Our blog serves as regular motivation for you to speak the Irish language. Find posts about culture, videos where you find how to say certain phrases, and member interviews to tell you about their experience of learning the language.

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.

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!

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

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

  1. Please help
    My grandfather said a phrase to me on his death bed and i would love to know how to write/spell it correctly.
    For context he was Northern Irish from Belfast and Protestant (if this makes a difference)
    He told me he would love me “forever and a day”.
    Can someone please help me with the correct Irish Gaelic spelling for this.

  2. BBC Alba sometimes shows programmes which are in Irish so I should think that the directors believe that their scottish viewers can understand the language in these items.

  3. I really appreciate your site and videos. I’m trying to learn both Irish and Gaelic through Duolingo, and have definitely noticed a difference between the two. One note: The fellow (Andy) who posted about “Scots” being mostly English was confusing the English dialect known as “Scots” with Scottish Gaelic. Definitely not the same language. Again, I appreciate ya’ll. Please keep up the great work.

    1. Right, they’re not the same language.

      Well done on learning both Gaeilge and Gàidhlig. If you have deal with the close similarity and yet learn both independently, it will stand to you! Eoin

  4. in the main blog there are some debateable points

    An Gaelige is what most people I know call Irish

    Perhaps the writer of the blog does not speak Irish?

    1. Depends what language you’re speaking.

      You’d refer to the language typically as “An Ghaeilge” if you’re speaking Irish with someone. There are also regional differences.

      Or “Irish” if you’re speaking with someone in Hiberno English.


  5. Just wondering how “Gaelic” Elvish (or Quenya) is?! Or, should I call it “Tolkien-ish”?! Would Irish- or Scots-speakers be able to understand Elvish or

    1. Dia dhuit!
      As far as I understand, Tolkien’s constructed Elvish language was influenced by Finnish and Welsh (another Celtic language although not in the same branch as Irish and Scots Gaelic) I recall reading that Tolkien tried to learn Irish once but dismissed it quite quickly!
      That being said, I am not sure if Welsh speakers would be able to decipher much from his languages, the words can merely sound Welsh.

      Le beannacht

    2. At fact there are two ‘Elvishes’ by Tolkien, the one, Quenya, was influenced by Finnish(and has the style of Latin too, I don’t know why but both Tolkien himself and I think so), and the other, Sindarin, by Welsh–it might be the language you’re talking about.

  6. Seán O'Cheallaigh

    It’s nonsense.that Scots Gaelic and Irish are two different languages like Portuguese and Spanish.are.
    Irish gaeilge and Scots gaeilig are the same language. Gaeilig speakers from. the.Donegal Gaeltacht understand gaeilig speakers from the Western Isles perfectly well and vice .versa. Whereas people from.the Kerry Gaeltacht have difficulty understanding people from the Donegal Gaeltacht initially.
    From the top of Scotland to th .bottom tip of Ireland different dialects of the same.language exist, and the further apart the more.different they sound
    Unfortunately Irish, Scots and Manx have three different written forms. In the German speaking world there is one standard written form for all the dialects in all the countries where German is spoken.

    1. Alasdair Urchardan

      Are you familiar with the idea of a dialect continuum? While Donegal Irish speakers and Gàidhlig speakers from Na h-Eileanan Siar may have some mutual intelligibility, there is very little between speakers of Munster Irish and NE Inverness-shire Gàidhlig (the dialect I’m learning), especially considering all the Pictish vocabulary that doesn’t exist in Irish. There’s a similar situation between Swedish and Norwegian near the border, yet those are considered distinct languages.

      1. Tristan Watterott

        i’d say that the area that irish speakers in donegal can talk to the best is islay and that area, the outer hebrides are definitely the farthest

  7. I learned Irish in school. On Skye many years ago had little difficulty talking to people once they agreed to slow down – bit like talking English in Glasgow.
    The three dialects of Irish have become (almost) mutually intelligible since the standardization of the 1950s and 1960s, when Gaeilge Caighdeanach was introduced in schools and through radio and TV – differences in spellings, orthography., were eliminated and the Munster and Connacht dialects have moved closer.
    Donegal (Ulster) Irish is the most distinctive still, especially in pronunciation, and closer to Scots Gealic to my inexpert ears.
    Why don’t the Scots play camanaoicht (hurling) instead of camanachd (shinty)?

    1. Hi Colm,
      Great to hear your experience – I’ve never tried to actually speak to someone who speaks Scots Gaelic but I’ve found similarities and can get the jist of a conversation if I listen really well when I’ve heard it on the radio or TV!
      You’re certainly right, Donegal Irish is the most similar to Scots Gaelic – I would say this is because the Irish in the North of Ireland was more heavily influenced by Scottish settlers than the rest of Ireland because of its proximity geographically to Scotland. I don’t have a source for this, but that’s my understanding! What do you think?

