What’s the Difference Between Irish and Scottish Gaelic?

Difference Between Irish and Scottish Gaelic

A very common question that many people ask when they start thinking about learning a Celtic language is “What is the difference between Irish and Scottish Gaelic? If I learn one, will I be able to understand the other?”

In this article we’ll talk a little about the two languages (yes, they are different languages!), how they came to diverge, and what some of the different features are.

To watch a video we recorded on this, watch Irish vs Gaelic, and read below for more detail.

Is it a dialect or a language?

Formally, the dividing line between a dialect and a language is the point at which speakers can no longer understand one another. In reality, however, the division really isn’t always terribly clear.

The definition of “language” is often as political as it is linguistic! It’s sometimes said that a language is a dialect with an army and a navy!

The general opinion is that Irish and Scottish Gaelic have diverged sufficiently to be considered separate languages.

A comparison I often use is Spanish and Portuguese. Those two languages are very closely related and look very similar…to the point where Spanish speakers can usually read some Portuguese, and vice versa.

When spoken, however, they sound very different, and there are enough other differences, as well as political reasons, to consider them different languages. Such is also the case with Irish and Scottish Gaelic.

The question of names

A source of confusion for many is the English names of the two language. Aren’t they both “Gaelic”? If so, how can they be considered different languages?

They are both “Gaelic” in that they are both descended from the language of the Gaels: a Celtic people who relocated from the European mainland to Ireland (and later to Scotland and the Isle of Man).

But just as Latin eventually splintered into different languages after the fall of Rome, as Gaels from Ireland began to spread out into other areas in the 6th and 7th centuries, their languages began to diverge as well. (to learn more about one such group, the Dál Riata, check out this article at Wikipedia).

The preferred English term for the language spoken in Ireland is “Irish” (in Irish: An Ghaeilge). The terms “Gaelic” and “Irish Gaelic” are almost never heard (we use “Irish Gaelic” here to make it clear to people from outside of Ireland, who may not be as familiar with Irish, that we’re not talking about Hiberno-English or an Irish accent).

“Gaelic” (pronounced GAA-lik in Scotland, not GAY-lik) is what the language of Scotland is called in English (in Gaelic A’ Ghàidhlig).

If you’d like to learn more about the name controversy, check out our post on The Name of the Irish Language.

So, just how different are they?

Defining all the ways in which two languages differ is beyond the scope of a single article (though this entry from Wikipedia is a good start for the linguistically inclined!), but here are some of the more immediately noticeable differences:

Sound/Pronunciation

Though Irish and Scottish Gaelic still have many words in common, they sound very different. From the standpoint of someone who is learning Irish as a second language, Scottish Gaelic sounds a little like “doubletalk” — it’s got the cadence of Irish, and you think you should be able to understand some of it, but it eludes you.

I’m sure the reverse is true when learners of Scottish Gaelic hear Irish!

Some native speakers of Irish, particularly those from Donegal, can understand a great deal more of spoken Gaelic, as the proximity of parts of Donegal to Scotland has historically allowed for more frequent communication.

Generally speaking, though, most Irish speakers can’t understand much Scottish Gaelic, and vice versa. As the two languages have grown apart, each has kept some sounds, lost some sounds, and morphed some sounds, resulting in languages that sound very much alike but are, for the most part, mutually unintelligible.

Spelling/orthography

One of the first things you notice when looking at Scottish Gaelic (at least, if you’re an Irish speaker or learner) is that the accent marks slant the other way.

At one point, both Irish and Scottish Gaelic had both acute (right-slanting) and grave (left-slanting) accents. Now, however, the accent marks always slant to the right in Irish and to the left in Scottish Gaelic.

Each language also has letter combinations that are not possible in the other language.

Some of the more significant spelling differences resulted from the reform and simplification of Irish spelling, which began in the 1950s.  Among other things this eliminated a lot of “silent” consonant combinations in Irish that Scottish Gaelic has retained.

How to learn more

Watch our video Irish vs Gaelic, and then you’ll be able to set the record straight with your friends!

