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.
One Man’s Story of the Irish Language
A resident of Galway was wrongly convicted of murder in the late 1800s due to a lack of understanding of the English language used in the trial. The case highlighted the poverty and injustice in the far western part of Ireland and led to land reforms and associated laws.
Read the story on A Letter From Ireland.
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!
85 thoughts on “What’s the Difference Between Irish and Scottish Gaelic?”
I am guessing it is similar to how Icelandic, Danish, and Swedish all started at the same place but are only kind of sorta mutually intelligible now.
Hi, I’m a bit confused. If Gaeilge and Gádhlig came from the Celts then what did we speak in Ireland before the Celts arrived? Thanks
We can’t be sure but it is said that Pictish was spoken.
Pictish was only spoken in Scotland. In Ireland it was a Language of Neolithic peoples which will never be known to us how or what they spoke.
Oh my goodness there are so many more profound differences than just the accent direction and the spellings (both of which come from modernization/standardization). For example, there is no present tense in Scotch Gaelic except in the verb “to be”. All of the other verbs just have past, future, conditional. This makes the learning of verbs in Scotch Gaelic so much simpler. There is also a continuous action verb form in Irish Gaelic that does not exist in Scotch Gaelic. Several of the verb particles are also quite different.
The modernization of spelling in Irish Gaelic has led to a bit of a disconnect with Scotch Gaelic – words that are the same no longer look the same with the new spellings.
There are also common words that are not the same across the two languages – for example “I am tired” = “Tha mi sgith” in SG “Taim tuirseach” in IG – the word tuirseach exists in SG but it means sad or sorrowful. It also shows this meaning in the Dinneen’s Dictionary (classic IG dictionary), but the second meaning is tired or weary. The word “sgith” does not exist in Dinneen’s.
They are both great languages and learning both is so interesting!
What ar you on about?
No one says “Taim tuirseac” in Irish
– that’s incorrect.
“Tá tuirseach orm” is, however, correct.
A John, a chara
You can say ‘Táim tuirseach’
or ‘Tá tuirse orm’ – ‘Tiredness is on me’
Both are correct 🙂
When I was younger I learned ‘Gaelic’ through Pimsleur audio cassette tapes. I wanted to have the Irish Gaelic my grandmother had. Unfortunately I was studying Scottish Gaelic and not Irish. I didn’t know there was a difference in Gaelic at the time. Then I purchased audio tapes in ’Irish’ as spoken in the galtacht. I felt like the dialect was very foreign to me but I picked it up quickly through these tapes. Then I visited Ireland and Scotland. (I was in Donegal, and Arran Islands. And I was in the Isle of sky, Scotland). I can honestly say that What was spoken in Donegal and Sky sounded almost identical to me. The Irish spoken on Aran Islands, however— sounded foreign. The difference between the Irish spoken up in Ulster and the Irish spoken in the Aran Islands was radically different dialects… and it all terribly confused me. So I entered into a situation where I could hear and SORT of understand, but I really couldn’t speak. Not only did I not know which dialect to use but— it really distressed me. Within Ireland there are too many shifts in dialects of Gaelic. My perceived experience in Scotland was that Gaelic was just all one dialect. At least that’s how it felt to me. I would Love it if there was a distinct Gaelic for all of Ireland. It’s difficult for learners to know which sub dialect to learn when it is so scattered out there. I found the Scottish Gaelic on Duolingo to be very easy to learn. Their Irish version unfortunately isn’t very good. Does anyone know of a good app for learning ‘standard’ IRISH Gaelic?? I’d love to know.
Haigh, a chara
Deciding on a dialect to learn can be difficult, but that’s the beauty of Irish. There are many dialects in all languages. Bavarian German is different to that spoken in Saxony. There are over 160 dialects of English around the world. Picking one dialect in Irish and working on that is my best advice to you. If you have experience in learning Gàdhlig and you found Ulster Irish to be similar and perhaps easier to understand, then try that!
There are many resources online for all dialects. We have a YouTube video where we discuss the Ulster Dialect – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TS8gNOVxVYI&t=2912s
As for a standard Irish. We do not have a standard spoken Irish in Ireland but we do have a standard written dialect. Most books follow this standard. We also follow the written standard and we are currently working on a module on our new website ‘Aistear’ which focuses on dialects. You can try out our free taster course here.
Le gach dea-ghuí