Three books for learning Scottish Gaelic

From My Bookshelf : Gaelic Books You Might Have Missed

I’m an absolute hound for language learning books. Not least when I have a new project – the excitement of a new language is the perfect catalyst for a bookshop raid. And since starting Gaelic a couple of years ago, my little reference library has blossomed.

But it’s not the Teach Yourself and Colloquial course books that spark the real excitement (however wonderful they are, too). Rather, it’s the little gems that are a bit harder to find, the titles you only come across in either really well-stocked shops, or little specialist ones. Often they hail from much smaller publishing houses, too, so have an individuality and authentic voice all of their own.

Here are three of my favourite ‘little finds’ from my Gaelic bookshelf!

A Gaelic Alphabet (George McLennon)

When I started Gaelic, I was – like many – bamboozled by the spelling. With the benefit of a good teacher and lots of hindsight, that system seems completely logical now – perhaps much more so than its quirky English counterpart! But back at the beginning, all that talk of broad and slender consonants, and caol ri caol ‘s leathann ri leathann was utterly alien.

I came across this book long after it had finally clicked, but I’d have loved to find it at the start. McLennon systematically works through all the letters of the Gaelic alphabet, giving copious examples of how words containing them sound. There are lots of nods to the Gaelic world too, making it a true treasure if you’re just starting out on your journey.

Gaelic Verbs Systemised and Simplified (Colin Mark)

I must admit, I have a thing for verbs. When starting a new language, I always go straight for them, eager to find out how to express past, present and future. Maybe it’s the storyteller in me.

Gaelic verbs, like the spelling, might seem to operate in quite an unfamiliar way for the new learner, especially those coming from SVO languages like French, German or Spanish. This book breaks it all down, explaining the quirks from dependent forms to verbal nouns. It gave me the knowledge and confidence to create Scottish Verb Blitz, an app that I still practise with today.

Gràmar na Gàidhlig (Michel Byrne)

I’ve flagged the excellent Gràmar na Gàidhlig before in my pick of post-Duolingo resources, but it bears mentioning again as a golden Gaelic pick. Translated for English-speaking learners from a highly successful purely Gaelic version, it’s a clear and accessible reference and learning guide if you like exploring the nuts and bolts.

It is getting harder to source now, although I’ve seen copies here and there in the second-hand bookshops of Edinburgh, and you can also still buy it direct from the publisher here.

Honourable Mentions

This trio is perhaps at the forefront of my mind right now, as I’ve found myself using them a bit more often lately. But there are so many other perhaps lesser-known Gaelic resources out there, some still in print, others available second-hand.  I can’t leave out Gaelic without Groans, for instance, which is simply from a whole other world, and a cute and quirky joy to read. Then there’s An leabhar mòr (the great book), a more recent compendium of illustrated verse in the language. 

It’s a good sign of continued, thriving interest in learning the language, of course – as well as testimony to the treasure of books, large and small. If you give them a go, I hope you love these titles as much as I do.

Pidgins - or pigeons? Picture by Lozba Paul, freeimages.com

Feeding the Pidgins : Perfectly Imperfect Communication

One of the language learning lifelines that has kept me going during lockdown is our little Gaelic chat circle that meets weekly on Zoom. We started off as an in-person pub chat group back in January, but as normal life started to shut down in March, our ever-enthusiastic organiser decided to keep us going in cyberspace. Thank heavens for organised folk.

Our the months, the pendulum has swung back and forth with numbers, as is always the case with these things. Some weeks we manage a proper little group chat, and occasionally there are just two of us. But there is always someone there, and the determination never fades: nothing but Gaelic for half an hour!

Perfectly Imperfect

The remarkable thing is that none of us are remotely fluent. In fact, most of us are hovering around A1/2, with our main point of commonality being the Duolingo Gaelic course.

How on earth do we manage?

