The Gaelics in Australia

(Yes, the plural is intentional)

A few weeks ago, I attended the Sgoil-Ghàidhlig Nàiseanta, or National Gaelic School, a weekend of Gaelic-learning and socialisation in Melbourne – or, as they say in Gaelic, “anns a’ Mheall Bùirn”.

Aside from the expected classes on grammar, pronunciation, and conversational skills, a major topic of discussion was the influence Gaelic has had on Australia and Australian English. Obviously, it’s sometimes difficult to tell which words came to (Australian) English through Gaelic and which through Irish, since the languages are so similar, but it’s fascinating to hear some suggestions of word relations I hadn’t considered before.

Due to my Research Project last year, I’m familiar with the shear reach and prevalence of Goidelic language in Australia during the early days. Whether Irish convicts or Gaelic-speaking highlanders fleeing the Clearances, Irish and Gaelic together were once the most spoken language in Australia after English. The presence of so many Gaels in Australia affected the culture in many ways, from the “traditional” Australian Bush music and dances to a near-certain connection between Gaelic Football and AFL, but I will be focussing on the language and words.

While there are dozens, if not hundreds or more, of Gaelic-origin words in English, many of these are found in all or most dialects of English. Such words include “smidgen”, “brat”, “brogue”, “gob”, “galore”, “to keen”, “slogan”, “whiskey”, and so forth.

Some may think that “ta” is simply a lazy way of saying “thank-you”, but where does it come from? It may look vaguely similar, but has none of the same sounds, with “t” rather than “th” and a long “aa” rather than the short one in “thank”. However, the Gaelic for “thank-you” is “tapadh leibh/leat”, pronounced “TA-pa leiv/let”.

But there are others which are only used in Australia. I used to think “rack off” was a fairy standard (if rude) phrase, but have recently learnt it’s only found in Australia – the Gaelic for go (imperative, plural), is “rachaibh”, pronounced “rack-uv”. Recently, sitting in class, we were working on prepositions in context, particularly “ri”, meaning “with”. My attention drifting, I just kept hearing “root”, “root”, “root”. A lightbulb moment! In Australia “root” is a slang term for sex. In Gaelic, “riut” (“with you”), is pronounced exactly the same. It’s a tenuous connection, but the best I can think of!

A sheoak is an Australian tree completely unrelated to the oak. Some have suggested that the name comes from the Irish “sí óg”, meaning “young fairy”, but an explanation I think more likely is the Gaelic “sítheag”, which means “female fairy”, and makes much more sense when you consider that some early spellings for the plant included “shiac” and “shiac”. It also makes sense to used a feminine term for sheoak when you consider that we also have heoaks.

 Two Irish words in Australian English include “didgeridoo” and “waddy”. Don’t believe me? You think they’re Aboriginal words? Just let me explain.

 “Dúdaire” or “dideaire” is an Irish word which can mean “pipe” or “trumpet” (“dùdach” is the Gaelic cognate), and it is pronounced “doodarra” or “didjarra”. Combine this with “dubh”, which means “black”, and you have “black trumpeter”, pronounced “didjarra doo”.

 As for “waddy”, which is an Aboriginal hunting stick, this comes from the Gaelic/Irish word “màide”, meaning “stick”. It’s pronounced “matcha” in Gaelic, and it’s where we get the word “match” from. However, it’s pronounced “mahdee” in Irish. It still mightn’t look very similar, but let me explain a small facet of Goidelic grammar to you. Celtic words have a habit of leniting – changing the initial sound – at every opportunity. One of these is after some possessive pronouns, such as “mo” (“my”), “do” (“yours”), and “a” (“his”). “M” becomes “MH”, which is consistently pronounced “V” in Gaelic, but is only “V” in Irish before a slender vowel. It’s “W” before a broad vowel.

Imagine that a group of Irish-speakers encounter an Aboriginal tribe – a scenario not so unlikely when you consider that a significant percentage of early settlers and convicts were Irish-speaking – and notice that they’re carrying clubs. In an attempt to communicate, one of them points to the club and says, “Do mháide?” (Your stick?, pronounced “do wahdee?”). The Aboriginal man nods, thinking that the whitefella is given the word for a nulla nulla in his own language. “Waddy,” he agrees. Later, having learnt a bit of Irish and assuming it’s the language used by all white people, he encounters the English overlords, and explains to them that the stick he’s carrying is his “waddy”.

