A Few Remarks on the Study of Gaelic

The Gaelic has generally been esteemed a very difficult language; and no doubt it has its peculiarities, which I shall mention presently; but the great hindrances in the way of its acquisition have lain rather in accidental circumstances than in intrinsic difficulty. The double fact that the upper classes in the Highlands, with a few honourable exceptions, do not speak the language of the people, and that it is always more difficult to hold converse with the lower and half educated, or altogether uneducated classes, than with the educated; this, conjoined with the want of a scientific apparatus of grammatical and lexicographical appliances such as exist in the classical languages, is apt to discourage learners, whose desire to make the acquisition receives no spur from any social necessity of making it. As almost all the common people in the Highlands now speak pretty tolerable English, and in fact are often more forward to speak it on common occasions than to use their mother-tongue, only those residents in the Land of Bens who have a special love for the people, and who delight to identify themselves with genuine Highland sentiment and tradition feel a motive strong enough to induce them to go through the labour of acquiring a new language which cannot boast of any very rich and varied literature to reward their exertions. And those few, as I know from experience, have at the very outset had their ardour sadly cooled by the want of a little book of idiomatic phrases and dialogues on common subjects, such as every traveller on the Continent carries in his pocket, as the key to the vestibule of German, Italian, French, Russian, or other modern language. The conversational method is the method of nature; and the entire disuse of it in our great classical schools is one of the chief causes of the slowness and painfulness of the process by which Greek and Latin are acquired by our British youth.* The want of such a colloquial introduction to Gaelic will, I feel convinced, be felt no more after this little work, to which I feel honoured in having been requested to affix a few words of preface, shall have found its way into general circulation. The vocabulary which it contains may readily be increased by the perusal of the admirable dialogues in the Caraid nan Gaidhael, by the late Dr. Macleod, of St. Columba, Glasgow, and the Highland Tales, English and Gaelic, by J. F. Campbell (Edinburgh, 1860), to which from my own practice, I feel inclined to add the Gaelic translation of the Pilgrim's Progress, to be obtained with other Gaelic books from the publishers of this work, not forgetting, of course, the historical parts of the Old Testament, and the parables of the Gospels.

The strictly philological difficulties of the Gaelic language are of two kinds: those belonging to the vocabulary or material of the language, and those belonging to its phonic and syntactic genius. While in passing from English to French, the Englishman finds some seven-tenths of the words only old friends with new faces, in Gaelic, the inverse proportion is nearer the truth; out of ten words on which the tyro stumbles only three may bear any resemblance to his previous stock, and these three cannot always be recognised without going through a process of philological induction, of which the majority of students cannot be supposed to be capable. It is of importance, however, that this induction should be attempted; for it will enable the learner to start with a certain stock of words, very slightly modified from what he already possesses. In order to enjoy this advantage, the learner has only to bear in mind the following simple principles:—(1) That b and g are only the flat or blunt forms of p and k or hard c; that d in the same way is the blunt form of t; that v is only a softer or vocalized form of b ; and that m is a b with fully compressed lips and the breath sent gently through the nose. (2) That in all languages, the carelessness of hasty colloquy combines with the vocalic demands of music (and Gaelic has always been mainly a sung language) in smoothing away consonants in certain positions and presenting the word in a curtailed shape; and this either at the end, as when tho' stands for though, or at the beginning as when sample comes from example, or at the middle as when Père comes from Pater, and Mère from Mater. (3) That in many languages the pure sound of the consonant is apt to be modified by the addition of a breathing or aspiration, which compound is often marked by the original consonant with the spirant letter added; as when th in English or φ in Greek appears as the product of an aspiration following the original dental consonant. In the same way the Latin c or k is softened down to ch in Gaelic, as when deach stands for decem and each for equus, a horse. (4) In comparing languages, the student must bear in mind that the flexional terminations, as the us in bonus, are no radical part of the word, and must be discounted. With these principles in his head, the student of Gaelic will in a very short time easily recognise old friends in a number of Gaelic roots which at first blush may not reveal their parentage to the unpractised eye. Thus, mios, a month, will at once be seen to be identical with mensis; gabhar, a goat, with caper; beatha, life, with vita; athar with pater by the dropping of the initial p which takes place also in lan = plenus, and some other roots. A classified list of these transmuted words with their cognates in English, Latin, or German, made, as he picks them up in reading, will materially aid the progress of the student.**

