Scottish Gaelic

Welcome to Gàidhlig (Scottish Gaelic)!

Scottish Gaelic Gallery

Yiddish word tile created by Kaye Ocampo
Sholem Aleichem image in public domain
Selection on the ramp at Auschwitz-Birkenau, 1944 image in public domain
Yiddish sayings tile created by Lucy Meanwell
Eastern Europe: Lakhva 1926 image in public domain
“Gefilte fish topped with slices of carrot” by Mushki Brichta licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.
Yiddish linguistics word cloud created by Annika Nilsson
“Matzah balls” by SoulSkorpion licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

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Scottish Gaelic Overview

Expand your understanding of the Scottish Gaelic language and culture by exploring the following modules.

Language names, family, geography, speakers, ethnicities, dialects, and status

Gàidhlig – pronounced [ˈgalik] 

  • A frequent question is ‘A bheil Gàidhlig agad?’ ‘Do you speak Gaelic?’ (literally: ‘Do you have Gaelic?’)
    • A reply might be ‘Tha, tha Gàidhlig agam’ ‘Yes, I do have Gaelic’

Indo-European, Celtic, Goidelic

Belongs to the same family as Irish and Manx, but is a separate language

Gàidhealtachd (Highlands, Gaelic speaking area of Scotland in the North West) and The Outer Hebrides (Islands off the North West coast of Scotland)

Nova Scotia, Canada (especially Cape Breton)

 

  • Approximately 57,600 speakers in Scotland as of 2015 (Iosad & Lamb 2020)
  • 20,000-30,000 native speakers worldwide (https://www.endangeredlanguages.com/lang/3049)

Scottish, Canadian

Traditionally, Scottish Gaelic dialects have been divided into the geographically peripheral dialects of the Hebrides, and the geographically central dialects of the Mainland (Iosad & Lamb 2020)

Dialects can be distinguished by either variation in the pronunciation of a particular phoneme or one dialect may have a phonemic contrast not present in another

  • In Western dialects, schwa may be dropped following a voiceless consonant or sentence-finally, whereas in Eastern dialects, schwa may be dropped after voiced consonants or sentence-internally (ECSG)
  • Svarabhakti vowel: eastern dialects ə, other areas tends to be an echo of the preceding vowel
  • Epenthetic [s] between [r] and alveolar stops: most broadly used in stressed short syllables (goirt ‘sore’ [gɔrstʲ]), in south east found in unstressed syllables as well (thubhairt ‘was foretold’); in south west found in short and long stressed syllables (cùirt ‘court’ [kuːrstʲ]) as well as unstressed syllables.
  • Variation in the degree of palatalization
  • Nasalization: initial stop following definite article preserved in most dialects, but in north west dialects (such of Lewis and parts of Skye) total progressive assimilation (see relevant dataset!)

Lexical variation and exceptions (ECGL, Watson 2010):

  • bùrn ‘fresh water’: Lewis, Harris, Skye, ES** (compare to widely used uisge)
  • Eastern periphery: nodha ‘new’ (compare to more common ùr)
  • North eastern Highlands: treabhair ‘houses’ (compare to standard taighean)
  • Easter Ross: (n)iochd ‘ghost’, pollach ‘cod’ tailb ‘oarlock’

Iossad & Lamb (2020) describe an east-west cline of four broad categories: “Eastern” “Central” “Western” and “Hebridean”

  • Findings that the encroachment of English on Gaelic-speaking areas is having a dialectical effect: more pronounced reduction in morphological categories in the eastern dialects
  • Study looked at relative conservatism among dialects

Hebredian

  • Lewis: fronted /u/; preaspiration of plosives (contrasting with full seperate consonant /h/ in other dialects)
  • Harris
  • North Uist
  • South Uist
  • Barra

Mainland/Eastern: height distinctions between mid vowels may disappear when long

  • Tiree
  • Skye
  • Easter Ross
  • Wester Ross
  • Mull
  • Arran
  • Islay
  • Argyll
  • Kintail
  • Caithness
  • Invernessshire
  • Perthshire
  • Kintyre

Institutional – It is an Official Language in Scotland (but this status is hard-won; see Context)

- Language

Writing system, linguistic typology, notable linguists

  • Scottish Gaelic uses the Roman alphabet, but consists of 5 vowels and 13 consonants. 
    • One grapheme may represent several phonemes (see inventories below)
  • Beyond these, other Roman consonant graphemes may be used in loan words. 
  • There is a phonemic distinction between long and short vowels, marked in writing with a grave accent (`).  
  • There is an orthographic distinction between ‘broad’ and ‘slender’ consonants, depending on adjacency to ‘broad’ or ‘slender’ vowels, which is reflected in a palatalization process in consonants adjacent to high front vowels <e> /e/ and <i> /i/. 
  • There are many digraph and trigraph combinations of consonants to represent fricatives and glides, as well as digraph combinations of vowels to represent dipthongs (for more on these phonemes, see ‘phonetics and phonology’ below!) 

