The Formation of the Gaelic Language
By JAMES ACKEN
I have been privileged to observe a number of students' first impressions of Gaelic orthography. In almost every case, their reaction can be summed up by the phrase "where are the vowels?" and, once they have heard the sounds those consonants represent, "but that doesn't look like the word at all!"
The consternation of almost all who come to Gaelic from English arises from their very different history.
Gaelic orthography - how Gaelic spells its words - is a system that was carefully crafted by Gaelic-speaking clerics of the Fifth and Sixth centuries when invading Anglo-Saxon adventurer kings were scrabbling for petty kingdoms carved out of the lands of native British kings.
The pre-Christian Gaelic literati, working from the assumption that anything important to the fabric of society was naturally placed in a poetic medium, had already developed a complex and rarified system of analyzing language.
When the first Gaelic clerics began trying to incorporate new Christian ideas into existing Gaelic teaching, their program was based on finding the agreements between the two traditions.
By the Seventh Century, almost 400 years after what we presume was the first contact between Christian and Gael and 200 years after St. Patrick's mission, Gaelic scribes began communicating this combined linguistic teaching in a book called an tAuraicept nan Éces: 'the Fundamental Precepts (Auraicept) of Poetry (Éicse)'.
This book survived as long as the high Gaelic literary arts survived - right through the Eighteenth Century - but when the Gaelic political order collapsed, so did formal Gaelic literary teaching. The Auraicept was all but forgotten.
Christian tradition was essentially a classically Latin one. Scribes codified the Gaelic oral traditions using the Roman alphabet, and the Gaelic language began to be compared to Latin, the common language of sacred scripture.
By the Twelfth Century, Gaelic poets had so thoroughly grafted the two traditions to each other that the legendary origins of the Gael were interwoven with biblical tradition.
According to this, Gaelic was a language 'Frankenstein-ed' from the best parts of the 72 languages created at the Tower of Babel. Not only that, the first tribe of the Gael, led by none other than Goedel Glas, actually helped Moses free the Hebrew tribes from Pharoah's tyranny.
A good example of this tradition draws a parallel between the Tower of Babel and Gaelic itself:
Cre, uisgi, oland, is fuil,
Clay, water, wool and blood
Ross 'is ael 'is lin lanchuir,
Wood and oil and flax fullcoiled
Sechim, bitumain go mbuaidh
Resin, bitumen prosperously
Nai n-adhbair in Tuir Nemruaidh.
Nine elements of Nimrod's Tower.
The nine elements correspond to the nine parts of speech (the eight Latin parts of speech - noun, verb, adjective, adverb, conjunction, participle, preposition and pronoun - plus the Gaelic article).
In another poem, the tower was said to have been arranged and set in good order by seven qualities. These correspond to seven basic grammatical concepts outlined by the Auraicept: letter, syllable, word, accent or stress, grammatical gender and grammatical or syntactic distinction.
These are only two examples of the highly structural and often symbolic character of the medieval Gaelic grammatical tradition - of which orthography played an integral role.
Medieval Gaelic orthography recognized only seventeen letters: five vowels (a, e, i, o & u) and eleven proper consonants (b, c, d, g, l, m, n, p, r, s and t).
The letter 'h' was not considered a proper letter at all but would be placed after a consonant whose sound was softened; producing another nine sounds (bh, ch, dh, fh, gh, mh, ph or f, sh and th).
Modern English does this to some degree with the words 'ten' and 'then' exemplifying this kind of hard and soft 't'.
All these different sounds were then classified into five categories (six including 's'), but this is only part of the story.
Each sound - 21 consonantal sounds in all - could be either slender or broad in pronunciation depending on what vowel came before and after. 'A', 'o' and 'u' were broad, while 'i' and 'e' were slender, so that 'd' could sound like a deep 'd' (as in English 'bald') or a 'j' (as in English 'educate').
If all these rules seem bewilderingly technical, then the Gaelic clerics' love of structure and mnemonic number (nine parts of speech, seven grammatical concepts, five categories of sounds) begins to make a lot of sense - especially considering the importance of language to the medieval Gael.
We have no great Gaelic architecture or statuary from the past. No centralized Gaelic empire dominated the world, but we have thousands of manuscripts filled with poems, tales and treatises on every subject imaginable and some unimaginable to us.
The legacy of the Gael is and always has been the language. Both sacred number and sacred letter met in the language of the Gael, carrying the fires of their genius from the plains of Babel to the shores of the Pacific.
Dr. James Acken is the Assistant Coordinator for Simon Fraser's Centre for Scottish Studies. Specializing in the Medieval Gaelic culture of Scotland and Ireland, Dr. Acken teaches courses on literature, history, mythology and religion for the Humanities Department. He can be reached for further information at firstname.lastname@example.org.