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44 thoughts on “What’s the Difference Between Irish and Scottish Gaelic?”

  1. As we’ve seen in the past, this is a contentious issue for some! But, I hope Audrey’s article here helps you better understand the variations.

  2. Thanks for sharing Audrey! This post came at a good time. I was in the car with my sister yesterday and we were listening to a Scottish Gaelic song. She asked me about the differences between Irish and Scottish Gaelic and whether I would be able to understand one after learning the other. Having just read this post, I was able to answer her question. 🙂

  3. I love it when things work out that way, Joanna! I just received a similar comment from a friend on Saturday’s Oíche Shamhna post.

  4. What is the best Scottish Gaelic course available? I understand that Rosetta Stone offers Irish. Is there a similiar learning tool for Scottish Gaelic?

    Thanks.

    Sandy

  5. I’m not sure, Sandy. As far as I know, Rosetta Stone doesn’t offer Scottish Gaelic (and I have reservations about Rosetta Stone in any case). I do know there is a “Teach Yourself” course for Scottish Gaelic (if you go to Amazon.com and look up “Teach Yourself Gaelic” it should come up). I used “Teach Yourself Irish” when I first started, and found it to be a good, basic introduction (I don’t know where you live, but if you’re in the States, another advantage to the “Teach Yourself” courses is they’re readily available here…you might be able to find it at Barnes & Noble, for example)

    I also recommend you ask this question on the Scottish Gaelic forum at ILF (www.irishlanguageforum.com). There are some pretty dedicated folks over there who should be able to steer you in the right direction.

    1. Irish is classed as indigenous language and official language of Ireland. Scotland does not have indigenous language but Irish language bought over by Irish. Scotland like all over England has a distinct dialect for example as shown in Robbie Burns poem.

      1. Scottish Gaelic is the historical indigenous language of the Scottish Highlands; it was brought over by the Irish tribes of the Dál Riata in around the 6c, over 1400 years ago, more than enough of a time span to consider it indigenous by anyone’s standards. Also Burns wrote in Scots which is a distinct language from English not a dialect. Whether they are recognised as official languages of the state is irrelevant, from a socio-cultural point of view English, Scots and Gaelic should all be considered indigenous to SCotland as a whole.

  6. Raghnaid NicGaraidh

    Hi! I’m a learner of Gàidhlig (Scottish Gaelic), as you probably figured from the way I spell my name. I find it difficult to read Irish, mostly because of the spelling differences, but I find I can more-or-less understand it – one of my friends speaks Irish and we can understand each other pretty well (of course, neither of us are native speakers). The most obvious difference to me is the hard ‘t’ which is used in Irish – such has “tá tú” as opposed to the Gàidhlig “tha thu” (haa hoo).

    from Raghnaid.

    PS, a good online course for learning Gàidhlig is the “Little by Little” course at BBC Alba – http://www.bbc.co.uk/alba/foghlam/beag_air_bheag/.

  7. I am looking for someone who could translate a small phrase for me. I think its Gaelic. ” undieu en Roy “. Could you possibly point me to someone who could help? Thanks

  8. Chris…that appears to be a form of French. It’s neither Irish nor Scottish Gaelic.

    Can I ask where you found it? If it’s purported to be some kind of family motto, the family was probably Norman (Burke, Lynch, etc.).

  9. The difference isn’t that big. I speak pretty good Swedish and would say there’s a good analogy between Danish and Swedish i.e. most of the words and grammar are the same, the pronunciation and accent is quite different.

    Swedes and Danes usually cannot immediately communicate in their languages and have to resort to English, but if they really want to and speak slowly and listen carefully most of them can get there. And most Swedes and Danes would not have to formally “learn” each others’ languages – a Swede living in Denmark would quickly start to pick up Danish by watching TV and listening, and vice versa.

    Danes and Swedes can also pretty much read each others’ languages without any prior exposure and that would also be true for speakers of Irish and Gaidhlig.

