A reply to Mona

A “strange woman” (her words!) called Mona kindly emailed me in March with comments and corrections on my earlier posts, and in my usual dilatory way I’ve only just got around to emailing her in reply. She couldn’t post her comment originally as I’d not set the blog prefs to allow comments, but I’ve now posted her message as a comment to the post on useful phrases below. She brings up a number of interesting points, and I thought that my reply to her points might be of interest to anyone reading this blog so I’ve quoted it below, and would welcome debate on these points if anyone can be arsed to write in. Plus it took me over half an hour to write so I thought I might as well share that effort with the Whole Wide World🙂

Hi a Mhona

It was a good few months back, but you emailed me about my Gaelic blog at http://www.fredriley.org.uk/weblog/gaelic.html pointing out some depressingly obvious mistakes – your message is below. I’ve been meaning to get around to replying properly but just haven’t, well, got round to it – same as with my blog, which needs updating. Thanks for the detailed comeback, which was read and appreciated. I’ve now changed the blog settings so that comments are allowed and I’ve posted your comment to my post on stock phrases.

I’ll quibble with a few of your points below, but on your more general criticism of An Cursa Inntrigidh you sort of have a point. You wrote:

> I find it amazing that Cùrsa Inntrigidh does not explain these grammatical patterns well. I got the impression that you are a bit confused with the dative and genitive and vocative case (they are three different things!).

The trouble with the course is that it falls uncomfortably between two stools. It’s supposed to be a foundation course for a degree in Gaelic at SMO, hence its name, and thus needs to be quite academic. On the other hand, SMO also pushes it as a ‘beginners Gaelic’ course for anyone who wants to learn the language, and the majority of course punters, and thus the majority of the income from it for SMO (and I suspect it’s a decent income stream for them), are general learners like myself with no intention of doing a degree – for us ‘non-academic’ punters the course needs to be communicative and user-friendly.

(As it happens I’ve a moderately academic background, having worked in universities since 1992, albeit as an e-learning techie. During this time I worked in the languages field, and learnt Italian to a decent level, taking undergraduate courses in the language. I mention this to point out that I’m not unfamiliar with language learning pedagogy and methodology, although I’m still primarily a computer techie so a long, long way away from being any kind of linguist.)

So the course tries to satisfy both ‘traditional’ and communicative models of language learning, and IMO fails at both, though fails honourably. We did cover quite a bit of grammar in the workbooks, and our phone tutor kept banging grammar points into us, but even for a para-linguist like myself the grammar was off-putting, not to say damned hard, and it was important to keep emphasis on communication and colloquial speech so as to retain the other students. For all that, I’m quite a believer in the communicative approach, as the learner herself abstracts the linguistic rules from practicing the language – this is the essence of immersive courses which are often very successful (do you know of Finlay Macleod’s TIP courses?) in bringing complete beginners up to linguistic competency. I know from my own experience that rule memorisation often fails as, in normal speech, you just don’t get time to painstakingly put together speech by assembling rule-based fragments – language isn’t a Meccano set. Whilst I was taught rules in Italian, in the end I learnt them from continual exposure to the language, as did my sister who speaks it fluently (though pretty ungrammatically, sadly) despite never having been formally taught.

Having said that, grammar has to come into it at some point, particularly in an academic course, and Cursa Inntrigidh does try to instil grammar points into students. The genitive, dative and whatnot cases are repeatedly mentioned, but were never accurately defined, if I remember rightly. There was the occasional grammatical table with genitive and dative cases, but unless you actually know what the cases are for this is of little use. Only now, after some exposure to Gaelic, do I realise that the whole point of the genitive is to indicate ‘being of’ something, a lesson brought home to me more by OS maps than anything else. I’m still in the dark about what the dative is, and why it’s used. As for the vocative case, I wouldn’t know that if it bit me on mo thoin.

I’m sorry I screwed up on the definite articles – I really should have known better than to put language points into a blog when I’m a basic learner myself. From now on I’ll keep the blog more generalist and anecdotal, and only refer to language points when I’m 99% sure that I’ve got it right.

Ok, time for the minor quibbles:

> I would have written this as a comment to your blog, but unfortunately it was not accessible.
> “How do you say that in English?” should rather be: “Ciamar a chanas tu sin ‘sa Bheurla?” or: “Ciamar a chanar sin ‘sa Bheurla?”

That sounds more colloquial and fluid – “how would you say X” sounds better, even in English, than “how do you say X?”. Trouble is, our phone tutor got us to use the phrase “ciamar a tha thu ag radh X ann am Beurla?” from the start and it stuck. I suspect he did this because he wanted to keep it simple and didn’t want to introduce the conditional, which I think doesn’t appear at all in Cursa Inntrigidh – I think it was only covered in Earann 4, which was an add-on to the course (now renamed An Cursa Adhartais).