Not badly, all things considered. We communicate enthusiastically and fluidly amongst ourselves, gossiping on all kinds of topics from home life to politics. To do that, we do supplement, where we have to, with the odd English word or two. Feumaidh mi a dheanamh an washing up a-nis! (I have to do the washing up now!). A bheil lockdown ann a-rithist? (Is it lockdown again?) But we have a good online Gaelic dictionary loaded up in the background to share any pertinent new vocab.

We might sometimes use our own loan translations too, like “coimhead sgìth” (literally “looking tired” using the verb ‘look’ instead of something more idiomatic – probably with coltach!). Imagine our happy surprise then, when it turns out that some of these made-up-on-the-spot forms are attested and used in first language speech too (no doubt due to the influence of English, mind). I do sometimes shudder to think what a pedant or purist might think, listening in.

But still – it works!

Pidgin Fanciers

What we’re doing feels, in some ways, like the creation of a pidgin. Just like our peppered-with-English Gaelic, pidgins arise from the need to communicate using limited knowledge of a base language. Just like grander-scale pidgins, more than two languages can end up in the mix too – a couple of us have some Irish, so that gets thrown into the pot as well.

In essence, we use what we have to say what we want.

The upside? We have become really good at that handful of colloquial structures we all share. An toil leat…? (Do you like…?), an robh thu…? (were you…?), nach eil e…? (isn’t it…?) They are all pretty much ingrained now!

But I know what you’re thinking: but what about all the errors and mispronunciations being reinforced without any correction? As real-life pidgins progress, the divergences from “standard” grammar may crystallise into something new and more ordered: a creole. As creative as it sounds, that isn’t quite our goal.

Fortunately, we have a couple of safeguards.

Taming the Pidgins

Firstly, we do have a very competent speaker who attends quite often, who has been a brilliant source of guidance and advice. Secondly, a couple of us still attend formal Gaelic classes as well, so there is always an external guiding hand to keep us on the straight and narrow.

Finally – and anyone can do this, even without access to more knowledgeable speakers or learners – we note down anything we are unsure about during conversation and pledge to read up on it after the chat. Whether in textbooks or via a Google search, the info you need is never really find.

In short, don’t let a lack of vocabulary and grammar knowledge stop you from trying to speak a language. Have a go at feeding the Pidgins. As for us, we’ll certainly keep on throwing them crumbs – it’s got us through two lockdowns, and it’ll get it through the next!

Are you looking for some more Gaelic resources after exhausting Duolingo’s course? Check these out!

A pocket watch with the time showing as quarter past three. Image from freeimages.com.

Time for some adverbs – fluency hacks for fast-paced chat

I’m a big fan of the speaking bingo sheet for conversation prep. I try to make use of them whenever I have an iTalki lesson, for example (as well as the time to prep one beforehand!).

One of the most useful phrase categories in convo lessons is without a doubt adverbials of time. Adverbs, the words of how, are incredibly useful for moving on your fluency at the best of times. Adverbials of time in particular describe when things took place. Now, then, last week, soon, suddenly… Sequence, frequency, calendar, you name it. Unsurprisingly, they’re often those little words we grasp desperately at when trying to talk about our daily lives in a new foreign language.

These little helpers are valuable power-ups towards fluency in the early stages of learning a language. They can even help you to communicate without knowing the full selection of verb tenses. For instance, “I go tomorrow” is as valid as “I will go tomorrow” in English. And even when the sentence is less grammatical, the sense is still there. “I go yesterday” is still understandable, even if it sounds a bit pidgin. In short, adverbials of time can help you make yourself understood even in the absence of an advanced knowledge of grammar.

Social glue

Another reason they’re so fundamental is their use as social glue. When you start interacting in the target language, you can find yourself planning and organising with others. Lesson times, study group meet-ups and such like all require time negotiations. Adverbs and adverbial phrases of time are the flesh and blood of the language of organising.

This hit home recently when I joined an informal local pub meet-up for beginners’ Gaelic chat in Edinburgh. It’s a lovely, super-keen group, and everyone wants to try and communicate in the language all the time. This includes the group WhatsApp, where it very quickly became apparent that we’d need to look up phrases like ‘next week’, ‘tonight’ and so on. Time phrases to the rescue again!

