The Gaelic language is incredibly beautiful, but I can’t find my way around it | Jenny Colgan
In common with my two terriers, I never give up anything, even if my harp teacher, publishers (40+ books) or my husband (very out of my league) might think I should. Doctor Who readers once received a petition to stop me writing Doctor Who (I haven’t stopped writing Doctor Who). But everyone meets their own Waterloo sooner or later, and it’s mine.
Gaelic is the language of my ancestors, and that of my husband: his grandfather was born in Mull in 1849. It is the original language of the country in which I live and which I deeply love. Not only that, but it’s beautiful in itself: musical to listen to, descriptive and exquisite. The color spectrum itself is different. Liath means blue or grey, as it is the word for the color of the sky or the sea. Likewise gorm is blue, but also the color of grass. And dear is red-brown, like the earth, but ruadh is the red of your hair.
It also has an elegant and simple grammar. There are no words for “yes” or “no” and all verbs are infinitives. Things just are or aren’t. Tha – this is the case. Chan eil – it’s not.
There is no difference between “I” and “me” or “she” and “she”. Nouns do not need “a” or “the” in front of them. There is no verb “to have” – something is either yours or on you. Which is actually quite lovely. Your work is on you – elm – rather than being you.
Aside from its beauty, learning Gaelic is also incredibly important now. When I started my first abortive attempt at learning the language in the 1980s, about 80% of people in the Western Isles spoke it. Now about 40% do. SNP plastered Ambailians and Poileas on every official vehicle, but it hides very serious cracks. All of our own Peigis and Dohmnalls are leaving us in Scotland, and we must work hard to replace them in the next generation.
More than 1.2 million people around the world have, like me, downloaded the excellent Scottish Gaelic Duolingo application. And I completed it! Can I now speak Gaelic? May I bolagan. It wasn’t even my first attempt. I also took a year at university, which I only managed by memorizing all the English poems in the textbook and then pretending to “translate” them.
It is not the will. It’s not grammar. It’s the absolute, senseless, unpronounceable vocabulary that makes me a total dunce. When I was at school, the first thing you learned in French was how to order in a café. I think you’re unlikely to summon a waiter by shouting “boy!” these days (or get served if you do), but in Gaelic that’s pretty much the last thing you’d get to, because the word for waiter is, wait for him, neach-frithalaidh. Or if you want the sommelier, neach-frithealaidh-fion.
Other phrases that are usually handy to take on a trip are also out of reach: Gabh mo leisgeul (“Excuse me”) is unlikely to stumble when trying to walk past someone. Meala-naidheachd! is pretty hard to come by when all you want to say is “congratulations!”
Spider in French: spider. In Italian: ragno. In German: turn. In Gaelic: damhan-allaidh.
I have BBC nan Gàidhealthe excellent Gaelic radio station, always on in the car (phone calls aren’t helpful, but the afternoon show is traditional music, often new works by great musicians like Julie Fowlis or Kris Drever, and is just awesome whatever language you speak).
When I lived in France and needed to learn the language so my kids didn’t have to take me to the doctor, I found the radio very useful as it repeated the news and the weather every 15 minutes. But Sun for the sun and vent for the wind felt relatively easy to glom. Yet in Gaelic, while I can handle the melodious Clachan-plain flour (hailstones), ceothath, gaothach and reothadh (fog, wind and ice) remain indistinguishable to me. (There is, in fact, a word for sunny – a grianache – if for some reason you find yourself speaking Gaelic abroad). As for news, I can’t get past “…agus Nicola Sturgeon ann an Holyrood…”
I wouldn’t mind, but my books are often set in (fictional) Scottish islands where people speak it casually, which means I feel like an impostor even more by my own characters.
There must be a way to just become less stupid. I have an unopened book on my shelf that taunts me every time I look at it. Learn Gaelic in six weeks! it says. Six weeks! Go on. I can do it! Now all we need is another glasadh-sluaigh.