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    Scottish Gaelic

Selected literature

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Gaelic was introduced to Scotland from the north of Ireland around the middle of the first millennium AD. At that time the Irish kingdom of Dalriada had been established, representing a considerable powerbase which extended across into western parts of Scotland.

The settlers who brought the language came to dominate the Picts who had until then enjoyed a wide distribution in Scotland. Under linguistic pressure from the newly arrived Irish, Pictish receded to finally die out perhaps as late as the 9th century. The forms of northern Anglian (a dialect of Old English) which had been taken to the Borders and Lowlands regions of Scotland in the 8th century continued to be spoken, ultimately becoming Scots, a separate language from English in the opinion of many scholars.

The strong position of Irish lasted up to the 12th century after which it came to be replaced by Scots in the Lowlands, nonetheless lasting in Galloway up to the 17th century (Gillies 1993: 145). By the late Middle Ages Scotland was distinctly bilingual with a Gaelic-speaking area covering the Highlands and Islands and a Scots-speaking southern area, largely consisting of the Lowlands and Borders. These areas are known as the Gàidhealtachd and the Galldachd respectively from the terms Gàidheal for Gael and Gall for foreigner.

The severing of ties with Ireland and the contact with the Viking settlers as of the 9th century led to the development of independent traits in Scottish Gaelic. Evidence of these is scanty in the early period of Gaelic in Scotland and it is not until after the early modern period (12th to 17th century) that these are clearly recognizable.

By the end of the Middle Irish period (900-1200), Scottish Gaelic is taken to have diverged significantly from Irish (Jackson 1972). Attestations of this divergence are found in the12th century Book of Deer (associated with the abbey of Deer in the parish of Old Deer, Buchan in Aberdeenshire),


This is confirmed later by the early 16th century Book of the Dean of Lismore (Scottish Gaelic: Leabhar Deathan Lios Mòir) from east Perthshire. The chief compiler was James McGregor (Scottish Gaelic: Seumas MacGriogair), the dean after which the book takes its name.


Two pages from the Book of the Dean of Lismore, edited by William Forbes Skene (1862).

The main reason for the invisibility of Scottish Gaelic features is that the Classical Irish of the early modern period in Ireland (12th to 17th century) was used as a type of literary koiné throughout the Gaelic-speaking world (Ireland and Scotland) much like West Saxon in the late Old English period.

Separation from Irish

The term ‘Common Gaelic’ (Jackson 1952) is used to refer to a stage of Q-Celtic in which Scottish Gaelic had not separated from Irish through the development of features of its own. According to Jackson this stage lasted until approximatly 1200. Certainly the phonology of Scottish Gaelic (and Manx) shows the same velarisation and glottalisation which is attested in Irish after the loss of interdental fricatives as the lenited forms of T and D.

A further feature of Scottish Gaelic which links it up with Irish in the Middle Ages is the shift of /n/ to /r/ in clusters of stop and a nasal as in cnoc with /kr-/ for an earlier /kn-/ (also found in Manx). There is, however, great variation in the realisation of /rj/ in Scottish Gaelic. It can be vocalised to /j/ or fricativised to /z/ or /ð/.

Dialect areas

As part of a general recession of Gaelic-speaking areas, the focus of Gaelic has been pushed to the north west of Scotland with the demise of the language in the central and eastern Highlands. Today speakers of Gaelic are concentrated on the islands and a few pockets on the western coast and a small but well-researched pocket on the north-east in Sutherland (Dorian 1978). Up to the middle of the 20th century the Gaelic-speaking continuum spread as far south as Arran and Kintyre, the dialects of which were examined by Holmer (1957, 1962).

There is some justification in regarding the Gaelic of the Hebrides as a representative form of the language. It is quite close to the literary norm and is that which is preferred in print (Gillies 1993: 146).

Dialect studies

The study of Scottish Gaelic dialects was chiefly a domain of Scandinavian scholars who in the middle of the 20th century carried out a number of investigations of the main dialect areas. Among these studies are: Borgstrøm (1937, 1940, 1941), Holmer (1957, 1962), Oftedal (1956). Additional studies are Dorian (1978), Ó Múrchú (1989) and Ternes (1973).



