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About Scottish Gaelic

A bit of information, history and factoid culled from several contemporary texts on Gaelic. Note that Irish Gaelic is mentioned liberally here, as IG is the parent language of Scottish Gaelic.

I. The Early Gaelic Language

(from Learning Irish, by Mchel O Siadhail, Yale Univ. Press, 1988)

Irish is one of the many languages spoken across Europe and as far east as India, that trace their descent from Indo-European, a hypothetical ancestor-language thought to have been spoken more than 4,500 years ago. Irish belongs to the Celtic branch of the Indo-European family. It and three other members of this branch -- Scottish Gaelic, Welsh, and Breton -- are today alive as community languages.

The form of Celtic that was to become Irish was brought to Ireland by the invading Gaels -- about 300 B.C., according to some scholars. Later it spread to Scotland and the Isle of Man. Scottish Gelic and Manx gradually separated from Irish (and, more slowly, from each other), and they can be thought of as distinct languages from the seventeenth century onwards. The term "Gaelic" may be used to denote all three.

It appears that the early Irish learned the art of writing at the time of their conversion to Christianity, in the fifth century. After that, the language can be seen to go through four stages of continuous historical development, as far as its written form is concerned: Old Irish (approximately A.D. 600-900), Middle Irish (c. 900-1200), Early Modern Irish (c. 1200-1650), and Modern Irish. Throughout this development Irish borrowed words from other languages it came into contact with, pre-eminently from Latin, from Norse, from Anglo-Norman (a dialect of French), and from English. From the earliest times, Irish has been cultivated for literature and learning. It in fact possesses one of the oldest literatures in Europe.

II. Scottish Gaelic

(From Scottish Gaelic in Three Months, by Roibeard O Maolalaigh and Iain MacAonghuis, Hugo Language Books Ltd., 1996)

Gaelic was brought to Scotland by colonists from Ireland towards the end of the Roman Empire in Britain. By 500 A.D. these Gaels had established their Kingdom of Dl Riada, centered on what is now Argyll in southwest Scotland; in Gaelic, Earra Ghidheal, "the coastland of the Gael." To Roman writers they were Scotti -- Scotia at this time denoted Ireland -- although these names cannot be traced with certainty to an origin in Gaelic itself. But from these Latin forms came the name Scotland. In Gaelic, however, the country is Alba, as in Irish Gaelic, and Alban in Welsh.

By the eleventh century, Gaelic was at its highest point in Scotland and known to some degree virtually throughout the country. A Gaelic-speaking court, supported by the Columban church, gave patronage to makers of literature at the highest levels of society.

With the Anglicisation of the dynasty late in that century, what was been described as a shift to an English way of life was deliberately planned and, as far as possible, implemented. The court itself became English and Norman-French in Speech and the northern English dialect (Inglis) was fostered as the official language. The loss of status that these changes entailed for Gaelic had a profound and permanent effect.

In the mid-twelfth century the Lordship of the Isles, founded in part on the Norse kingdom of the Western and Southern Isles, but drawing also on the traditions of a former, wider Gaelic territory, emerged as a quasi-independent state. Until the Lordship was destroyed by the central authorities of Scotland in the late fifteenth century, Gaelic culture and learning continued to flourish. In the same twelfth century a reorganized literary order, whose main centers were in Ireland, was codifying Gaelic to produce an elegant formal register of the language, which we call Classical Gaelic. It was common to the learned classes of Ireland and Scotland and taught to the children of the aristocracy. It lasted in Scotland until the eighteenth century.

Modern Gaelic offers the learner a wide spectrum of styles, ranging from formal registers, still in some degree associated with the church, to rich, vivid, idiomatic speech. Gaelic as a living language is now largely confined to north-western and island communities But Gaelic speakers of local dialects are still to be found here and there throughout the Highlands (a' Ghaidhealtachd). There are, besides, sizeable communities in the cities, particularly in Glasgow. A number of organizations are active in promoting the Language. The oldest is An Comunn Gaidhealach, founded at the end of the nineteenth century. In the last few years, the Gaelic College in Skye (at Sabhal Mr Ostaig), Comunn na Gidhlig (CNAG) and Comann Luchd Ionnsachaidh (CLI) have all been established with the purpose of reviving the fortunes of the language.

