Critique of the "New" Gaelic Orthographic Conventions
le Lloyd Leland
The following is a letter that was submitted to the Stornoway Gazette. It appeared as a four-part article during August 1991. Mr Leland is a resident of Riverview, New Brunswick and tells his background eloquently in the Introductory paragraphs. We are indebted to him for his taking the time to write this critique and to give his permission for it to be reprinted here.
FIRSTLY, it is not my intention to attack the Gaelic Panel that produced the Conventions, nor to disparage its difficult work. The members were presented with a nearly impossible task and felt obligated to produce something; furthermore, they are all busy people with other work. For these and other reasons, it is very likely that many of them agreed on some points "under duress".
It seems that the conventions have received general acceptance for several reasons; one of which is the respect and high esteem for scholarship held by most Gaels (and which I share and also because of apathy and the fact that the majority of Gaels seldom, if ever, read Gaelic of any kind.
I do not pretend to equate my knowledge of Gaelic with that of any member of the Panel. I would be overjoyed to receive instruction in the language from any of them. That notwithstanding, I dare to disagree with some of their conclusions. What qualifications do I have for questioning the work of people who are much better educated in the subject than I am? I am a "learner", but ,Gaelic has been the normal spoken language of our home for more than 45 years. I had to learn the language in isolation with no spoken help from anybody literate in it.
The authors do not have personal knowledge from this viewpoint. We raised a family who not only can speak Gaelic, but do speak it whenever there are no non-Gaelic speakers present. Furthermore, they speak it to their children. I read and understand seven languages, I am at present assisting in compiling a dictionary of Maliseet-Passamaquoddy. I have had teacher's training and five years' experience teaching.
I am aware that "the die is cast" and nothing that I say or write will influence the way that Gaelic will be written, but I feel so strongly about this matter that I must express my opinions, right or wrong. What follows is from my "worms eye view" .
The panel indicated its belief that the lack of an authoritative set
of published orthographic conventions to which reference might be made
by teachers and candidates both native speakers and learners alike, was
an important factor leading to the situation where the standard or spelling
fell far below the requisite levels.
We already have excellent published conventions in Dwelly, MacLennan and others. Every member of the panel, if I mistake not, could write good standard Gaelic as it was written before the new Conventions were produced. Where and how, may I ask, did they learn to spell so well?
Bad spelling is the result of poor or insufficient instruction followed by inadequate reinforcement. Most people learn spelling by constant reinforcement when they read, rather than by memorizing the spelling of lists or words; although the latter should not be neglected. Gaelic does not receive enough reinforcement, and changing the rules of spelling will not alter this situation. This may improve where children are taught through the medium of Gaelic.
Because English is, and has long been, the literary language of the Gael, as well as that of his formal instruction, he sees written Gaelic through "English eyes". The result is that even those few who learn to write Gaelic seldom do so. Thus Gaelic remains a language that "few can read, and nobody can write". I once wrote a letter in Gaelic to an office of An Comunn Gaidhealach and received a reply written in impeccable Gaelic, but with this English post script: "Please excuse mistakes in spelling. I haven't written Gaelic since I was in school, and 'that wasn't yesterday'.
The Panel further expressed the hope that the principles set out in its document will go some way towards removing the inconsistencies, indecisions and minor irritations that arise from the absence of a firmly defined standard, and that in doing so they wil1 help teachers and learners (and indeed all writers of Gaelic to write the language more confidently. The introduction of spellings and even words that have never existed before and are not found in the available dictionaries can hardly be expected to accomplish this laudable intention; in fact, after being subjected to the new spelling for over ten years. I find that I write Gaelic much less confidently than previously. My reading of the highly praiseworthy magazine Gairm leads me to believe that many of the writers who contribute to it experience the same problem.
Even admitting that the Conventions may solve some of the problems,
where do we resort for guidance when writing the many thousands of words
that are not listed in the Conventions? Again, quoting from the Conventions:
"The Panel is keenly aware that Gaelic is at present at an interesting
stage of development, from a social and educational as well as from a linguistic
point of view. This has been kept continually in mind and deliberations
have been directed to ensuring that the orthographic flexibility required
for these developments should be retained."
Gaelic is teetering on the edge of the grave, and if that is an interesting stage of development. we must agree. As for flexibility, the Panel by restricting choices, usually to one, has diminished the flexibility of the language. A wide variety of choices in pronunciation and spellings as well as of vocabulary is one of the strengths of the language, making it more suitable for poetry and song than many others.