    There are dialects of Scots, especially in the rural North East around Aberdeen, which are easily as different from standard home counties English as Gaidhlig is from Irish.

    If you spoke London English and went somewhere like Buchan and listened to the local ‘Doric’ Scots you would understand some of it perfectly, some of it you would follow without understanding it all and some of it you would miss completely, but you should, in most cases, start to pick it up through exposure rather than having to have some kind of formal tuition.

    It’s the same kind of thing for a Gaidhlig speaker hearing Irish and presumably the other way round.

    + also both languages have significant regional variation. Donegal is close to Scotland, and there has been traffic between Northern Ireland and Scotland throughout history. They speak an Irish dialect which is almost half way. The Southern and Western Irish are the real Irish Gaelgeoir, and I bet a Donegal Irish speaker would have more problems with Munster Irish than some varieties of Scottish Gaelic.

    So it’s not a simple dividing line between Irish and Gaidhlig, more a continuum.

    Consider too that Irish speakers sometimes appear on Gaidhlig BBC Alba and the only subtitles I’ve ever seen have been into English!

    There are analogies which show you how close they are:

    Danish and Swedish/ Norwegian
    Spanish and Portuguese or Catalan
    Swiss or Swabian German and High German
    Scots (e.g. Doric) and Standard English.

    Or.. one final analogy…from what I have been told and keeps it Celtic.. the Welsh of the Valleys and the Welsh of North Wales?

      1. Manx Gaelic is also interesting. I don’t know if you’ve heard it. It sounds like a mix of Irish and Scottish Gaelic spoken with a Lancashire accent (probably because all the speakers have learned it as a second language)! It’s quite intelligible though.

        Written Manx is an interesting one, they’ve taken Gaelic pronunciations and given them English orthography.

  10. I am Irish and like the majority of Irish people my first language is English. Despite many years being taught Irish in school, I would not consider myself fluent in the language , although I can read and listen to it without too much difficulty. Similarly, I do not have much difficulty in comprehending Scots Gaedligh when I hear it on TV or radio. I know many native Irish speakers and they say that they have no difficulty at all in understanding and conversing with Scots Gaedligh speakers. I would suggest that the language is almost one and the same and that the comprehension difficulties are similar as those encountered when English is spoken by a Cockney and a Geordie.

  11. Brain Stephens

    I learnt Irish Gaelic at school in Dublin from the age of 4 to 18. Having lived almost all of my adult life in southern England, I discovered how rusty my Gaelic had become on a recent visit to the Gaeltacht region of Co. Kerry, where it is the primary language. I remember that as a native of Ireland’s most anglicized city, my childhood contemporaries and I resented being compelled to learn the Irish language. As Dubliners, we had an innate prejudice that our Swiftian English was culturally superior to anything Gaelic, which we largely regarded as a bumpkin language imposed on us self-styled metropolitan sophisticates. We were also hopelessly bad at it. I wonder if any study has ever been done on the relative ineptness (or otherwise) of Dubliners in learning the language as children compared with children from elsewhere in the Republic. My theory is that our flat Dublin accent made it unnatural for us to pronounce the ubiquitous diphthongs in Irish Gaelic, without corpsing into risible ‘culchie’ pastiche, whereas such diphthongs are intrinsic to the English language accents of Cork, Galway and most areas of Ireland outside Dublin. I should add that I feel very ashamed of my childhood dismissal of the language and, as a middle-aged exile, I feel more love for the Irish and Scottish Gaelic than I have had at any previous stage of my life!

    1. Hi Brain,

      Thank you for sharing your thoughts and experiences with us.

      If you have any questions regarding Irish Gaelic, our language expert will be glad to assist you.

      Le meas,
      Ana.

  12. Patrick Nugent

    I am still in the very introductory phases of learning the language. I have been fascinated by the discussion of similarities and differences between the two languages and have accepted the Bitesize account of their differences since I first read it.

