador drag him into the world. Down here it’s quiet, save for the morning stirrings of the animals and next-door’s clàrsach still audible. Ananth picks up the words to the melody absent-mindedly, singing gur e m’ anam is m’ eudail, and is startled at himself, just as the unseen musician obligingly shifts tempo to match him. It’s a perfect moment, powerful in transience.

Fliss sneezes.

‘You have no appreciation for music, a ghràidh,’ Ananth tells her, and goes down the path into the village with hands in his pockets, still humming.

Now quite aside from all usual plot and character things you have to do on the first appearance of your main character in a book, I had to do certain additional things here about the use of Gaelic.

Firstly! You, the non-Gaelic speaking reader, know something’s up from “siuthad”. That’s not an English word, you think! Now likely you’ve read the blurb for this book and know it’s set in a Gaelic-speaking community. But the narrative itself does not say so—and will not name the non-English language for another ten pages.

Why do it like this? Because Gaelic is a part of Ananth’s life and mind. This is a tight third-person point of view— meaning that the reader is in Ananth’s head, seeing and knowing only what he sees and knows—and he’s not going to announce inside his own head that he’s switched between his two languages. It would have been possible to write something like this—

“Fliss, come along,” Ananth says, in Gaelic.

—but that’s not how I’ve done it. I don’t necessarily think there’s any right or wrong in this choice—and who knows, perhaps my editor will request I change it—but I’ve chosen not to. Partly because I think the reader can pick up what “siuthad” means from context, and partly because I think it works better to have the actual word on the page. As mentioned above, this is a tight third POV, as mentioned above, and with that in mind, I would rather use the word Ananth uses.

Secondly: you know that Ananth is bilingual to the point that he uses two languages in one sentence. “Thalla air ais, I’m not going out again today.” That’s perhaps more of a detail about the character than the language, but it also tells the reader that Ananth is not a Gaelic monoglot (and is a first step in explaining to the unfamiliar reader that adult Gaelic monoglots don’t really exist).

Thirdly, it might not be immediately apparent from this excerpt alone, but here is the first seed of one of the book’s principal themes. For Ananth, Gaelic is a native language, a language of hearth and home. He talks to his dog in Gaelic. He stops what he’s doing to pick up the words to a Gaelic love song that he clearly knows by heart. And as we know, Gaelic is a colonised minority language that is still suffering the effects of its colonisation. For that reason, the choice to have a main character speak it as a first language, in a work that is otherwise in English, is not a neutral choice. It tells us something of what this book is going to be about.

(This isn’t to say any book about or with Gaelic has to be about colonialism—any more than a book about people of colour has to be about racism—but it’s part of the reality of the language, and something you need to think about, if you choose to incorporate it into a work in English.)

Fourthly, a grammar point. The Gaelic-speaking reader will note that Ananth should use the vocative case of his dog’s name in this excerpt, and doesn’t. This isn’t a post about Gaelic grammar, of course, but briefly put, some names in Gaelic change their form when their owners are being addressed directly. “Fliss” would become “Fhliss”, which is pronounced differently—but this is a choice I made to sacrifice accuracy to clarity. You can rely on a reader to understand a reasonable amount just from context, but I thought this might introduce one too many elements of confusion for a largely non-Gaelic-speaking audience—especially since Ananth himself doesn’t have a vocative form of his name, and neither does Lin (the other main character, whom you’re going to meet below). Again, there isn’t a specific right and wrong way to do it, and another writer might well have made a different choice.

(You might at this point wonder why Ananth doesn’t have a typical Gaelic name: for that you’ll just have to wait for the book!)

And lastly: if you go off and google “gur e m’ anam is m’ eudail” you will learn it’s the first line of a well-known Gaelic love song, “Bothan Àirigh Am Bràigh Raithneach”. This ties into the point made above, which is just this: Gaelic is a real language, with a real literary and musical tradition. To write about it well, you need to engage with it as such.

If it’s such hard work, why do it at all?

That’s a good question. I did not actually learn the language to write this book, but I’m still having to think about it in detail even for the use of individual words. As a bilingual person, as a speaker of another colonised language, I do know a little more about it than I would otherwise; and, as with anything, experience helps. But it is hard work, and it’s hard work on top of the hard work of writing a book. Every scene needs characterisation, plot, setting, worldbuilding and theme before you can even start engaging with the language issue.

But I have my reasons, as above, and as well as that there’s a lot of pleasure in the craft. Here’s a bit from much later in the book, in illustration of what you can do once you’ve decided you’re going to do this.

‘What is that?’ Lin says, trying to be annoyed but not getting there. Whatever they make their booze out of round here, she’s into it.

‘What’s what?’ Ananth asks, rocking back and forth. ‘Whisky?’

‘I know what whisky is,’ Lin says, slipping down on the cushions till she’s lying flat on the bench, looking straight up at the night sky. It’s impossibly clear and cold as f**k. ‘Are you— supposed to be drinking? Won’t it kill you?’

