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Scottish Gaelic

by Ridseard Raw from Scotland

In the latest census, 2001, which was published a short time ago, it showed that the number of speakers of the Scottish Gaelic language had fallen below 60,000 for the first time. What it didn't show is how that rate of decline has slowed down over the past ten years. The first Gaelic medium school was set up in 1982, before which Gaelic speakers had no option but to be taught through the medium of a foreign language, English. Gaelic, despite being Scotland's oldest language - it was spoken more than 200 years before the arrival of the Angles - still is not given official status in Scotland or in Britain as a whole. The language gets a total funding of £14 million a year, and that includes broadcasting, education and everything else.

Much is being done to try and keep the beautiful language alive. Contrary to popular misconception, Gaelic is not a difficult language to learn. There are only eleven irregular verbs, and verbs do not decline from one personal pronoun to the next, unlike most other languages. Gaelic uses the Roman alphabet, although originally, in Old Irish, where the language originates from, it used the Ogham alphabet, a series of dashes, usually written from right to left along an edge of a stone.

Written modern Irish and Scottish are very similar. It takes only a short while to learn different spellings to become familiar with text. For example, many silent parts have been omitted in modern Irish spelling, but left in Scottish spelling, like "bre á" and "brèagha", or "séimhiú" and "sèimheachadh". Both languages use the letter 'h' to change, in fact, soften the pronunciation of a consonant. You can view my pronunciation guide of Scottish Gaelic for more details, but to give one example, 'bh' is pronounced 'v'. We only use five vowels and twelve consonants, which can change pronunciation depending on whether they are dental or palatalized, followed by an 'h', and whether they come at the start or later on in a word. The spelling is very consistent once learned. Both Scottish and Irish Gaelic use the same spelling system, although Irish uses an additional rule to show vocalization, for example, 'bhf' when 'f' is pronounced 'v'.

There is a third Gaelic language from the Isle of Man, which is situated in the Irish Sea, sandwiched between Scotland to the northeast, Ireland to the west, England to the east and Wales to the south. A spelling system was designed for the Manx language based on both English and Welsh spelling. The spoken language is something of a halfway house between Scottish and Irish Gaelic. The last native speaker of Manx died in 1974, but there is a revivalist movement with a few hundred fluent speakers.

Gaelic grammar is very different from many other 'Indo-European' languages. For a start, the usual word order is verb-subject-object, like this - "bhreab am balach am ball gu cruaidh" (hit the boy the ball hard). You will need to know the root and the verbal noun to be able to use all the tenses. There are not many of them in Gaelic. The present tense is formed by using the verb to be ('tha' in the present, 'bha' in the past, 'bidh' in the future and finally, 'bhiodh' in the conditional). In fact you could speak using only these four, but it would become a bit repetitive after a while.

After the verb to be, you need the noun or personal pronoun ('mi' (I), 'thu' (you), 'e' (he), 'i' (she), 'sinn' (we), 'sibh' (you) and 'iad' (they)), then the preposition 'ag' (at) (which is reduced to 'a'' before a consonant), and finally the verbal-noun (hitting, speaking, laughing, reading etc.). If you follow that construction with 'mi' (I) and 'sgrìobhadh' (writing), you can produce 'tha mi a' sgrìobhadh' (I am writing, I write), 'bha mi a' sgrìobhadh' (I was writing, I wrote), 'bidh mi a' sgrìobhadh' (I will be writing, I will write) and 'bhithinn* a' sgrìobhadh' (I would be writing, I would write).

Note that the conditional ends in -inn with 'mi', and -amaid with 'sinn'. It would be best to learn those four simple constructions as your first grammar, but eventually, you are going to want to expand your grammar, and here following is a different way of producing the future, past and conditional tenses; for this you need to know the root of the verb as opposed to the verbal-noun, which we used for the present tense.

I'll start off with the root of the verb to write because it is a very simple one that doesn't change at the start. The root is 'sgrìobh', pronounced 'skreev'. The future you add 'aidh', which is pronounced 'ee', the past remains the same, and the conditional you add 'adh', or -ainn and -amaid with 'mi' and 'sinn'. Therefore, the past tense is 'sgrìobh' (skreev), the future is 'sgrìobhaidh' (skreevee), and the conditional is 'sgrìobhadh' (skreevug), and 'sgiobhainn' (skreeveen) with 'mi', and 'sgrìobhamaid' (skreevamitch) with 'sinn'. How easy is that? And with those two exceptions, mi and sinn, with the conditional tense, they don't decline. Thus, 'sgrìobh mi' (I wrote), 'sgrìobhaidh mi' (I will write), and 'sgrì obhainn' (I would write).