Vowels 

Consonants 

Source: Ó Maolalaigh (2016)

Vowel Inventory 

  • Nine oral monopthongs, which can be long or short 
  • Two main types of dipthongs: those closing with /i/ /u/, and those with /ə/ /a/ (Gillies) 

Diphthongs 

  • Ten phonemic diphthongs: /ai ɛi ei ui ɤi au ɛu ɔu iə ia iɛ uə ua uɛ/ 

Consonant Inventory 

  • Non-palatalized consonants at the top, palatalized below 
  • Gaelic has a distinction between “broad” (non-palatalized) and “slender” (palatalized) consonants  
  • Lenition: morphophonological initial consonant mutation recognized in orthography 
    • ‘lenited’ equivalents show various featural changes: fricativization, place of articulation, or deletion 
    • Lenited equivalent may not share more than one feature in common with unlenited equivalent: e.g. /th h/ 

Source: Nance, C., & Ó Maolalaigh, R. (2021) 

Phonology

  • Complex system of consonant mutations 
  • Vowels: long and short vowels 
    • Stressed syllables may have long or short vowels 
    • Unstressed syllables typically have short vowels 
    • Long or short stressed vowels may be oral or nasal; this distinction does not occur in unstressed vowels
    • Both diphthongs and hiatus occur in VV sequences (Bosch 2010) 
  • Syllables: a theory has been put forward that syllables are VC rather than CV structure (Gilles 1993:245; see also Bosch 2010)
  • Stress-timed 
  • Words are capable of bearing stress: nouns, adjectives, pronouns, verbs, etc. 
  • Words incapable of bearing stress (treated as proclitics): simple prepositions and conjunctions, the definite article, possessive adjectives, etc. 

Morphosyntax (Gilles 1993, Adger 2010) 

  • VSO word order 
  • Verbs inflect for past, future, and conditional tense 
  • Only one verb has a present tense form: bi ‘be’ (periphrastic present construction) 
  • Cases: Nominative, vocative, genitive, (dative?) 
  • Feminine and Masculine grammatical gender 
  • Nouns, adjectives, and definite article marked with number, gender, case 
  • Various plurality strategies for nouns: palatalization, suffixes, or combination of suffix and root modification 
  • Definite article proclitic to following noun 
  • Inflected for case and number 
  • Varies on form before vowels or consonants 

Numerals 

  • Four versions of numerals for numbers 1-10 
  • Cardinals qualifying noun, those used when counting, ordinals, and numbers for counting people 
  • There is both an older vigesimal, and modern decimal system for numbers over 20 (decimal system is taught in Gaelic Medium Education, see Context for more!)

Possession 

  • 2 separate ways of expressing possession (typically distinguished with alienability, but categories becoming more flexible in the modern era) 
    • Alienable: definite article + noun + aig (or appropriate prepositional pronoun if relevant) 
    • a’bhùth agam ‘my shop’ 
    • an t-airgead againn ‘our money’  
  • Inalienable: possessive articles 
    • mo bhràthair ‘my brother’ 
    • a h-athair ‘her father’ 

Polar (Yes/No) Questions 

  • No single word for ‘yes’ or ‘no’ in Scottish Gaelic 
  • Questions are answered by echoing the main verb of the question in the affirmative or negative form 
  • The subject may or may not be included, depending on the verb used 
  • Examples: 
    • A bheil thu gu math? ‘Are you well?’ (Positive interrogative of bith ‘be’) 
      • Tha. ‘Yes’ (Positve form of verb bith)
      • Chan eil. ‘No’ (Neg. form of verb bith) 
  • An ise Anna? ‘Is she Anna?’ (Positive interrogative of copular verb is) 
    • Is i ‘Yes’ (Positive form is) 
    • Chan i ‘No’ (Negative form of is) 
  • An do rinn thu an obair? ‘Did you do the work?’ (Past positive interrogative of dean ‘do’) 
    • Rinn ‘Yes’ (Past positive form of dean) 
    • Cha do rinn ‘No’ (Past negative form of dean) 
  • David Adger (Queen Mary University of London) 
  • Roibeard Ó Maolalaigh (University of Glasgow; author of Scottish Gaelic in Twelve Weeks) 
  • Claire Nance (Lancaster University) 
  • William Gillies (University of Edinburgh) 
  • William Lamb (University of Edinburgh) 
  • Gillian Ramchand (University of Tromsø; CASTL) 
  • Ronald Black (author of Cothrom Ionnsachaidh) 
  • Closely related to Irish, Manx (glottolog) — the Goidelic branch of the Celtic languages 
  • Originally, Irish settlers in Scotland (circa 500CE) 
  • Scottish Gaelic emerged as an independent language around the seventeenth century (Gilles:230) 
  • Not related to Scots (which is a Germanic language, also spoken in Scotland)
  • While in recent times Gaelic has had official status in Scotland, it is still under threat from English 

