The Gaelic language is stunningly beautiful, but I just can’t get my tongue around it – The Guardian

After years of trying to master the language of my Scottish forefathers, the unpronounceable vocabulary may have finally defeated me
In common with my two terriers, I never give up anything, however much my harp teacher, publishers (40 books and counting) or husband (way out of my league) might think I ought to. Doctor Who readers once got a petition up to stop me writing Doctor Who (I have not stopped writing Doctor Who). But everyone meets their Waterloo sooner or later, and this is mine.
Gaelic is the language of my forefathers, and my husband’s: his grandfather was born on Mull in 1849. It is the original language of the country I live in and deeply love. Not only that, but it is in itself beautiful: musical to listen to, descriptive and exquisite. The very colour spectrum is different. Liath means blue or grey, because it is the word for the colour of the sky or the sea. Likewise gorm is blue, but also the colour of the grass. And dearg is reddy brown, like the earth, but ruadh is the red of your hair.
It also has an elegant, simple grammar. There are no words for “yes” or “no” and all verbs are infinitives. Things simply are or are not. Tha – it is the case that. Chan eil – it is not.
There is no difference between “I” and “me” or “she” and “her”. Nouns don’t require “a” or “the” in front of them. There is no verb “to have” – something is either at you, or upon you. Which is actually rather lovely. Your job is on you – orm – rather than being you.
Its beauty aside, the learning of Gaelic is also incredibly important now. When I started my first abortive attempt at learning the language in the 1980s, about 80% of the inhabitants of the Western Isles spoke it. Now, about 40% do. The SNP has plastered Ambaileans and Poileas over every official vehicle, but this is papering over very severe cracks. All our own Peigis and Dohmnalls are leaving us in Scotland, and we need to work hard to replace them in the next generation.
Over 1.2 million people all over the world have, like me, downloaded the excellent Scots Gaelic Duolingo app. And I completed it! Can I now speak Gaelic? Can I bollagan. That wasn’t even my first attempt. I also took a year at university, which I passed only by virtue of learning off by heart all the English-language poems in the textbook then pretending to “translate” them.
It is not the will. It is not the grammar. It is the absolute, insane, unpronounceable vocabulary that turns me into a total dunce. When I was at school, the first thing you learned in French was how to order in a cafe. I feel it is unlikely that you summon a waiter by hollering “garçon!” these days (or get served if you do), but in Gaelic, that’s pretty much the last thing you’d get to, because the word for waiter is, wait for it, neach-frithealaidh. Or if you want the wine waiter, neach-frithealaidh-fion.
Other phrases that are generally handy to take with you when travelling are equally out of reach: gabh mo leisgeul (“excuse me”) is unlikely to trip off the tongue when you’re trying to squeeze past someone. Meala-naidheachd! is pretty hard to find when all you want to say is “congrats!”
Spider in French: araignée. In Italian: ragno. In German: spinne. In Gaelic: damhan-allaidh.
I have BBC nan Gàidheal, the excellent Gaelic radio station, on in the car all the time (the phone-ins are not useful, but the afternoon show is traditional music, often new work from great musicians like Julie Fowlis or Kris Drever, and is just brilliant whatever language you speak).
When I lived in France and had to learn the language so my children didn’t have to take me to the doctor, I found the radio so useful because it repeats news and weather every 15 minutes. But soleil for sun and vent for wind felt relatively easy to glom on to. Yet in Gaelic, while I can handle the mellifluous clachan-meallain (hailstones), ceothath, gaothach and reothadh (fog, wind and ice) remain indistinguishable to me. (There is, in fact, a word for sunny – a grianach – if, for whatever reason, you find yourself speaking Gaelic abroad). As for the news, I cannot get past “ … agus Nicola Sturgeon ann an Holyrood … ”
I wouldn’t mind, but my books are often set in (fictional) Scottish isles where people speak it casually, which means I am being made to feel even more of a fraud by my own characters.
There must be a way of simply becoming less stupid. I have an unopened book on my shelf that taunts me every time I look at it. Learn Gaelic in Six Weeks! it says. Six weeks! Come on. I can do it! Now all we need is another glasadh-sluaigh.
Jenny Colgan is a novelist, journalist and occasional radio pundit


Leave a Comment