When it comes to consonants beginning with b, c, d, g, m, p, s and t you lenite (soften) them to form the past and conditional, but not the future tenses, for example from the root 'cuir' (put), you get 'chuir' (put), cuiridh (will put) and 'chuireadh' (would put).

There are three Gaelic languages, as I mentioned: Scottish Gaelic (Gàidhlig), Irish (Gaeilge) and Manx (Gaelge). 'Gàidhlig' is pronounced 'gah-lik' and 'Gaeilge' is pronounced 'gwey-lig-e'. These three languages are distantly related to three other Celtic languages, namely Welsh, Cornish and Breton. As a Gaelic speaker, I can't understand any of the last three languages, but I understand a good deal of the first three. Word order tends to be common amongst all six Celtic languages, i.e. verb-subject-object, and they share one other characteristic of Celtic languages, one which I'm lead to believe is also a feature of European Portuguese because of the Celtic influence in the Iberian Peninsula (Portugal and Spain). That is that they don't use 'yes' and 'no'.

For example if someone asked me whether I want a cup of coffee in Gaelic, "a bheil thu ag iarraidh cupa cofaidh?", I would reply naturally with the verb, in this case, the verb to be. "Tha, tha mi ag iarraidh cupa cofaidh, tapadh leat." (Am, I am wanting a cup of coffee thank-you). In the negative you would reply "Chan eil, chan eil mi ag iarraidh cupa cofaidh tapadh leat" (am not, I am not wanting a cup of coffee thank-you).

Similarly if you ask some one if they like cheese, you would ask "An toigh leat caise?" and the reply would be "is toil, 's toigh leam caise", or "cha toil, cha toigh leam caise".

A very nice feature of the Gaelic language is the colours. Unlike most European languages, where they are based on the colours of the rainbow, in Gaelic they are based on natural colours, hence 'gorm' is usually translated as 'blue', but can also be green, because grass is 'gorm', then you have 'glas', which ranges from dark grey to greenish grey, then there's 'liath', which is anything from sky-blue to light-grey. If someone had grey hair, it would be 'liath'.

Then there's 'uaine', which is bright green, 'dearg', which is bright red, 'ruadh', which is dark red or the colour of someone's hair if they are ginger. You have 'dubh' (black) and 'geal' (white) and 'donn', which is most shades of brown, 'buidhe', which is yellow, golden or even orange, 'purpaidh' for purple, 'òr' for gold, and 'airgead' for silver, taken from Latin. The colour 'bàn' can mean either blonde of hair or pale of skin.

The language uses prepositions a lot. For example there is not a verb "to have" or "to possess" in Gaelic, so we say 'tha x aig y' (x is at y) to say you have something. If someone asked you "Cò leis a tha seo?" (Whose is this?), you might say "'S ann leamsa a tha e." (Who with that is this ... is with-me that it is).

All simple prepositions, like 'in', 'at', 'on', take the dative case, and combine with personal pronouns. For example, with the preposition 'le', which means 'with', or 'by', you can have 'leam' (with-me), 'leat' (with-thee), 'leis' (with-him), 'leatha' (with-her), 'leinn' (with-us), 'leibh' (with-you) and 'leotha' (with-them). Similarly with the preposition 'aig' (at), you can have 'agam', 'agad', 'aige', 'aice', 'againn', 'agaibh' and 'againn'. With 'ann' (in), you can have 'annam', 'annad', 'ann', 'innte', 'annainn', 'annaibh' and 'annta'. For example "'S e oileanach a th' annam", (it's a student that's in me, or 'I'm a student'.

If you are interested in learning the Gaelic language, you can contact me via my e-mail address at Rikki_raw@hotmail.com or by buying one of many books for learners, which include Hodder and Staughton's Teach Yourself Gaelic, and who also do Irish and Welsh, or Hugo's Scottish Gaelic in Three Months, who also do Welsh, or the Speaking Our Language series. You might want to contact me to get that one, but it's one that I'd highly recommend. There are increasingly more books coming out for learners of the language and fluent speakers to read.

Minority languages, of which there are many all over the world, offer a unique view onto the world. I myself think differently depending on whether I'm speaking in Gaelic or English. I feel calmer when I'm speaking Gaelic. It must be something in the language. In these days of globalization, self-identity is becoming more important, to distinguish ourselves. Languages in general are a very good way of doing this. If someone is known to be a speaker of say Gaelic, Basque or Navajo, it gives that person a very special sense of identity.