What about “chook”, that ubiquitous word for chicken used by anyone not living in a metropolitan area and quite a few within? You might think it the word of farmers, but at my uncle’s birthday recently, I found “chook” listed as a title the menu above dishes such as “schnitzel parma” and “warm chicken salad”. The best guess for this is the Irish/Gaelic for “come”, often listed as “tiuc” in Australian documents but actually written “teacht” in modern Irish. Both are pronounced more-or-less like “chuck” or “chook”, and probably explains why I call out, “Here, chooky-chooky-chooky” when I go down to the chook house.

Have you ever wondered why you say something twigged to you? What has suddenly understanding something got to do with small bits of tree? Well, the Gaelic word for “understand” is “tuig”, pronounced “twick”. Although I’m familiar with the phrase “tha mi a’ tuigsinn” (“I am understanding”), the use of the preposition in the English is consisted with the way things are phrased in Gaelic. You don’t like something, it’s “toil leat” (“nice with you”). You shouldn’t do something, it’s “coir dhuit” (“fitting to you”). In the same way, maybe you don’t understand something, it’s “tuig dhuit” (“understanding to you”)?

In fact, in some ways the Gaelic/Irish way of phrasing things has stuck around in our speech longer than the words themselves. Why do Australians say “good on you”, rather than “good for you” like everyone else? Well, putting things “on” or “with” people is very common in Gaelic/Irish – for example, “tapadh leibh” (thank-you, Gaelic, literally “thanks with/on you”), beannachd leibh (bless you, or rather, “blessings with/on you”), Dia dhuit (“hello” in Irish is literally “God to/on you”), and so on.

Well, I think that’s about enough for now. I might get around to telling you about the Sgoil Nàiseanta one day. I might not. Christmas is coming up, so, Nollaig Chridheal!, and, we’ll see.

Edit: Here are just a few more words I can’t believe I forgot.

First, a mainstream English word: buddy. This comes from the Gaelic “bodoch”, which no means “old man”. But it’s also (or was, at one point) a friendly term between mates: a male might call his good friend “bodoch”, according to the etymological story I’ve been told. Over time, this changes from “boddock” to “buddy”.

And now an Australian word. The Irish for “hard” or “difficult” is “deacair”, pronounced “jucker”. During my brief time at the Irish club, we were taught this word with the mnemonic “hard yacker”. “Yacker” or “yakka” is a Strine word meaning “work”; you might say “mucking out a chook house is hard yacker”.

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3 thoughts on “The Gaelics in Australia

  1. astraya says:

    Do you say “Irish” and “Gaelic” or “Irish Gaelic” and “Scottish Gaelic”? Wikipedia gives “Irish = Gaeilge” and “Scottish Gaelic = Gàidhlig” which doesn’t help.
    How much Irish and Gaelic vocab is cognate to each other, and to English? Coming in to Cardiff Station I saw ‘Siop Rygbi’ and at the station I saw ‘tacsi’, but I think those are direct borrowings and not cognates (‘rygbi’ is certainly a direct borrowing).

