"Gàidhlig" agus "Gaeilge" — ouch!

"Gàidhlig agus Gaeilge"!  What could be meant by saying "Gàidhlig agus Gaeilge"?  These are two forms used in different regions — Scotland and much of Ireland respectively — to mean the same thing, the Gaelic language — all of it. So what could be meant by contrasting the terms? Could it be that people are using them to mean "Scottish Gaelic" and "Irish" respectively?  If so, well, that's the English way of thinking about it.  That's not the way a Gael thinks of it.  To the Gael, it's all the one thing — "the Gaelic".

If he's from Scotland, he calls it the One Thing "Gàidhlig", and he calls Irish "Gàidhlig Éirinneach".  If he's from Ulster, he calls the One Thing "Gaedhilg", and Scottish Gaelic is "Gaedhilg na hAlban".  If he's from Munster, he calls it "Gaolainn".  If he's from Connacht, or from caighdeán-land, he calls it "Gaeilge".

But to someone thinking in English, the primary concepts are "Scottish Gaelic" and "Irish", regarded as different languages.  The term "Gaelic" is available to signify their commonality, but it is little used in English and is of secondary rank.  But in Gaelic itself, the commonality is the primary concept, and it is called by one of the regional forms given above of the word for "Gaelic", while the names for the different varieties (Gàidhlig Éirinneach, Gaeilge na hAlban, Gàidhlig Uladh, Gaeilge na Mumhan, etc) are secondary.

To hear someone thinking in English while speaking Gaelic, and copying the primary distinction of English by contrasting "Gàidhlig" and "Gaeilge", a Gael wouldn't understand it — the idea that they are different languages is foreign (or at least not primary) to him.  And when he catches on to what is intended, the usage really grates. Ouch!

It's great when Gaels from Ireland and Scotland get together.  But how often we hear people at these events talking about "Gàidhlig agus Gaeilge".  They're supposed to be bringing the two groups together, and they begin by raising a psychological division between the two, which never existed in Gaelic, only in English.  The contrast they're trying to express is not between two forms of speech at all but between "Éirinn agus Alba" and that's how it should be expressed.



Here's what some others have to say about it.  Foclóir Gaeilge—Béarla, le Niall Ó Dónaill, the premier dictionary of Irish:

Gaeilge, f. (gs. ~, pl. -gí).
1. Ling: Irish. ~ na hAlban, Mhanann, Scottish Gaelic, Manx.
2. Lit: Speech, utterance.
3. (pl.) Forms of Irish, dialects of Irish; Gaelic languages.
(Var: Gaedhealg f, Gaedhilg(e), Gaedhealaing f, Gaeilic f)

No "Gàidhlig" there, but "Gaeilge na hAlban".  But that doesn't stop Irish people, including many in the media who are normally such sticklers for standardisation, from importing their English semantics and calling Scottish Gaelic by the separate name "Gàidhlig".  And it seems that the situation is little better when Scottish people want to talk about Irish.



Perhaps Professor Colm Ó Baoill put it better than anyone, when he wrote in his article "The Gaelic Continuum" in Éigse (2000), pp 121–134:

It is worth adding that the Gaelic language itself sees itself as a single unit. While it is becoming fashionable among the educated in Ireland to equate Gaeilge with 'Irish' and Gàidhlig with 'Scottish Gaelic', [and while some writing in Scottish Gaelic like to use Gaeilge, as if it existed as a separate word in their own Gaelic, to mean 'Irish (Gaelic)',] in the spoken language itself there is only one word, varying with dialect from Gaolainn in the south of the continuum to Gàidhlig in the north.  This word denotes all the Gaelic dialects, and the terms Gàidhlig na h-Eireann agus Gaeilge (etc.) na hAlban are needed to point up national differences.  It is because we discuss this subject in English that the terms 'Irish', 'Scottish' and 'Manx' obtrude themselves so forcefully, convincing us that we are speaking of three different Gaelic languages.



"That's all very well, but do you expect me to use three words — "Gaeilge na hAlban" — when one word — "Gàidhlig" — will do?"