Word-internal h This is sometimes found as a reflex of historic /θ/ as in fitheach /fi(h)əx/ which can contrast with words like fiach /fiəx/ ‘debt’ which contains the diphthong /iə/ which arose through ‘breaking’ from Old Irish /e:/.

Voiceless # voiced opposition Scottish Gaelic has for all intents and purposes lost the distinction in voice for it series of stops. Instead the distinction is realised as aspirated versus non-aspirated much as in present-day Icelandic. The aspiration has two realisations (1) as post-aspiration after stops in the onsets of stressed syllables and (2) as pre-aspiration in the codas of such syllables. In phonological terms the rule for aspiration specifies that it occurs between the margin and the nucleus of the stressed syllable which means after the onset and before the coda stop.

Development of geminates Scottish Gaelic has lost the geminate sonorants of Old Irish which occurred in medial and final positions but shows a long vowel or diphthong reflex, e.g. meall /mjaul/ ‘ball, lump’, a feature it shares with Southern Irish at the opposite end of the Gaelic continuum. In the case of r Scottish Gaelic has an additional distinction not known in Irish with the possible exception of parts of Donegal. Both the non-palatal and the palatal r can be realised as trills.

Vowel system of Scottish Gaelic There are more vowel contrasts in Scottish Gaelic than in Irish for two reasons. The first is that there is a distinction in the mid area between closed and open vowels, i.e. /e:/ # /ɛ:/ and /o:/ # /ɔ/. This would apply to long vowels but it is not certain whether the short vowels /e, ɛ/ and /o, ɔ/ are not simply contextually determined variants dependent on the quality of flanking consonants.

High unrounded vowels. The second reason for the size of the vowel inventory is the existence of a high unrounded back vowel /ɯ:/. This can be seen in the reflexes of the Old Irish diphthong ao as with caob /kɯ:b/ ‘scoop, dollop’. However, the status of this vowel is debatable. Consider the cognate word in Irish scaob /ski:b/. This is transcribed with /i:/ but the vowel is quite retracted, phonetically the form is [skɯɨ:b]. In fact the /ɯ:/ vowel is found in northern Donegal Irish, cf. saol /sɯ:l/ ‘life’. The retraction is determined by the flanking non-palatal consonants. Phonologically, the vowel can be assigned to /i:/ and the retraction attributed to the velarity of the preceding and, above all, following consonants. This interpretation would work for Scottish Gaelic as well. With the short form of the vowel the same situation applies. Tuig /tɯgj/ ‘understand’ contains the same retracted vowel as does the identical Irish word which is taken to contain a variant of the /ɪ/- vowel.

Vowel quality and flanking consonants Attributing vowel quality to adjacent consonants would lead to the collapse of a systemic distinction between closed and open short vowels. Forms such as deich /djexj/ ‘ten’ and each /ɛx/ ‘horse’ would be seen to contain conditioned variants of a short /ɛ/ vowel. This becomes all the clearer if one considers the morphophonemic alternations which occur in nominal paradigms: each /ɛx/ ‘horse’, eich /eç/ ‘horses’.

The distinction for the long versions of mid vowels is better established as it is not dependent on the quality of flanking consonants. Of the two vowels /e:/ and /ɛ:/ the former is lexically more frequent while with the back vowel pair /ɔ:/ is more common than /o:/. The difference between the two vowels in each set is indicated orthographically, a fact which would point to a difference of some age: feum /fe:m/ ‘need’, sèimh /sɛ:v/ ‘mild’, mór /mo:r/ ‘big’, òr /ɔ:r/ ‘gold’.

Short back vowels Short back vowels must be considered in terms of surrounding consonant quality, particularly of the segment following these vowels. For Scottish Gaelic a stressed schwa is assumed as it occurs in a word like goid /gədj/ ‘theft’ (Gillies 1993: 149). The vowels in the cognate Irish forms are: goid /gɛdj/ ~ /gʌdj/ (after de Bhaldraithe 1945: 12). There is variation in the vowel used for the short syllable in this and other words with a similar structure. Such words can be viewed as containing a short stressed mid-vowel which has a realisation on a horizontal scale /ɛ – ə – ʌ/. The Scottish vowel is roughly in the middle of this line with pronunciations from either extreme possible in (western) Irish. Such an interpretation shifts systemic status from the short vowel to the right-flanking consonant.