- Context

Historical and current context of the language

The Original Celtic Speakers (Ó Baoill 2010) 

  • Celts arrived from European continent in Ireland and the  British Isles around 500BC 
  • Irish Gaels were raiding Roman Britain between the 1st and 5th centuries, especially as Roman power waned 
  • Wales: two Gaelic communities established during this period in Wales 
  • Gaels were known to the Romans as Scotti for unknown reasons 
  • The traditional dating for Gaelic arriving in Scotland was around 500AD  
  • Brought into the north-west by settlers from Ireland 
  • Expansion of Gaelic kingdom of Dál Raida into modern-day Argyllshire 
  • Continued to expand for following 500 years and led to the establishment of Scotland 
  • Gaelic replaced Pictish (a Brittonic Celtic language) and became established across the area that is now known as Scotland 
  • Gaelic gave way to Scots in the Lowlands after the twelfth century 
  • by 1400, Scotland was culturally divided into the Gàidhealtachd (the Highlands and the Islands, where Gaelic was spoken) and the Lowlands, known as the Galldachd, where Scots was spoken.  
  • Christianity arrived in Scotland via Ireland in the 6th century 
  • Church introduced writing in Latin which eventually was adapted for Gaelic 
  • Previously, Ogham inscriptions had existed (no full writing system) 
  • Standardized grammar imposed in written Gaelic by Church and educated classes 
  • Christian period before 900AD known as Old Gaelic or Old Irish 
  • Latin borrowings from this period into Gaelic: 
  • Literary terms: modern words leabhar (from liber ‘book’), litir (from littera ‘letter’), sgrìobh (from scribere ‘write’) 
  • Religious terms: modern words sagart (from sagardos ‘priest’), feasgar (from vesper ‘vesper; evening’, beannachd (from benedictio ‘blessing’) 

Vikings 

  • In late Old Gaelic period cultural influence of monasteries began to weaken 
  • Regular Viking assaults 
  • Middle Gaelic period: 900-1200AD 
  • Borrowings from Norse: modern words acair ‘anchor’, stiùir ‘rudder’ 

 

Normans and the end of Middle Gaelic 

  • Maol Colaim (Malcolm) III married Saxon queen Margaret in the 11th century – the beginning of the end of Gaelic being a prestige language in Medieval Scotland 
  • Scottish monarchy gradually anglicized over subsequent centuries 
  • 12th century: early modern Gaelic overhaul of the standard written language 
  • Professional poets: Muireadhach Albanach (originally from Ireland) 
  • Written language became prestige language, standard for poets 
  • Diverged significantly from spoken dialects as time passed 
  • Introduced ‘broad to broad, slender to slender’ spelling rule, standard orthography to represent lenition (see Phonology section!) 
  • The basis for today’s Scottish Gaelic (and Irish) writing systems 
  • Simplification of the Gaelic verb system 
  • Late 14th century: ‘Lowlander’ prejudice against the Gaels (highlanders, speakers of Gaelic) 
  • Attitude that Gaels are less civilised than lowlanders 
  • at the end of the 15th century: Scottish Education Act 
  • Children of lairds and chiefs had to send their children to be educated in the Lowlands 
  • Scottish and English authorities continued to hold Gaelic in contempt throughout subsequent centuries 

 

The English Reformation and Contempt for Gaelic 

  • The Reformation: Early in the 16th century, the English Monarchy split English religion away from Catholicism 
  • Beginning of the Church of England (no pope) 
  • First Gaelic book ever published: Foirm na n-Urrnuidheadh (adaptation of John Knox’s Book of Common Prayer) 
  • Gaelic literature continued to be primarily religious 
  • Tension between desire of church to spread the Reformation and desire of Scottish establishment to tamp out Gaelic 
  • Statutes of Iona (1609): Gaelic chiefs abducted by order of James and Privy Council in 1608 
  • In 1609, forced to sign the document (to be freed) 
  • Condition: they had to send their children to the Lowlands for eductation (speaking, writing English) 
  • Act of the Privy Council (1616): ‘that the vulgar English tongue be universally planted[?], and the Irish [Gaelic] language, which is one of the chief[s] and principall causes of the continuance of barbarity and incivility among the inhabitants of the Isles and Highlands, may be abolished and removed’ (quote adapted from ECGL Ó Baoill’s citation of Donaldson 1970, MacKinnon 1991) 

 

