SCOTTISH GAELIC - AN OPEN LETTER|
Dear Libbie and Gordon,
You may remember that when Elizabeth and I visited you about 10 years ago - give or take a decade - you gave me a copy of a Gaelic handbook called "Can Seo", saying that if that was what the language was like, you were going to have to forgo mastering this part of your Scottish heritage. I'm writing now in the hope of pointing you back on the track, and also - while admitting that I'm really writing for a wider audience than just yourselves - to thank you for setting me wondering whether this language really had to be that difficult.
I think now that it doesn't, and below I set out why. What makes Gaelic difficult, in my view, is not the language itself, but that there is no accessible handbook that isn't muddled and incomplete.
You'll be wanting to start with the sound-system. Here are the 39 phonemes of Gaelic in the International Phonetic Alphabet (which is not hard to find reference-books for, if you don't know it):
Vowels can be short or long (
Obviously this is no place to discuss the sounds in detail, but some remarks may be useful. The big difference in the plosives (top line in the display above) is between those which have great puffs of breath around them (marked with superscript h), and those which don't. There's a second difference between those which have a y-sound mixed up with them (marked with superscript j), and those which don't. (Some have simultaneous puff of breath and y-sound.) There are three varieties each of the consonants r, n and l: one called 'palatal', which has a y-sound mixed up with it (superscript j), one normal (no superscript), and one called 'velar', which has a hollow sound made by tensing the back of the tongue (superscript
Secondly, you'll be wanting to know how the spelling relates to the sounds. This is actually the second most difficult part of learning Gaelic. (The most difficult part, of course, is finding
Back to the sound-system. Perhaps its most startling feature is lenition, a process by which verbs and nouns change their first consonant under certain grammatical conditions. The basic process is simple: each lenitable consonant (some don't lenite) has its lenited counterpart. So
All handbooks have difficulties with ploption and nasal vowels, and when I say difficulties I mean they simply don't mention them. The reason for this is that ploption and nasal vowels aren't represented in the spelling, so a handbook that treats the language in terms of its orthography (and that means all of them) can't discuss them. Lenition, on the other hand, is mostly represented in the spelling, but lenition of
Turning now to grammar, the news is much better. First, the verbs. One of the disconcerting things about learning Gaelic, if you're used to the major European languages, is that verbs don't have an identifying ending as they do in German, for example, where the infinitives all end in -en, or French, where the infinitives end in -er, -ir or -re. In Gaelic, verbs are just globs like any other words. (They share this characteristic with English, of course.) But the good news is that they have only two principal parts. This is not clear from the handbooks, where the terms 'verb', 'root', 'infinitive' and 'verbal noun' are used with ill-defined and shifting meanings, but the two forms you need are the 'root', which is the same as the imperative sing. and is the form quoted in dictionaries, and the 'verbal noun', from which the infinitive can be formed (some handbooks say they're the same). Unfortunately you can't predict the verbal noun from the root, although you can make a guess (because there are some common patterns) - but you still have only two parts to learn. These two parts will enable you to make any tense of any verb, with the exception of the 10 irregulars. And even with these 10 irregulars there are only 4 forms each - 40 words - to learn.
The verbal noun gives you enormous expressive power. Take a sentence such as:
But there's more than this. By adding two words to your vocabulary - the future and past of to be - you can change the time-reference:
One more set of possibilities remains. The three forms of the verb
The above is known as the periphrastic set of verb constructions. There is also a non-periphrastic set, in which each tense is formed by inflectional changes to the 'root'. Roughly speaking, the periphrastic forms convey the same meanings as the English
There is good news on the non-periphrastic front as well. There are only four tenses (future, past, conditional and imperative) and three possible forms of each (independent, used in non-subordinate positions, relative, used after relative conjunctions, and dependent, used in other subordinate contexts). But not all forms are found in all tenses - only 7 of the possible 12 forms exist. Moreover these verb-forms don't change to express person - you just shove the subject pronoun after the verb:
The seven forms are made from the 'root' by using just two resources: lenition (
A few details need to be added to complete the account given above. (a) Lenition follows a different pattern with verbs from that used with nouns. (b) In a lenition-like process, verbs beginning with vowels change their front end. (c) Dependent forms show ploption instead of lenition, or don't change, according to which subordinating particle introduces them. (d) One or two persons of the conditional and imperative - but not all 7 persons - use personal endings. (e) The conditional and future use the pronoun
There are two further points worth mentioning about verbs, however. The first is that different handbooks tell different stories about how you add grammatical objects to periphrastic verbs (e.g.
The second point is that there are perhaps a dozen cases where English uses a verb, but Gaelic uses a noun. Examples are English
On to pronouns! The subject and object pronouns in themselves are a piece of cake: there are only seven of them (all appearing in the examples above above), and they're invariable. You can tell which is which because the order of elements in a sentence is always verb - subject - object:
The problem with phrases like
As for the pronoun-objects of periphrastic verbs, there's another set of squashed horrors used here - but there are only seven of these, so squashed frogs, perhaps, rather than squashed toads. The problem here is that the 'content verb' -
After verbs and pronouns, the only other topic of importance is nouns, which it has to be admitted are not hugely easy to learn. There are three cases (absolute, vocative and genitive, but also a vestigial dative), two numbers (singular and plural, though with a vestigial dual) and two genders (masc. and fem.) The 'absolute' case is used for both subject and object (some call it the nominative); the vocative is used when addressing people, and the genitive is used for possession and when one word qualifies another, as in
The rather bad news is that nouns are affected by two systems operating simultaneously - inflections and sound-changes - and you need a clear head to keep them apart. The handbooks won't help you in this - they get the two systems muddled up, and their account turns into sludge. And of course you can't get any sort of grip on what's happening if you work only in terms of spelling, and that's what the handbooks do.
First, the inflections. Gaelic deploys only four resources to inflect nouns: leniting the first consonant, changing the last vowel, palatalising the final consonant and adding a suffix. The problem is that even a simple classification yields 5 types of noun, each with a different mix of the four resources, not to mention a good sprinkling of irregularities. Some examples:
(One of the results of lenition of the vocative, by the way, is that the vocative of
Plurals are formed in various ways, but a common method - and the default for borrowed words - is to add
Alongside this inflectional system there is a sound-change system, consisting of lenitions and ploptions, which creates further modifications. For example, the definite article causes ploption in the masc. abs. sing., giving
Some handbooks try to unify the inflectional system and the sound-change system by introducing such concepts as the 'definite noun' (the noun with the definite article). One can then say, for example, that the definite noun lenites after prepositions. Such accounts quickly fall apart, however - they don't explain the difference between
I think that's about all I have to say in this overview. As you'll guess, I've relied heavily on Borgstrøm's 1940 publication in drawing it up, and I've confined it to the variety described by him as used in Lewis. (I've also thrown "Can Seo" in the bin.) It seems to me that the Gaelic verb system is infinitely less complicated than that of French or Spanish, and that its noun system is no more complicated than that of German, which is horribly bitty. But of course Gaelic deploys very different and interesting resources to embody its grammatical structures, and opens up a different way of thinking about it all. I'm sure you'll enjoy it!