Not at all. You only find yourself trying to say something like "Gaeilge na hAlban" when you're trying to express the English concept of "Scottish Gaelic", part of whose meaning is that it is different from the English concept of "Irish".  Instead of trying to express English distinctions while speaking Gaelic, try working with the Gaelic distinctions — that's what Gaelic words are for — and the problem evaporates.  Here are some real world examples where "Gàidhlig" was used recently in the Irish print media, and how the same thing might have been said by someone thinking in Gaelic concepts:

Not only is there no need to use three words to refer to "Scottish Gaelic" in cases like these, there is no need to refer to Scottish Gaelic as such at all!

Here are the views of yet more people on the unity of Gaelic.

Robert McAdam, quoted in J.A.H. Murray, The Dialect of the southern counties of Scotland (London 1873) lch 236: Having myself conversed [in Gaelic] with both Glensmen [Antrim] and Arranmen [Arran], I can testify to the absolute identity of their speech. Quoted again in W.H. Patterson, A glossary of words in use in the counties of Antrim and Down (London 1880) lch xi.

Rev Kenneth MacLeod from Gigha, on holiday in Donegal, Frontier Sentinel (a Newry local newspaper), 27/4/1935, page 2: I find very little difference between the Gaelic spoken here and as spoken in my own country. I speak to everyone and I do not experience any difficulty in understanding them, nor they me... here in Tirchonaill I am as among my own people. My own native place in the Hebrides is entirely Gaelic-speaking, and I am delighted to come over here on a holiday and find I can converse in the same tongue as the people of the Donegal Gaeltacht.

Malcolm Maclean — from Lewis — said he could understand 20% of what he heard in pubs in the south (Conamara?) and 80% of what he heard in pubs in Donegal

Ailean Dòmhnallach — from Mùideart — said he conversed entirely in Gaelic with people on Tory Island without any problem.

Dónall P Ó Baoill, Celtica 13 (1980), pp 102-3: It could indeed be said that the entire area stretching from South Donegal all the way across to Islay and down as far south as Co. Meath, and including most of Kintyre in Scotland and parts of South Argyll and Arran formed a very close linguistic unit.

James Grant in Léann na Trionóide (2004) p 88: When the different varieties of vernacular Gaelic are examined we find that we are not dealing with three separate languages, but a series of dialects of what is essentially the same language which shade into one another as one moves from the north of Scotland to the south of Ireland.

In Pádraig Mac a' Ghoill's column County Cameo in the Ulster Herald (an Omagh local newspaper), around 1961 or 1962, a Scottish correspondent stated that Hebrideans used to listen to Radio Éireann and could understand the news in Gaelic when read by Niall Ó Dónaill (from Loch an Iubhair in Donegal)



So how do you reconcile first-hand statements like those with the frequent argument that Irish and Scottish Gaelic and Manx are clearly different, because you can cite lists of differences from textbooks? Well, you have to realise that textbook Irish and textbook Scottish Gaelic and textbook Manx are just three points which have been selected from the continuum of spoken Gaelic dialects that Colm Ó Baoill wrote about.

Why have three points from the continuum been chosen to be documented? The answer is all too obvious — politics. The Gaelic language continuum spreads over three administrative countries, and we have ended up with one textbook form for each country.

But, leaving politics out of it, why choose three points from the continuum? Why not choose one point? The Gaelic of East Ulster, sadly extinct as a native-spoken language since the mid-20th century, was close, linguistically as well as geographically, to the Gaelic of Galloway and to the Gaelic of Man. Those textbook lists of differences just don't apply to it.  If Gaelic were thriving today over this trans-political region, could anyone argue that there are three Gaelic languages?

Or, if we want to confine ourselves to surviving forms of Gaelic, why not more than three points? Why, in particular, not recognize a point for Ulster Irish? As someone born and raised in East Ulster, and with all my family roots in West Ulster, I find Ulster Irish relevant. I don't have a lot of interest in a compromise between West Munster Irish and South Connacht Irish, which is what textbook Irish (or "standard Irish") is. It certainly doesn't appeal to me as a "national language" for the Gael. I feel more affinity with Scottish Gaelic.

A factor affecting a person's view on the unity of Gaelic may be the natural tendency to place yourself at the heart of things. It is probably easier for an Ulster person to perceive and to approve of the unity of Gaelic than it is for someone from nearer an extremity of the continuum, who is more likely to identify with a segment centred on themselves.