17th – 18th Centuries 

  • Oral tradition: songs passed down, preserving spoken language 
  • From earlier than the 17th century 
  • Waulking songs developed as part of the process of waulking (or fulling) woven wool cloth to shrink the weave 
  • would be beaten while wet, done around a table 
  • fulling done by a group, singing waulking songs was part of the communal element of fulling 
  • Màiri nighean Alasdair Ruaidh (c.1615-c.1705), Iain Lom (c1624-c.1695): well-known poets, authored some songs 
  • Many other songs anonymous  
  • Gradual decline of Gaelic as English and Scots began to permeate daily life, even in the Highlands 
  • English was already the main threat to Gaelic as early as the 18th century 
  • 1767: New Testament published in Gaelic, followed by Old Testament in 1801 
  • Established the writing system for Gaelic 

File:Clearances Memorial - geograph.org.uk - 653113.jpg

Image: Memorial to the Highland Clearances

  • An estimated 90% of Highlanders were monolingual Gaelic speakers at the beginning of the 19th century (Mackinnon 1991, cited in Macleod 2010) 
  • Campaign by the English authorities to anglicise leaders of the Highland clans 
    • ‘… A monetary system became more valued than kinship’ (Macleod 2010) 
    • Chiefs became ‘more like landlords’ (ibid) — abuse of commoners 

Crofting: a kind of farming unique to the Highlands and Islands

  • Previously, land held communaly in run rig system (rotating land use) 
  • Crofting redistributed land into small parcels
  • Crofters (those who worked the land) could be evicted by land owners, so they were unable to build good housing until reforms in the late 19th century 
    • As a result, many were poor and unprotected by abuses by landlords
    • Sources: The Angus Macleod Archive, Scottish Government
  • Mass emigration and clearances from the Highlands to the Lowlands and to North America throughout the century in response to these hardships 
  • Loyalty to the old clan system persisted, which dampened the Highlanders’ ability to cohesively resist these abuses until later in the 19th century 
  • Resistance/organized protests by crofters: parliamentary campaigns, rent strikes, militant action, media 
  • Napier Comission 
  • Crofting Acts of 1886 and 1892: ended evictions 
  • By this point the culture and language of the Gaels had already been significantly destabilized 
  • Mairi Mhòr nan Oran ‘Big Mary of the Songs’ 
  • born on the Isle of Skye 
  • wrote many songs for the land reform cause: criticized authorities/landlords 
  • for an example of one of her songs, see ‘sample text’!  
  • The Highland Land League: formed in late 19th century, in support of crofters’ rights 
  • Popularized the slogan Is treasa tuath na tighearna ‘The people are mightier than a lord’ 
  • The Disruption: Split of Free Clergy away from the Established Church 
  • Clergy who were sympathetic to the crofters, lands rights 
  • Free Church dominated in many parts of Highlands and Islands 
  • In the 19th century, education in the Highlands was mostly through independent religious organizations 
  • focus on the bible, scriptures 
  • organizations such as The Society in Scotland for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge, the Edinburgh Gaelic School Society allowed for religious education in Gaelic in the Highlands 
  • Glasgow Auxiliary Gaelic School Society: promoted English 
  • Education Act in Scotland of 1872 passed school run by these independent organizations over to local school boards 
  • The use of Gaelic was actively discouraged in schools 
  • English literacy was viewed as prestige – the way to do well in life 
  • Campaign for Chair of Celtic at University of Edinburgh – 1st was Donald MacKinnon (1839-1914) 
  • Inverness and Glasgow had huge influx of Gaels after the Clearances 
  • 19th century: blossoming of Gaelic literature 
  • urban, middle-class Gaels 
  • Gaelic Societies: support education, support land activism 
  • Gaelic Society of Inverness: established in 1871, was very politically active 
  • Still publishes a volume of essays every year 
  • An Comunn Gaidhealach established in 1891 in Oban: organization that to this day is still responsible for organizing the Mòd (see Culture section below!) 
  • Objectives include promoting the use of Gaelic in everyday life, Gaelic arts, seeking official recognition for Gaelic from regional governing bodies (within UK and Europe, etc) 
  • Non-political, non-secretarian organization 
  • Gaelic publishing flourished in the 1800s in many different urban centers due to the advent of a Gaelic middle class living in these areas 
  • Gaelic societies would organize readings 
  • Gaelic periodicals as well as literature 
  • First World War: Gaelic communities suffered relatively high proportion of casualties than elsewhere in UK 
  • Social landscape of Gaelic speakers changing: traditional areas continued to be depopulated 
  • However: broadcast media meant cultural boundary weakened between ‘urban Gaels’ and ‘rural Gaels’ 
  • Educational establishment gradually began to recognize Gaelic in the classroom 
  • 1918 Education Act: schoolboards in Gaelic-speaking areas required to make provision for Gaelic students (largely depended on teacher investment though) 
  • Efforts in 1960s by local groups to establish Gaelic in the classroom, not mandated or systematic so made little headway 

