Comparison of Irish, Manx and Scottish Gaelic

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Map of the Gaelic-speaking world. The red area shows the maximum extent of Old Irish; the orange area shows places with Ogham inscriptions; and the green area are modern Gaelic-speaking areas.

Although Irish and Scottish Gaelic are closely related as Goidelic Celtic languages (or Gaelic languages), they are different in many ways. While most dialects are not immediately mutually comprehensible (although many individual words and phrases are), speakers of the two languages can rapidly develop mutual intelligibility.

Phonetic and grammatical differences[edit]

The spoken dialects Irish and Scottish Gaelic are most similar to one another in Ulster and southwestern Scotland, regions of close geographical proximity to one another. It is thought that the currently extinct dialect of Galwegian Gaelic, spoken in Galloway in the far south of Scotland, was very similar to Ulster Irish and Manx.

While the dialects of northern Scotland and southern Ireland tend to differ the most from one another in terms of vocabulary, they do share some features which are absent in other dialect areas lying between them. For example, in both Munster Irish and the Gaelic of the north of Scotland, historically short vowels have been diphthongised or lengthened before long sonants. An example of this is the word clann meaning "children of the family". In Munster Irish and northern Scottish Gaelic it is pronounced [kɫaunˠ] whereas in Ulster and County Mayo it is [kɫanˠ] and in Connemara [kɫɑːnˠ]; the Manx form cloan is [kɫaunˠ] in the north and [kɫoːdnˠ] in the south.

In addition, slender coronal stops (/tʲ/ and /tʲʰ/ in Scottish Gaelic; /tʲ/ and /dʲ/ in Irish), are affricated (such as [tʃ] and [dʒ]) in Mayo[1][2] and Donegal,[3] the southern Highlands and in Manx, but not in Munster or the northern Highlands.[4]

In the verb of Standard Irish, northern Scotland and Central-Southern Munster agree in leniting the initial t, thus one hears thá in County Waterford and County Tipperary, and tha in northern Scotland. West Munster also lenites the t, but only after the preverb a "that" (an fear a thá ina sheasamh ag an doras "the man that's standing at the door", standard Irish an fear atá ina sheasamh ag an doras, Scottish Gaelic am fear a tha na sheasamh aig an doras).

The closest to Scottish Gaelic in modern Irish is the dialect currently spoken in County Donegal, as illustrated by the sentence "How are you?".

Scottish GaelicCiamar a tha sibh? (plural/formal) or Ciamar a tha thu? (singular/informal), Lewis dialect Dè mar a tha sibh? (plural/formal) Dè mar a tha thu? (singular/informal) (dè < cad è)
Ulster IrishCad é mar atá sibh? (plural) Cad é mar atá tú? (singular), spelt in 'dialect spelling' as Caidé mar a tá sibh/tú?
Connacht IrishCén chaoi a bhfuil sibh? (plural), Cén chaoi a bhfuil tú? (singular), in colloquial speech Ce chuil sib/tú
Munster IrishConas táthaoi (plural), Conas taoi? (singular), Conas tánn sibh/tú?, Conas atá sibh/tú?

Sibh is used in both Irish and Scottish Gaelic for the plural "you", while Scottish Gaelic [except for the far south] also uses sibh as a formal version of "you" (much like French uses vous; see "T–V distinction"). Modern Irish does not use this formal/informal distinction when addressing people. The use of sibh as 'polite' you is a retention from the Classical Irish usage of the plural personal pronouns to refer to the singular in polite communication, thus sinn "we" for "I, me" and sibh "you (plural)" for "you/thou". Thu is used in Scottish Gaelic when speaking to an individual friend, family member, or a younger person.

The negative particle in Scottish Gaelic, Manx and Northern Ulster Irish is cha/chan (chan eil, cha bhfuil/chan fhuil = "is not"; chan is from the Old Irish emphatic negative nichon). In standard Irish the negative particle is (níl = "is not", a contraction of ní fhuil); is a retention of the normal Old Irish negative; these are illustrated by the sentence "I have no money":

Scottish Gaelic — Chan eil airgead agam.
Ulster IrishChan fhuil/Cha bhfuil airgead agam.
Manx – Cha nel argid aym.
Standard IrishNíl airgead agam.

Scottish Gaelic speakers may also sound as if they were using the Irish phrase, as Chan eil can frequently be shortened to 'n eil.

The Classical Irish digraph éu [eːʷ] is still used in Scottish Gaelic spelling but is now obsolete in Irish, except in southern dialect writing, as a means to distinguish the vowel é when followed by a broad consonant from the regular dialect development é to i in the same environment, thus éan [ian] "bird" in comparison to d'éug [dʲeːɡ] "died; passed on"). Éa is now used instead of eu in Standard Irish. Both éa and éu existed in Classical Irish, to a large extent showing nominal case differences (with éu varying with éo in the dative of "éa"-words), however in both Scotland and Ireland, spelling reforms and standardisation (which took place in Ireland under the auspices of the government of Ireland during the 20th century, and much earlier in Scotland) independently went for different versions.