But the great difficulty in Gaelic lies exactly where foreigners find it in English, viz., in the pronunciation. Here the main thing to be noted is that, as in our English words though, 'plough, &c., the final consonant, having been first softened by the aspiration, at last falls off altogether; so that as a general rule final gh or dh in Gaelic hardly ever makes any sensible impression on the ear. Likewise in the middle of a word, between two vowels, gh and dh are habitually softened off, as in the English proper name Vaughan; so that gahhar, caper, becomes gour, as in Ardgour, and other well-known names in Celtic topography. To an Englishman this should certainly not appear strange, delighting as he does in high, sigh, thigh, and other such evanishments of the final consonant of his Saxon roots. But there is a euphonic peculiarity in all the Celtic languages to which neither the Englishman nor any of his Teutonic congeners finds an analogy in his mother tongue, and which, unless firmly grappled with at the outset, will be a cause of constant annoyance to him in the course of his linguistic progress. This peculiarity consists in the habitual modification, or, in some cases, complete obliteration, of the initial consonant of the following word by the contagious influence of the long final vowel of the preceding word. Thustruaighe means woe; but when in the common exclamation mo thruaighe — woe is me! the long vowel of mo = mine immediately precedes, the t vanishes altogether, and the pronunciation is mo chroóai. So after gle, very, math, good, becomes mhath, i.e., vah; mh in Gaelic being equivalent to our v. This softening of the initial consonant takes place also in the common concord of adjective and substantive, as when mor, big, becomes mhor when joined to a feminine substantive, in the familiar Skerry vore = the big reef. The only way to get over this difficulty is persistently and emphatically from the very first to pronounce all words subject to this change loudly and distinctly in both ways. Thus tigh, a house, pronounced tie; but mo thigh, pronounced mo high, my house; and this prefix must be fixed in the ear by repetition as an essential part of the word. A similar method will remove the difficulty felt by so many students in reference to the gender of substantives in German. Instead of the single buch, a book, let das buch, the book, be firmly fixed in the ear emphatically from the beginning; and in this way the gender in German, or the initial modification in Gaelic, will be learned as easily as the change of terminational syllables in the cases of Greek and Latin nouns.

I have only to add that in a language where pronunciation and spelling differ so much as in Gaelic, no person who can procure one should commence the study without the familiar aid of a good teacher, or, if possible, without the best aid — that of residence for a few months in some remote Highland district. To those who can do neither, MacAlpine's pronouncing Dictionary may confidently be recommended.

Residents and travellers in the Highlands ought also to omit no opportunity of catechising the natives, generally well informed on this point, on the significance of the names of districts and places as they occur. These names being, in nine cases out of ten, pictorial or descriptive in their character, will, when properly explained, perform the double service of impressing the features of the scenery permanently on the mind of the traveller, and of enriching his vocabulary of the language to an extent of which only a living experience could give him a conception.


* The conversational method, as applied to ancient Greek, I have endeavoured to introduce in my Greek and English Dialogues (London, Macmillan, 1871), and the same principle applied to modern Greek will be found in the work of Messrs. Vincent and Dickson (London, Macmillan, 1879).

** Those who have leisure and inclination to pursue Gaelic Etymology scientifically, will find important aid in Celtic Studies by Ebel, English by Sullivan (London, Williams & Norgate, 1863).

Còmhraidhean an Gàidhlig 's am Beurla
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