What on earth is Scottish Gaelic?

Deirdre Campbell-Shaw

To illustrate just some of the difficulties (or quirks!) of Gaelic, let’s start with the opening of an everyday conversation.

‘Madainn mhath!’

The first word ‘madainn’ /`mating/ means ‚morning‘ and is recognisably related to the French word ‘matin’. However, the Gaelic version is feminine unlike its distant French cousin. This means that the following adjective ‘good’ must also be feminine. I.e. instead of the masculine form ‘math’, the feminine form is required, and this is formed by inserting an ‘h’ after the initial consonant. This is called lenition and is the fate of most feminine adjectives in Gaelic, including names. To add to the complications, the pronunciation changes, in this case from /m/ in ‘math’ to /v/ in mhath, and the final ‘th’ is not pronounced at all! The feminine adjective is therefore pronounced /va:/ If you would like to wish someone a good afternoon or evening, you need the masculine noun ‘feasgar’ /`feskr/, so would say to your interlocutor ‘Feasgar math’.

Well, nobody told me Gaelic was easy when I decided to learn it in order to be able to pronounce and understand the Gaelic songs I sing . In fact, some say it is one of the most difficult languages in the world to learn. I spent many hours moaning and groaning over the ‚joys‘ of Gaelic grammar, making my husband come running thinking I was ill! His comment was, ‘Well, it serves you right! You decided to learn Gaelic!’ However, on our last trip to the Outer Hebrides, he was quite proud to be able to greet our Bed and Breakfast lady daily with ‘Madainn mhath’…


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