  2. Rachel says:

    I call the Irish version (Gaeilge) “Irish” and the Scottish version (Gàidhlig) “Gaelic”, but pronounced “Gallic”. As someone said over the weekend, “I call Gaelic ‘Gallic’ because that’s how you call Gaelic in Gàidhlig.”
    Generally, Irish-speakers will get offended if you call their language “Gaelic” and tell you, “It’s called Irish – Gaelic’s what they speak in Scotland.” And Gaelic-speakers will tell you, “It’s called ‘Gallic’ – ‘Gaylic’ is what they speak in Ireland.” At which point I shrug and say, “Well, perhaps Gaelic is what they speak on the Isle of Mann.” That’s called Gaelg, or Manx in English.
    The reason they’re called Irish, Manx, and Gaelic is because there’s already a language called “Scots”, which is a Germanic language. Calling them Irish, Manx, and Scottish could get a bit confusing if you’re then dealing with “Scottish” and “Scots”. I’ve seen it written as “Scottish Gaelic” and even “Scots Gaelic” by people who don’t realise that one is Celtic and one is Germanic, but that’s a bit of a mouthful. Generally I only specify “Scottish Gaelic” and “Irish Gaelic” if there’s some confusion as to exactly which language I’m referring to.
    Irish, Gaelic, and Manx are all very close – arguably simply dialects of each other. Manx looks very different, because it uses a Welsh-based spelling system, but the words and grammar are still very similar and very easily understood by everyone else. Irish and Gaelic were written exactly the same until about 200 years ago – the Bible was only translated specifically into Gaelic in about 1810, I think; until then, Gaelic-speakers just used the Irish Bible. Both nations have made spelling reforms since then – for example, the accents used to go both ways in both languages, but spelling reforms mean that they’re now acute in Irish and grave in Gaelic. Irish has also dropped a lot of TH and DH mid- and end-word combinations and simply added an accent to get the long sound. Canadian Gaelic, which is closer to Scottish in the spoken form, has resisted most of the spelling reforms and still uses both accents.
    For traditional vocab, Irish and Gaelic are pretty much identical, although the usage might differ slightly. For example, ‘buachaill’ means a generic ‘boy’ in Ireland but specifically ‘shepherd’ in Scotland. There are some spelling differences, of course – for example, ‘sithe’ in Gaelic for ‘fairies’, but ‘sidhe’ in traditional Irish and ‘sí’ with the spelling reforms. A lot of the modern vocab and borrowings are different. For example, the Irish have ‘telebhis’ while the Scots have ‘telebhisean’. The Irish have ‘cáca’ while the Scots have ‘caic’. Official Irish often has pure Irish words for things which don’t catch on in the native-speaking population – Gaelic is more likely to use pure Irish/Gaelic words for modern concepts, but can be quite free with interchanging Gaelic and English words.
    In my opinion, most of the differences lie in the very common words. Wikipedia will give you a list of common phrases in the three Goidelic languages, which leads to the impression that the languages aren’t so similar at all – not just because of things like “Ciamar a tha thu?” verses “Cónas atá tú?”, but other ones like “Hello” being given in Gaelic as “Haló” or “Latha math” and in Irish as “Dia dhuit”. That’s a religious/cultural difference more than anything – Gaelic’s is literally “Good day”, which Irish’s is “God with you”. Likewise, in Irish, a name is ‘to you’ (Is ainm dhomh) rather than ‘on you’ (Is ainm orm).
    Irish conjugates its verbs, slightly – it will have a different verb for ‘me’ and ‘you’. Gaelic doesn’t do that at all. So ‘I do, you do, he does’ in Gaelic is “Dèan mi, dèan thu, dèan e” and in Irish is “déanaim mé, déanann tú, déanann tú”. Irish tends to use “ní” to negate verbs, rather than “cha” as in Gaelic. Aside from that, it’s mostly colloquialisms, I think. For example, if in Gaelic you want to say ‘not at all’, as in, “There isn’t any food on the table at all”, you just add “idir”, so “Chan eil biadh air a’ bhòrd idir.” But in Irish, you use ‘ar bhith’, so “Níl biá ar bhith ar a’ bhórd.” The ‘a bhith’ construct in Gaelic has a slightly different meaning, and isn’t often seen in the present tense.
    Basically I think any reasonably fluent speaker of either language can understand the other well enough. If you know a word in Gaelic, chances are you’ll understand it in Irish, allowing for accent differences – I found the Irish teacher quite difficult to understand because he was from Cork, which is about as far as you can get from Scotland in the dialect continuum, but find Donegal Irish quite easy. Often translations of things don’t look similar because they use a lot of colloquialisms, but they’d still be understood, they’d just think it’s a bit of an odd turn of phrase.
    Check out this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nqScZeREk5w. It’s being sung in Gaelic (Rùnrig is a Scottish group) but the subtitles are in Irish. The subtitler has done a very good job of translating as word-for-word as possible, so it looks very similar. The description has the original Gaelic, the Irish translation, and the English translation.
    (An interesting point in the first verse, the Gaelic uses the word ‘beann’ = mountain, but the Irish translation has ‘cnoic’. Gaelic has the word ‘cnoc’, too, but it’s a small hill, rise, outcropping type thing. I suppose Ireland doesn’t have many mountains, just hills!)
    Also check out this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BSg7GvdQTQo . Michelle MacDonald from Rapal, a BBC Alba youth programme, has gone to visit TG4 in Ireland. She, and the man at the end, are both speaking Gaelic, while everyone else is speaking Irish – with no problems understanding each other. I’ve seen a TG4 documentary with a Connemara man on Lewis and again in the Highlands speaking Irish with Gaelic-speakers and carrying on quite decent conversations – this video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rDF1TFw3tG0 from about 18:30 to 22:30 in Stornoway.

  3. […] Gaelic in Australia. […]

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