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?
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’!).
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:
||tha mi ag ithe
||tha thu ag ithe
||tha e/i ag ithe
||tha sinn ag ithe
||tha sibh ag ithe
||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:
(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:
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:
The spelling rules of Irish dictate that the phonetic changes of r + b are marked. However, Scottish Gaelic is a little less fussy!
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:
||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!
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.