At times Scottish writers used the spelling ia to represent how the combination is pronounced in northern dialects, writing ian instead of eun, the southern form. Manx spelling, based mainly on English, shows that ia is also the underlying form in Manx, the word being spelled eean.


The most obvious phonological difference between Irish and Scottish Gaelic is that the phenomenon of eclipsis in Irish is diachronic (i.e. the result of a historical word-final nasal that may or may not be present in modern Irish) but fully synchronic in Scottish Gaelic (i.e. it requires the actual presence of a word-final nasal except for a tiny set of frozen forms). Eclipsis is shown in Irish orthography but not in Scottish Gaelic as it is conditioned by the actual environment.

For example, this means that phrases like Standard Irish ag an doras, standard Scottish Gaelic aig an doras, Manx ec y(n) dorrys is pronounced as follows in different parts of the Gaelic speaking world:

An example of diachronic-type eclipsis are the numbers:

  • Irish: bliana "year" > ocht mbliana "8 years"
  • Scottish Gaelic: bliadhna > ochd bliadhna

In conservative speech, Scottish Gaelic feminine nouns also slenderise in the dative (prepositional) case, giving aig an uinneig, and so a different final consonant. This feature is uncommon today except in more formal registers and is ignored here.[6]

Orthographic differences[edit]

There are a number of distinctive orthographical (written) differences. The spellings of both languages have been reformed in recent decades, which has led to further divergence, though conversely more recent spelling reforms in Scottish Gaelic have reduced the divergences to some extent.

One difference is that the accent is written as a grave accent (Scottish Gaelic: stràc throm, "heavy stroke/accent") in Scottish Gaelic, as opposed to the acute accent (Irish: síneadh fada, "length accent" (Scottish Gaelic: stràc gheur "sharp stroke/accent") used in Irish; hence the word for "welcome" is written as fàilte in Scottish Gaelic and in Irish as fáilte. Irish does not use the grave accent, while until recently Scottish Gaelic used the grave and acute accents to differentiate between open and closed vowel sounds. However, recent spelling reform has meant that only grave accents are now in Scottish Gaelic, leaving phonemic distinctions unmarked.

Another difference in Scottish Gaelic is that the aspirate linker h- is always hyphenated, while in Irish it is attached to the beginning of the word, as illustrated by the languages' respective names for each other:

Scottish Gaelic — Gàidhlig (na h-Alba), Gàidhlig na h-Èireann
Standard IrishGaeilge na hAlban, Gaeilge (na hÉireann)

Additionally, while the linkers n- and t- are usually hyphenated in both languages, in Irish they are attached to the beginning of words whose first letter is capitalised; in Scottish Gaelic they are always hyphenated.

A number of letter combinations are possible in written Irish which are not found in Scottish Gaelic e.g. "ae", "bhf". Irish uses "cht" where Scottish Gaelic uses "chd", although "chd" itself was once common in written Irish, as was "cht" in Scottish Gaelic – both being used in Classical Gaelic. In the combinations "sc"/"sg" and "st"/"sd", Irish now uses "sc" and "st", while Scottish Gaelic uses "sg" and both "sd" and st, despite there being no phonetic difference between the two languages.[7]

Most obvious differences in spelling result from the deletion of silent lenited digraphs (mainly dh, gh, and th) in Irish in spelling reforms, which was only sometimes done in Scottish Gaelic. Overall, Scottish Gaelic orthography is more conservative than that of Irish.

List of Irish and Scottish Gaelic cognates[edit]

English Irish Scottish Gaelic Notes
Gael Gael Gàidheal Pre 1950s Gaedheal in Irish
Scotland Alba, Albain Alba
Ireland Éire, Éirinn Èirinn, Èire
day latha, là
night oíche oidhche Pre 1950s oidhche in Irish
inside isteach a-steach
school scoil sgoil Pre 1950s sgoil/scoil in Irish
child páiste/leanbh pàiste/leanabh
without gan gun
authority údarás ùghdarras Pre 1950s ughdarás in Irish
office oifig oifis
star réalt(a) reul Pre 1950s réalt(a), reult(a) in Irish
hotel óstán, teach/tigh ósta taigh-òsda[7] Pre 1950s óstán/ósdán, teach/tigh ósta/ósda in Irish
house teach (nom-acc), tigh (dat); Munster tigh taigh In biblical Gaelic tigh
town baile baile
news nuacht; Ulster nuaidheacht naidheachd
open oscail fosgail Also foscail in Ulster Irish
year bliain bliadhna Pre-1950s bliadhain in Irish. The form bliadhna (bliana today) is used as a special plural form following numerals; the regular plural is blianta). Some eastern Scottish Gaelic dialects use the form bliadhn.[8]
radio raidió radio Also réidió and rèidio in spoken Irish and Scottish Gaelic
report aithris aithris
king rìgh Pre-1950s genitive ríogh and dative rígh in Irish
government rialtas riaghaltas Pre-1950s riaghaltas in Irish
parliament parlaimint pàrlamaid
island oileán, inis eilean, inis
river abhainn,
Munster abha, dative abhainn
bridge droichead drochaid
water uisce uisge
whisk(e)y uisce beatha uisge-beatha
God Dia Dia
church eaglais eaglais In Irish, eaglais is a Roman Catholic house of worship; a Protestant house of worship is called a teampall (temple). Séipéal is also used as it can mean chapel as well.
prayer urnaí ùrnaigh Also urnaighe in Irish.
black dubh dubh
white bán bàn

