Top 10 Differences between Gaelic in Nova Scotia and Scotland – Part Two

by Apr 17, 2015

As I discussed in Part One of this list, Gaels in Scotland and Nova Scotia don’t tend to know a lot about each other, unless they’ve actually visited each other’s home turf. There are a lot of similarities between Gaelic in Nova Scotia and Scotland, but also some significant differences that are not widely known. Here is the second half of my list, #5 through #1 of the top ten differences between Gaelic in Nova Scotia and Scotland from a Nova Scotian perspective:

5) No official status

In Scotland, the Gaelic Language (Scotland) Act 2005 made Gaelic an official language of Scotland “commanding equal respect” with English. It does not command equal usage or funding, but people and organizations fought long and hard for this act and it’s a start. It created a national body, Bòrd na Gàidhlig, and tasked that body with selecting devolved public bodies in Scotland and requiring them to produce Gaelic Language Plans wherein they describe plans to implement various kinds of Gaelic-language activities and services.

We do not have any such language act in the province of Nova Scotia. There is no official language legislation in Nova Scotia; English is the de facto official language. French is an official language at the Canadian federal level, and a minority language in Nova Scotia; the Nova Scotian provincial French Language Services Act was passed in 2004, an act which established the Office of Acadian Affairs and specified the delivery of French-language public services by selected public institutions.

We now have the Gaelic Affairs office, which is as of 2011 is a division of the Department of Communities, Culture, and Heritage in the Nova Scotia government. When I started writing this post, the office had five employees, but on April 9, 2015 the Liberal Party provincial government leadership cut two of those positions without warning.


Flag raising at Province House for Gaelic Awareness Month, May 2013

Flag raising at Province House for Gaelic Awareness Month, May 2013


4) (Slightly) different spelling

Gaelic in Scotland has gone through several rounds of orthographic reform, resulting in new Gaelic Orthographic Conventions (GOC) in 1981, 2005, and 2009. These changes were overseen by the Scottish Certificate of Education Examination Board (SCEEB), now the SQA (Scottish Qualifications Authority), which oversees school examinations in Scotland.

Although Nova Scotia Gaelic writing (that is, orthography) habits are impacted by our study of Gaelic with Scottish teachers and/or from Scottish books, we haven’t adopted Scotland’s GOC, either officially or in practice.

Why? One answer is that Nova Scotia has no centralized body like the SQA that would have either the authority or budget to officially adopt or enforce Scotland’s GOC. Moreover, if there were such a body, it’s a good guess that they would take no interest in Gaelic since we do not have a comparable system of school examinations, not to mention the overall lack of official status for Gaelic (see #5 above). So the formal situation does not support it, and informally there is also no widespread interest in or awareness of GOC.

So, for example, we still write “an nochd” and “am màireach” instead of “a-nochd” and “a-màireach,” and “céilidh” instead of “cèilidh.” And you still know what we’re saying.


An Rubha, The Highland Village Museum’s Gaelic Folklife Magazine

An Rubha, The Highland Village Museum’s Gaelic Folklife Magazine


3) Different dialects

One dialect which was maintained in some areas of Nova Scotia while going out of use in the Seann Dùthaich (Old Country) was the Lochaber dialect. This dialect has several distinctive features, but one particular feature that stands out is that broad L is pronounced as W. Thus you may hear some folks say something that sounds a bit like watha math for latha math, and so on.


Lochaber Gaelic - Watha math ann an Woch Abar

“Watha math… got a problem with that?”


Gaelic scholar Ken Nilsen (nach maireann) found this feature not only in Antigonish and Inverness Counties, but also in Victoria County and Christmas Island, which were not areas of original Lochaber dialect-speaking settlers. Additionally, some new speakers have also adopted this particular feature and teach it to others. Thus at this point, the [w] truly serves as a shibboleth for some forms of Nova Scotia Gaelic.

Phonology nerds may be interested to know that Gaelic scholar Roibeard Ó Maolalaigh (pp. 314-315), reviewing Nilsen’s work, points out that this sound change was part of a larger pattern of labialization of originally velarized sonorants. The “Linguistic Features” section of this Wikipedia article summarizes the sound changes.

Another obvious feature of some Nova Scotia Gaelic dialects is that the emphatic form of agam (the possessive pronoun “at me”) is pronounced agamas rather than agamsa. This swapping of sounds is called metathesis. Linguists regard metathesis as a normal part of language variation and change. Here it is found in the emphatic forms of the possessive pronouns, but the emphatic form of “agam” [at me] is the most commonly heard and noticed.

These are not the only dialect differences, but they are some of the most obvious ones — and the ones that seem to invite scorn and correction. However, they are normal dialect features, and although they sound odd to some Scottish Gaels, Nova Scotia Gaels who have chosen to use these features should not be corrected, either in conversation or in language classes. Common courtesy. (Also see item #10 on this list.)

2) Majority Roman Catholic heritage

In Scotland in 1560, the Scottish Parliament passed legislation to effectively outlaw Catholicism and establish the Protestant Reformation. The historical legacy of the Reformation and other events of Scottish history is that despite ongoing secularization, in the 2001 census, 42% of the population identified themselves as Church of Scotland (Presbyterian) and 15.8% Roman Catholic. A decade later, the 2011 Scottish census enumerated 32% of the population as Church of Scotland and 16% Roman Catholic.

