Why Learning Gaelic Can Frazzle Your Brain – and Why it is Worth the Pain.

One of the things which native English-speaking learners of Gaelic often think on first encountering Gaelic is just how very VERY different from English it is in appearance and structure. OK it uses the Roman alphabet – phew! – but what’s with the crazy combination of seemingly impenetrable consonants and vowels. At least it’s not Welsh so that’s a bonus, right?

So what is it about Gaelic which makes it seem so daunting and unfamiliar from the French German or Spanish we maybe came across in school? Well for a start it’s not a Romance or Germanic language (the two most common language groups in Western Europe) but belongs to an ancient language family – the Celtic language family, more specifically the Q-Celtic language group. Linguists love all that kind of stuff – categorising languages into related family groups and like all academics they love to bamboozle the rest of us with their learning. ((Ok Gaelic is in the Q-Celtic group which indicates there must be another Celtic group right?)) Right. It’s called the P-Celtic family and those family members are Welsh, Cornish and Breton (spoken in Brittany in France).

But back to our family the Q’s – our relations (and pretty close they are too) are Irish and Manx (spoken on the Isle of Man).  The good news is with a knowledge of Scottish Gaelic you can pretty well understand both Irish and Manx – bonus yeah?

Right sorry about that! No more digressions I promise!

What ARE the main features of Gaelic which differ from sensible languages like English. (I’m only kidding about English being sensible by the way – try explaining why for example the letter combination -ough can be pronounced 4 different ways – doesn’t make Gaelic pronunciation seem so weird now huh?)

Here at last are the main features of Gaelic which differ from English;

  • There are only 3 main tenses in the verb: past, future and ‘conditional’ (we won’t talk about the various moods which modify the verb rather than using auxiliaries ok?) ((If you say so…))
  • So that means no present tense so how does that work? Cunningly Gaelic uses the verb to be plus the present participle of the verb (the -ing bit) to give the sense of doing something in the now.
  • Ok but of course Gaelic isn’t just content with one verb ‘to be’ Oh no…it has 2 forms expressing to be. One is used for the purposes of defining, naming or emphasising (the ‘S e form) and the other is used to describe things (the Tha form).
  • Nouns have four cases: nominative, dative, genitive and vocative – basically the ‘subject in basic form’, the ‘to something’, the ‘of something’ and the ‘talking to something’ cases.
  • Just for laughs Gaelic doesn’t have a verb for ‘to have’ so possession is expressed using ‘tha’ + ‘aig’ or ‘le’.
  • Always ready to confound the eager learner,  Gaelic has NO straightforward words for yes or no ((Seriously? How hard would it have been to find 2 simple words eh?)) Yip, saying yes or no in Gaelic you have to use the verb that was in the question – and in the same tense!
  • Now this is good (sarcasm alert) – Gaelic prepositions and pronouns join together – that’s right they join together! This would be like English making words like atme ather withthem fromus out of at + me at+ her with + them and from + us. Fun huh? ((That doesn’t seem too crazy…)) Yeah you’re right except Gaelic doesn’t make it straightforward, for instance ‘aig’ + ‘mi’ (‘at + I/me) doesn’t become aigmi but ‘agam’…this goes right through the prepositions + pronouns union so it’s not immediately obvious.
  • Only 2 genders of nouns masculine and feminine ((at last something familiar from learning French yay!)) Ok ok don’t get carried away this is Gaelic remember? Nothing easy or straightforward. To know the gender of the noun there’s no ‘le’ or ‘la’ to help – you basically have to learn the gender when you learn the noun…
  • Now for some good news ((At last!  I was just about to go learn Greek instead!!))  Yeah, the good news is there are only 10 (ok maybe 11) irregular verbs. That’s manageable right? ((I can live with that))
  • Even better there’s only a small group of defective verbs ((Whoah! Are you sure you can call them that nowadays?)) What? No, it’s not a judgement thing here. No, defective here just means bits of tenses missing that’s all…
  • Right now we come to word order – English we’re familiar with Subject + Verb + Object yeah? Easy familiar.…Gaelic, asserting its independence, decided on Verb + Subject + Object or in questions Auxiliary + Subject + Verb. Fun huh?
  • You know how in English we can use the eminently sensible system of voice intonation to indicate emphasis so we don’t need extra bits on our words? Well, surprise surprise Gaelic uses suffixes (the bits added on to a word) to show emphasis. ((Oh goody! More to memorise!))
  • And guess what? ((What?)) You saw how there’s no words for yes and no? ((Uhuh, I’m still getting my head round that… go on…)) Well, you’ll be amazed to learn there is no word for ‘a’ in Gaelic – that’s right – no word for ‘a’ or the ‘indefinite article’ as those linguistic freaks call it.
  • This one you’ll love – in English it’s pretty straightforward to create plurals isn’t it? ((Yip add an -s usually)) That’s right well done…Gaelic you’ll be astonished to learn has various ways of making plurals.
  • Now let’s come to vocabulary and here it is good news honestly. Just like English Gaelic has adopted modern words fairly seamlessly into its lexicon. Car rèidio or telebhisean for example – obviously they’ve Gaelicised the spelling. Oh oh wait here’s a good one honest – you ready? a’ zoomadh ((say whaaaa?)) Yes, who says Gaelic is  unadaptable? To zoom in Gaelic is a’ zoomadh! ((C’mon you’ve just made that up!)) Precisely!  But that’s how language works! Honest it IS valid.
  • Now, and I’m not sure how you’re gonna take this but we have to talk about lenition ((Eh? What’s a Chinese actor got to do with this?)) No, not Lin Shen…l…e…n..i.…t…i…o…n, lenition! Gaelic loves lenition…((Fine, but what is it?)) Sorry, yes, lenition is where you soften or palatise a consonant to change the way it sounds. The good news is that Gaelic uses the letter ‘h’ after the affected consonant so you can recognise it fairly easily, but the bad news is the lenition rules are insane. ((Surprise me!)) Ok, don’t panic but I’ll give you just one example. Gaelic uses lenition in indicating possession but, and you’ll love this, only with ‘mo’’do’ ‘a’ (my, your (informal) and his)…((Right…I’ll worry about that later)) Yes good thinking. When it comes to lenition best to just accept and learn as you go…
  • ((Look my head’s starting to throb is there much more of this?)) Well…yes lots really but let’s just end on numbers. ((Numbers? Well they can’t screw them up can they? I mean numbers are numbers right? The same all over the world yeah?))  Well yes…and no…?
  • Gaelic has 2 main counting systems: one familiar decimal and one vigesimal ((what the rootin tootin is vigesimal????))  I’m glad you asked –  it’s a counting system based on twenties…((Ok ok that’s it I’m outta here…)) Hold on just one other little gem and I promise you that’s it.…
  • There’s a separate system of number words JUST for people.


Hey come back…look it’s not that tricky honest…..

Look Gaelic is fun, really it is!!!! You just need to approach with an open mind and a willingness to have your brain melt.

See you in class yeah? ?