Spelling Things in Gaelic – Part 1

Recently, I’ve found myself in a couple of YouTube and real-life discussions about how things are spelt in Gaelic, so I’m going to do a couple of posts on it. In part one, here, I’m going to post a thread of conversation from this YouTube video about Irish-language names, and explain the differences between Irish and Gaelic spelling. In part two, I’m going to explain the Gaelic alphabet and phonetic rules to you.

YouTube Thread

I’ve got to admit that many of the things UNITDW was saying in this thread are probably fairly common thoughts to have when faced with a text in Irish or Gaelic – although hopefully most people are able to express them without sounding quite as ignorant or rude. Gaelic does look odd, at first glance, and it does bear little resemblance, to English-speaking eyes, to what is said aloud.

If you’d like to know more about some of the historical notes things I said on the thread, you can read about Colm Cille, Insular Script, and Gaelic typeface.

All of what I said on the thread can apply equally to Irish and Gaelic. For these purposes, I’m excluding Manx from discussion, because it uses a very different orthography, based (I believe) on the Welsh phonetic system rather than the Gaelic one. For much of their history, Irish and Gaelic have been the same language (in fact, it was only in the 90s that the Australian census started classifying them separately), and many speakers today still consider them to be the same language. A Gaelic-speaker should refer to Irish as “Gaidhlig na h-Eireann” (Gaelic of Ireland), while an Irish-speaker should refer to Gaelic as “Gaeilge na hAlba” (Irish of Scotland). You can read more about that particular issue here.

The point is, the languages – and their spelling systems – are very close. Up until the Gaelic translation in 1801, Gaelic-speakers read the Bible in Irish. That 1801 Bible still looks very Irish to modern eyes, since a lot of the differences were dialectal and not typographical back then.

Over the last 200 years, both countries have had a number of spelling reforms – Ireland more than Scotland – which have driven the languages further apart in terms of written mutual intelligibility. Both countries moved away from a two-accent (grave and acute) system to a one-accent system, with Scotland going for acute accents and Ireland going for graves, so one of the most immediate differences when looking at a text is the direction of the accents. Canadian Gaelic, however, has retained both accents, and resisted a number of other spelling reforms from Scotland. Scotland’s accent shift only happen about 20 or 30 years ago, so books published in the 70s and 80s, or anything from Canada, still has accents going both ways.

The other main difference between the orthography of Irish and Gaelic is a reform in Ireland to get rid of some of the “superfluous” or “silent” letters, like the -gh, -th, and -dh combinations at the ends and middles of words, and replace them with fadas (accents). Therefore, in Irish, “day” is spelt “lá”, while in Gaelic, it’s spelt “latha”. Likewise, in Irish, “fairy” is spelt “sí”, while in Gaelic, it’s spelt “sidhe”.

So, there you are: one ignorant YouTuber, and the main differences between Irish and Gaelic spelling.

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5 thoughts on “Spelling Things in Gaelic – Part 1

  1. […] is part two of a series about how things are spelt in Gaelic. In the first part, I included a discussion I’d had recently on YouTube, as well as explaining the main […]

  2. Mils says:

    I think it’s important not to slide into a kind of cultural relativism, whereby no language is “phonetic” or “unphonetic” because we judge it all on english, and that’s a wrong thing to do. “Phonetic” means accurately and consistently spelled when compared to speech. It does not need to depend on an english understanding of the latin alphabet. I consider German incredibly phonetic for instance, and the W, V, Y and CH sounds differ from english. But it’s consistent and accurate. A language might be “unphonetic” if for instance, the “i” sound was like an “eee” sometimes and like an “uh” sometimes and you just had to learn by experience. There is a side issue here, and that’s the economy of letters used; sort-of quickness and practicality of the spelling – does the language use 3 letters where 1 will do? (English “queue” is a great example) but it’s not a main issue because you could argue until the cows come home whether it’s more beautiful/better to have a few superfluous letters or to have a really quick efficient spelling.
    I have only started Gaelic, but my understanding is that it is very consistent in mapping sounds to speech. However we could still examine closely whether the latin alphabet which was used was accurately mapped to the sounds. Could for instance, accents have been used more to prevent multiple sonic variations of the “ai” sound?

  3. Rachel says:

    You’re quite right about being phonetic – it’s about consistency within the language, and not with other languages. German, of course, is very phonetic, as is Spanish, while French to me always seemed like it had a few to many ways of writing /oʊ/ (eaux, aux, ot) and /eɪ/ (et, ez, é). And, as I said in the next post, Gaelic is very regular about which spoken sounds map to which written symbols or combinations, once you wrap your mind around a few rules and understand a couple of dialectal differences.

    I understand that some of the letters we use in Gaelic were for sounds that were actually pronounced 1500 years ago, but aren’t any more – for example, perhaps there originally was a spoken difference between, for example, -aidh and -aigh, which are now pronounced the same. I do have the feeling that the Latin alphabet is ultimately unsuited to all the sounds in Gaelic, which is why there are so many letters used. I know, for example, that a double letter such as -nn means a nasally sound, while -dhn is an odd sort of flick in the back of my throat that I can’t quite describe, but I’d have no idea how to transcribe those into 26 (or 17) little symbols if it weren’t for the conventions which already exist. Who says that using vowels to show whether a consonant is broad or slender is any more practical than using other consonants? Why is “ti” less practical than “ch”? Also, what would you [anyone] suggest we use for “ch”? “Kh”?

    I’m not sure the Latin alphabet was “accurately” used for writing Gaelic, in terms of how close the sounds it represented originally in Gaelic were to the sounds it represented in Latin, but I do know that it would be a very, very difficult job to be the first one to write Gaelic with a Latin alphabet and over all, I think whoever originally did it did a pretty good job at devising a regular system for the sounds. (Also it’s no doubt adapted over the years, as more people write and as the language itself changes).

    • Mils says:

      I completely agree that the original sounds mapped with the latin alphabet would have changed. Spoken language always loves change, but written language always loves stability. If we take out the messy business with the “h” in gaelic which was forced on it due to the limitations of the printing press, then my initial impressions of gaelic is that the spelling works well. I’m in favor of what the irish did, because I’m in favor of spelling reforms. They don’t happen nearly enough. We still have confused spelling like “through” in english….I tend to be very conservative with grammar issues, but very progressive with orthographic issues.

  4. Rachel says:

    Oh, and I meant to say about the accents, I think I covered it in the post, that one of the spelling reforms in Ireland *did* involve using accents in place of some of the “extra” letters. On the other hand, we’ve both cut down on some accents, which means that, in Gaelic, the two words which used to be “mòr” and “mór”, and which do have different pronunciations, are now spelt the same. The accent these days, in both varieties of the language, just signifies length, rather than any real change in the pronunciation itself – for example, bata and bàta.

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