> The phrase about the weather should be: “‘S e deagh/droch shìde a th’ ann, nach e?”

Again, this clashes with our tutor, who repeatedly used “tha” rather than “s e” when talking about weather, I think on the grounds that “s e” tends to be more to do with a quality integral to an object rather than a passing property, though I’m happy to be contradicted on this.

> There are some mistakes in the post about the articles as well:
> an ubhal ann an craobh -> an t-ubhal… (ubhal is masculine)

Now I’m going to blame Runrig for me getting this wrong😉 – I was using the title of one of their albums, “An ubhal as airde” as a model.

> am bheinn anns an eilean -> a’ bheinn…
> an ubhal anns a’ chraobh -> an t-ubhal…

The definite article in Gaelic is one of the hardest I’ve ever come across, and I’ve studied Italian, French and Spanish, and know a little German. I thought Italian was awkward as it has six forms of “the”, but these are quite easy to remember if you figure that they’re there so’s to make the phrase sound better – for instance, “l’uomo” rather than “lo uomo” which is an awkward mouthful. The same as using “an” in English. However, I’m screwed if I can figure out a rationale for the different articles in Gaelic, and I’ve just resigned myself to memorising them as they occur – the permutations, as outlined in grammar books and dictionaries, are just too many to memorise and apply.

Mind you, my standard rule of Gaelic thumb – if in doubt, lenite – often seems to apply…

> Do you know this site: http://www.taic.btinternet.co.uk – It has some very good grammar overviews.

Yes, that is a very useful reference site, which I go to frequently. I’ll add it to the sidebar of this blog

> Cùm ort!🙂

Tha mi a’ feuchainn, ach ‘s e cànan doirbh a th’ann, ceart gu leòr😦

> Mona (an nighean neònach bho http://www.cailleachoidhche.blogspot.com)

Tapadh leatsa, a Mhona – cuiridh mi ceangal aig blog agad air a’ ‘sidebar’.



PS: As it’s taken me a good 30 mins to write this email, I thought I might post it to my blog in case it’s of interest to others.

Seachd: The Inaccessible Pinnacle, the Scottish Gaelic film – COMING SOON!

“Gaelic is set to make a cinematic comeback” The Times

Official site: http://www.seachd.com
Official blog: http://seachd.typepad.com

Gaelic podcast

I was doing a bit of browsing this afternoon, and came across a wonderful podcast in Gaelic called Gaelcast, which I’ll be adding to my Gaelic sites list with the following entry:

Gaelcast. A podcast in Gaelic. As the ‘casts’ are in MP3 format you can play them on your computer with MP3 software, or download them to play on a MP3 player or even an iPod. The casts are quite up-to-date and not too hard to understand for this beginner, and provide some nice native speaker listening.

I had a listen to the latest podcast on my PC and to my surprise I could even get the gist of it, which is more than I can say for programmes on Rèidio nan Gaidheal which just whistle past me. Well worth a bash, IMO. I picked the site up from a link from Tir nam Blòg , which is a nice (we)blog written entirely in Gaelic, with links to as many other Gaelic blogs as the author can find (hence the name).

lathaGaidhlig(‘26.02.06’); 26.02.06

Stock phrases for learners

When learning any language, and when trying to converse in that languages, stock phrases and words come in very handy. I certainly found this in Italian. For instance, if I hear an unfamiliar word/phrase in conversation, I can ask the speaker “Cosa vuol dire —-?” – what does —- mean? I don’t want to have to construct that question from scratch, as by the time I’ve done so the opportunity to use it may have passed on. Similarly, phrases like “it’s not important” (non è importante) and “it doesn’t matter” (non importa) are good ways of escaping from a conversation spiralling into misunderstanding. Even in our native language we use stock phrases daily, without thinking, to pad out conversation, buy time, make conversation – think of all the conversations we have about weather on autopilot.

So the table below lists some of what I think are useful stock phrases in Gaelic, to which I’ll add as I come across more. They’re not in any particular order. Apologies for any messy formatting – Blogger doesn’t always render HTML as I’d like.

