5 Fun Facts About Scottish Gaelic

Dear Readers,

As part of my Celtic MLitt, I have the privilege to take Scottish Gaelic (just ‘Gaelic’ through the rest of the post).

And although it may hurt my brain (all the time), it’s also really amazing. Grammatically and phonetically (so, the way sentences are put together and the way it sounds), it’s so different from English, and that’s not even getting to the orthography (spelling).

It’s fascinating. And since I think so, I’m going to assume you will, too (is that pretentious?) and share 5 FUN FACTS about Gaelic.

And if you’re an Outlander fan that looks at the language and thinks “HOW?!?”, this may help a little bit.

But not much.

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1- V S O, not S V O.

The letters above are a short way to say verb-subject-object, not subject-verb-object. It denotes the prevailing word order for sentences (and yes, there are some languages that put the object first. I don’t like to think about them).

English puts the subject first. So, “I am Dani” is S V O.

Gaelic doesn’t. In Gaelic, it’s ‘Is mise Dani’, so V S O (is being the verb, and mise meaning ‘I’ or ‘me’).

This has some lovely consequences that I’m still struggling to wrap my head around.

2-There are two different verbs for ‘to be.’

In English, we have ‘to be’ and then we have variant forms, like ‘am’ and ‘are’ and then past tense like ‘was’ and ‘were’, but we keep the same verb when saying ‘he is lovely’ as when saying ‘he is a student.’

Gaelic doesn’t. It has TWO verbs…one for description and one for definition, and they affect the way the sentence is put together.

So, ‘he is lovely’ is ‘tha e breagha.’ Exactly like English but with the verb and subject switched.

However, ‘he is a student’ is ‘ ‘S e oileanach a th’ann’, where ‘‘S e’ is short for ‘Is e’. It’s literally ‘It is a student that is in him.’

And it changes up more when you add in definite articles or possessive pronouns (the, my, yours, etc.), but that actually makes  the sentence structure easier.

‘He is the student’ is just ‘ ‘S e esan an t-oileanach’, which is exactly like the English. It’s just the actual definite article that makes it complicated.

And like English, the verbs have variant forms to indicate things like past or future.

Anyway…

3- Prepositional Pronouns

I have a love-hate relationship with prepositional pronouns. Basically, it’s a preposition (like at, on, in, etc.) combined with a pronoun (me, you, etc.).

Gaelic for ‘in’ is ‘ann.’ Instead of saying ‘ann am mi’ or ‘ann an thu’ for in me and in you (which just sound weird), you combine them into one word.

Annam = at me.

Annad = at you (informal).

And there’s at him, at her, at us, at you (formal/plural), and at them.

Ann, innte, annainn, annaibh, annta.

There are lists of these, and although they’re awesome as a grammatical unit (hence the love), they’re such a pain to learn (that would be the hate). Remembering them long-term is also a bit tricky. It’s so easy to forget to practice the little buggers….

They are, however, necessary, because of things like….

4- The language lacks a verb for ‘to have.’

If you ever try to look it up, you’ll be disappointed. It doesn’t exist. You don’t have something in Gaelic; something is at you.

Prepositional pronouns: agam, agad, aige, aice, againn, agaibh, aca.

So, I have a cat. Or, in Gaelic, ‘Tha cat agam.’ A cat is at me.

Or, ‘Is an cat agam Milo.’ My cat is Milo. (‘an cat’ being ‘the cat’ but ‘an cat agam’ equating to ‘my cat’ because a definite article is needed there…).

It’s quite a fun structure but just like most new grammar, it’s also really, really annoying. I always forget that the subject is the thing I have, not me.

And last but not least….

5- There’s this weird thing where the letters RT next to each other add a sound.

So ‘ort’ sounds like ‘orsht’ and ‘tuirt’ sounds kinda like ‘torsht’ and basically I’m always just adding S’s in places they don’t belong.

But it’s also pretty cool.

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These things all come into play in one of the Speak Outlander Lessons that some of the Outlander cast put together before Season One.

Sentence: Tha gaol agam ort.

So, we have V S O and one of the forms of ‘to be’ (fun facts 1 and 2).

Fun fact 3 is ‘ort’, a prepositional pronoun that means ‘on you.’

Fun fact 4 is ‘tha gaol agam’, which is the ‘I have’ structure.

