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Articles: Gaelic – Pronunciation and Other Matters

by John Mackay

This note is a simplistic explanation of the spread / localities of Gaelic, and the bone of contention about whether it is pronounced "ldquo;Gay-lik" or "Gah-lik".

Basically, two lots of Celtic tribes came to the British Isles, round about the time of Christ. One tribe arrived via northern Europe and colonised the island of Great Britain. Their language is often described as P-Celtic, and is the forerunner of modern Welsh. The others came via North Africa and Spain to Ireland. Their language is usually called Q-Celtic, and is the forerunner of modern Irish (or Erse).

As simply as possible, a number of historical events took place over the following centuries. One Irish tribe, the Scotti, gradually moved from Antrim in Northern Ireland, to Argyll in western Scotland. They called their kingdom Dalriada, and by the sixth century, their capital was Dunadd, in Argyllshire. It was also then, in 563AD, that one of them, Columba, founded his monastery on Iona.

During the next 3 centuries, the Scotti, or Scots, gradually moved east, and whether by war or marriage — more likely a combination of the two, had merged with the (Q-Celtic) people in north and east Scotland, called the Picts by the Romans, to form a kingdom covering the Scottish mainland north of the Forth and Clyde. The Scots' language and culture soon pre-dominated, and the new kingdom spoke Q-Celtic. On separate islands, the version of Irish Gaelic diverged gradually into Scottish Gaelic, and the two remain closely connected.

Meanwhile, around the same time, the Anglo-Saxons invaded eastern Britain. They conquered most of what is now England and what is now south-east Scotland. Edinburgh is named after a local Danish king. There was no mass invasion, but Anglo-Saxon, the forerunner of Old English, became the trading language of these areas. That left only the western parts — Strathclyde (SW Scotland), Cumbria (The Lake District), Wales and Cornwall as P-Celtic speaking. Much the same happened in France, with Latin, the forerunner of French, pushing the P-Celtic language into Brittany.

Thus Scotland, north of the Forth and Clyde became Gaelic speaking, Wales and Cornwall Welsh speaking. From the above it is clear that south-east Scotland was originally P-Celtic speaking, but never Gaelic-speaking. P-Celtic died out in Galloway and Cumbria, probably to Gaelic.

Together with other related branches, it is often, for simplicity, that there are / were six Gaelic languages in the British Isles, a northern group of three, Irish Gaelic, Scottish Gaelic and Manx (from the Isle of Man and now extinct), all more or less mutually comprehensible, but distinct from the southern group of Welsh, Cornish (now defunct) and Cornish, also a bit mutually comprehensible.

Then, we have the pronunciation. All words in English with the diphthong ae are pronounced as in "gay", including Gael, Gaelic, Gaeldom etc. However, many people insist that the Celtic language of Scotland should be pronounced "Gah-lik" and the Irish Celtic language should be pronounced "Gay-lik". This is technically incorrect. The word in Scottsih Gaelic is pronounced "Gah-lik" and, as used to describe Scottish Gaelic, is an imported word from that language. Therefore it is correct to use either the correct English pronunciation, "Gay-lik", or the imported Gaelic word, "Gah-lik". The latter is maybe preferable in the sense that paella is considered correct when pronounced pie-eh-ya, but not as pail-ah, which would be the pronunciation were it an English word. The difference was that English does not have its own word for this Spanish dish. However many other foreign words are given an English pronunciation, usually out of ignorance, for example the German beer Löwenbräu is usually referred to as "Low-en-brow" instead of "Loev-en-broy".

One footnote — the word "Gallic" relates to Gaul, the Roman name for France, and therefore means "French", and not a Scottish or Irish language.


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