Time for some vocab…

So we’re agreed, these words are super handy. So handy, in fact, that I’ve taken to keeping a crib document in each of my languages just for them. And since Scottish Gaelic is everywhere right now (thanks, Duolingo!) here is my list sa Ghàidhlig, one of my most active personal projects at the moment. I hope you find it useful!

Feel free to use the English column to start your own in other languages, or download this template with gaps to fill in yourself.

Narrating in time

English Gaelic
today an-diugh
tomorrow a-màitheach
yesterday an-dè
quickly gu luath
slowly gu slaodach
early tràth
late fadalach

Sequence

English Gaelic
now a-nis
just now an-dràsta
then (at that time) an uair sin
suddenly gu h-obann
already mu thràth / mar thà
yet, still fhathast
soon a dh’aithghearr
immediately, at once anns a’ bhad
firstly, at first an toiseach
at (long) last, eventually mu dheireadh (thall)

Frequency

English Gaelic
never / ever a-riamh
rarely, seldom ainneamh
sometimes, occasionally uaireannan
usually, normally mar as/bu trice *
often gu tric
every day gach latha / a h-uile latha
every week gach seachdain
every month gach mìos
every year gach bliadhna
always an còmhnaidh
all the time fad na h-ùine

Likelihood

Not strictly speaking adverbials of time, but they are quite a good fit with this group of words, too.

English Gaelic
probably, maybe is dòcha / ‘s dòcha
definitely gu cinnteach

Calendar organising

English Gaelic
this week an t-seachdain seo
next week an-ath-sheachdain
last week an t-seachdain sa chaidh
this month air a ‘mhìos seo
next month an-ath-mhìos
last month air a ‘mhìos a chaidh
this year am bliadhna
next year an-ath-bhliadhna
last year an-uiridh

*as with present/future tenses and bu with past/conditional tenses

How many do you know in your target language(s) already? Are there any essential time phrases you would add to the list? Let us know in the comments!

A thistle. Learn Gaelic, know Scotland a little better. Image from freeimages.com

Exhausted Duolingo Gaelic already? Try these resources for size!

Got your Gaelic fix with Duolingo but hungry for more? You’re not alone. The ubiquitous language learning platform delighted users with its latest addition. But like all first-phase courses, it is not the lengthiest – yet.

More will almost certainly be in the pipeline, particularly given the popularity of the course. But you don’t have to play the waiting game – there are scores of great resources available to keep you going.

Never fear – as an incorrigible bibliophile, I’ve beavered my way through a heap of beginners’ materials, so you don’t have to. And however solid and ever-present the Teach Yourself and Routledge Colloquial courses are, there’s more to language learning life than just those. So enjoy some of these less obvious newcomers’ picks below for a varied foray into elementary Scottish Gaelic!

Ceumannan – Stòrlann

Ceumannan means footsteps in Gaelic, and is also the name of the secondary level textbook used to teach Gaelic in schools. Despite being aimed at kids, it covers all the ground you’d expect of any good primer course. So much so, in fact, that it is the textbook of choice in my Gaelic evening class at Edinburgh University.

Book one is the chunkiest of the five-volume set. This is its strength – the basics are thoroughly recycled again and again in different contexts throughout the book. By the end of it, you should really have mastered the basics of Gaelic syntax.

Ceumannan, the elementary Gaelic course for schools - and adult learners!

Ceumannan, the elementary Gaelic course for schools – and adult learners!

Publishers Stòrlann have also made available all of the listening material on the free Ceumannan website. The site itself is beginning to look a little clunky and dated (the Flash games, for example, will no longer work for many), but it is still a goldmine of material for learners.

Gaelic without Groans – John MacKechnie

This next resource is a real treat, especially if you like the quirkiness of language manuals from a bygone age as much as I do.

John MacKechnie’s Gaelic without Groans dates from the middle of the last century, but saw multiple reprints over the decades. Although out of print now, you can still pick up second-hand copies very cheaply online or offline. It’s always popping up in second-hand bookshops across Edinburgh, for example.