Phrase/word Meaning
math dha-rìribh excellent, very good
‘s e do bheatha you’re welcome, don’t mention it (similar to de nada, di niente)
chan eil e gu diofar it doesn’t matter
chan eil fios agam I don’t know
chan eil cuimhne agam I don’t remember
can sin a-rithist say that again
cha do thuig mi I didn’t understand
chan eil mi a’ tuigsinn I don’t understand
ciamar a tha thu ag ràdh —- [ann am Beurla]? how do you say —- [in English]?
dè tha sin a’ ciallachadh? what does that mean?
gabh mo leisgeul excuse me
tha mi duilich I’m sorry (more usually just “duilich”, as in English “sorry”)
chan eil mi cinnteach I’m not sure
fuirich mionaid wait a minute
dà mhionaid just a minute, just a sec (lit: two minutes)
tha e deagh/droch shìde, nach eil? It’s good/bad weather, isn’t it?
dè thuirt thu? what did you say?
b’aill leat/leibh? pardon? (thu, sibh)
coma leat never mind

Last updated: 5/2/06


One thing (amongst many) that makes Gaelic simpler than some other European languages is that it has no indefinite article (“a”) for nouns, just the definite article (“the”), although sadly gender matters, so you have, for standalone nouns:

  • an t-eilean (m) (the island)
  • a’ bhliadhna (f) (the year)
  • am fraoch (m) (the heather)
  • an leabhar (m) (the book)
  • a’ chraobh (f) (the tree)

When you want to say “in a”, then it all goes swimmingly:

  • am bheinn ann an t-eilean
  • an dealbh ann an leabhar
  • an ubhal ann an craobh

It’s when you want to say “in the” that the trouble starts, because suddenly the noun modifies:

  • am bheinn anns an eilean
  • an là anns a’ bhliadhna
  • na dealbhan anns an leabhar
  • an ubhal anns a’ chraobh
  • am madadh-ruadh anns an fhraoich

Sometimes the change in the noun is quite drastic, as in “oifis a’ Phuist” (from “Am Post”) and “anns an fhraoich” above – not only have you to lenite, you have to shove an “i” in as well if you can. (I think this is the genitive case, but I wouldn’t swear to it, although it is similar to the word change when addressing a male, eg Seumas -> a Sheumais.) I came across this in unit 3/4 of An Cùrsa Inntrigidh, and even now, at unit 11, I still haven’t quite got the hang of it. I’m now learning that this applies to anything that implies “of the”, eg “bileag a’ bhotail” (bottle label).

There are grammatical rules, but there’s no way you can think fast enough to apply them in normal conversation, so you just have to internalise them through repetition or by keeping standard examples in mind. I quite like remembering countries:

  • anns a’ Bheilg
  • anns an Fhraing
  • anns an t-Suain
  • anns a’ Ghearmailt

I suppose the simple guideline is one that appears to work for much of Gaelic – if in doubt, lenite😉

More info on articles in the Wikipedia: Scots Gaelic entry. See also Lessons 3 and 6 at TAIC.

Tìoraidh an-dràsta SMO

Having spent the last week at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig on a level 3 summer course, I’m finally for the off to get some proper holiday in, walking in the hills (fog and rain permitting). I originally booked myself in for the level 4 course, but couldn’t do so because I couldn’t get my pussycat into the local cattery for then (sigh). So level 3 it was, which was partly new stuff that I’d not yet learned on An Cùrsa Inntrigidh, and partly revision. It was a little slow for my liking, but the tutor – the extravert and idiosyncratic Muriel Fisher, who lives and teaches Gaelic in Arizona (!) and has quite a thing for soft toys as teaching aids (!!) – was trying to make it fun, and of course keep a disparate group together. By next year, though, I’ll have gone through two more Earannan on ACI and will be taking a summer course at a far higher level (unless I’ve had it off on the lottery, in which case I’ll move up here and take the degree!).

This last week there’ve been courses in levels 1, 3, 5 and 7, and the mix of folk on them is quite amazing. There are a good few Scots, as you’d figure, but there were an awful lot of English accents, including mine, some Sasannaich living in Scotland, some in England, one from as far south as Bristol. There were a couple of Welsh folk, which isn’t unexpected given that Welsh is also a Celtic language, albeit on a different branch from Irish and Scots Gaelic, but surprisingly there were a few Yanks. In my group there was a young woman, Joanne, from Minneapolis, over here for two months to learn Gaelic as part of her PhD in Theatre Studies or somesuch. Even though she’d got State funding for this, I’m still impressed that she’d come all this way. She, though, is positively a tourist compared to Megan, another young woman who studied Gaelic for two years in Colorado (strange enough in itself), then sold up her house and moved to Skye to take the full degree course here, and aims to become a teacher of Gaelic in primary schools – now that’s what I call dedication to the Gaelic cause.

It would be an interesting research project for someone at SMO with time on their hands, to collate the reasons SMO students – full- or part-time, short course, distance course – students have for learning the lingo. Some will be obvious – Scots natives learning their ‘mother tongue’ [1], exiles rediscovering their ancestral roots, linguaphiles looking for a new challenge – but some, such as Joanne’s, will be completely unexpected.

Anyway, for all that the distance learning course is good, there’s absolutely nothing to beat face to face tuition of a language, particularly one as strange, to English native speakers, as Gaelic. It forces you to listen and speak in real time, and although stressful at first this builds up your confidence immensely. I certainly look forward to the next F2F session up here, which will be the distance course summer school in November.


