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Gaelic, The Language of the Scottish Heart

By Ruairidh Mor

Attending a Highland Games in America brings one into an atmosphere steeped in Gaelic traditions -- people clad in Highland garb, ancient Gaelic music played on pipes, fiddle and harp, and bonnie lassies performing centuries-old dances. The principal thing missing from this very Gaelic scene is the Gaelic language!

Missing is perhaps too strong a word. It survives in familiar words that are derived from Gaelic such as clan, pibroch, and caber. And it lives on in the names of the people who attend the Games. At some Games you might even hear songs being sung with Gaelic words but it is likely that few would know that they were hearing Gaelic being sung, let alone understanding what the words meant.

Gaelic was the common tongue of all Scotland for many centuries but it has long been retreating before the intrusion of the English tongue. A good command of English has certainly aided Scots in making their mark on the globe but many of these enterprisers never forgot their Gaelic roots. The absence of Gaelic in recent times prompts the question: Can the tree survive if the sap stops flowing? Can anyone really appreciate their heritage without at least a basic appreciation of the language that underlies it and sustained it for millenia?

Gaelic In Your Future
Gaelic is not dead by any means. It survives and is growing stronger as people of Gaelic descent discover what is missing in their search for their identity. Correcting the deficiency will not an easy job and certainly far beyond what anyone could expect to achieve in an article such as this. What can be done is to make a start. My approach here is to introduce you to a few Gaelic concepts and to challenge you to continue the study on your own. Specifically, my objective is to acquaint you with how Gaelic words should be pronounced when you see them. For guidance on how to carry on from there, write to An Comunn Gaidhealach Ameireaga (The Highland Societyof America) one of whose objectives is the perpetuation of the Gaelic language and its culture uncluttered by the sentimentalities and romanticisms invented by Sir Walter Scott and the Victorians. You will find a link to ACGA's web page on my Welcome Page. Or you can strike out on your own using the books and tapes available from Thistle & Shamrock Books (see below).

Prounouncing Gaelic Vowels
The first thing to understand is that the Gaelic has only eighteen letters to form all the sounds of human speech -- five vowels (a,o,u,e,i) and twelve consonants (b,c,d,f,g,l,m,n, p,r,s,t). Ah, you say, but that is only seventeen! True, but there is h which Gaelic scholars can not make up their minds about. Although, you will see a lot of hs in written Gaelic, it serves only to change the usual sound associated with a consonant or, when combined with a consonant, to serve as a divider between syllables. In that sense, it is not a letter; furthermore no Gaelic word begins with an h!

Gaelic vowels are pronounced more like those of Spanish or French than English. Generally, a is as in father, o as in omit, u as in tune, e as in they and i as in kilo or feel. However, there are many variants and accent marks further confuse the issue. For example, is pronounced as aw in awful but the sound of ř is just a drawn out as aaah. Exceptions to these rules occur when a or e comes at the end of a word where they are sounded as yuh or uh.

The combined vowels ao are approximately to pronounced oy as in boy and ai as eye. The sequences ann and onn are pronounced own as in clown. Now try saying clann meaning children. To pronounce other combinations of Gaelic vowels, just slur both vowels in sequence to approximate the sound. But before coming to tears in trying to replicate a native Gaelic speaker's pronunciations -- they don't sound exactly like you do when they speak English but you still understand what they are saying.

Note that the Gaelic vowels listed above are not in normal alphabetical sequence. This was done to classify them as either of broad (a,o,u) or narrow (e,i) quality and to note a fundamental rule of Gaelic spelling -- broad to broad, narrow to narrow. This rule means that two vowels separated by one or more consonants must be of the same quality. To illustrate, first understand that the Gaelic plural form is usally achieved by adding an to the singular form. Thus, the word suil for eye becomes suilean for eyes. The e is added after the dividing l only to conform to the narrow to narrow part of the rule; the e is not pronounced in such cases.

Pronouncing Gaelic Consonants
Sounds associated with consonants depend on where they apprear in the word and the quality of the vowel that follows them. At the beginning of a word, a consonant followed by a broad vowel is pronounced pretty much like it is in English. This is also generally true for beginning consonants followed by narrow vowels with the exception of d, s and t which take on different sounds. For example, dearg meaning red sounds like jarg, s¤th meaning peace sounds like shee and teine meaning fire sounds like chaynuh. Say slainte meaning health! Did I hear slahn-cheh?

Consonants occuring in the middle or at the end of a Gaelic word also sound as their English counterparts with some exceptions -- an ending g such as that in uisge meaning water sounds like ooskuh; a g after an s is also pronounced like a k. An ending b such as in piob meaning pipe sounds like a pee-op. A b in the middle of a word also takes a p sound. And then there is c -- no matter where it occurs in the word it is always pronounced as a k. There just is no soft c in the Gaelic and people who say seltic are speaking English.

And Then There Is That Pesky H
Although we have accounted for some of the missing letter sounds in Gaelic, there are several left to go. That╝s where h comes in -- bh and mh provide the sound of v, dh gives y sometimes and g at others; ph gives f (just as in English). A ch has no English counterpart; it is a gutteral that can be approximated by forming an h down in your throat and spitting it out. That is easier when ch comes at the end or middle of a word such as loch meaning lake but when you meet chat mhor (a big cat), it is better to say haht vohr than chat mohr under all circumstances.

You may find an h after other consonants but it won╝t account for any more sounds -- gh sounds pretty much like plain g and fh is always silent. You will never properly find an h after an l, n or r or any vowel so no need to worry about them. What may worry you is that sh and th take the sound of an h at the beginning of a word but are silent when they appear in the middle or end of a word. This is also sometimes true of bh, dh and mh and there are no rules to guide you. One just has to remember. But that problem is simple compared to why the h is put there originally.

That and other problems are beyond the scope of this article. If you╝ve persisted this far you╝ll be interested in finding out more about the Gaelic. That is one of principal objectives of ACGA. Write to them and ask how you can learn more about the language at the heart of your heritage. In the meantime, try saying slainte mhath agus uisge beatha. Good health to you, too if the words came out slahnchuh vah ahgus ahn ooskeh-bayuh.

I hope that this brief introduction to the Gaelic language encourages you to go on with it . The catalog that follows lists a broad range of instructional materials that should meet most needs. For beginners, a good place to start is with Robertson and Taylor╝s course Teach Yourself Gaelic which includes a manual and two cassette tapes which are very well coordinated. You'll find the recommendations of ACGA's Education Committee listed elsewhere on this page.

Thistle & Shamrock Books
PO Box 42 * Alexandria, VA 22313
(703) 548 -2207 * FAX (703) 548-6162

e-mail -- rory@his.com

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