Fun fact 5 is also ‘ort’…pronounced ‘orsht’.

So, ‘Tha gaol agam ort’ = ‘Is love at me on you’ = ‘Is my love on you’ = ‘My love is upon you’ or as the lovely Adhamh says in the video, ‘The love I have is upon you.’

Poetry.

(Especially when Sam is saying it, am I right?)

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Isn’t Gaelic fun?

Your Bonnie Celtophile,

Dani

Fionn mac Cumhnaill and his Merry Men

Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Dearest Readers,

I’m back in Scotland, done with my first weekend of getting a lot of in-depth dance training, and ready to start my classes tomorrow. I’ll be opening the semester with a class on Fenian literature.

I learned a bit about it last semester as part of other classes, but it’ll be nice to get a thorough look. In honour of that, I thought I’d put together a little something to share about Fionn mac Cumhaill and friends.

Have you ever heard of Fionn mac Cumhnaill? His name is often anglicized to something along the lines of Finn MacCoul (or MacCool). If you haven’t heard of him, you might be wondering why I think you have.

Well, the first reason is the Giant’s Causeway in Ireland is tied to him, and the Causeway is a well-known site.

The other reason is that he has survived in the popular imagination in modern culture. Don’t believe me? There are plenty of places in Ireland and Scotland named for him, and how about Finn McCool’s Irish Pub in Santa Monica and Finn McCool’s Fish House & Tavern in Virginia Beach?

Yeah, he’s running around our cultural imagination somewhere, even if he hasn’t hit you until now.

So who exactly is he?

That’s…complicated. It depends.

See, stories of Fionn mac Cumhnaill have been around a long time. Like, a millennium.

And in that time, given the adaptive nature of stories passed orally which have a whisper-down-the-alley effect, there are different versions of stories from the same places and versions from different places.

He has completed the same feat across Ireland and Scotland, depending which version you’re looking at. Why? Storytellers like to adapt tales to their landscape.

Luckily, there are some basic things we know about him. His name means ‘fair-haired’ or ‘blond’. He leads a band of young warriors called Fianna that roam the countryside, get into trouble, and protect people from various dangers. Think Robin Hood without the tights.

As a boy, he was the first to eat from the salmon of knowledge (sometimes the trout of knowledge) when he burned his thumb on it and put it in his mouth. From then on, he could access its knowledge by biting his thumb.

He’s also a giant in many accounts. And in some, he’s not truly dead, only sleeping surrounded by his men and waiting to be wakened by three sounds of the hunting horn of the Fianna. At that point, he will rise.

Fionn’s son, Oisin – you might recognize the term Ossianic, which comes from his name – narrates many of the tales. In Irish tradition, there are tales of him meeting St. Patrick, sharing feats of Fionn and the Fianna, and also debating between Christianity and paganism.

Oisin also has a son, Oscar, and there are tales about him and other members of the Fianna that are part of the Fenian Cycle of medieval Irish literature and considered part of Fenian literature today.

As you can see, Fionn mac Cumhnaill is a man with a long history and a lot of literary baggage, and that all means there’s definitely enough to spend at least a semester learning about him.

Your Bonnie Celtophile,

Dani

What is Gaelic Folklore?

Image of a waulking taken from Wikimedia Commons.
Image of a waulking taken from Wikimedia Commons.

Dearest Reader,

Now that I am at home with more time on my hands, I thought it time to put some blog posts together on ideas and cool things that I’ve been learning about. It’ll be a good way for me to review much of what I’ve been learning while sharing some interesting things.

First on the list: Gaelic folklore!

This is on my mind a lot since I still have to finish an essay for that class, and I know a lot of people who read this are Outlander fans and there are Gaelic folklore aspects of the series.

So what it is?

The first thing that needs to be addressed is actually another question: what is folklore?

When Googling “define folklore,” two things come up:

the traditional beliefs, customs, and stories of a community, passed through the generations by word of mouth

And

a body of popular myth and beliefs relating to a particular place, activity, or group of people.

Let’s unpack this a bit, because the definition sounds straightforward, but it gets pretty wobbly when looked at closely.

First: what exactly does it mean for something to be traditional? Does it have to be a certain age or pass through a certain number of generations? A search for a definition ties it to traditions, and tradition is defined as “the transmission of customs or beliefs from generation to generation, or the fact of being passed on in this way.”