"The difficulties of Gaelic spelling raised and discussed by the subcommittee did not prove equally tractable." What difficulties? Gaelic is written phonetically. that is to say that every word is written as somebody pronounced it. Difficulties arise if the learner is not instructed in the reasons that a word may not be spelt as he hears it sounded. It has been demonstrated that a person with no understanding of the language can, with good instruction in Gaelic phonetics, read Gaelic and be clearly understood by a Gaelic-speaking listener.
"It was decided that it would not be desirable to violate etymological principles to any considerable degree, or institute changes on such a scale as would make books written in the traditional orthography too difficult for new readers." How much is a 'considerable degree'? While the new orthography may not make it too difficult, it certainly introduces irritations for older readers accustomed to the traditional writing and makes the 'new' Gaelic unattractive to read.
Will it not then make the older literature unattractive for modern readers? Here I quote from David V. Kelmedy in An Teachdaire Gaidhealach XXIII, An t-Earrach 1945: "I find the derivatives and spellings of 100 years ago much easier to understand than the abbreviations and lack of apostrophes and vowel interchange which are taking place today in Gaelic Academia". My own experience is similar, and when choosing books to read for our grandchildren, I find the older ones in greater demand and more pleasurable to read; books such as the Ladybird books published by An Comunn Gaidhealach, stories from Club Leabhar, Leabhraichean Ura under the hand Of Ruairidh MacThómais(sic), and a great favourite: The Tale of The Cauldron, published in 1927.
"Its position was that diversity of usage and the state of Gaelic literacy at the present time both inspire to make the prescripton of a singulary (sic) standard for all cases unrealistic".
Here, the Panel recognises an excellent reason to let well enough alone and not to introduce confusion by presenting us with new spellings and forms that were never recognised before, as well as judging what words and forms of words are acceptable. If a word is spelt in accordance with one of the accepted dictionaries or in accordance with the writer's dialect it is good spelling. When a child goes to school he should not be given an aversion to Gaelic by being told that the language of his parents or grandparents is "bad" or unacceptable Gaelic. I can still feel the sting of 63 years ago when I lost a mark on my paper for spelling whisky exactly that way rather than "whiskey" as one book spelt it. There is such a thing as being too pedantic where more can be lost than gained by strict adherence to rules which may be in error.
Part II Consonants and Vowels
I do not pretend to disagree with all the Panel's proposals, but it seems that in some of its proposals it is trying to correct bad spelling by introducing a new and official bad spelling which the students must learn. Then if they spell words exactly as the old Gaelic scholars did, they will lose marks.
The standard spelling of some Gaelic words is based on pronunciations that are not general in the Outer Isles. There are not a great many such words, if one excepts the 'eu' words; some such as 'fuaigheal', 'foghar', 'leigeil', 'mìos', et cetera. If the students are taught why these words are so spelt, they should present little problem; but are the teachers given this instruction? This is only a question about something of which I am ignorant, but 'by their fruits ye shall know them'. I do not intend to 'nit pick' everything that I find mildly controversial. My comments follow.
The numbering refers back to that of the Panel's.
1. Consonant Quality
1:1 "A system free from all ambiguity would involve cumbersome devices and an overproliferation of symbols; this is especially the case when consonants have three qualities. For example l and n". This does not seem to be a problem for native speakers, and for learners these letters, as well as r require a little more attention from their teachers; even though they may have as many as four qualities, the signals are there in the context and the adjacent vowels, making other symbols redundant. If the consonants are mispronounced, it will give a foreign accent to the speaker, but he will still be understood.
2. Consonant Groups And Simplification
2:4. "The prefix comh should be simplified to co where it does not take The stress." We should tread warily here. There are living native speakers who pronounce 'comh-thional'. 'Coileanta' seems to depart from the etymology of the word. In attempting to substitute ea for io, words are produced that are not to l found in the available dictionaries. This creates difficulties for a reader who is seeking the meaning of a word.
3. Vowel Representation
"For the most part the established conventions for vowel representations are adequate." This must mean that, contrary to what was stated in the foreword, there were established Conventions.
3:1. As stated previously, written Gaelic sometimes uses a spelling that is not consonant with the pronunciations normally heard in the Outer Isles. The traditional eu is quite acceptable as long as the students are made to understand the reason for using it and that it does not represent the sound of ia even though it is so used in certain words. The eu is pronounced as written in some places such as Islay and often in formal Gaelic in the ia areas. For example:"Oir bheathaich thu do shluagh gu léir le aran deur is broin". One should write ceud of ciad, but not both by the same writer. It creates confusion and means that the students must learn another unnecessary rule. There are still educated native Gaelic speakers who say an ceud for 'the first': Are they wrong if they write it that way?