Gaelic in Schools 

  • 1982: Comhairle nan Sgoiltean Àraich (the Gaelic Playgroup Association) established  
  • immersion language learning for preschool children 
  • peak attendance in 1994 with 148 groups and 2620 children attending (MacLeod 2003, cited in Macleod 2010) 
  • Gaelic playschools meant there was a demand for Gaelic to available for children once they entered formal education 
  • Mid 1980s: first Gaelic-medium schools set up in Glasgow and several other cities 
  • Supported by the Scottish Government 
  • The Standards in Scotland’s Schools … Act 2000, the Education (National Priorities)(Scotland) Order 2000 both legislated the prioritization of Gaelic being made available in Scotland’s Schools (Macleod 2010) 
  • Sgoil Gàidhlig Glaschu opened in August 2006: Gaelic school up to secondary level 
  • Most secondary Gaelic education otherwise is limited to certain courses in otherwise English-speaking schools 
  • 1973: Gaelic college Sabhal Mòr Ostaig established in Sleat on the Isle of Skye 
  • National Centre for Gaelic language and Culture 
  • Gaelic available at several postsecondary colleges both within the Highlands and Islands and in other areas of Scotland; largely dependent on student demand 
  • Many Gaelic classes both within Scotland and in other countries for adult learners 

 

Gaelic Writing and Publishing 

  • Early 20th century saw a number of Gaelic periodicals established with both fiction and non-fiction written in the language 
  • John MacCormick: significant writer of this time, published the first Gaelic novel Dùn-Aluinn in1912 
  • Other Gaelic novels: An t-Ogha Mór by Angus Robertson in 1913 and Cailin Sgiathanach by James MacLeod in 1923 
  • Longest running Gaelic periodical (1905-67) An Deo-Ghreine published by An Comunn Gaidhealach (later became An Gaidheal) 
  • 1952: the journal Gairm published : articles on a variety of topics, as well as short stories 
  • provided a platform for the development of the Gaelic short story 
  • ran until 2002, briefly succeeded by a similar journal that ran until 2007 

 

Gaels in Nova Scotia (see https://archives.novascotia.ca/gaelic/introduction/ Gaels in The New World Book) 

  • The seven years war: removal of the Acadiens (French colonists) following the hostilities between English and French colonial powers, area taken in control of English 
  • First settlers from the Highlands arrived in the late 18th century 
  • some chose to emigrate, some had been evicted during the Highland Clearances 
  • by the late 19th century, Gaelic-speaking population in Canada estimated to be 250,000 
  • at the time of Canadian Confederation (1867), largest language population after English and French (Johnathan Dembling) 
  • rapid decline as speaking Gaelic was punished in public schools, negative views of dominant English culture 
  • seriously impacted intergenerational transmission as parents believed learning Gaelic would hurt their children’s prospects 
  • In 1901 there were around 50,000 Gaelic Speakers in Nova Scotia 
  • Intergenerational transmission of Gaelic culture and language is based in Nova Scotia 

Gaelic Medium Education 

  • Comhairle nan Sgoiltean Àraich (the Gaelic Playgroup Association) established in Scotland in 1982 
  • introduced Gaelic immersion language learning for preschool children 
  • by 1994 there were approximately 148 groups 
  • 1985: In response to the demand for continued education in Gaelic, the first Gaelic-medium school units were established 
  • Standards in Scotland’s Schools … Act of 2000 requires school authorities to create reports on ways they are supporting Gaelic Medium Education 
  • There has also been work to create opportunities at high school and post-secondary levels, such as at Edinburgh, Aberdeen, and Strathclyde Universities 

 

Status in Scotland 

  • The Gaelic Language (Scotland) Act of 2005 requires that public bodies publish materials in both English and Gaelic 
  • 1968: the Gaelic Books Council established, supports Gaelic writers and publishing 
  • 1990: Comataidh Telebhisean Gàidhlig (Gaelic Television Comittee) established 
  • Ultimately replaced by Seirbheis nam Meadhanan Gàidhlig (the Gaelic Media Service) with extended powers 
  • May 2005: The Gaelic Act passed without opposition in Scottish Parliament 
  • Created Bòrd na Gàidhlig with the aim to secure Gaelic as an official language of Scotland, ‘commanding equal requal respect to the English language’  
  • aims to increase number of Gaelic speakers, encourage use of Gaelic 
  • requires a national language plan for Gaelic 
  • improve access to Gaelic language and culture (subsection 1(3)) 
  • every council required to have a Gaelic language plan 

Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:BBC_Alba_2021.svg

  • 2008: BBC Alba established (television) 
  • BBC’s Radio nan Gàidheal broadcasts in Gaelic 
  • Scottish Languages Bill (2024) (https://www.gov.scot/publications/scottish-languages-bill-business-regulatory-impact-assessment/) 
  • introduce the Scottish Languages Bill to Parliament providing legal recognition for Gaelic and Scots, strengthening requirements for provision of Gaelic Medium Education, introducing measures to provide further protection for Gaelic within communities and introducing provisions to strengthen support for Scots“. 

