What is Gaelic?

by Mar 28, 2015

One of the challenges of working with Gaelic is that most people in the world know almost nothing about it.

So, this blog post is aimed at people who may have only recently realized that Gaelic is a Thing.

Why go back to square one? Regular blog readers may know these facts about Gaelic already, but it doesn’t hurt to keep putting them out there for the sake of increasing awareness. Increasing positive awareness of the language is so important that it’s needed to achieve language revitalization. It’s part of the first level of the Language Revitalization EGIDS Scale based on work by Joshua Fishman (see Table 3 and Table 4 in my article on Gaelic revitalization in Nova Scotia).


What is Gaelic infographic

What Is Gaelic?


So here are four of the most basic answers to the basic question “What is Gaelic?”:

1) Gaelic is a Celtic language.

Celtic is the name of a language family. The Celtic languages are Indo-European, like the Romance and Germanic languages. Six Celtic languages are spoken in the 21st century. They are divided into 2 branches, the Brythonic or Brittonic branch, and the Goidelic branch:

Celtic Languages of the 21st Century

Celtic Languages of the 21st Century

Welsh (Cymraeg) is spoken in areas of Wales and Patagonia (Argentina). Breton (Brezhoneg) is spoken in areas of Brittany in France. Cornish (Kernowek) is spoken by groups of people in Cornwall.

Irish (Gaeilge) is spoken in areas of Ireland (Éire) and Northern Ireland. Scottish Gaelic (Gàidhlig) is spoken in areas of Scotland and Nova Scotia. Manx Gaelic (Gaelg) is spoken in the Isle of Man.

2) Scottish Gaelic is a real, natural, human language.

Gaelic is the Scottish Gaelic language. It is a real, natural, human language with written literature, a documented oral literature, grammar and vocabulary, and textbooks and dictionaries. Some people in Scotland still hate Gaelic and want to see it destroyed, and they are fond of claiming that it’s not a proper language. But we won’t listen to them.

A major anthology of 20th century Gaelic poetry

An Tuil, a major anthology of 20th century Gaelic poetry

3) Scottish Gaelic is not the same thing as Scots.

Scottish Gaelic and Scots are totally different languages. Scots is the language that was used by the poet Robert Burns in his famous song “Auld Lang Syne” (translated “Old Long Since” or “Old Times” in English).

Scots and English are in the Germanic language family, which also includes German, Dutch, and Afrikaans, as well as Norwegian, Danish, Swedish, Icelandic, and Faroese. Scots and English are closely related in the Germanic language family, and so many English speakers can understand some Scots.

In contrast, the Scottish Gaelic language is in the Celtic language family (see #1 above). Scottish Gaelic is not related to English, except insofar as they are both Indo-European:

The "tree" of Indo-European languages

The “tree” of Indo-European languages

4) Scottish Gaelic is similar to Irish.

You could call Irish a sister language to Scottish Gaelic. They developed from a common ancestor language. Although they are closely related, most Irish dialects are not “mutually intelligible” with Scottish Gaelic–this means that speakers of each dialect cannot understand each other (although the understanding can be improved with practice). The Irish language is called “Gaeilge” in Irish.

Exactly how similar are Scottish Gaelic and Irish? Someone has created a Wikipedia entry on the “Comparison of Scottish Gaelic and Irish” which gives the following helpful comparisons:

The closest to Scottish Gaelic in modern Irish is the dialect currently spoken in County Donegal, as illustrated by the sentence “How are you?”:

Scottish GaelicCiamar a tha sibh? (plural/formal) or Ciamar a tha thu? (singular/informal), Lewis dialect Dè mar a tha sibh? (plural/formal) Dè mar a tha thu? (singular/informal) (dè < cad è)

Ulster IrishCad é mar atá sibh? (plural) or Cad é mar atá tú? (singular), spelt in ‘dialect spelling’ as Caidé mar a tá sibh/tú?

Connacht IrishCén chaoi a bhfuil sibh? (plural) or Cén chaoi a bhfuil tú? (singular), in colloquial speech Ce chuil sib/tú

Munster IrishConas táthaoi (plural) or Conas taoi? (singular), Conas tánn sibh/tú?, Conas atá sibh/tú?

So there you have it, four of the most basic ways to answer the question “What is Gaelic?” I hope this sparks your interest and inspires you to dig a little deeper!

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