A language that makes even learning Russian seem easy, it’s a great way to concentrate your mind and gives you yet another excuse (if one is needed) to watch Outlander again!
I’m a linguist. I enjoy learning languages. One of my favourite past times as a schoolchild was to spend my evenings learning German grammar. (I was a lonely child). But in the past, every time I’ve tried to learn Scottish Gaelic, even I have been thrown by the complexities of the language and thrown in the towel.
Because with Russian, at least it has the decency for the first couple of weeks to lull you into a false sense of security until you’re hit with verbs of motion, aspects, the genitive plural and the declension of adjectives and even of numbers for crying out loud.
With any “Learn Gaelic” book I’ve come across you’re hit with so many grammar and pronunciation rules right at the start that even a grammar fiend like me has done the only sensible thing and given up.
After all, why learn the language? There is no Gael who doesn’t speak fluent English. (The same rule can be applied to the Dutch and all Scandinavians). It’s a language spoken by a small percentage of the Scottish population – 1.1% according to the 2011 census. Unlike Irish Gaelic, it’s not an official language of the European Union or even in the UK. So even holidaying in the Outer Hebrides, it’s unlikely I’d ever need to walk into a shop and use it. Primarily because knowing my luck, the shopkeeper would have just moved there from the Home Counties, not understood a word and assume I was a German tourist with unusually poor language skills.
Secondly, though my family hails from Scotland, it’s from the East Coast so the Gàidhealtachd is hardly part of my cultural heritage. The use of Gaelic in the south and east of Scotland began to go into decline as far back as the 11th century when Malcom Canmore’s wife Queen Margaret helped establish English as both the language of the Scottish court and church.
And for those of you who weren’t force fed Scottish history from an early age by two extremely patriotic Scottish parents who – despite their undying love of their country – refused to ever go back and live there, historically speaking Scotland was a country of two-halves: the Lowlands (roughly speaking the south and east of the country) which was predominately Scots-speaking or English-speaking, and the Highlands and Islands where the Gàidhealtachd held sway. And for many centuries the Highlands and Islands were a law unto itself, much to the annoyance of the Scottish monarchy whose remit may have theoretically covered the Highlands and Islands but in reality seldom did. Consequently, the Highlands became to be regarded by their fellow Scots as a land full of savages and viewed with the same contempt by the Lowlanders that the average 19th American settler felt towards the Native Americans.
The fact that the Highlanders and Islanders may not have been the King’s most malleable of subjects had not gone unnoticed and from the reign of James VI of Scotland (James I of England) onwards there was a concerted effort to eradicate the language from these shores. The thinking being you destroy a language, you destroy the culture and with it any whiff of rebellion.
James packed off Lowlanders to settle in Gaelic-speaking areas, forced clan chiefs to send their eldest sons to English-speaking schools and promoted the establishment of English-speaking schools in Gaelic-speaking areas where, at times, speaking Gaelic even in the playground was punishable. In addition to an education system that actively discouraged its use, the ethnic cleansing that occurred in the Highlands after the 1745 Uprising and the large scale emigration (not always willingly) over the centuries all helped exacerbate the situation, not forgetting of course the gradual dominance of English as the lingua franca not only of these islands but throughout the world hardly helped matters either.
So to be perfectly honest, part of me wants to learn the language for the simple reason that for so many years the authorities tried to stamp it out. Secondly, language is a reflection of a culture, and though the history of the Gaels, like most of Scottish history, has been romanticised over the years it is nonetheless a fascinating one. And language gives you a great insight into that culture. Take the word clann – Scots Gaelic for children and which neatly sums up the paternalistic nature of the old clan system which was so successfully destroyed after the 1745 Uprising as the forced emigration of so many Gaels over the decades that followed can testify.
I know the word clann because thanks to a tip by the Gaelic language advisor to Outlander Àdhamh Ó Broin (and no I don’t know him but just let’s say sometimes Twitter does have its uses) I discovered the Learn Gaelic website which makes learning Gaelic manageable. It wisely avoids loading you down with numerous grammar and pronunciation rules and leads you along in easily digestible, bite-size lessons.
However, the most hilarious part of each lesson is when you have to repeat what someone has said. Like most people I have never really heard Gaelic spoken – apart from the odd bits in Outlander – so I don’t have a feeling for the language. From an Anglphone’s point of view, how a word is spelt and how it is pronounced in Gaelic is not self-evident and the Gaels seem to run words together; so though there may be 8 words on the screen I swear to god I can only hear three of them. Thus, I’m still reading what’s on screen while the accompanying voice stopped speaking approximately 30 seconds ago. As a result, said voice may be speaking Gaelic but when I’m repeating it, to my ear, it sounds as if I’m talking in a language that is possibly approximating Klingon.
Nevertheless I found the whole thing addictive and there is a sense of achievement when you realise you do understand what is being said. I’ve even understood a bit of what is said on Outlander – OK approximately 4 things so far. (In case you’re wondering a-nis – now, s math sin – that’s good, tha mi – I am and ciamar a tha sibh – how are you, which to be fair I already knew). I know it hardly makes me fluent but everyone has to start somewhere.
So if you fancy a challenge with these long winter nights drawing in, then maybe check out the Learn Gaelic website and as a treat, after every couple of lessons or so watch the odd episode of Outlander to help get a sense of the language (at least that’s what you tell yourself)! Let’s face it, if listening to Sam Heughan’s Jamie Fraser sprouting Gaelic can’t persuade you, then nothing will!