Differences in vocabulary[edit]

English Irish Scottish Gaelic Notes
in i, in (ann) an In Classical Irish the forms were "i", "a", "in", "an" – "i/in" when the following sound was slender, and "a/an" when the following sound was broad. In both Irish and Scottish, in the spoken language, the four forms of "i", "a", "in", "an" still exist.
minister ministir, ministéir ministear In Irish, aire for a government minister
Bible Bíobla Bìoball
Germany An Ghearmáin A' Ghearmailt
America Meiriceá, Meirice Ameireaga
England Sasana Sasainn
London Londain Lunnain
road bóthar/ród rathad
cold (sickness) slaghdán cnatan Meaning illness
talking ag caint a' bruidhinn Bruíon (formerly bruighean) in Irish means "fighting", "quarrelling." Cainnt in Scottish Gaelic is used as a noun only, meaning "speech," except in Arran where it is also a verb[9]
Irish English Scottish Gaelic English Notes
cuan harbour cuan ocean A number of words are used in both languages for "ocean" and "sea", such as aigéan/aigeun, an fharraige. Caladh or cala (also in the compound "calafort" < "cala-phort") are commonly used in Irish for "harbour".
An Bhreatain Bheag Wales A' Bhreatain Bheag Brittany Breatain (Britain) is the same in both. The Scottish Gaelic equivalent for Wales is A' Chuimrigh, a Gaelicisation of an Anglicisation of the Welsh Cymru. The Irish for Brittany is An Bhriotáin from Latin "Britannia".
shiúil sé He walked shiubhail e He died Siubhail means "walk" or "stroll" in Scottish Gaelic, but is also a euphemism for death

Differences can also be seen in words used for geographical features. For example, "hill" and "mountain" are usually "cnoc" (Knocknapeasta) and "sliabh" (Slieve Donard) respectively in Ireland, but "càrn" (Cairn Gorm) and "beinn" (Ben Nevis) in Scotland. Additionally, "inbhir," meaning "river mouth" and usually Anglicized as "inver" (for example Inverness or Inveraray), very common in Scotland, is almost never seen in Ireland.

Comparison of text[edit]

Article 1 of the UDHR in the languages:

Caption text
Language Text
English All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.[10]
Irish Saoláitear gach duine den chine daonna saor agus comhionann i ndínit agus i gcearta. Tá bua an réasúin agus an choinsiasa acu agus ba cheart dóibh gníomhú i dtreo a chéile i spiorad an bhráithreachais.[11]
Manx Ta dy chooilley ghooinney ruggit seyr as corrym rish dy chooilley ghooinney elley ayns ooashley as ayns cairys. Ta resoon as cooinsheanse stowit orroo as lhisagh ad dellal rish y cheilley lesh spyrryd braaragh.[12]
Scottish Gaelic Rugadh na h-uile duine saor agus co-ionnan nan urram 's nan còirichean. Tha iad reusanta is cogaiseach, agus bu chòir dhaibh a ghiùlain ris a chèile ann an spiorad bràthaireil.[13]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ de Búrca, Seán (1958), The Irish of Tourmakeady, Co. Mayo, Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, ISBN 0-901282-49-9 pp=24–25
  2. ^ Mhac an Fhailigh, Éamonn (1968), The Irish of Erris, Co. Mayo, Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, ISBN 0-901282-02-2 pp=36–37
  3. ^ Wagner, Heinrich (1959), Gaeilge Theilinn (in Irish), Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, ISBN 1-85500-055-5 pp=9–10
  4. ^ Ó Dochartaigh, C. Survey of the Gaelic Dialects of Scotland I-V Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies (1997) ISBN 1-85500-165-9
  5. ^ Uidhist a Deas: (Téacsleabhar). 58. Gordon Mac Gill-Fhinnein. Institiúid Árd-Léinn Bhaile Átha Cliath, 1966.
  6. ^ "Feminine nouns - Goireasan Akerbeltz". (in Scottish Gaelic). Retrieved 3 March 2018.
  7. ^ a b Scottish Qualifications Authority. "Gaelic Orthographic Conventions". Missing or empty |url= (help)
  8. ^ "Loss of schwa".
  9. ^ Dwelly, William Robertson, Michael Bauer, Edward. "Am Faclair Beag - Scottish Gaelic Dictionary". Retrieved 23 April 2017.
  10. ^ Nations, United. "Universal Declaration of Human Rights". United Nations.
  11. ^ "OHCHR |".
  12. ^ "Fockley-Magh Cairyssyn Deiney cour y Theihll Slane".
  13. ^ "UDHR in Celtic languages".