This short, friendly and joyfully eccentric introduction to basic Gaelic is a gem. MacKechnie adopts a chatty, informal style from the outset, introducing a point of basic grammar in each concise chapter. Core vocabulary appears in bite-sized chunks at the end of each section, with good old-fashioned drill exercises to hammer the points home.

John MacKechnie's Gaelic without Groans - a quirky joy from the cover to its contents!

John MacKechnie’s Gaelic without Groans – a quirky joy from the cover to its contents!

The very observant might notice a couple of discrepancies with one or two spellings, compared to much more modern learning resources. However, the differences are generally very minor. And in any case, they serve as a window onto the world of a language with plenty of dialect variation, and still undergoing many of the processes of standardisation.

Gaelic without Groans really is a joy – well worth a couple of pounds if you come across it!

Gràmar na gàidhlig – Michael Byrne

Michael Byrne’s Gràmar na Gàidhlig is another concise but packed book. Chock full of example sentences, it describes key points of Gaelic grammar in short, snappy sections. If you are struggling to understand the nuts and bolts in your other books, Gràmar na Gàidhlig puts them in terms that are very easy to understand.

The book itself is part of Gaelic language history, being a translation of the first Gaelic grammar with explanations completely in the language itself. In this English edition, you can take advantage of its clarity of instruction as a second language learner too.

BBC materials

As with Ceumannan, some of the most useful resources can be those aimed at young people. BBC Bitesize, the revision website, has a low-profile but very handy section for Gaelic learners. The target audience is students revising for Scottish school qualifications, but all learners will find the short grammar summaries useful. Some sections, like this page on irregular verbs, contain some really practical vocabulary lists, too.

Of course, the BBC in Scotland has a history of Gaelic instruction that goes further back than the Internet days. Former flagship Gaelic offering Speaking Our Language still has legendary status. That’s thanks in part to some pretty cheesy dialogue and hammy acting, but nonetheless, it is an excellent place to learn some Gàidhlig.

Supporting course book for BBC's Speaking Our Language

A supporting course book for BBC’s Speaking Our Language

The excellent site LearnGaelic.scot has repackaged some of the Speaking Our Language material for use online, including supporting exercises. That said, you can also catch repeats on BBC Alba, or find the programmes in their full, original, 1990s glory on YouTube. Revel in the nostalgia those yesteryear fashions inspire!

Scottish Gaelic Verb Blitz

Finally, if apps are your thing, you can still get a little vocabulary and grammar practice beyond Duolingo with Scottish Gaelic Verb Blitz by Geoglot. Available on iOS and Android, the app doubles as a reference and drill tool. John MacKechnie would probably have loved those translation-based games.

Scottish Gaelic Verb Blitz

Scottish Gaelic Verb Blitz

Life beyond Duolingo

So there you have five places to continue your Gaelic beyond the green owl. Of course, this list can only scratch the surface of what is available. Honourable mentions must go to Gaelic in Twelve Weeks, and the now antiquated original edition of Teach Yourself Gaelic, and all the others yet to cross my path.

But for a bit of resource-hunting of your own, try perusing the items at Stòrlann, the Gaelic publishing house. And, of course, a trip to any good second-hand bookshop in Scotland!

Hopefully, this little selection shows that whether on page or screen, there is life beyond Duolingo. Explore, enjoy, and please share any of your own resource tips in the comments below!

Like Irish and Scottish Gaelic, the landscapes of both countries can be remarkably similar. Eilean Donan Castle, Scotland. Image by Jeff Osborn, FreeImages.com.

Birds of a Feather Learn Irish and Scottish Gaelic Together

There are a ton of benefits to learning closely related languages together. And polyglot pairs don’t come much closer than Irish and Scottish Gaelic, island cousins with a fascinating history.

Under the extensive Dál Riata kingdom, Old Gaelic formed a continuum that stretched from Ireland to much of the West coast of Scotland. In the latter, it ultimately displaced the Pictish language, which many researchers believe was a Brittonic Celtic language more closely related to Breton, Cornish and Welsh.

