Bho Gàidhilg go Gaeilge: Having one helps the other, sort of

Bho Gàidhilg go Gaeilge: Having one helps the other, sort of

Jeff W. Justice
Department of Celtic and Scottish Studies
The University of Edinburgh

While the Celtic languages are my passion and current research priority, they are not the first that I learned. I took Castilian Spanish for several years during my secondary education, and I became fairly fluent in it. Then the Internet became generally accessible, and I found myself scouring Spanish-language news sources, but also occasionally reading items in Portuguese and finding that – with a modicum of help from a dictionary – that I could read it as well, despite having never had any formal coursework in it. I still pick up only bits here and there when I hear European or Brazilian Portuguese, but I have still have few problems reading it. (I became fluent in French later on, and that also helped, but that’s a story for another day.)  

Having prior experience learning any new language made easier for me the task of learning Gaelic when I accepted that challenge. Gaelic is not easy to acquire from English, as it is heavily idiomatic, its structures are significantly different, and even its cognates with English are not always immediately recognisable.  Until recently, distance learning courses in it were not always easy to access, especially for someone like me who lives afield from Scotland and Nova Scotia.  I do online conversation circles as I am able and as they are available. Thanks to the recent pandemic, they have become far more plentiful, and I’m using Gaelic more and more often on a daily basis.

When I took the decision to take this long-time linguistic hobby of mine in a professional direction and to do it with a Celtic emphasis, Irish was an obvious choice to learn. Since BBC Radio nan Gàidheal does not broadcast on a 24-hour cycle, I would often switch over to RTÉ’s Raidió na Gaeltachta to continue to get my ‘fix’ of Celtic speech and music. Surprisingly and not surprisingly, I found that I could understand more than just the odd word due to the similarities between the two. This was much like my experience with reading Portuguese after learning Castilian. Also surprisingly but not surprisingly, I found that I understood more than a few things when I read Irish, thanks to what Gaelic I did have.

I know that some regard Gaelic and Irish as dialects of the same language, and I also know that this is not a universally-held position and is highly debatable. I will say that, without hesitation, knowing any Gaelic is a huge help toward learning Irish than coming straight into Irish with no Celtic language experience at all. However, the two have indeed separated from one another over the past several centuries, and that has created a diversion in vocabulary, including some false friends between the two. For instance, tuirseach translates from Irish as ‘tired’, how one might answer after a long but satisfying day at work. However, add a grave accent over the U, and one gets the Gaelic word tùirseach, which means not ‘tired’ – that would be sgìth – but ‘sad’ or ‘depressed’. They have very similar pronunciations, as one might expect, but the connotation of each is different enough that they are not interchangeable.  Similarly, ad (pronounced ‘at’) is the Gaelic word for ‘hat’, and is a grammatically feminine noun. The Irish hata also means hat; while it comes from the same root, it is a masculine noun.

In short, if one already knows some Gaelic, Irish is not a difficult step, and I think it’s a step that anybody would say was a great one to take. That said, knowing Gaelic does not mean one can skip the basics and go straight into an intermediate or advanced Irish class with a reasonable expectation of doing well. Each has is own personality, its own history, and each is best learned and celebrated in that spirit as sibling languages who are not identical twins.



  1. Tapadh leibh, Jeff. To follow this broad intro, I would be interested to see how your understanding of both languages has fed your academic enquiry.
    We know, for instance, that #Gàidhlig as a vernacular tongue has old roots, which can be obscured by the written evidence of the elite 'filí' who used what in Scotland is termed Classical Gaelic, but would be quite readable to a student with good secondary-level #Gaeilge.


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