Back to the point: in summary, to use the word "Gàidhlig" is always wrong when speaking or writing Gaelic in Ireland; and to use the word "Gaeilge" is always wrong when speaking or writing Gaelic in Scotland.  The two forms of the name shouldn't occur in the same sentence (except when talking about the words themselves), hence the absurdity of "Gàidhlig agus Gaeilge".  They are not names for regional varieties of Gaelic, they are regional names for the whole of Gaelic. And they should not be used in the wrong region.  The inclination to use them as names for regional forms of Gaelic is a sign that the speaker or writer has not got the Gaelic view of Gaelic, but is labouring under the English view of Gaelic.  Let's not propagate this behaviour.



Learning each other's Gaelic

The recognition that the Gaelics are basically one language has implications for how we go about learning them. When a Gaelic speaker from Ireland approaches the Gaelic of Scotland, for example, he should approach it as he would approach another form of his own language. That is to say, his primary objective should be to develop the passive language skills, understanding and reading Scottish Gaelic. It is not an equal priority to develop the active language skills, speaking and writing Scottish Gaelic. The Irish person should continue to speak and write his own form of Gaelic as hitherto, and will be understood by the Scot who has developed his passive language skills in Irish Gaelic.

This was the thinking — development of passive skills — behind the organization Tuigsinn, who ran courses in understanding and reading Ulster Irish for Scottish Gaels in An Chrannóg in Gaoth Dobhair in the years 1998–2002, as well as night classes in understanding and reading Scottish Gaelic in Belfast at the same period. This website contains glossaries to assist the Irish or Scottish listener or reader of the other form of Gaelic.

Practically, of course, until passive knowledge of each form of Gaelic becomes widespread in the other country, it will still be necessary for the individual who crosses over to devote some attention to the active skills of speaking and writing the other Gaelic, and this website also contains glossaries to help the Irish or Scottish person to develop these active skills in the other Gaelic.

In the meanwhile, also, it would be a good idea to develop lists of recommended shared phrases, the use of which will minimise misunderstanding.  But such a sublanguage is not to be seen as a complete solution, or as the beginnings of a shared standard language.  It can be at best a practical assistance during the first faltering steps, until the two Gaelic communities arrive at natural and fluent mutual understanding though regular and reinforced linguistic contact.

Linguistic familiarization — and TG4

And how is this mutual passive linguistic familiarization to be promoted?  One method stands out above all others as the most effective means — far more effective than individuals or small groups travelling on missions of doubtful linguistic intent.  This is to broadcast in each country the Gaelic television programs from the other country.  It is particularly frustrating that the dedicated Irish Gaelic television channel, TG4, does not rebroadcast in Ireland, as a matter of course, the thousands of hours of quality Gaelic programming from Scotland which have been accumulating in the can since the early 1990s, despite having ample room in its schedule to do so. TG4 seem to consider that their viewers have a great interest in English-speaking America but little or none in Gaelic Scotland, and they seem content to reinforce that situation.



English divides the Gaels

We started this off by pointing out that Gaelic speakers have always regarded themselves as speaking varieties of one and the same Gaelic language, whereas the semantics of English posits two contrasting identities, Scots and Irish. The same unwillingness of English to accept the Gaels' view of themselves shows in other ways too.

We are often told of the illogicality with which the inhabitants of the Glens of Antrim persist in regarding themselves as Irish, whereas everybody knows they came over from Scotland in historical times, like the rest of the Ulster Scots did. It's an illogicality only for the English analysis of the situation, and for those who accept that analysis.

When these people came to the Glens they came as Gaels, and they found themselves among Gaels. There was no cultural division and none appeared. The significant cultural separation came between the Gaels and the non-Gaelic speaking Galls who arrived later from a slightly different direction. What has happened since then is that the combined Gaels have given up speaking Gaelic. Now they speak a language that considers their existance illogical.

Yet another way in which the English analysis insinuates itself shows up in the subject of surnames. On hearing that their surname has a Gaelic basis, an Ulster person is almost certain to ask "But it is Irish or Scottish?" And many learned contortions have been performed in an effort to answer this question. The real answer however is "It doesn't matter." If the name is Gaelic, that tells us what matters about it.


Ciarán Ó Duibhín
2009/11/12
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