The language, spanning two islands, was at the height of its cultural and political power in the eleventh century, after which a string of conquests began to erode its dominance. Politically separated and marginalised for hundreds of years, the two language groups went their own way, developing into distinct tongues with a much reduced mutual intelligibility.

Neither language has had it easy. Systematic neglect and aggressive anglicisation saw  both pushed to the peripheries of their respective lands. But now, thanks to individual and local government efforts, they are blossoming again. Gaelic in particular is starting to enjoy the revival efforts that gave Irish a shot in the arm, not least with the recent release of a brand new Duolingo course.

So how similar are they?

Perfect complements

Despite those long years apart in the wilderness, they remain remarkably close, particularly in grammar and syntax. They share some of the very typical – but, to newcomers, often surprising – features of Goidelic languages. When you get your head around those in one of them, then the heavy mental lifting is done for the other, too.

For instance, word order in both follows the verb-subject-object pattern, rather than the more familiar subject-verb-object of English and many other Indo-European languages. Just compare the phrase “the cat is big” in Irish and Scottish Gaelic to see the family resemblance:

🇮🇪 🏴󠁧󠁢󠁳󠁣󠁴󠁿
Tá an cat mór. Tha an cat mòr.

And yes, the accents go up in Irish and down in Scottish Gaelic – a satisfyingly quirky distinction!

But here’s our first difference: in the spoken rendering of that pair of sentences, you hear one of the phonetic foibles that set them apart, too. Tá/tha (‘is’), which must be amongst the top ten most frequent words in both languages, are pronounced /t̪ˠɑː/ and /haː/ respectively. The discrepancy really colours both languages, and is one of the first things to listen out for when trying to tell them apart (that, and the heavily rolled Scottish ‘r’!).

Verbs

And that tá/tha leads us on to one of the big differences for beginner learners: verbs in the present tense. Now, Irish still has a synthetic present. That is, it conjugates its present tense as a single word by changing endings on the verb stem.

However, Scottish Gaelic has lost that in favour of an analytic, or periphrastic formation – one that relies on auxiliary, or helper structures. It just so happens that this auxiliary is the very same tha (from the verb bi, to be).

Let’s take the verb ith (to eat), identical in Irish and Scottish Gaelic in its root form. Here is the present tense:

🇮🇪 🏴󠁧󠁢󠁳󠁣󠁴󠁿
ithim tha mi ag ithe
itheann tú tha thu ag ithe
itheann sé/sí tha e/i ag ithe
ithimid tha sinn ag ithe
itheann sibh tha sibh ag ithe
itheann siad tha iad ag ithe

The Scottish Gaelic form maps literally onto the English “I am at eating” and so on. It is a form that exists in Irish, but it retains its present continuous sense in that language. In Scottish Gaelic, it completely replaces the simple present tense forms.

That’s not to say that the pressures of change have left the Irish present tense untouched. In earlier Irish, all six persons of the present were different forms. Today, as you can see, only the first person singular and plural (I eat, we eat) have distinct forms, while the others are the same. For that reason, you still need to use the pronouns tú, sé/sí, sibh and siad to make clear who you are talking about in the Irish present.

Two to be

Talking of to be, you will have to get used to two ways to say it in both Irish and Scottish Gaelic. That may be nothing new, of course. If you have some Spanish, you will sympathise after trying to get a grip on ser and estar.

Irish and Scottish Gaelic distinguish between the regular ‘to be’ and a special copula verb, which speakers use predicatively to identify and classify. It is quite an unusual concept to an English speaker, and the logic behind use of the copula can seem complex at first.

Take the identifying phrase “I am Richard”, for example. Handily, it is identical in Irish and Scottish Gaelic. But it does not use the verb bi (which would be táim or tha mi respectively). Instead, we have:

🇮🇪🏴󠁧󠁢󠁳󠁣󠁴󠁿
Is mise Richard.

Again, become familiar with it in one language, and it will make complete sense when you come to learn the other!

There’s a doctor in me!