    HOWEVER: there is a magnificent program on RTE (both radio and TV) called Struth na Maoile, hosted by Mairi Anna Nic Ualraig (the Artist Formerly Known As Maryanne Kennedy) and Seán Ó hÉanaigh–one Scot and one Irishman. They converse in their native tongues, it seems to me, and so far as I can tell, they converse WITH EACH OTHER in their respective native tongues.

    What is going on here? Is somebody doing instantaneous translation for them? Is it all a camera trick? Or are they really understanding one another and conversing?

    If one loves Irish and Scottish music, especially singing, it’s a magnificent program. I love the premise that “the two Gaeldoms” as Allan MacDonald happily put it, should be communicating more with one another.

  13. miceal breatnac

    My parents and extended family are all native Irish speakers from the South Connemara Gaeltacht. In my experience, all of the many Connemara native speakers,from their era (born 20s, 30s,40s) referred to their native language, when speaking English, as Gaelic. The insistence on calling it “the Irish language” was a nationalistic imposition that occurred during the Free State and the declaration of the Irish Republic during the 1920s and 30s. One of my late uncles spent time in the Highlands during WWII and reported that he readily undertstood and communicated with Gaelic speakers in Scotland and the Hebrides. However, all of my Connemara native speaker relations had difficulty understanding native speakers from Munster and especially Donegal. They had no interes in what they called “book Irish”, written or spoken.

  14. Barbara Murphy-Bridge

    “… as the proximity of parts of Donegal to Scotland has historically allowed for more frequent communication.”

    Can someone give me a few ‘ historical’ ties to support that comment ?

    My genealogy research seems to lead to my James Murphy, possibly born mid 1750’s on Arran Island, to a Donald MURPHY and Isabelle COOK

  15. Lawrence MacIsaac

    I am of Scottish highland origin on all sides of my family, and grew up hearing the Scottish Gailic spoken in our family. In 2005 I spent many months in Ireland and discovered that these beautiful Irish people were my family. While the two languages have evolved we are still one people.

  16. Scots is more “English” than the English language. It’s estimated that only 25% of the standard English language is descended from Anglo-Saxon, whereas Scots has a higher percentage of Anglo-Saxon vocabulary than that. Probably because the Normans had less of an influence on the language in the North.

    When Julius Caesar came to what is now England, he said that the natives were speaking a “crude” form of Latin. This was a proto-Celtic sort of language, and I admit that I could never envisage that as being correct – until I saw Proto-Celtic, that is. The Celts came from a region roughly between the Teutonic peoples to the north, and the Latin speaking peoples to the south. And that is borne out when youb see Proto-Celtic. Sometimes a given word seems to be similar to a Germanic word, at other times a word is similar to Latin. For example, PC bere/o is remarkably like the Germanic English to bear, yet kaikos (blind) is very similar to Latin caecus, or English cecity.

      1. Yes, it’s good that in Caesar we have an eye witness to shed light on things 50 BC or so.
        He also stated that there were two racial types in what is now England. A smaller, dark-haired type, and a tall light-haired type. The Romans described the Celts as a tall, light-haired, large-limbed people.
        The former were undoubtedly the people who had migrated up to these islands from Spain. The latter must have been the Celts, as the English and Vikings had not yet arrived. It would be half a millennium before the Saxon onslaught commenced.

  17. Helen Doherty

    Completely untrue that the Irish don’t consider their language to be Gaelic. My mum learned Gaelic in school in Donegal. Her teachers referred to it as that, as did her entire community.
    I feel like the version of Gaelic which is the most famous and has the most amount of speakers deserves to be known as ‘The Gaelic’. Thus ; I will only ever acknowledge Irish Gaelic (the original Gaelic) as being ‘The Gaelic’

  18. Pádraig Macgearailt

    I grew up in Co Cork my Mom was from Ballyvourney and spoke the Old Irish. I had no interest in school as it was compulsory. (Sorry now) I now live in Canada and I am taking a self learning course on the internet. “Duolingo”
    It’s coming back..
    Pádraig..

  19. I asked an old man on the Isle of Skye if he could converse in Gaelic with an Irish speaker. His reply was “yes, if we both go slow”.

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