 

Sabhal Mòr Ostaig

  • Established in 1973 through the work of activists 
  • Gaelic-language college and educational facility in Sleat on the Isle of Skye 
  • Offers higher level certificates in Gaelic through immersion 
  • Also home to a library and multimedia facility 
  • The largest employer of Gaelic speakers in the world 

Gaelic in Nova Scotia Today 

  • Taught at St. Mary’s and Cape Breton Universities 
  • Several public schools offer Gaelic as a subject 
  • The Highland Village in Iona promotes Gaelic events 
  • A’ Sgoil Ghàidhlig offers Gaelic classes 
  • Comhairle na Gàidhlig, Alba Nuadh (The Gaelic Council of Nova Scotia) supports Gaelic events 
  • Nova Scotia Government has an Office of Gaelic Affairs based in Antigonish 

 

The Gaelic College 

  • Founded in 1938 by the local Gaelic community of St. Ann’s, Nova Scotia 
  • efforts lead by Angus William Rugg Mackenzie and the Cape Breton Island Gaelic Foundation 
  • Classes in Gaelic language, culture, music, and history 
  • Unique in North America 
  • Mission: ‘To promote, preserve and perpetuate through studies in all related areas: the culture, music, language, arts, crafts, customs and traditions of immigrants from the Highlands of Scotland.’ 
  • Globally recognized for its significance 

 

Bèinn Mhabu (https://www.beinnmhabu.ca/) 

  • A new campus run by The Gaelic College offering a foundational year programme to university students in Gaelic language and culture 

- Samples

Samples of phrases and texts in the language

Here are some basic phrases in Scottish Gaelic

Phrase 

English translation 

Halò

‘Hello’ 

Shin thu!


Shin sibh! 
**missing**

‘Hello there!’ 

Tha thu ann


That sibh sin 

‘There you are!’ (greeting) 

Beannachd leat! 

Beannachd leibh! 

‘Goodbye!’ (lit. ‘Blessing on you!’) 

Mar sin leat/leibh (an-dràsta)! 

‘Goodbye (for now)!’ 

Tapadh leat 

 

Tapadh leibh

‘thank you’ (singular, informal) 

‘thank you’ (plural, formal) 

A bheil thu gu math? 

‘Are you well?’ (singular, informal) 

Tha 

 

(or the positive form of whatever verb used in the question—see ‘morphosyntax’ for more!) 

‘Yes’ (possible answer to A bheil thu gu math?) 

Chan eil 

 

(or the negative form of whatever verb used in the question) 

‘No’ (possible answer to A bheil thu gu math?) 

Dè an t-ainm a th’ort? 

Dè an t-ainm a th’oirbh? 

‘What’s your name?’ (singular, informal) 

‘What’s your name?’ (plural, formal) 

‘S mise … 

‘My name is …’ 

Ciamar a tha thu? 

Ciamar a tha sibh? 

‘How are you?’ (singular, informal) 

‘How are you?’ (plural, formal) 

Tha (mi) gu math 

‘I am well’ 

Tha mi sporsail! 

‘I am brilliant!’ 

‘S e latha brèagha a tha ann! 

‘It’s a nice day!’ (used as a greeting) 

Tha mi gu doigheil  

‘I am alright’ 

Dè tha dol? 

‘What’s up?’ (lit. ‘What’s happening?’) 

Dè do chor? 

Reply: Cor math 

‘How’s things with you?’ 

‘Fine’ 

Sin thu fhin! 

‘Well done/that’s the stuff!’ 

’S math sin! 
**missing**

‘That’s good!’ 

Chì mi a-rithist thu! 

‘I’ll see you later’ (lit. ‘I’ll see you again’) 

 

 

Siubhal gun siucar

  • ‘Travelling without sugar’
  • Similar to English ‘going on a wild goose chase’; a pointless journey or endeavour 

Thoirt do chasan leat!

  • ‘Take your legs with you!’
  • Telling someone to get lost! 

Mo chreach-sa thàinig!

  • ‘My plundering has come!’
  • Similar to English ‘Woe is me!’

Meal do naidheachd!

  • ‘Enjoy your news!’
  • Equivalent to English ‘Congratulations!’

Proverbs:

Is fheàrr Gàidhlig bhriste na Gàidhlig sa chiste

  • ‘Broken Gaelic is better than Gaelic kept in the chest’
  • It’s always better to try to speak Gaelic and make mistakes than not speak Gaelic at all!

