A Gaelic Proverb about Love: Mairidh Gaol is Ceòl

by Feb 13, 2019

Let’s talk about love. No, not the Céline Dion album. I mean one of the most well-known seanfhacail or proverbs in Scottish Gaelic:

Thig crìoch air an t-saoghal, ach mairidh gaol is ceòl.

What does that mean? Here are two different translations for this proverb, one more literal and one more poetic:

The end of the world will come, but love and music will last. (more literal)

The world will end, but love and music will endure. (more poetic)

[EDIT: See the first comment below this blog post for a different translation!]

Even the more poetic translation doesn’t really convey the poetic aspects of this proverb, but the partial repetition of “will end” and “will endure” in English gives you a taste of why it also sounds good in Gaelic.

Gaelic Proverbs about Love?

There aren’t actually that many “positive” proverbs about love in Gaelic… I’ll leave you to ponder why! The proverb that I am focusing on in this blog post may actually be the nicest one. I remember looking for Gaelic proverbs about love and/or marriage for our Gaelic wedding in 2011, maybe to put on the wedding service program or a wedding favour, but I couldn’t find any except for this one! I did find this one about marriage:

Mas math leat do mholadh, faigh bàs; mas math leat do chàineadh, pòs.

If you want to be praised, die; if you want to be criticized, marry.
(This gem is found on page 342 of Gaelic Proverbs, edited by Alexander Nicolson.)

It’s certainly true in saoghal na Gàidhlig, but it’s not exactly #goals and definitely wasn’t the sentiment I wanted associated with my wedding day!

The Proverb in Gaelic Art

So, back to love and music! For our wedding reception, I decided to make a banner featuring the second half of the proverb, “mairidh gaol is ceòl” (more about my big fat Gaelic wedding here). At the time I was kind of obsessed with buying old wool sweaters from thrift shops, deliberately shrinking and felting them, and cutting them up to make art. So I made this banner, which is so long that it’s hard to get a good photo of it, but I tried.

Mairidh gaol is ceòl banner

This is almost the only photo of the banner from our reception, but it’s still my favourite!

Mairidh gaol is ceòl banner

This was our reception hall, which we decorated the night before the wedding. The banner is hanging against the window at the right edge of the photo.

Here are several views of the banner right after I finished it, in a living room that I promise looks waaaaay better these days:

The "Mairidh gaol is ceòl banner" (left half)

The “Mairidh gaol is ceòl banner” (left half)

The "Mairidh gaol is ceòl banner" (right half)

The “Mairidh gaol is ceòl banner” (right half)

A few years later I revisited the proverb in my art, using various techniques to make this 4 x 5 inch piece out of recycled felted sweaters and merino wool roving. It has a tiny needle-felted heart, harp, and bagpipes (with tiny drone cords made of embroidery thread!).

"Mairidh Gaol is Ceòl" by Emily McEwan, ©2019.

“Mairidh Gaol is Ceòl” by Emily McEwan, ©2019.

These tiny wee bagpipe drone cords still make me happy. "Mairidh Gaol is Ceòl" by Emily McEwan, detail.

These tiny wee bagpipe drone cords still make me happy. “Mairidh Gaol is Ceòl” by Emily McEwan, detail.

As you see I only used the second half of the proverb, and I think that’s acceptable for artistic purposes, although you wouldn’t want to omit the first half of the proverb if you’re using it in conversation or writing.

I wasn’t the first one to use the second half of the proverb on its own – the Gaelic “supergroup” Mac-talla released an album titled “…Mairidh Gaol is Ceòl” in 1994 which is still fabulous! Note that the songs on the album are not love songs… unless you count two heartbreaking laments for a drowned fiancé and a beheaded husband respectively, a pining song by a guy whose girl dumped him, and one where the singer implores their beloved to leave “dùthaich nan Gall” and set a course to Lewis — actually that’s almost the best we can do for sweet love songs in Gaelic!

Mac-Talla, "...Mairidh Gaol is Ceòl" album cover

Mac-Talla, “…Mairidh Gaol is Ceòl” album cover

You can listen to the album on Spotify. But if you like it enough to listen to more than once, I would strongly suggest that you also purchase the album, since Spotify only pays artists pennies per play. You can buy the album directly from the record company in Scotland (free worldwide shipping on CDs! digital download also available!). This is the most ethical option since it sustains a Gaelic-supporting business most directly and pays the Gaelic artists the greatest amount.

If you have to buy from The Elephant in the Room, here’s an affiliate link to purchase the MP3 download, and a portion of the purchase price supports the Gaelic.co blog.

Gaelic Proverb Pronunciation Videos

In the following section, I’ll talk about how to pronounce it, but first, I’ve made a couple of pronunciation videos of this proverb with friends who were kind enough to help out.

The first is of my general, middle-of-the-road, “mid-Minch” Gaelic pronunciation:

The second is a Cape Breton dialect pronunciation by Lodaidh MacFhioghain (Lewis MacKinnon), where the “gh” in “saoghal” is pronounced as a glottal stop:

You can also hear the “gh” in “saoghal” pronounced as “h” in the examples in the LearnGaelic dictionary (with the exception of the phrase “air an t-saoghal mhòr” which is pronounced with a silent “gh” as I would pronounce it).