While it is true that the history of the language is largely one of resistance to ethnocidal policies that sought to exclude the Gaels from the world of post-Renaissance Europe, contemporary developments in education, radio and television, and in literature generally, aim to redress the balance. And it should be noted that some of the most interesting writers now active on the literary scene are not native speakers but learners of Gaelic.

Note -- for web links to Sabhal Mr Ostaig and An Comunn Gaidhealach (America), go to the links page

(From Teach Yourself Gaelic, by Boyd Robertson and Iain Taylor, NTC Publishing Group, 1993)

Gaelic is spoken by around 70,000 of the 5 million inhabitants of Scotland or, in percentage terms, by just more than one per cent of the population. In the Western Isles (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) and in some parts of the Highlands, there are bilingual communities in which Gaelic is used as the everyday language. The highest proportion of Gaelic speakers per head of population is to be found in the Outer Hebrides or the Comhairle nan Eilean (Island Council) area, as it is called for local government purposes. There are also substantial numbers of Gaelic speakers in Highland and Strathclyde regions. Almost ten per cent of Gaelic speakers live in Glasgow (Glaschu), and there are smaller, but significant concentrations in Edinburgh (Dn Eideann) and Inverness (Inbhir Nis).

The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries saw large numbers of Gaelic speakers removed from their land in the Highlands and Islands by landlords. Many were forced to emigrate and Gaelic communities were established in parts of Nova Scotia (Alba Nuadh). There is still a considerable number of Gaelic speakers in Cape Breton Island (Eilean Cheap Breatainn), but the language is largely confined to the older generation.

Enforced exile has given way this century to voluntary emigration, and expatriate Gaelic-speaking Scots are all over the world, but especially in Canada and the United States (Na Stitean Aonaichte). Many Gaels have also moved south to England for employment.

Note -- for information on the burgeoning contemporary Gaelic scene on Cape Breton Island, check out Am Braighe, the quarterly Gaelic-English newspaper on Gaelic language, music, culture, and history.

III. The Celtic Languages

(From Dictionary of Celtic Mythology by James MacKillop, Oxford Univ. Press, 1998)

The Celtic languages: a subfamily of the Indo-European Family of languages. In antiquity, speakers of Celtic languages could be found in what is today Turkey (the Galatians of St. Paul's letters), the Balkans, and most of central and western Europe from the Danube valley to the British Isles, including large portions of northern Italy and the Iberian peninsula. In modern times the living Celtic languages have been Irish and Scottish Gaelic, and Manx (now extinct) from the Goidelic or Q Celtic branch, and Welsh, Cornish (now extinct), and Breton from the Brythonic, Cymric, or P Celtic branch. Despite stereotypes, the Celtic languages have been spoken by a wide variety of physical types, from short and dark to tall and fair.

Much controversy surrounds speculation on the meaning of the word Celtic. It appears to be derived from the Greek, keltoi, used to denote people a people north of what is now Marseilles. Julius Caesar also reported that the Gauls described themselves as Celtae. The perception that the Celtic languages were all related was slow in coming, and thus the word "Celtic" did not always denote all the Celtic-speaking peoples. Classical commentators did not call the inhabitants of the British Isles Celts, and the word "Celt" has no counterpart in Old Irish or Old Welsh, as speakers of those languages did not see themselves as forming a linguistic community. The term "Celtic language" was not used in English with its present meaning until the beginning of the eighteenth century.

A word from the host:

The Gaelic language is currently undergoing a revival in Scotland. Gaelic playgroups, choirs, classes and Mds (Gaelic arts festival competitions) are springing up all over the country. There is continuing debate in parliament over whether and how much to spend on funding for Gaelic television, schooling, playgroups and the like. But Prime Minister Tony Blair recently appointed government minister Brian Wilson, a Scottish native and Gaelic learner, to assume the newly created post of Minister of Gaelic. It is hoped that he will bring new vigor and muscle to efforts to protect funding for Gaelic education, and to the fight to make Gaelic a protected language under Scottish law, a status already achieved by Irish Gaelic and by Welsh, in their respective countries.

Suas Leis a' Ghidhlig! Up with Gaelic!


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