That definition sounds pretty similar to the one for folklore itself, minus the stories and word of mouth. So are all traditions folklore but not all folklore is a tradition, since folklore can be orally transmitted stories that don’t follow under the “customs or beliefs” that counts as tradition?

And yet, because talk about the tradition of folklore, as if it is in itself a tradition because customs can revolve around those stories.

And are things like Bloody Mary and local ghost legends folklore passed on in our modern culture, or just scary stories?

It’s difficult to tell (although I’d say yes to those examples).

Another question: Is folklore fixed?

We often get folklore written down or performed and told by people drawing from written sources, at least in a culture so literate as ours (that changes when cultures become less literate and have different ideas about the written and spoken word than America/Europe).

That makes it easy to forget the folklore isn’t fixed. It’s constantly changing and being added to so it fits the times and the storyteller. Major plot points of stories don’t change, and poetry is much more likely to stay the same, but things are added or removed or forgotten. There are multiple versions of much of what exists in the world of Gaelic folklore, and other traditions are similar, although it really matters about the collectors and what people wanted to record or write down, because some groups were targeted for collection more than others.

That brings us to the next point, though: how do you define the group of people the folklore belongs to?

In some cases this is easy. Local legends belong to local communities, after all, and some folklore is situated in certain tribes or cults. However, it gets complicated when things proliferate themselves into many groups. If it can’t be changed, who does it belong to, and what are the limits determining groups? Race, class, religion, ethnicity, education level? Can there be a wealthy group folklore and a poor group folklore in the same place at the same time? Should all work by a race or nationality be grouped together, or could there be other things placing them in different groups altogether?

And how does language play a part?

And the answers to these questions vary culture to culture, community to community, group to group, and even storyteller to storyteller. They have to be considered all the time when looking at any piece of folklore.

Luckily, it’s a bit easier to figure out what Gaelic folklore is. It’s defined mostly by the language: Gaelic folklore is in Gaelic, either Irish or Scottish, and exists alongside folklore in English and Scots and any other language that makes its way into communities, such as Norse many centuries ago.

But the groups can get smaller from there: women, men, children, bardic, leading clan members, soldiers, etc, etc. One of the things that must be done is try to figure out what voice might be speaking through the song or story or poem.

Because that’s another thing: when speaking about Gaelic folklore, although there are customs and beliefs involved, a lot of it is working with literature that fits within those customs and beliefs.

Storytellers that were collected from for Gaelic folklore were mostly men, although there were still plenty of women, and collectors ranged from reverends and ministers to lairds and academics since it started.

And even with a simple language element to Gaelic folklore, it’s still easier, as it is for folklore in general, to look at what it does to help parse it out, not what it is.

Folklore is used for entertainment, cultural validation, education, and establishing/maintaining accepted patterns of behavior, ideas put forth by William R. Bascom.

So what is Gaelic folklore, besides folklore in Gaelic?

The class I’ve been taking has focused on Scottish Gaelic, but the Scottish Gaelic tradition overlaps with the Irish Gaelic tradition in a majority of places, and where it doesn’t, the basic ideas are still the same.

There are many things included in Gaelic folklore, including (but not limited to):

  • Hero tales (like Fenian)
  • Fairy stories
  • Children’s songs
  • Working songs (like waulking songs or rowing songs)
  • Prayers
  • Praise poetry (panegyric)
  • Satire
  • Other poetry
  • Clan sagas
  • Historical legends
  • Omens
  • Divinations

As you can see, it’s a long list, but that just means there are a lot of interesting things to look at, which is how some people can dedicate their lives to this.

Unfortunately, there’s a lot of Gaelic folklore that isn’t accessible to most people because it’s in Gaelic and hasn’t been translated, but there is also a lot that has been translated, so it’s still something people can get into.

Some books (certainly not an exhaustive list, just what I can think of that we’ve used this semester):

  • The Gaelic Otherworld by John Gregorson Campbell
  • Hebridean Folksongs
  • Scottish Traditional Tales by Alan Bruford
  • Scottish customs: from the cradle to the grave

Any questions? Post them in the comments or shoot me an email and I’ll see if I can answer! That way I know I’m posting about things you want to know about and not just spouting what I think is interesting.

Your Bonnie Celtophile,

Dani