3:3. "Homophones should be differentiated in spelling". This
rule will make Gaelic spelling less phonetic. Mias and mìos
are not homophones in Islay, where mìos rhymes with pìos.
3:4. "The long central vowel is often represented by ao, for example aobhar, aobrann, aoradh. These and similar words should be written as adhbhar, adhbrann, adhradh as The ao- digraph is more appropriate to represent the sound in, for example, faobhar, saor, daor, gaoth, etc. This is a good move in the direction of more exact phonetics, but the other spelling should be accepted because of wide use.
3:5 "The variation to be found in unstressed syllables should be reduced and based on -a- instead of -o- of -u-, for example (a) instead of boirionn, firionn, timchioll, etc., boireann, fireann, timcheall, etc." None of these words are to be found in Dwelly, MacLennan or MacBain, and only timcheall is found in Abair!, which otherwise mainly adheres to the traditional spellings. The new spelling creates unnecessary difficulties for learners.
(b)"Instead of àluinn, altrum, Bìobull, dorus ,fallus, maduinn, solus, torus, etc., use àlainn, altram, Bìoball, doras ,fallas, madainn, solas, toras, etc." Alainn is the traditional accepted spelling. The other words should retain the -u- spelling as found in the literature and the dictionaries. There are so many words where -a- is given its full value, for example, aran, miotag, where a learner could be easily misled into error by being conditioned to think that -a- in a final syllable is pronounced as a schwa. Also solas could easily be confused with sòlas.
3:7. "Of the two length marks at present used in Gaelic, the acute
accent should be dispensed with in view of the small number of words on
which it occurs and the grave accent alone should be used to indicate length."
The acute accent was there for a reason which still exists. It is true
that in older books such as the Bible the grave accent was used on -o-
as in mòr but the introduction of the acute accent on this letter
about a century ago provided a more phonetic alphabet. In front of the
Bible under the title Abbreviations and Marks it is stated: "Acute
accent. When the vowel e is sounded like ai in pain
of the Latin oe in Phoebus, as The Scotch (sic) pronounce it, it
is commonly marked with this accent."
MacLennan tells us: "... it is used to distinguish the open and the close sounds of the vowels e and o, reserving the grave accent to mark the open sound and the acute to mark the close sound: dèan, féin; òr, mór." The acute accent has been used on e for more than two centuries. It is preferable to omit the accent rather than to give a wrong signal to a reader.
The acute accent is used for other functions as well: It is used to distinguish á: 'from' or 'out of' and also for ám: 'time'. Surely a Scottish child is as bright as a French of Portuguese child who must learn three accent marks.
3:8. "am 'time' should be spelled àm to differentiate it from other am forms." (See preceding paragraph).
4:5 "Certain expressions which are strongly felt to constitute a unit but have primary stress on a non-initial element may be hyphenated: e.g., a-mach, a-steach, a-muigh, a-staigh, a null, a-nall, an-àird, a-nuas, a-bho, a-rithist, a-nis, a-mhàin." A mach, etc. have never been written with a hyphen. Etymologically, they are separate words and should be written as such. Let us not make comparisons with English which is a different language.
"Ciamar, carson and airson should be written as one word (in spite of such forms as air a shon fhéin)." Carson and airson are strongly felt to constitute a unit but have primary stress on a non-initial element. Why are they not hyphenated in accordance with the rules just established. Preferably they should be written as separate words (no hyphen) as Dwelly records them. Has habit caught up with somebody who used an acute accent on fhéin!
4:6 "There are special cases:
(a) The days of the week should be written as one word without internal capitalisation: for example Diluain, Dimairt Diciadoin, Diardaoin Dihaoine, Disathairne, Didomhnaich (but Latha na Sàbaid)." Here rules are being broken as fast as they are made. It would be preferable to use hyphens here.
The Article, Abbreviation and the use of Apostrophes
5:3 "In constructions with ag + possessive verbal noun the apostrophe should be dropped: Bha e amiarraidh (not bha e 'gam iarraidh). Similarly, constructions with gu should no longer use the apostrophe." It would be interesting to hear why the older forms are no longer acceptable.
5 :4 "In reported speech the apostrophe should not be used in the introductory gun, gum, gur in affirmative clauses: for example, gun cuala, gum faca, gur e". The traditional form should be preferred, but not as a matter of dogma. Was an apostrophe ever used in introductory gur? Gur h-e is also used by some.