The above view gains support from observations within Scottish Gaelic where vowel alternations occur with changes in the value of [palatal] for final consonants in short monosyllables, e.g. cat /kat/ ‘cat’ : cait /kɛtj/ ‘cats’. Such cases are parallel to Irish ones like troid /trɛdj/ ‘fight’-NOM : troda /trʌdə/ ‘fight’-GEN.

The net effect of these considerations is that the different short back vowels can be grouped according to environmental criteria. Even the rounded short /ɔ/ which is obvious in a form like loch ‘lake’ can be linked to the presence of velars or velarized segments like [lˠ] which here, like in Irish (de Bhaldraithe 1945: 14), tend to favour rounding.

Vocalisation of fricatives Internal lenition has been carried to its conclusion and voiced fricatives have merged with the vowel which precedes them to form new diphthongs. The type of diphthong which results depends on whether the former fricative was palatal or non-palatal.

The cluster /xt/ In this case the stop has assimilated in place to the preceding velar fricative yielding /xk/. Onomastic evidence shows that this is a late development, cf. the element Auchter- (from uachdar ‘top’) with /xt/ (Gillies 1993: 163).

/m/ in Scottish Gaelic The stop-like behaviour of /m/ which is found in Irish is also to be seen in Gaelic. The clusters /sp, st, sk/ and /sm/ are not subject to lenition (Gillies 1993: 167).

Lenition in Scottish Gaelic

The manifestation of lenition in Scottish Gaelic is essentially the same as Irish. It shows the same shift of /f/ to zero and the regular mutation of /p, b, k, g/ which Irish does. Equally Scottish Gaelic, as mentioned above, shows the shift backwards of the lenited forms of both /s/ (/h/) and /d/ (/ɣ/) which implies that this was a shared development of both forms of Q-Celtic after the loss of /θ/ and /ð/ in this branch of Celtic.

Base p b f m t d s k g
Lenition f Ø v h ɣ h x ɣ

The lenition of /m/ produces a nasalised [ṽ] – as it does subphonemically in Irish – and the lenition of the ‘tense’ sonorants /N, L, R/ results in ‘weakened’ /n, l, r/, again the phonological status of this weakening is a matter of debate.

Nasalisation in Scottish Gaelic

For a general discussion of nasalisation, Scottish Gaelic is of particular interest. Morphological nasalisation was, and largely is, realised in Scottish Gaelic as phonetic pre-nasalisation with assimilation of place by the nasal to the following stop or fricative, /f/ (Rogers 1972).

The Irish realisation of nasalisation as a two step process which voices input voiceless stops and nasalises voiced ones is not found here. The pre-nasalisation in Scottish Gaelic is not a recent development and is attested in early attempts to devise a specific orthography (Gillies 1993: 168).

There may be cases where voice becomes phonetically irrelevant and one is left with only three nasal clusters /mb, nd, ŋg/. In such instances aspiration may be retained as a phonetic clue as to which clusters derive from a input voiceless stop which was nasalised.

Some of the dialects, e.g. that of Lewis, have a variant of the above system in which the nasal absorbs the following stop. The resulting system is similar to that of Welsh with a series of voiceless nasals.

It is difficult to determine whether nasalisation in Scottish Gaelic was always of this kind. Certain fixed forms would suggest that the Irish pattern of nasalisation once obtained and that the Scottish one was a later independent development, cf. /v/ bh as the nasalised form of /f/ in locative adverbs like abhán ‘down’ abhos ‘over here’.

For comparative information on Ulster Irish and Scottish Gaelic, see O’Rahilly (1932: 122-91) and C. Ó Baoill (1978).


The morphology of Scottish Gaelic is similar to that of Irish: there are two genders, masculine and feminine. These align with mutation rules in a manner comparable to that in Irish: masculine adjectives take zero mutation but feminine nouns induce lenition, e.g. an cú beag ‘the small dog’ versus a’ chearc bheag ‘the small hen’.

