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Alternative Name: Scots Gaelic.

Classification: Indo-European, Celtic, Insular Celtic, Q-Celtic, Goidelic.

According to one hypothesis, Celtic languages are divided into P-Celtic and Q-Celtic. P-Celtic links the Brythonic insular languages (Welsh, Cornish, Breton) with continental Gaulish. Q-Celtic links the Goidelic insular languages (Irish, Scottish Gaelic, Manx) with continental Hispano-Celtic. In P-languages the Proto-Celtic labiovelar * became p; in Q-languages it became k.

Overview. Scottish Gaelic is an offshoot of the Irish language, which was introduced into Scotland, about 500 CE, by migrants from Ireland. Loss of contact with the motherland and relations with neighboring languages promoted the development, by the 13th century, of a distinct Scottish dialect of Gaelic. By the 17th century, Scottish Gaelic had developed enough to be considered as a separate language from Irish. Compared to its Celtic relatives, it has undergone considerable morphological nominal and verbal simplification, as seen in the decline of its case system and the almost complete loss of verbal personal endings.

Distribution and Speakers. The language is spoken along the west coast of Scotland and in the Hebrides islands. The total number of speakers is about 65,000 of which close to 60,000 live in Scotland, representing 1.1 % of the general population. There is also a substantial minority of Scottish Gaelic speakers (6,500) in Nova Scotia, Canada.

Status: Endangered. Scottish Gaelic is losing 1% of its speakers every year. However, there is a resurgence of interest in the language arising, mainly, from Scottish devolution in 1999.

Varieties: Northern, Eastern, Southern, and Central dialects.

Oldest Documents. Manuscripts in a definitively Scottish form of Gaelic began to appear in the 16th century, including praise poetry to the chiefs of the Maclean family. The earliest extant poem in Scottish Gaelic is Caismeachd Ailean nan Sop (The war-song of Allan of the wisps) by Hector Maclean of Coll, composed c. 1537.


Vowels (18). Unstressed syllables have only short vowels while stressed syllables have both, short and long vowels. The vowel system in stress syllables includes 9 short and 9 long vowels. Front and central vowels are all unrounded.


Consonants (30). A remarkable phonetic evolution of Scottish Gaelic, not present in Irish, is the change of voiced stops into voiceless ones (devoicing) while the original voiceless stops became strongly aspirated. As a result, all the stops are voiceless and have two contrasting varieties: aspirated (historically voiceless) and unaspirated (historically voiced).

    Stops can be preaspirated or postaspirated. When the stops p, t, k are preceded by a short stressed vowel they are preaspirated, but they are postaspirated in initial position (pʰ, tʰ, kʰ). Devoicing and aspiration of the stops are not reflected in the spelling:

  1. bog is pronounced [pok]

  2. cat is pronounced [kʰaʰt]

    Besides, Scottish Gaelic consonants are divided in two sets: 'broad' and 'slender'. A subset of the broad are velarized and the remaining are neutral. The slender consonants are palatalized with the exception of the labial ones. Of the two palatal voiceless fricatives [ʃ] is, in fact, palato-alveolar. Scottish has two rhotics (r-like sounds), a flap and a trill.


  1. Note: superscript h indicates aspiration, superscript ɣ velarization, and superscript j palatalization.

    Scottish Gaelic shows, like all Celtic languages, initial consonant mutation by which the initial consonant of a word is altered according to its morphological and/or syntactic environment. The most frequent type is lenition in which some initial consonants of a word change into a fricative. Only nine consonants can be lenited: p, b, f, m, t, d, s, k, g. Another type of initial mutation is eclipsis or nasalization which affects seven of the above consonants.

Stress: falls usually on the first syllable.

Script and Orthography

Scottish Gaelic uses a reduced version of the Latin alphabet that has just eighteen letters (the same used by Irish):

  1. Long vowels are marked by an accent.

  2. Broad consonants are distinguished in writing by being preceded or followed by the vowels i or e.

  3. Slender consonants are preceded or followed by the vowels a, o, u.

  4. In consonant sequences, all of them agree in quality, being either all slender or all broad.

  5. Consonant digraphs to represent several fricatives: bh or mh for [v], ch for [x/ç], dh or gh for [ɣ/ʝ].

  6. The liquids [ʎ] and [r] are represented by the digraphs ll and rr, respectively.

Morphology. Nouns and attributive adjectives may be inflected for case, number and gender while pronouns do not distinguish case and gender.

  1. Nominal

  2. case: nominative, genitive, vocative (marginal), dative (marginal).

  3. The case system of Scottish Gaelic has almost collapsed because the vocative and dative are little used and, nowadays, there is a tendency to eliminate the genitives as well.

  1. gender: masculine, feminine.

  1. number: singular, plural. Some vestigial dual forms are still present.

  1. pronounspersonal, demonstrative, interrogative, relative.

  2. Personal pronouns may function as subject or object of the verb without changing their form. They are mì/mi (‘I’), tù/tu (‘you’), è/e (‘he’), ì/i (‘she’), sinn (‘we’), sibh (‘you’), iad (‘they’). They have emphatic varieties formed by adding the deictic suffixes sa, se, san. Besides these independent forms, personal pronouns are suffixed to prepositions giving rise to 'conjugated prepositions'.

