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:
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.
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!