Nouns are divided into five declensional classes (Gillies 1993: 173-5). These are not, however, identical with Irish. A notable difference between the two languages is that Scottish Gaelic has a large number of ‘nasal’ plurals in /-/ə)n(j)/, e.g. bráthair ~ bráithrean ‘brothers’; rud : rudan ‘things’, luch : luchainn ‘mice’.

As in Irish the old nominative, accusative and dative distinctions have merged into a single common form. A vocative case also exists; this lenites a qualified noun, preceded by the particle a. A genitive case is found much as in Irish. Adjectives vary for gender and case and group into declensional classes as in Irish.

For more information on the morphology of Scottish Gaelic, see MacAulay (1992: 207-26).


Scottish Gaelic, like the other Celtic languages, is a post-specifying language. Adjectives follow nouns and genitives the nominatives they qualify. Verbs occupy initial position in declarative sentences (VSO), e.g. Sheas Iain ach shuidh Anna ‘Iain stood up but Anna sat down’. The range and forms of tenses, moods, persons and numbers for verbs is very similar to Irish. There is a verbal noun which, as in Irish, expresses progressive aspect. A verbal adjective is also found.

The system of prepositional pronouns, known from Irish, exists in Scottish Gaelic as it does in Manx. These elements are used to express semantic roles and relations in sentences, much as in Irish.

A comprehensive survey of the syntax of Scottish Gaelic can be found in MacAulay (1992: 162-206).


Selected literature


Lynch, Michael (ed.) 2005. The Oxford Companion to Scottish History. Oxford: University Press.

Lynch, Michael 1992. Scotland. A New History. London: Pimlico.

Thomson, Derick S. 1994. The Companion to Gaelic Scotland. 2nd edition. Glasgow: Gairm Publications.


Robertson, Boyd and Ian Taylor 2003. Teach Yourself Gaelic. Columbus, OH: McGraw-Hill Companies.

Robertson, Boyd and Ian MacDonald 2004. Gaelic Dictionary (Teach Yourself). Columbus, OH: McGraw-Hill Companies.

Spadaro, Katherine M. and Katie Graham 2001. Colloquial Scottish Gaelic: The Complete Course for Beginners. London: Taylor and Francis.


Dorian, Nancy 1980. Language Death: The Life Cycle of a Scottish Gaelic Dialect. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Dorian, Nancy 1978. East Sutherland Gaelic. Dublin: Institute for Advanced Studies.


Withers, Charles W. J. 1983. Gaelic in Scotland 1698-1981. The geographical history of a language. Edinburgh: John Donald.

Holmer, Nils 1962. The Gaelic of Kintyre. Dublin: Institute for Advanced Studies.

Jackson, Kenneth H. 1972. The Gaelic notes in the Book of Deer. Cambridge: University Press.


Borgstrøm, Carl Hj. 1937 ‘The dialect of Barra in the Outer Hebrides’, Norsk Tidsskrift for Sprogvidenskap 8: 71-242.

Borgstrøm, Carl Hj. 1940 A linguistic survey of the Gaelic dialects of Scotland. The dialects of the Outer Hebrides. Olso: University Press.

Borgstrøm, Carl Hj. 1941 A linguistic survey of the Gaelic dialects of Scotland. The dialects of Skye and Ross-shire. Olso: University Press.

Borgstrøm, Carl Hj. 1974. ‘On the influence of Norse on Scottish Gaelic’, Lochlann 6: 91-107.

Clement, R. D. 1984. ‘Gaelic’, in Trudgill (ed.), pp. 318-42.

Dieckhoff, Henry Cyril 1932. A pronouncing dictionary of Scottish Gaelic. Glasgow.

Dorian, Nancy 1977. ‘A hierarchy of morphophonemic decay in Scottish Gaelic language death: the differential faliure of lenition’, Word 28, 96-109.

Dorian, Nancy 1978a. East Sutherland Gaelic. Dublin: Institute for Advanced Studies.

Dorian, Nancy 1978b. ‘The fate of morphological complexity in language death: evidence from East Sutherland Gaelic’, Language 54, 590-609.

Dorian, Nancy 1980. Language Death: The Life Cycle of a Scottish Gaelic Dialect. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Forsyth, Katherine (ed.) 2008. Studies in the Book of Deer. Dublin: Four Courts Press.

