Save an Endangered Language: Learn Scottish Gaelic (Gàidhlig)

Dec 3, 2015 10:25:04 AM / by Britta Wilhelmsen


In our first endangered language series post, we showcased the rich history and unique syllabary of the Cherokee language. This week, we continue our exploration of endangered languages by taking a (not so) quick trip across the Atlantic Ocean. We’re headed to a country well known for its abundance of sheep, bagpipes, and a rather smoky brand of whiskey - not to mention an ancient, indigenous language that is nearly extinct today. Without further ado, fàilte gu Alba! (Welcome to Scotland!)

Fast Facts on Gaelic

  • Scottish Gaelic, more commonly known as simply Gaelic, was brought to the southwestern region of Scotland in the 4th and 5th centuries by Irish settlers.  The area is now called Argyll, but back then it was a flourishing Scottish kingdom by the name of Dál Riata.  It didn’t take long for the language to spread - by the 10th century, Gaelic was the dominant language throughout the majority of the country.  
  • Most scholars acknowledge (or more accurately, blame) the reign of King Malcolm III for triggering the eventual decline of Scottish Gaelic. Why? Well, he got married!  More specifically, he married an exiled English woman by the name of Princess Margaret of Wessex. She introduced Scotland to a more Anglo-Saxon way of life, bringing along its customs, names, and languages with her. Soon, Gaelic was replaced by the more preferred “Inglis,” the language of the merchant class.  
  • Around the 14th century, the language of Inglis became the official language of modern literature, government, and law in Scotland.  Ever heard of the book The Wallace by Blind Harry? This was one of the most patriotic pieces of literature to arise from this era in Scotland’s history, but was written in Inglis rather than Gaelic.  Medieval Scots thought they had some hope with King James IV, who believed Gaelic was important to both read and learn. Unfortunately, future monarchs disagreed and it was soon considered more of a “rural” language than anything else.  

Scottish Gaelic vs. Irish

If you’re like me, you wondered about this too. I visited both Scotland and Ireland for the first time this past summer, taking in the lush greenery and attempting to learn a few non-English words from each country. Although it all sounded very similar to my untrained ear, the main difference between Scottish Gaelic and Irish is in the pronunciation of certain words. For example, the Irish verb becomes tha in Scottish Gaelic, as many Gaelic words have added consonants at the beginning.  In Irish, the sentence “an fear atá ina sheasamh ag an doras”  (“the man that’s standing at the door”) becomes “an fear a thá ina sheasamh ag an ndoraswhen translated to Scottish Gaelic. Another major difference is found in the slants of the accent marks: Gaelic uses marks that slant to the left, while Irish uses marks that slant to the right.

Gaelic in Modern Times

After all that talk about ancient history, what is the status of Scottish Gaelic today, and why should we save it from extinction? Currently, only about 1.7% of the population of Scotland reports having some knowledge of the language, even though Gaelic translations are still present on many street signs and billboards. Since Gaelic was the language of the Highlanders (a particular clan present during medieval Scotland), it carries a rich tradition of tribal laws and customs that were inherent to these groups. Recent developments have been made to promote Gaelic in literature, particularly in prose fiction publication, but it still suffers from a severe decline among speakers. The map below illustrates the current distribution of Gaelic speakers in Scotland, based on percentage of the population:


Learn Scottish Gaelic with Mango!

We celebrate all languages here at Mango Languages, but we are particularly excited about our endangered language courses. That’s right - if you feel ready to tackle a bit of Gaelic yourself, you can now do so by visiting our endangered languages page and setting up an account to start learning.  Why stop there?  We also offer several other endangered language courses, each of which we will be featuring in a different blog post.  After all, Chan eil aon chànan gu leòr!” (“One language is never enough!” - Gaelic).


Learn Scottish Gaelic Free



Be sure to tune in next time, as we head to Siberia for a spotlight on the Turkic language of Tuvan!

Topics: Language Learning and Culture, Mango News

Britta Wilhelmsen

Written by Britta Wilhelmsen

Britta is a University of Michigan graduate, currently living and working in the vibrant city of Buenos Aires, Argentina. When she's not busy teaching English to business professionals or writing for Mango, you can find her enjoying the sun in one of Buenos Aires' beautiful parks and/or studying Spanish in her free time. Like many mangos, she believes that language consistently makes life more colorful.

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