  1. Scottish Gaelic has no possessive pronouns but possessive adjectives: mo (‘my’), do (‘your’), a (‘his/her’), ar (‘our’), ur (‘your’), an/am (‘their’). A possessive pronoun replaces a noun and is able to stand on its own while a possessive adjective has to be accompanied by a noun. For example, in English ‘mine’ is a possessive pronoun, and ‘my’ is a possessive adjective. In Scottish Gaelic the equivalent of ‘mine’ is rendered by a prepositional construction. For example, ‘that is mine’ is said:

  2. is leam-sa sin (literally ‘is with-me that’)

  1. Possessive adjectives are usually restricted to express inalienable or obligatory possession i.e. when a noun cannot exist independently of its possessor, like body parts or kinship terms (a hand is always somebody's hand, a father is always somebody's father). To express alienable possession a prepositional construction is preferred. For example, ‘that is my cat’ may be said:

  1.  an cat agam-sa (literally ‘the cat at-me’)

  1. Scottish Gaelic has three demonstrative pronouns: seo (proximal) sin or sean (intermediate) and siod (remote). Demonstrative adjectives corresponding to seo, sin, siod are formed in conjunction with the definite article.

  1. The language has two interrogative pronouns which are used for any person and number: cia/cò (‘who?, whom?, which?’) and (gu)dè (‘what?’). Cia is the literary form and the spoken one.

  1. There are two relative pronouns, a and (s)ann, which are not inflected for gender and number. The first is used as subject and direct object while the second is used as indirect object.

  1. articles: Scottish Gaelic has a definite article (an) which is inflected for case and number. It is always proclitic and causes initial consonant mutation in the noun.

  1. Verbal. Except for some irregular verbs, the Scottish Gaelic verb is basically analytic, person and number being indicated by the subject. The root is identical to the imperative 2nd singular.

  1. person and number:  are not marked on the verb.

  1. tense: present habitual-simple future, preterite, habitual past-secondary future are the three basic tenses.

  1. Present and future had fused. The present adds the suffix -aidh or -idh to the stem, and the habitual past is made by lenition of the present. The preterite is made by lenition of the stem. For example:


  1. Progressive and perfect tenses are formed by combination of the irregular verb bi (‘to be’) or other auxiliaries with a preposition and the verbal noun. For example, a progressive present  is made by combining tha (the present of bi) and the preposition a with the verbal noun:

  1. Tha mi a' bruidhinn.

  2. am    I  at  speaking

  3. I am speaking

  1. Examples of past progressive and perfect tenses are:

  1. bha mi a’ tighinn

  2. was  I  at  coming

  3. I was coming

  1. bha mi air tighinn

  2. was  I after coming

  3. I had arrived

  1. A conditional sense can be achieved by using the auxiliary verbs faodaidh (‘may/might’) and feumaidh (‘must’).

  1. aspect: progressive, prospective, perfective.

  1. mood: indicative, imperative, subjunctive (marginal).

  1. voice: active, passive. Scottish Gaelic has a number of impersonal passive suffixes that may be added to the stem to convey a passive past (-adh), a passive future (-ar), or a passive conditional (-te). Alternatively, the passive voice can be expressed by periphrasis.

  1. non-finite forms: verbal noun, past participle. The language has no infinitive. The verbal noun may appear as the subject or object of a verb. The past participle ends in te.


The standard order is Verb-Subject-Object-Adverb. The possessed precedes the possessor. In the noun phrase the order of its constituents is: article, numeral, noun, adjective.


Scottish Gaelic borrowed relatively little until recently. Minor early contributors were Welsh, Norse and English. Later, the latter's influence has become pervasive not only at the lexical level but also at the phonological and morphological ones.

Basic Vocabulary

The first numeral is a cardinal one used to qualify a noun; the second is a personal numeral (1 person, 2 people, etc).

one: aon, aonar

two: dà, dithis

three: tri, triùir

four: ceithir, ceathrar

five: còig, còig(n)ear

six: sia, sianar

seven: seachd, seachd(n)ar

eight: ochd, ochd(n)ar

nine: naoi, naoinear

ten: deich, deichnear

hundred: ceud

father: athair

mother: màthair

brother: bràthair

sister: piuthar

son: mac

daughter: nighean

head: ceann

eye: sùil

foot: cas

heart: cridhe

tongue: teanga

Key Literary Works (forthcoming)

  1. © 2013 Alejandro Gutman and Beatriz Avanzati                                                                               

Further Reading

  1. -'Scottish Gaelic'. W. Gillies. In The Celtic Languages, 230-304. M. J. Ball & N. Müller (eds). Routledge (2009).

  2. -Scottish Gaelic. W. Lamb. LINCOM (2003).

  3. -An Tuil: Anthology of 20th Century Scottish Gaelic Verse. R. Black (ed). Polygon (1999).

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Scottish Gaelic

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