But wait – here’s one case where Scottish Gaelic goes off-script again. When talking about roles or professions, Irish uses a simple sentence with the copula, such as “I am a doctor”:

🇮🇪 Is dochtúir mé.

However, Scottish Gaelic uses a construction with bi that translates as something more like “I am in my doctor” (stifle those giggles!):

🏴󠁧󠁢󠁳󠁣󠁴󠁿 Tha mi nam dhotair.

Not only that, but there is an alternative way to express it which is more or less “it is a doctor that is in me“. This uses both the copula (shortened to ‘s) and the verb bi (tha):

🏴󠁧󠁢󠁳󠁣󠁴󠁿 ‘s e dotair a th’ annam

It is the fascinating differences like these that make learning Irish and Scottish Gaelic together so rewarding.

Chuck an ‘h’ in

And this leads us on to the final observation in this beginner’s roundup. Did you notice that the word dotair for ‘doctor’ appears in two forms in the Scottish Gaelic sentences above? Well, that is due to a really important feature that both languages share, the phenomenon of lenition.

Lenition, as my Gaelic class teacher helpfully summarises, is the tendency to chuck an ‘h’ in at the beginning of words. The -h- is just orthographical, of course. The actual change is a softening, or weaking, of the initial consonant sound (lenis means ‘weak’ in Latin).

In short, under some grammatical conditions, this softening occurs to certain sounds. For instance, in both languages, lenition is triggered after the definite article the with feminine singular nouns:

🇮🇪 🏴󠁧󠁢󠁳󠁣󠁴󠁿
woman bean wife bean
the woman an bhean the wife a’ bhean

(Note also the difference in meaning that has crept in with bean between the languages.)

Lenition is device in so many grammatical contexts in both languages, many of them identical. It is also used to indicate the past tense:

🇮🇪 🏴󠁧󠁢󠁳󠁣󠁴󠁿
kiss póg pòg
kissed phóg phòg

If there is a difference between the languages, it is in how far sound changes like this are reflected in the orthography. Irish spelling seems generally a lot more indicative of phonetic phenomena, including coarticulation effects like eclipsis. Take ‘our boat’ in both languages:

🇮🇪 🏴󠁧󠁢󠁳󠁣󠁴󠁿
boat bád bàta
our boat ár mbád ar bàta

The spelling rules of Irish dictate that the phonetic changes of r + b are marked. However, Scottish Gaelic is a little less fussy!

Vocabulary

Core vocabulary – the words that have been everyday terms for hundreds and hundreds of years – are still, pretty much, identical twins across the two languages. Here are a few food pairs in Irish / Scottish Gaelic:

  • arán (aran in Gaelic) (bread)
  • bainne (milk)
  • feoil (feòil in Gaelic) (meat)
  • iasg (fish)
  • im (ìm in Gaelic) (butter)
  • ispín (isbean in Gaelic) (sausage)

That said, a thousand years was enough to throw out a fair few differences in common terms, too, even if some words share a common root:

🇮🇪 🏴󠁧󠁢󠁳󠁣󠁴󠁿
carrot cáiread curran
potato práta buntàta
soup anraith brot (cf. English ‘broth’)

What with those terms, and all that ‘eating’ earlier, I realise how fond I am of edible examples. I blame the wonderful food on offer in both Ireland and Scotland!

Goidelic adventure

For my part, I am still very much at the beginning of my Goidelic adventure. As such, this is very much a beginner’s overview of how the two languages relate to one other.

But already, studying both of them together has been a wonderful way to experience fairly recent language change in action. If you have any interest in historical linguistics, studying Irish and Scottish Gaelic at the same time is eye-opening.

And even if you don’t, they are a pair of very beautiful languages to get to know.

 

Geoglot Verb Blitz Apps

Is the starting point for functional fluency a list of the right core words? Photo by acscom from freeImages.com

300 Words for Functional Fluency : Miss Swanson’s Elucidating Experiment

Decrepit, dusty old language learning books from bygone days are a guilty pleasure of mine. And sometimes, the most obscure, long-forgotten tomes throw up some shining treasures. Leafing through one such volume this week week, I stumbled across a fascinating gem of a tip that promises a helpful shortcut to functional fluency in a language.