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

  • ‘The world may come to an end, but love and music will last forever’

  • The following is an excerpt (verses 1-2) from the poem Nuair a bha mi òg (When I was young) by Màiri Nic a’ Phearsain (Mary Macpherson, 1821-1898), most widely known as Màiri Mhór nan Oran (Big Mary of the Songs) 
  • For more on Mary and her life, see the ‘Historical Context’ section!

Nuair a bha mi òg 

Moch ’s mi ’g éirigh air bheagan éislein, 

Air madainn Chréitein ’s mi ann an Os, 

Bha spréidh a’ geumnaich an ceann a chéile, 

’S a’ ghrain ag éirigh air Leac-an-Stòrr; 

Bha gath a’ boillsgeadh air slios nam beanntan, 

Cur tuar na h-oidhche ’na dheann fo sgòd, 

Is os mo choinn sheinn an uiseag ghreannmhor, 

Toirt ’na mo chuimhne nuair bha mi òg. 

  

Toirt ’na mo chuimhne le bròn is aoibhneas, 

Nach fhaigh mi cainnt gus a chur air dòigh, 

Gach car is tionndadh an corp ’s an inntinn, 

Bho’n dh’fhàg mi ’n gleann ’n robh sinn gun ghò; 

Bha sruth na h-aibhne dol sìos cho tàimhidh, 

Is toirm nan allt freagairt cainnt mo bheòil, 

’S an smeòrach bhinn suidhe seinn air meanglan, 

Toirt ’na mo chuimhne nuair bha mi òg. 

When I was Young 

Translation by William Neill 

Easement of sadness in early rising, 

on a May morning and I in Os, 

one to another the cattle calling, 

the dawn arising above the Storr; 

a spear of sunlight upon the mountains 

saw the last shadow of darkness gone, 

the blithesome lark high above me singing 

brought back to mind days when I was young. 

 

A memory mingled with joy and sadness, 

I lack the words that can tell them true, 

each case and change of my mind and body, 

far from the glen whose bright peace I knew; 

the river rippling so gently seawards, 

my own speech echoed in the streamlet’s flow, 

sweet sang the mavis in budding branches, 

to wake the memories of long ago. 

Source: Watson, Roderick. “Mairi Nic a’ Phearsain/ Mary Macpherson (1821-1898)”. The Poetry of Scotland: Gaelic, Scots & English 1380–1980, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1995, pp. 484-497. 

Gaelic 

English translation 

English loan 

Uisge-beatha 

whisky, lit. ‘water of life’ 

whisky 

Cabar 

‘(a) tree trunk’ 

caber (as in caber-toss) 

Cèilidh 

‘visit’/ ‘=communal gathering with music’ 

ceilidh: communal gathering with music 

Clann 

‘children’ 

clan (as in a family group)

Gu leòr 

‘enough’ 

galore 

Sporan 

‘(a) purse’ 

sporran (worn with a kilt) 

Loch 

‘loch, lake’ 

loch 

Gleann 

‘glen’ 

glen 

A sheumais 

‘Seumas/James
(name, vocative)’ 

Hamish
(name)
 

- Culture

Culture, food, literature, and more

Guga (salted gannet) 

  • Traditional delicacy in Northern Lewis 
  • Traditionally served with a glass of milk and a potato 
  • Not regularly eaten currently 

 

Marag dhubh (black pudding) 

  • Blood sausage with pork or beef blood, suet, and oats 

 

Marag gheal (white pudding) 

  • Similar to black pudding but without blood 

 

Tatties and neeps 

Duff (cloutie dumpling)

 Brochan (porridge) 

  • Oatmeal, a Scottish staple 
  • Traditionally served with just a pinch of salt

Crannachan  

Dulce (seaweed) 

  • A type of algae that grows in the northern atlantic and pacific oceans on shorelines 
  • Name derives from Scottish Gaelic duileasg (also Irish duileasc)
  • Often sold at health food stores in Canada

The Hebredian Baker: Coinneach Macleod 

  • Cookbook author from the Hebrides 
  • Works to promote Hebredian culture (and Gaelic) 
  • Website 
  • Music is incredibly important in Gaelic culture 
  • Strong oral tradition both of singing and storytelling 
  • Thig crìoch air an t-saoghal ach mairidh gaol is ceòl. – (proverb) ‘The world may come to an end, but love and music will last forever’ 

Pìob mhòr (Highland bagpipe) 

Fidheall (fiddle) 

 

Clàrsach (clarsach – a type of harp) 

Milling songs 

  • Milling is the process of beating newly woven cloth against a table to cause it to shrink and firm 
  • People would gather around to mill fabric, became gatherings at which to sing and tell stories 
  • Practice of ‘milling frolics’ were very popular in Nova Scotia and are even now that people aren’t weaving their own cloth 
    • A way of learning songs, speaking the language, and being with community