[1] A linguist I know told me that the real mother tongue of the Scots was Pictish, but this was supplanted by Irish invaders who brought old Irish with them, which then mutated into Scots Gaelic. He says he has much fun ribbing the more nationalistic Scots about Gaelic being a colonial language😉. See the Wikipedia entry on Scots Gaelic for its history.

Things that are on you

One of the key features of Gaelic, and which I learnt early on, is that ‘prepositional pronouns’ play a huge part in the language. These include aig (at), ann (on), le (with), and ri (with) to mention but a few of the most widely-used. They’re essential in forming what could be called ‘faux verbs’, such as:

‘S e dotair a th’innte: she is a doctor (lit: there’s a doctor in her)
Tha nighean agam: I have a daughter (lit: there’s a daughter at me)
‘S toil leatha a bhith a’ cluiche ball-coise: She likes to play football (lit: there’s a wish with her to be playing football)

This can take quite a bit of getting your head around, if you’re an English speaker – it requires adopting a completely different mental map of the language. As English speakers, we’re used to using ‘active’ constructions, such as “I like that” and “He has a hamster”, and you literally have to think in a different way to internalise the more ‘passive’ and roundabout Gaelic ways of saying the same things.

What can help is to know which prepositional pronouns are used with which nouns. Our teacher in last week’s summer course kindly gave us a select list of things that are ‘on you’, which is worth remembering. These are some of the things, feelings, and concepts that use ‘air‘:

am pathadh (thirst): tha am pathad orm – tha mi ag iarraidh pinnt (I’m hungry – I want a pint)
an t-acras (hunger): A bheil thu an t-acras ort?
an t-eagal (fear): Tha an t-eagal orra. (She’s afraid.) [1]
an fhearg (anger): Nach bi an fhearg air? (Won’t he be angry?.)
an cnatan (a cold): Bha an cnatan orm. (I had a cold.)
am fuachd (the cold): Tha am fuachd oirre. (They’re cold.)
an naire (shame): Nach eil sibh fuachd oirbh? (Aren’t youse ashamed?)
an t-ainm (name): Dè an t-ainm a th’ort? (What’s your name?)
càil (thing, mood): Dè tha càil ceàrr air? (What’s wrong with him?) [2]
am falt (hair): Tha falt bàn oirre. (She has fair hair.)

Of course, there are plenty of other things, some of which are obvious, such as clothes (tha aodach ùr oirnn – we’re wearing new clothes), some not so (a bheil cabhag ort? – are you in a hurry?).


Prepositional pronouns. A simple table of common PPs and their ‘persons’, on a website created by high school students in the USA.


[1] Use ‘an t-eagal’ (the fear) to say that someone is afraid of something. The single word ‘eagal‘ is used for regret, “I’m afraid that…”, eg Tha eagal orm nach eil Ealasaid an seo (I’m afraid that Elizabeth isn’t here).
[2] Càil is another word for thing, which could also be ‘rud‘ (pl: rudan). The dictionary has càil as also referring to mood and disposition, but it can be used in non-moody contexts, eg “Bu toil leat càil eile?“.

Liking and agreeing

One of the many verbs that are standard in other European languages, but missing in the Gaelic, is “to like”. In the present and conditional tenses, Gaelic uses what I think is a lovely expression:
‘S toil le xxx yyy

where xxx is the person or thing doing the liking, and yyy the thing or person or verb being liked. So, for instance:

‘S toil leam biadh teth: I like hot food
‘S toil leotha snàmh: they like swimming
Cha toil leatha caorich: she doesn’t like sheep
Bu toil leam pinnt: I’d like a pint

And so on. I love the construction, which in English literally translates as:

“there’s a wish with xxx for yyy”

Since learning this, though, I’ve wondered how you say “I liked to swim”, or “I will like to learn Gaelic”. The verb “Is” (abbreviated as ‘S) only operates in the present (as far as I know, at this early stage in my learning). If you’ve a construction with ‘S that requires the past then the time indicator goes elsewhere, eg:

‘S e croitear a bh’ann: he was a crofter

But how on earth do you put “‘S toil leam snàmh” into the past or future? It turns out, as we were taught today*, that you don’t, and instead you use a proper verb to express liking in other tenses. The verb being “a’ cordadh ri” (root: cord), which according to my dictionary literally means “agreeing (with)”. Some examples:

Tha an lite a’ cordadh rium: I like porridge (porridge is agreeing with me).
Bithidh sin a’ cordadh rinn: We’ll like that
Bha snàmh a’ cordadh riutha: They used to like swimming
An do chord e riut?: Did you enjoy it?

Note that, without the “ri” the verb becomes “agreeing”, eg:

Tha sinn a’ cordadh: We agree.

* I’m at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig this week on a Level 3 summer course.