‘Why am I drinking. Why am I not wearing shoes. Why won’t I ever get out of bed or eat my meals in the right order. Mo chreach sa thàinig, the ineffable unknowable.’

‘You’re such a dick, Ananth.’

“Slàinte mhath.”

‘You too.’ Lin sits up for a second and they clink mugs, unsteadily. ‘No. What were you singing, you f**king dick.’

‘One of the Appalachian ones,’ he says morosely, which Lin had figured out from how it sounds like someone died in a tragic molasses accident. ‘Something, something, a lonesome whistle blows. Urgh.’

‘Wow. You’re a sad drunk. What a surprise. I’m so surprised.’

‘I’m a sad drunk, I’m not a punching-people-in-the-head drunk. I maintain the moral high ground in this comparison.’

He’s concentrating very carefully on what he’s saying. Lin recalls that Ananth forgets his English when drunk, stoned, in extreme emotional distress or bleeding to death, and then decides their friendship has been excessively dramatic.

‘That was one time,’ she says, and waves a hand at nothing in particular, enjoying the way the sky spins around her head. She’s pretty smashed but on a planetary surface, the sky really does spin around the pole star. Lin knew that but had never seen it.

‘Okay, what the hell is that, now?’ she says after a while, when he starts humming again. ‘Can’t you ever, like… be quiet? Like normal people?’

‘I used to be.’

‘Yeah, you did,’ Lin says, remembering this as a bad dream. ‘Seriously. What is it this time?’

‘Cànan nan Gàidheal,’ he says, still morosely. ‘Eilidh’s learning it at school. I hate it. It’s the most sentimentalist drivel.’

‘Also you had that little mishap, the time you sang it at the Mòd,’ Neoni says, having materialised from nowhere.

‘I was five.’

‘After we spent so long teaching you the words. You were a very distractible child.’

‘I could hear voices in my head.’

‘You can hear voices in your head now,’ Lin points out. If Neoni’s here just to make Ananth crazy she’s getting in on that. ‘It doesn’t shut you up.’

‘Thig thugainn thig còmh’ rium gu siar,’ Ananth says absent-mindedly. ‘It’s awful. Lin, it’s awful. Why do you need ‘thig’ twice in one line. Nobody cares.’

‘I don’t care,’ Lin informs him, then changes her mind. ‘Okay, teach it to me. Thig thugainn thig something—’

‘Còmhla rium gu siar. Lin, it’s awful.’

‘Yeah, but.’ Lin gestures at the stars and sky. ‘Just think, there’s a lot of people out there trying to sleep, and we’re indispensable.’

They spend the next hour or so being dicks to the entire solar system. It’s pretty fun. Ananth, damn him, never sounds anything but beautiful even when he’s drunk off his ass, but Lin can make up for that. This is what she thought they’d never come to.

So, I could analyse this excerpt the same way I did above, and start by telling you that the key difference between this and the previous is that it’s in a different point of view. Lin is not a Gaelic speaker, but has picked up enough from Ananth to understand “Slàinte mhath”, the Gaelic toast that many people know, and to reproduce the pronunciation of “thig thugainn” even though she doesn’t understand the words. Again, if you go and look it up, you’ll find that “Cànan nan Gàidheal” is a real song that people do learn at school, famous for being a song in praise of the language itself (which lets us do a small bit of dramatic irony: Ananth, a drunk Gaelic folk musician, thinks it’s too sentimental!). From the general writer’s toolbox, there’s the note that Lin speaks American English, so Ananth is now drunk off his ass rather than arse over tit or however you might put it in his POV, and that any Gaelic in the story now needs to be filtered through that additional layer.

But you know, none of that is really the important bit here. This section is all character work, and the use of language has done half the characterisation for me. Ananth is “concentrating very carefully” on speaking English for Lin’s benefit; she in turn is doing her best with “Slàinte mhath” and other things. They’re doing it out of consideration for each other, and as a result, this friendship has an on-page texture it wouldn’t have without the linguistic accommodation. It’s hard work, but it’s a pleasure to do. It adds something that wouldn’t be there otherwise, and it makes everything around it richer.

In conclusion

Tha mi ag ionnsachadh fhathast. It’s difficult. There is no one way to do it, and you may not agree with how I’ve done it here. But I think, still, that it’s worth doing. For all that Diana Gabaldon mangled her Gaelic in the first Outlander books, she valued it. I do, too – and in so doing, hope that this story conveys that, as well as some of the beauty and grace of the language.

Not for Use in Navigation: Thirteen Stories by Iona Datt Sharma

Not for Use in Navigation: Thirteen Stories by Iona Datt Sharma

Alas, it may be a while until you can read The Listener’s Book! But I do have a short story collection out, Not For Use In Navigation, which is also about linguistic colonisation among other things. You can find out more about it, and all my other published work, at my website.

Subscribe to Gaelic.co!

Join our mailing list to get regular Gaelic.co updates from Dr. Emily McEwan.

Subscribers will receive notices of new blog posts and an e-mail newsletter.

Tapadh leibh! Thank you! Look for an opt-in confirmation e-mail soon.