5:9 "If an uair is not written out in full (as a conjunction only)
then it should take the form of nuair, without an apostrophe."
The traditional 'nuair should be preferred, but nuair accepted.
5 :12 "The phrases là' ma mhàireach, ce' là-deug (ceithir latha deug), co'là-deug (cóig latha deug) should be written as làrna mhàireach, ceala-deug, cola-deug. MacLennan writes: là-air-mhàireach; Dwelly writes: an là. How many more forms do we need?
6:5 "W should be represented by ue/ua: for example, uèir(e) 'wire', ualras 'walrus' (NB Uilleam 'William', Uilidh 'Willie'. Uilleam should be accepted. "Willie" should be written and pronounced as English, which it is . "Ualras" is unrecognisable for "Walrus."
6:6 "X-ray is an international term should retain its form". X-ray is not an international form, but it should retain its form.
6:8 "Z should normally be represented by s: for example sutha 'zoo'." If we can't find a recognisable Gaelic word, we should write "zoo" in English in italics.
6:10 "The obscure vowel (schwa) should normally be represented in English as oi: for example, soircas 'circus' . . . The word bus, because of its familiarity in that form, should be an exception". The Gaelic for a circus is "preaban"; if we are going to use an English pronunciation of a Latin word, let us write it in English. "Bus" is a Gaelic word with a clear meaning which is not the word for a vehicle. Write it in italics or Gaelicize it: "badhs" or some such. Perhaps the most "bizarre" forms (in the Panel's own words) are "deilignit" and "dìoro".
6:12 "Final [i] in loan words should be represented by (a)idh: for example cofaidh 'coffee'; poileasaidh 'policy'." Do most Gaelic speakers say poileasaidh or polasaidh?
7 :7 "cluinnear (not cluintear)": Cluinnear and cluinntear should both be accepted.
7:8 "chluinnte (not chluinnteadh) and chluinnist."
All these forms should be accepted.
7:10 "dèan (not dèantar)." These words have different meanings.
7:12 "an tig; gun tig, etc., and an tàing; gun taing, etc." Gu'n tig, an d'thàinig, gu'n d'thàinig should also be accepted. If a student writes in the traditional way will he lose marks?
7:19 "ag ràdh and a' radh are both acceptable". Ag ràitinn should also be accepted.
Prepositional Phrases & Prepositional Pronouns
8:2 "In order to avoid apostrophes where possible the forms should be spelt: don bhaile; don a' bhaile, dhan bhaile; dhan a' bhaile." Apostrophes serve a useful purpose. Why is there a prejudice against their use? Why must we avoid them? Is it to save ink with which to write all the added hyphens?
Prepositional pronouns: "Different forms have to be admitted in
this case also, for example do + personal pronouns; ... 2. singular
Because dhuit/duit are traditional and also that there are still native speakers who pronounce them as spelt, they should also be accepted.
9 Common Errors
9:1 "Many common orthographic problems giving rise to errors are covered in the word list appended". It might be useful to define what an error is in this context. If a student spells in other than the recommended forms, will it be accepted? Should we kill all dialects and 'substandard' Gaelic and retrain everybody to use the 'new Gaelic and no other? It seems that the schools have done more to exterminate the Gaelic language than any other institution. Is this a continuation of the same process? Although it does not seem that the policy is any longer deliberate, we may unwittingly be heirs of the older attitudes.
It does not appear to be an error to omit accent marks: Some Gaelic
writers use them only occasionally to distinguish words which could otherwise
be misunderstood, such as bata and bàta; others do
not use them at all, there are complete books written without them. What
does seem wrong, however, is the use of a grave accent where established
practice and the sound of the word calls for an acute accent. When in doubt,
leave it out; it will not pose a problem for fluent speakers. It is noted
that there is little difficulty in understanding the various dialects among
those speakers who use Gaelic in their daily lives.
If a dialect is written as it sounds, there should be little difficulty in reading it if Gaelic phonetics were well taught. At the lower levels of schooling, if a student spells words in accordance with his own dialect, it should be accepted. Further training in 'standard' Gaelic could then be left for those who intend to use it in their careers as writers for the general public. Written Gaelic is much closer lo spoken Gaelic than written English is to its spoken equivalent, but because or their schooling, or lack of it, most Gaels seem to be unaware of this fact.
Word List Illustrating Spelling Principles and Choices
A bheil?/am beil? Why is am bheil no longer acceptable? à (out of). As noted earlier, the acute accent is preferred. a' bhon-dè, a' bhon-raoir, a' bhon-uiridh. Why eliminate the customary apostrophes and insert the unnecessary hyphens? If a' bhon-raoir is acceptable, what is wrong with an raoirt abhan to a-thaobh: All the newly introduced hyphens are unnecessary.