The book in question – George McLennan’s “Scots Gaelic – A Brief Introduction – is not one of the oldest I’ve taken a ramble through, seeing its first impression in 1987. But it contains a curious factoid that served as the basis for a whole chapter on essential vocabulary. Let’s join Mr McLennan, and dive into the strange and curious world of the mysterious Miss Elaine Swanson.

Elaine Swanson and the 300 words

Swanson, explains McLennan, was “director of the New York Language Institute” around the 1930s. Now, her existence may well be apocryphal, as I am yet to find any modern reference to her – or the New York Language Institute – online or otherwise. But this mythical Miss Swanson is noted for one particular and exciting theory. She posited that a spoken vocabulary of just 300 words will suffice to get by in a language.

Being a thoroughly practical kind of person, and seeking empirical proof, she took it upon herself to attempt this feat in English for the duration of a whole three months. Apart from undoubtedly bemusing and irritating friends, relatives and colleagues, this exercise allowed her to compile a list of those core 300 words that represent a level of functional fluency.

Thanks to McLennan’s unearthing of her story, we too can benefit from the fruits of that hard work.

Functional fluency list

Here, arranged by the parts of speech. Clearly, a huge nod goes in George McLennan’s direction for printing this list with Gaelic translations in his book. Otherwise, Miss Swanson’s experiment might have been lost forever.

The final list actually comes in at a little under 300 words. Bear in mind that not every language will match up with these English terms exactly, so it will need a little adapting for other languages. McLennan notes that Gaelic, for example, has no single word for no – instead, this is paraphrased.

And one more note before we begin: some categories and inclusions might seem a little eccentric or unusual. Remember that this list was made in and for a very certain place and a very certain time. It manages to be fairly general, but will need some personalisation!

Miss Elaine Swanson’s Core Vocabulary

Prepositions

at, after, for, from, in, on, to, with

Conjunctions

and, or, if, but, so, that

Pronouns

I, he/she, you

Possessives

my, your, their

Interjections

hello, goodbye, oh!

Articles

the

Nature

fire, light, sun

Business

I assume that Mr McLennan has changed the currency words here for a British audience.

bank, pound, penny, money, office, manager, show, size, shop, trouble, way

Travel

boat, car, country, hotel, left, place, right, station, street, ticket, town, train

Objects

bag, book, letter, telephone, thing, story, word, picture, nothing

Days of the Week

Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday

Modifiers

The original list uses “modifiers” as a kind of catch-all for anything descriptive, making this a mixed bag!

again, all, any, big, clean, cold, correct, down, easy, every, expensive, good, happy, here, how?, little, long, many, more, married, much, new, nice, no, not, now, old, one, other, piece, ready, same, slow, some, sorry, that, there, this, too, also, up, warm, very, well, what?, when?, where?, who?, why?

Food

Miss Swanson could almost be the original author of Duolingo’s “Food” topics…

bread, butter, sweets, coffee, egg, fruit, meat, milk, salt, sugar, vegetables, water

Time

day, evening, hour, minute, month, morning, night, time, today, tonight, tomorrow, week, yesterday

House

bath, floor, house, key, room, table

People

boy, brother, doctor, father, friend, girl, man, men, Miss, mother, Mr, Mrs, name, policeman, sister, woman, women

Clothes

cloth, clothes, coat, dress, hat, shoes, stockings, trousers

Colours

black, blue, green, red, white

Were there no yellow things in Miss Swanson’s world?