      I had actually never watched a game of camanachd until I looked it up just now – so similar to iománaíocht! I wonder which came first!?

      – Gabrielle

    2. Duolingo (an app on google play) has free courses for all levels for both Irish and Scottish.

      I haven’t tried either (I’m learning Norwegian on it), but they should be pretty good.

      1. I’m actually studying Scottish on Duolingo now, about three months. I tried the Irish course placement test once a few weeks ago and and was amazed at how different the two were, but I could get the gist the Irish still. Beautiful languages.

      2. Hello!
        I spent a year and a half doing Irish on Duolingo and recently added in the Scots Gaelic a few weeks ago. Understanding the structure of Irish really helped when I started the Gaelic and many words so far are the same or similar…..what trips me up is I often want to pronounce the word the Irish way when I see an identical word in Scots Gaelic but the pronunciations are different. Some phrases are way different….such as “thank you”, and I often find d myself slipping into the Irish way of spelling things. I have a friend from Ireland who just did Irish years ago in schoolNd within a few weeks I k ew more Irish than she did!

        I will also say the biggest shortcoming of the Duolingo Irish is that they don’t have nearly as many word pronunciations to listen to…..so I can read it and spell it but often don’t hear as much as I would like. The Scots Gaelic program, on the other hand, vocalizes everything which is super helpful!

        1. Anni, a chara
          Having one Celtic language can definitely help when learning another but many things can be very different also.
          In our courses we have many voice recordings of the pronunciations of the words, if you’re interested you can see more on our memberships page or try out our free taster course!
          Le gach deagh dhùrachd / Le gach dea-ghuí 🙂

  8. With regard to the Scots /Irish Gaelic a few years back I was working in the Mull of Kintyre there was an advert in the paper asking for Irish speakers to help Teaching Gaelic in the local Schools as there was a severe shortage of Scottish ones. My own Father was from Donegal and he could understand the Scots Gaelic if both parties spoke slowly, keeping in mind that Ireland is only 12 miles from Scotland and a lot of the Big Clans had Scots and Irish blood.

    1. Micheal, tá sin an-suimiúil ar fad! That’s very interesting! How long ago was it that you saw that advert?
      There are definitely similarities, and you’re right, the proximity of Ireland to Scotland must be the cause.

      – Gabrielle

  9. 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”.

    1. I agree with your ‘old man’ most nouns ad verbs are identical and everything else similar
      I have conversed with Scottish Gaelic speakers on the West Coast and Islands
      Its like a Northern German speaker conversing with someone from Bavaria
      Before TG4 (Irish language television) many Irish regional accents were mutually incomprehensible – but thanks to the different childrens programs on TG4 no Irish speaker finds (for instance) the Connamara accent incomprehensible any more if it goes slowly
      Were Scottish Gaelic to be heard on Irish TV most people would gradually ‘get it’
      I am currently reading Alec Salmond’s autobiography in Scottish Gaelic to sharpen my understanding

  10. 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..

  11. 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’

  12. 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.

  13. 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.

  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

    1. Elizabeth Tumblin

      Those same people are my ancestors. Trying to find out more about the Isle of Arron connections. Would love to connect with you.

    2. Back in the days when boats were the fastest form of travel, it’s hardly surprising that the people of the (coastal) North of Ireland and the Western coast/islands of Scotland were intimately interconnected by trade, culture, language and family ties. Subsequent political and economic changes have blurred many of these connections, but they are far from obliterated. The people who first came from Ireland to what was then the kingdom of the Picts were at that time known as the Scots. They are no longer culturally dominant in the country which is named after them, but many of their descendants are certainly still there.

      1. BTW, if you want to learn Scottish Gaelic, there is an excellent website called Learngaelic, as well as many hours of Gaelic TV available to watch on the BBC website at BBC Alba. You can actually watch the same programmes in English and then in Gaelic for some shows – a few months of Gaelic TV will get you ears tuned in!! 😊

  15. 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.

  16. 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.

    1. Do a search for “TTMIK bilingual” on the youtubes. I think it takes the whole thing to another level! The goal is to talk to listen in your native language but talk to the other in your non-native language. That would be my second from the top goal of mastering a language.

  17. 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,

  18. 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.

      1. I am an elderly gentleman whose father was a Scottish Gael and mother an Irish Gael. They met through hearing each other speaking. My brother and I were brought up speaking English because Gaelic was frowned upon. We did however have the ability to speak Gaelic under the caveat of níor labhair an teanga beag as an teaghlach

  19. 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.

  20. 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.).

  21. 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

    1. I agree – as a local historian here in Lecale County Down, I know we were part of the Kingdom of the Isles and earlier Gaelic Scotland was ruled from Downpatrick

      Pre-Norman and especially pre-viking times the Gaelic world was really one cultural area end to end with law, music, language and education shared

  22. 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/.

  23. 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.

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



  25. 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.

  26. 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. 🙂

  27. 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.