Aifreann should be written aifrionn, or aifhrionn as it usually is pronounced. It is the traditional spelling. it is not found in the dictionaries under 'aifreann' and the genitive is spelt with an i. This also applies to the many other words which traditionally ended in ionn. Airson should be two different words. Of the an words with hyphens, only an-abaich, an-diadhachd, an fhios and ana-miann should be so written.
an dèidh (after): as déidh should also be recognised. In the list it is not even in its correct alphabetical order! An deidh and as déidh are both listed in Abair.
Bhod: Conspicuously undesirable for obvious reasons. It should
be written bho d' and other combinations of propositions and possessive
pronouns likewise. They are contractions and require apostrophes.
Bìoball: Leave it Bìobull.
Caoirich, pl of caora: Dwelly and two different writers in issue
153 of Gairm (an Geamhradh 1990-91) spell it 'caoraich'. We hear
it pronounced both ways. We can spell it both ways.
Cathadh 'blizzard': We should recognize 'cabhadh' as well.
Cuidheall/cuibhle: 'Cuidheall' as recorded is phonetically better.
Dachaigh: It may be etymologically correct, but long usage gives us 'dachaidh'.
Doras: Leave it 'dorus'.
Farasta and furasta: Is this change for change's sake?
Gu Ieòr: 'gu Ieòir' should be accepted as well.
Iarann: It should remain 'iarunn'.
Liabag/leobag: 'leabag' should also be recognised,as it is by Thomson and as pronounced in some areas.
Nadar: Leave it 'nadur', as it is done even by some enthusiasts of the new system.
Maighistir: Leave it 'Maighstir'.
Ro (not roimh): 'Roimh' is still current in modern literature, and in some contexts is essential.
Rinn (to us) should remain 'ruinn'.
Seachdain: keep the traditional 'seachduin'. We hear seachduinn, seachdoin and others as well as seachdain.
Tairig (nail): Is this prejudice for one dialect over another? We must recognise more than one form.
Uabhas, uabhasach: Both are pronounced and written: 'uamhas', 'uamhasach'.
How are we doing with the 'new spelling'? There can be little doubt that Professor Thomson who has kept Gairm going for nearly forty years has done more to keep Gaelic literature before the public, as well as giving an opportunity to Gaelic writers, than any other person. It is amazing how one person can do so much.
In the latest Gairm Aireamh 153, An Geamhradh 1990-91, I have selected some words, not to find fault with any writers, nor to detract from the deserved good reputation of this valued publication but to demonstrate that we still have some confusion at the highest levels.
Examples follow: 'ann an AIba', ' ann an Albainn'; 'breàgha', 'briagha'; 'bruidhinn', 'bruidheann', 'caomhaineadh'; 'caoraich' (in all places), 'comhfhurtail'; 'cofhurtail'; 'a choimhthional' (gen); 'casruiste'; 'dicheall' (gen) 'dhiu' (of them), 'dealbhannan', 'dealbhan', 'deilbh'; 'dhèanamh', 'dhèanadh' (in the same sense); 'eadhon' 'eadhoin', 'eadhan'; 'furasda'; 'gu robh', 'gun robh'; 'gun amar': This is the new spelling and it means 'to the trough (gu'n amar). It could be mistaken for 'without a trough'. 'facalan', 'facail'; 'a' gearain'; 'latha'; 'la', 'laithean', 'lathaichean' 'ma-dhaoite'; ' 's mathaid'; 'mu'm'; 'roimhe sin'; 'reimhid' 'spraidh', 'spreadh'; 'nar; 'seirbhis' 'seirbheis', 'prannadh'; 'troimh', 'troimh'n'; 'gu'n ursann'; 'reòta', 'reòidhte', 'reòite' ; 'meadhon'; 'taidhrs'. There are others.
This is not to say that I am disagreeing with the forms of spellings of the writers, only to demonstrate that we still are not standardized, for which we should be thankful, and that we must remain flexible if people are to continue writing in Gaelic.
I wonder why the Panel did not bring up the subject of plurals where there are often so many different forms for the same word? I take no pleasure in this distasteful exercise, but I do not know an other way to cover the subject which so badly needs a 'devil's advocate'. How can I have the temerity to question the work of a Panel of eminent scholars? I can only answer with the quotation: "If Moses had been a committee, the children of Israel would still be in Egypt."
I am ready to defend my position in English or in Gaelic.
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