Introduction to the Gaelic Languages

The Gaelic languages, also known as the Goidelic branch, is one of the two branches of the modern Celtic languages. The other branch spoken to the south, Brythonic, includes Welsh, Cornish, and Breton.

The Gaelic languages originated in Ireland and Dál Riata, on the west coast of Scotland. During Medieval times, Gaelic culture spread and became dominant throughout the rest of Scotland and the Isle of Man. The language of the Gaels changed as they moved, just as Latin split into various languages after the fall of Rome.

The Goidelic languages (Irish, Scottish Gaelic, and Manx) were once the major languages of Ireland and the Scottish Highlands, but since the beginning of the 19th century have been in sharp decline and are considered endangered languages today.

The Gaelic languages lost their prestige due to the spread of the English language and the displacement of the old Gaelic aristocracy and became primarily peasant languages. Although Gaelic speakers have decreased over the years, there are still around 2 million people worldwide who speak Irish, Scottish Gaelic, and Manx today. As a result of the Celtic diaspora that started around the early Medieval times, a huge portion of the U.S, Canada, Australia, Argentina, and New Zeland population is made up of people of Celtic descent.

Below is a picture of the timeline of how Primitive Irish evolved into the Goidelic Languages.


The Languages of the Goidelic Branch


Irish still has four cases to show different functions of nouns and pronouns in a sentence, which is similar to the case system of Latin or German. Irish maintains predominant status today compared to the other two languages. Irish, which is also known as Irish Gaelic or Erse, is one of the two national languages and the first official language of the Republic of Ireland. Irish has the oldest vernacular literature dating back to the 4th century in Western Europe. It has been the primary language of the Irish people for most of their recorded history.

Today, English is the primary language of Ireland, but with Irish influence on English, the Hiberno-English dialect has emerged. It mixes Irish style grammar into the English language. As an example, How are ye keepin'? is the Irish way of greeting people and C'mere 'till I tell ye! is a phrase to use when you are getting people's attentions.

Scottish Gaelic

As a member of the Goidelic branch, Scottish Gaelic developed out of Middle Irish. Ireland and Scotland shared a common Gaelic literary language until the 17th century. However, at this time Scottish Gaelic had already evolved enough to be considered a separate language.

Today, some people in the north and west of Scotland and most people in the Hebrides still speak Scottish Gaelic. According to statistics, there are about 60,000 native Scottish Gaelic speakers in Scotland with roughly 1,000 Canadian Gaelic speakers in Nova Scotia.

Today, Scottish Gaelic is generally the only language referred to as simply "Gaelic", though all three languages are technically Gaelic. Irish and Manx have both dropped Gaelic from their names.

Besides Gaelic, you may encounter several adjectives for describing things that come from Scotland: Scottish and Scots.

As mentioned above, Scottish Gaelic is the Scottish form of Gaelic, now its own language. Scots, on the other hand, is another language spoken in Scotland, but is a completely different language from Scottish Gaelic. Scots is a traditional or older form of Modern English and almost intelligible to English speakers.

Scottish, in general, can refer to things coming from Scotland other than language. And "Scotch", an important cultural treasure, we'll introduce below.


Manx, the language of Isle of Man, is closely related to Scottish Gaelic and the dialects spoken in the easternmost of Ireland, with some influence from Old Norse.

Descending from Middle Irish, Manx shares a degree of mutual intelligibility with Irish and Scottish Gaelic. Manx, once being the everyday language of most of the Isle of Man, started to decrease significantly in use in the 19th century. The last native speaker of the language passed away in 1974. Then a revival movement began. In the last few years, Manx has become more visible on the island, with increased signage and media broadcasts. There are now five pre-schools that use Manx as the sole medium for teaching on the island with around 2% of the Man population now able to speak Manx.


The Etymology of the Words

Etymology is the study of the development of words, their history and origins, how the meaning and form have changed throughout the time. Due to proximity with English, it's without question that the Gaelic languages have had quite an effect on English. Below are a few examples of how a word evolved from Old or Middle Irish and was borrowed into Modern English.

  1. Whiskey & Whisky: a type of distilled alcoholic beverage made from fermented grain mash.

    The word comes from Irish uisce beatha and Scottish Gaelic uisge-beatha (its literal meaning is water of life). From Proto-Celtic udenskyos (water) and Proto-Celtic biwotos (life). The spelling of the word is also used to distinguish the drinks, i.e. bourbon whiskey and Scotch whisky

  2. Slogan: A catch phrase associated with the product being advertised or a distinct phrase of a person or group of people.

    Slogan comes from Old Irish slúag, slóg (army) and Scottish Gaelic sluagh-ghairm (battle cry). Crowd is written slua in Irish and sluagh in Scottish Gaelic. And, gairm (Irish) and ghairm (Scottish Gaelic) both mean calling.

  3. Trousers: A piece of clothing that covers the lower part of the body.

    This word comes from the Middle Irish word - triubhas (close-fitting shorts). The intrusive second "r" is probably due to the influence of drawders. It has been in the form trouse (attested since the 1570s) to the form trouzes (attested since the 1580s).

Are Irish and Scottish Gaelic Mutually Intelligible?

If you are learning Irish, you might wonder if you will be able to pick up Gaelic easily, or vice versa.

Yes, since they are closely related acquiring the other language should not pose a much difficulty. Some Irish speakers, especially the ones from the parts that are closer to Scotland such as Donegal, can understand a good amount of Gaelic. Most dialects aren’t mutually intelligible, but a lot of the vocabulary and grammar share some similarities, and are not hard to grasp. Therefore, speakers of the two languages can easily develop an understanding of each other.

It is important to note some key differences between Irish and Scottish Gaelic:

  • In Scottish Gaelic, the accent is written as a grave accent (a left slant), whereas in Irish, the accent is written as an acute accent (a right slant). A good example of this is how cow is written in each language: Irish and Gaelic .

  • Some letter combinations that are seen in written Irish can't be found in Gaelic:

    • Irish bhfuil (which is) and Gaeilge (Gàidhlig in Gaelic).
    • Irish prefers “cht” over “chd”: Irish seacht and Gaelic seachd (seven).
    • Irish prefers “st” over "sd”: Irish ostán and Gaelic osda (hotel).
    • Irish prefers “sc” over “sg” Irish iasc and Gaelic iasg (fish)
  • There are also many spelling differences in both languages, which is a result of the reform and simplification of Irish spelling that started in the 1950's. Below are a few examples of the differences:

English Irish Scottish Gaelic
island oileán eilean
night oíche oidche
year bliain bliadhna
  • Faux Amis: Don't let vocabulary words that look almost identical trick you. They might look similar, but they can have very different meanings.
English Irish Scottish Gaelic English
harbour cuan cuan ocean
Wales An Bhreatain Bheag A'Bhreatain Bheag Brittany
he walked shiúil sé shiubhail e he died

Today, over 100 million people worldwide claim some Celtic descent, of which includes 45 million Americans who claim Irish or Scottish as their primary family lineage. If you are of western European descent, there is a good chance that you also have Celtic blood. By learning Gaelic languages, you are not only opening yourself up to a good deal of rich Celtic culture and history but also getting in touch with your cultural roots.

At Glossika, we take a strong stance on language preservation and documentation. We provide a number of local dialects or languages that aren't as resourceful to the public on our platform for FREE. Scottish Gaelic and Manx happen to be two of the free courses we offer. Sign up for a free account and start learning today!

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