If you are a fluent Gaelic speaker and you would like to add a short smartphone video of yourself pronouncing the proverb to this post, please drop me a line through the Contact page on this blog — we’d love to have more!

Pronunciation and Poetry in a Gaelic Proverb

To complete our exploration of this proverb, I wanted to talk a bit about the last part of it that finally fell into place for me as a Gaelic learner: the pronunciation. From first learning about this proverb in a Gaelic class in about 1991 (pre-internet!), it actually took me years of piecemeal instruction and interaction to understand how the whole thing is pronounced, and another while to be able to really hear the Gaelic rhyme and to be able to say it that way myself.

A large part of rhyme in Gaelic poetry concerns assonance. Assonance is the repetition of the same vowel sound in different words that use different consonant sounds. My English teacher neglected to spend more than a nanosecond on this literary technique in high school, and so this was my only exposure to the idea for a while:

“I’m trying to think of a limerick,” said Eustace. “Something like this:
“Some kids who played games about Narnia Got gradually balmier and balmier—”
“Well Narnia and balmier don’t rhyme, to begin with,” said Lucy.
“It’s an assonance,” said Eustace.
“Don’t ask him what an assy-thingummy is,” said Edmund. “He’s only longing to be asked. Say nothing and perhaps he’ll go away.”
—C. S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

Assy-thingummy sort of takes a backseat to consonance and end rhyme in English, at least in popular understanding. But here’s an explanation of assonance in American rap music lyrics.

Anyway, enough of English lit and song, back to Scottish Gaelic lit (including oral literature and tradition)!

Assonance is fundamental to Gaelic rhyme and is used in both traditional and modern Gaelic poetry in various rhyming schemes, some of which are quite complex.

Let’s tune in to the pronunciation and poetry of the Gaelic proverb “Thig crìoch air an t-saoghal, ach mairidh gaol is ceòl”:

1) First, let’s listen for the assonance:

Thig crìoch air an t-saoghal, ach mairidh gaol is ceòl

The Gaelic sound represented by the letters “ao” in saoghal and gaol is a long vowel (even though it doesn’t have an accent mark on it). You can hear it in the dictionary entry for “gaol” in the LearnGaelic online dictionary (click the triangle under “Audio” to hear a soundfile).

This sound is not found in English, and so it’s difficult to explain in English what the sound is and how to make it. Michael Bauer has done a good job in his book Blas na Gàidhlig: The Practical Guide to Scottish Gaelic Pronunciation. His advice for how to make the sound is to start by making a long “oo” sound, which is written [uː] in the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). Then,

“Keep [the sound] going and grin hard (without moving your tongue at all) while you’re saying it… this will spread your lips wide and produce exactly the sound you are aiming for” (p. 66).

The sound you are aiming for is described by linguists as a “close back unrounded vowel” and they use the symbol [ɯ] to represent it in the IPA. They add two small triangular dots to represent the length – [ɯː] – in other words this is a longer vowel. You can hear this exact vowel on this interactive IPA chart. Click on the symbol shaped like a curly w right underneath the word “Back” in the top right corner of the chart.

2) Next, let’s listen for the consonance.

Can you hear how the three main words end in “l”: an t-saoghal, gaol, ceòl? That’s also a deliberate poetic feature of the proverb.

3) Finally, let’s listen for the overall rhythm.

Can you hear the long vowels in the bold syllables: crìoch, t-saoghal, gaol, ceòl? They form a pattern of A-B-B-C: ì-ao-ao-ò, or [iː]-[ɯː]-[ɯː]-[ɔː] in IPA. To get even more detailed and geeky about it, the long vowel sounds move from close front unrounded (A) to close back unrounded (B) to open mid-back rounded (C).

These long vowels also contrast with the short vowels in all the other syllables (including the one-syllable words). The alternation between long vowels and short vowels, or long syllables and short syllables, creates a rhythm. The rhythm of this proverb is:

short LONG-short short short LONG short short-short LONG short LONG.

Try saying that a few times, and drag out the “O” in LOOOONG to get an idea of how it sounds. (Ignore the hyphens, they are just there to show where words are two syllables rather than a single syllable. Also, the second LONG, saoghal, is a LONG-short in some dialects, as you can hear in Lodaidh’s video.)

You can also apply this technique to working out the rhythm and scansion of Gaelic songs, as long as you know which vowels are long and which are short. Sometimes that’s difficult — if you’re not fluent, you may need to look up words in a dictionary, since accent marks are not always included when Gaelic song lyrics are written down. It will also sometimes help you see where perhaps a Gaelic song composer has tried to cram too many syllables into the available notes (it does happen sometimes, especially with translations from English)!

Here’s a blog post by a Scottish poet explaining aspects of Gaelic rhyme in poetry in greater detail, with a modern example by Meg Bateman.

If you feel like you’re not there yet with hearing the sounds, or with your own Gaelic pronunciation, keep listening and practicing until it clicks for you. The sounds of the Gaelic language are a large part of what makes Gaelic poetry, song, and proverbs so beautiful and satisfying. It also feels really good to be able to use a Gaelic proverb in your own life, whether in conversation, writing, or art. I hope you enjoy using this one!

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