The Royal National Mòd 

  • An Comunn Gàidhealach (The Highland Association) was founded in 1891 in Oban in the interest of presverving and developing the Gaelic language, started the Mòd the next year (1892) 
    • A festival to celebrate Gaelic linguistic and cultural heritage, including music, highland dancing, drama, sport, and litterature 
  • Competition in traditional arts modelled on the National Eisteddford Festival in Wales 
  • Has now been granted royal assent due to considerable effort of the organization for recognition of Gaelic’s status in Scotland 
  • Website
  • Source: https://blog.historicenvironment.scot/2017/10/royal-national-mod-2017/

Celtic Connections 

  • Annual Celtic Music festival in Glasgow in January

Gaelic Punk 

  • Subgenre of Punk music in the Gaelic Language, focusing on issues of environmentalism and self-determination 
  • Bands:

Image: The Band Oi Polloi performing in 2005

Gaelic Rock 

  • Storytelling is incredibly important in Gaelic culture 
  • Traditional storytellers: seanchaidh 
  • Tradition of oral storytelling and memory-keeping
    • Not just entertainment, maintaining history and cultural identity (Newton)  
  • At least since the 15th century (Gunderloch) 
  • Heroic ballads in narrative verse, similar to traditional Irish tales 
  • Storytelling at festivals (such as the Mòd), cèidlidhs, celebrations and other gatherings 

Learn more at these links:

Sgeul/Story: How the Gaelic storytelling tradition lives on today (National Library of Scotland)

Scottish Storytelling Centre

Scottish International Storytelling Festival

Storytelling (Comhairle na Gàidhlig/The Gaelic Council of Nova Scotia)

The Mòd 

(See music section above!) 

 Fèisean 

  • Smaller, local music and arts festivals held regionally 
  • Aimed at youth, educational 

 Hogmanay 

File:Hogmanay Torch Parade in Edinburgh Scotland.jpg

  • Scottish celebration of New Year’s Eve, extending through New Year’s Day 
  • possibly with roots in Celtic celebrations of the winter solstice 
  • Gift-giving and visiting with friends 
  • first-foot: first visitor on New Year’s day, believed to bring good fortune 

Bealtainn (Beltane, Scottish May Day) 

File:Beltane 2019 Edinburgh Calton Hill.jpg

  • Gaelic festival celebrated in Ireland, Scottland, Mann, and England 
  • Etymology: Beal Teine ‘Baal’s Fire’ (ancient god) 
  • Phrases associated with the weather: sneachda mu bhial na Bealltainn ‘Snow at the start of Beltane’ 
  • Gug-ùg cuckoo would appear around this time 
  • Believed that witches would turn into hares to steal the produce of the cows 
  • Ritualistic bonfires
  • Read more at the DASG blog
  • John MacLean, famous Gaelic poet and songwriter in Nova Scotia in the 19th century 
  • Angus Peter Campbell (poet) 
  • Alexander Carmichael (folklorist) 
  • Joy Dunlop (musician and broadcaster) 
  • Calum and Rory MacDonald (brothers and founders of Runrig) 

- Credits and References

References, image credits, and how to cite this profile

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https://doi.org/10.1163/22134638-bja10025   

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Gabler, Neal. (1988, July 31). BEHIND THE SCENES AT WARNER BROTHERS: Sound and Fury: The Making of the First Talkie, ‘The Jazz Singer,’ Is a Story of Hollywood’s Jewish Heritage. Los Angeles Times. https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1988-07-31-tm-10751-story.html  

Glasser, Paul. (2010, November 4). Weinreich, Max. YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe. https://yivoencyclopedia.org/article.aspx/Weinreich_Max 

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Harshav, Benjamin. (2010, December 15). Chagall, Marc. YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe. https://yivoencyclopedia.org/article.aspx/Chagall_Marc 

Ivry, Benjamin. (2022, July 19). Were the Three Stooges a lot more Jewish than we realized? Forward. https://forward.com/culture/510651/three-stooges-jewish-yiddish-nazi-charlie-chaplin-great- dictator-mad-magazine/  

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The content of this profile was created primarily by Avery Ozburn. To cite: 

Ozburn, Avery. 2023. Yiddish. In Ozburn, Avery (ed.) The Language Profiles Project. Available online at https://languageprofiles.ca/home/yiddish/.

We would also like to acknowledge Miriam Borden, Sandy Fainer, Anna Shternshis, Lucy Meanwell, Liam McFadden, Gianna Giovio Canavesi, and Tony Juntao Hu.

The map was created by Liam McFadden.

Recordings and checking of Yiddish content were done by Sandy Fainer. 

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