In contrast, Roman Catholics are the single largest religious group in Canada, representing 38.7% of the population as a whole according to the 2011 National Household Survey. Roman Catholics are also the single largest religious group in the province of Nova Scotia, at just under one-third of the population (297,665 of 906,175, or 32.8%). In Cape Breton in particular, the area where the greatest number of people are engaged in Gaelic activities, Roman Catholics make up a little over 62% of the population (62,195 out of 99,690 people) and include people of Scottish Gaelic, Irish, Acadian, and Mi’kmaq heritage.

This contemporary situation is the outcome of historical events including immigration patterns:

“One of the most stubborn and persistent groups of minority Catholics [in Canada] were those of Scottish origin, particularly from the Highland region of Scotland. These people, chiefly Gaelic-speaking as they departed from their homeland, congregated in three regions of British North America: the Island of St John (or Prince Edward Island after 1798), the Island of Cape Breton and eastern Nova Scotia, and the southeastern district of Upper Canada around Glengarry and Stormont counties. (J.M. Bumstead, “Scottish Catholicism in Canada, 1770-1845,” p. 79)

In their immigration and settlement patterns, people tended to stay with people from the same district in Scotland and the same religion (Kennedy, p. 24). In mainland Nova Scotia, beginning in 1773, the Pictou County area was settled initially by Presbyterian Gaels from mainland areas of Scotland. Antigonish County was then settled by Catholic Gaels from mainland areas of Scotland, who moved quickly after arriving in already-Presbyterian Pictou County. Ensuing Gaelic immigration to Cape Breton island was mixed, but slightly majority Catholic, as Mike Kennedy summarizes:

“The majority of the Highland immigrants to Cape Breton came primarily from the Catholic mainland of Scotland, from the Catholic islands of Barra and South Uist. A slightly smaller proportion came from the Protestant islands of Skye, North Uist, Harris, Lewis, Tiree, Mull, Coll, and Rum. These old world regional and religious affiliations were strongly maintained in Cape Breton as they were in other North American Highland settlements.” (Kennedy, p. 25)

Of these formerly Gaelic-speaking areas of Nova Scotia, Cape Breton Island was the place where Gaelic continued to be transmitted in families and survived the longest as a community language, after it had ceased to be transmitted in Pictou and Antigonish Counties.

The overall patterns of religious group-based settlement are not necessarily well understood by Canadians or Scots, however:

Most Canadians tend to associate the Scots with their “national” Presbyterian church, with all its nineteenth-century schisms and divisions, overlooking the fact that many of the Highlanders retained their Catholic faith and customs — and their Gaelic language — in both Scotland and British North America in the face of considerable difficulties.” (J.M. Bumstead, “Scottish Catholicism in Canada, 1770-1845,” pp. 79-80)

Historical events, institutions, and practices still shape contemporary culture, activities, and interests. For example, today the fiddle, dance, and oral seanchas traditions preserved in historically Catholic Gaelic areas are presented as the dominant and exemplary narrative of Gaelic culture and tradition in Cape Breton Island, and to some extent for the province as a whole.


"Tigh Dhé" - House of God, St. Ninian’s Cathedral, Antigonish

“Tigh Dhé” – House of God, St. Ninian’s Cathedral, Antigonish


There was a strong sectarian divide in Nova Scotia at least through the 1970s. Fortunately, in present-day Nova Scotia, people of multiple Christian denominations, non-Christian religious faiths, and no religious faith can cooperate in Gaelic activities together. But the differing religious historical legacy between Canada and Scotland is still helpful to keep in mind for understanding the differences between how Gaelic culture is presented and promoted in Nova Scotia and Scotland today.

1) Number of speakers and stage of shift

The demographics of Gaelic speakers are drastically different in Scotland and Nova Scotia. There are a lot fewer Gaelic speakers in Nova Scotia, and most of us now are “new speakers” who learned the language as adults.

In Scotland, 57,375 Gaelic speakers were counted in the 2011 census. In Nova Scotia, according to Nova Scotia Gaelic Affairs director Lewis MacKinnon, 1275 people indicated they could speak Gaelic in the 2011 National Household Survey. The Canadian census doesn’t distinguish between Scottish Gaelic and Irish; they are lumped together in the category “Gaelic languages.”

Another significant difference is that most Gaelic speakers here under the age of 70 are “new speakers” who learned, and are still learning, the language in adulthood. In technical terms, intergenerational transmission of the language to children in families ceased on a community-wide basis in the 1920s-40s.

This means that Nova Scotia Gaelic is at a different stage of language shift, and therefore at a different stage of revitalization efforts, than Gaelic in Scotland. If you’re curious about what that means, check out my article.


2011 Canadian Household Survey Language Questions

2011 Canadian Household Survey Language Questions

Sin agaibh e, the top ten differences between Gaelic in Nova Scotia and Scotland from a Nova Scotian perspective. Have you noticed other significant differences?

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