Verbs (and auxiliaries)

will, won’t, ask, be (am, are, is, was, were), can/can’t/could, come/came, do/does/don’t/did, eat/ate, excuse, gain, get/got, give, go/went, have/has/had, help, know/knew, learn, like, make/made, must, please, put, read, say/said, see/saw, sent, sit/sat, sleep/slept, smoke, start, stop, take/took, thank, think/thought, understand/understood, use, want, work, write/wrote

A critical eye

Evaluating the list for its practicality, the omissions are often more noteworthy than the generally helpful inclusions. Indeed, I end up with more questions than answers. Why no we or they in the pronoun section, for example? One English word frequency list places we above both he and she, so this might seem like something that needs tweaking. And where is the handy it, which sits firmly in the top ten most common English words in the same frequency table?

If frequency word lists were available (presumably Miss Swanson would have had access to these as director of a linguistic institute), why did she not use these to compile a core vocabulary? That said, this was a personal experiment, and – it is fair to say – probably not exactingly scientific. The aim of fluency was on the terms of the author’s everyday, not a one-size-fits-all average person.

Elsewhere, some of the collapsed categories seem tailored quite specifically to English. We can only assume that the inclusion of possessive their is the gender-neutral one to cover he/she more economically with a single word.

Window on a world

A particularly fascinating characteristic of the list is the choice of present/past verb pairs. Only certain past tenses are included (knew, slept etc.), while others verbs are given only in the present / infinitive form. Presumably the choice relates to the kind of polite, daily conversations the protagonist was trying to replicate during the experiment. Again, this fits with a definition of fluency as a working knowledge of language for the protagonist’s everyday – not everyone else’s. On a related note, it might be quite shocking to note the inclusion of the verb ‘smoke’ these days. Of course, such observations are part of the charm of finding personal vocabulary lists like these: their quirkily subjective nature.

Other initial observations relate to the economy of some of the lower-frequency type of vocabulary. You might wonder, like I did, why some terms are included when they might be creatively paraphrased using other items on the list. Personally, I question why “sun” is there, when “big light”, accompanied by pointing at the sky, would do. Slightly paleolithic, admittedly. Miss Swanson sounds much more civilised than that.

Pidgin English

As a guide to speaking a language, the list is clearly missing something. In particular, her conception of vocabulary is of a set of discrete, individual blocks, without any comprehensive reference to the glue holding them together in speech. There are no grammar rules implied in this list method beyond the few verb tense pairs, a couple of declined verb forms (was, does etc.) and the probably unnecessary inclusion of the definite article.

You can get away without grammar, of course, in effect using the vocabulary with your own logic to create a kind of pidgin. Will that make for ‘good’ French, German, Spanish and so on? No, go the purists. But will it be communicative if you need a basic core fast? Absolutely!

Verbs for lift-off

Miss Swanson does give a nod to a certain kind of sentence glue, however. One of the most striking things about this core vocabulary is the preponderance of verbs. They make up a considerable portion of the magic 300. And with good reason: this super-category of words does a colossal amount of heavy lifting in terms of intention and meaning in a sentence.

Now, I’ve always championed the verb as a key fluency factor. In fact, you can just call me the Verb Guy, since I can’t get enough of them (I write apps to drill them in my spare time!). Miss Swanson clearly spotted the communicative power of verbs, and focusing on verb tricks like employing modal sentence frames can really boost your conversational power, too.

A pinch of salt (and a spoonful of sugar)

So there you have it: a recipe for getting by on just a handful of words. Serve with a dollop of gloriously eccentric sugar and a medium-sized pinch of salt.

But even if the Magic 300 needs some tweaking to our individual circumstances, it strikes me that Miss Swanson was most definitely onto something. Her approach lights a pathway towards communicating – fast – in any language. Beyond that, the highly personal, practical nature of her list makes for a charming and intriguing window onto the world of someone in love with language and words. There is something  very familiar about Miss Swanson that is reflected in all of us linguaphiles.

This long-forgotten experiment attracts the extreme linguist in me, I must admit. If functional fluency can be acquired from a carefully selected core vocabulary, then maybe it is that simple to add a third, fourth, fifth language – and the rest!

What would your 300 look like? Could you get away with fewer than 300 words? What would you add or replace to Miss Swanson and Mr McLennan’s lists? And of the languages you know a little of, how many have you reached Swanson’s functional fluency in? Let us know in the comments!