Gillies, William 1993. ‘Scottish Gaelic’, in Ball and Fife (eds), 145-227.

Quiggin, E. C. (ed.) 1937. Poems from the Book of the Dean of Lismore. Cambridge: University Press. Holmer, Nils 1957. The Gaelic of Arran. Dublin: Institute for Advanced Studies.

Holmer, Nils 1962. The Gaelic of Kintyre. Dublin: Institute for Advanced Studies.

Jackson, Kenneth H. 1972. The Gaelic notes in the Book of Deer. Cambridge: University Press.

Lamb, William 2007. Scottish Gaelic Speech and Writing: Register Variation in an Endangered Language. Belfast: Queen’s University Press.

MacAulay, Donald 1992. ‘The Scottish Gaelic language’, in MacAulay (ed.), 137-248.

MacCaluim, Alasdair 2007. Reversing Language Shift. The Role and Social Identity of Scottish Gaelic Learners. Belfast: Queen's University Press.

Mackinnon, Kenneth 1993. ‘Scottish Gaelic today: Social history and contemporary status’, in Ball and Fife (eds), pp. 491-535.

Mackinnon, Kenneth 2007. ‘Gaelic’, in David Britain (ed.) Language in the British Isles. 2nd edition. (Cambridge: University Press), pp. 200-17.

McInnes, J. 1992. ‘The Scottish Gaelic language’, in Price (ed.), 101-30.

Newton, Michael 2000. A Handbook of the Scottish Gaelic World. Dublin: Four Courts Press.

Ó Baoill, Colm 1978. Contributions to a comparative study of Ulster Irish and Scottish Gaelic. Belfast: Institute of Irish Studies.

Ó Dochartaigh, Cathair (ed.) 1994-97. Survey of the Gaelic Dialects of Scotland. Dublin: Institute for Advanced Studies.

Oftedal, Magne 1956. ‘The Gaelic of Leurbost Isle of Lewis’Norsk Tidsskrift for Sprogvidenskap 4.

Ó Maolalaigh, Roibeard 1995-6. ‘The development of eclipsis in Gaelic’, Scottish Language 14/15: 158-73.

Ó Maolalaigh, Roibeard 1997. The historical short vowel phonology of Gaelic. 2 Vols. Unpublished PhD thesis, University of Edinburgh.

Ó Murchú, Mairtín 1989. East Perthshire Gaelic. Dublin: Institute for Advanced Studies.

Robertson, Boyd and Ian Taylor 2003. Teach Yourself Gaelic. Columbus, OH: McGraw-Hill Companies.

Robertson, Boyd and Ian MacDonald 2004. Gaelic Dictionary (Teach Yourself). Columbus, OH: McGraw-Hill Companies.

Rogers, A. 1972. ‘The initial mutations in Scottish Gaelic’, Studia Celtica 7, 63-85.

Romaine, Suzanne and Nancy Dorian 1981. ‘Scotland as a linguistic area’. Scottish Literary Journal 14: 1-24.

Sabban, Annette 1982. Gälisch-Englischer Sprachkontakt. Zur Variabilität des Englischen im gälischsprachigen Gebiet Schottlands. Eine empirische Studie. [Gaelic-English language contact. On the variability of English in the Gaelic-speaking areas of Scotland. An empirical study] Heidelberg: Groos.

Sommerfelt, Alf 1952. ‘Norse-Gaelic contacts’. Norsk Tidskrift for Sprogvidenskap 16, 226-36.

Spadaro, Katherine M. and Katie Graham 2001. Colloquial Scottish Gaelic: The Complete Course for Beginners. London: Taylor and Francis.

Ternes, Elmar 2006. The phonemic analysis of Scottish Gaelic. Based on the dialect of Applecross, Ross-shire. Third edition. Dublin: Institute for Advanced Studies.

Watson, Seosamh 1974. ‘A Gaelic dialect of N. E. Ross-shire’, Lochlann 6: 9-90.

Watson, Seosamh 1994. ‘Gaeilge na hAlban’ [Scottish Gaelic], in McCone et al. (eds), pp. 661-702.