Elements of Gaelic Grammar
by Alexander Stewart
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Transcriber's note: A few typographical errors have been corrected: they are listed at the end of the text.

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é signifies "e acute"; è "e grave"; and so forth.

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Royal Celtic Society Edition.






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For several years the Grammar of the Gaelic language by the Rev. Dr Stewart of Moulin has been out of print. This has been a source of regret to scholars and students of that tongue. Not but that there are other Grammars of real value, which it would be unjust either to ignore or to depreciate, and which have served, and are serving, an excellent purpose in connection with Celtic Literature. But the Grammar of Dr Stewart has peculiar features of its own which give it a permanent value. It is distinguished by its simplicity, conciseness, and philosophical accuracy. No Grammar of any language bears on its pages the marks of real and profound scholarship, in so far as it goes, more than does the Grammar of Dr Stewart. One cannot read a sentence of it without seeing how carefully he had collected his materials, and with what judgment, caution, and sagacity he has compared them and drawn his conclusions. His discussions upon the Article, the Noun, the Verb, and the Preposition, are ample evidence of this. It is no doubt true that a much fuller discussion is, with the more abundant resources of modern scholarship, {iv} competent and desirable, but, so far as he goes, Dr Stewart's treatment of the subject is of a masterly character.

That there are defects to be found in the work is very true. On the subject of Syntax his disquisitions are deficient in fulness, and there is a want of grammatical exercises throughout. It was at first thought desirable by the publishers and their advisers to remedy these defects by introducing fuller notices on the subject of Syntax, and a considerable number of grammatical exercises from other sources open to them. But it was finally deemed best in every view of it to give Stewart's work just as he had left it, and that is done here with the exception of a list of subscribers' names in the introduction. Messrs Maclachlan and Stewart are doing the literary community a service in republishing this volume, and thanks are specially due to the Royal Celtic Society of Edinburgh, a society which has done much to foster the interests of education in the Highlands, and which has given substantial aid towards the accomplishment of this undertaking.


EDINBURGH, 1st August 1876.

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Of Pronunciation and Orthography, 1



CHAP. I.—Of the Article, 37

CHAP. II.—Of Nouns, 37 Of Gender, 38 Of Declension, 43

CHAP. III.—Of Adjectives, 55 Of Numeral Adjectives, 59

CHAP. IV.—Of Pronouns, 61

CHAP. V.—Of Verbs, 65 Formation of the Tenses, 76 Use and import of the Moods and Tenses, 85 Irregular Verbs, 95 Defective Verbs, 99 Reciprocating state of Verbs, 102 Impersonal use of Verbs, 105 Auxiliary Verbs, 107

CHAP. VI.—Of Adverbs, 109

CHAP. VII.—Of Prepositions, 116 Idiomatic phrases, 125

CHAP. VIII.—Of Conjunctions, 134

CHAP. IX.—Of Interjections, 136

{vi} PART III.


CHAP. I.—Of Concord, 137

Sect. 1. Of the agreement of the Article with a Noun, 137 Sect. 2. Of the agreement of an Adjective with a Noun, 141 Sect. 3. Of the agreement of a Pronoun with its Antecedent, 146 Sect. 4. Of the agreement of a Verb with its Nominative, 149 Sect. 5. Of the agreement of one Noun with another, 152

CHAP. II.—Of Government, 154

Sect. 1. Of the Government of Nouns, 154 Sect. 2. Of the Government of Adjectives, 159 Sect. 3. Of the Government of Verbs, 159 Sect. 4. Of the Government of Adverbs, 160 Sect. 5. Of the Government of Prepositions, 160 Sect. 6. Of the Government of Conjunctions, 162



CHAP. I.—Of Derivation, 164

CHAP. II.—Of Composition, 168

Exercises in Reading, &c., 175

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The utility of a Grammar of the Scottish Gaelic will be variously appreciated. Some will be disposed to deride the vain endeavour to restore vigour to a decaying superannuated language. Those who reckon the extirpation of the Gaelic a necessary step toward that general extension of the English which they deem essential to the political interest of the Highlands, will condemn every project which seems likely to retard its extinction. Those who consider that there are many parts of the Highlands, where the inhabitants can, at present, receive no useful knowledge whatever except through the channel of their native tongue, will probably be of opinion that the Gaelic ought at least to be tolerated. Yet these too may condemn as useless, if not ultimately detrimental, any attempt to cultivate its powers, or to prolong its existence. Others will entertain a different opinion. They will judge from experience, as well as from the nature of the case, that no measure merely of a literary kind will prevail to hinder the progress of the English language over the Highlands; while general convenience and emolument, not to mention private emulation and vanity, conspire to facilitate its introduction, and prompt the natives to its acquisition. They {viii} will perceive at the same time, that while the Gaelic continues to be the common speech of multitudes,—while the knowledge of many important facts, of many necessary arts, of morals, of religion, and of the laws of the land, can be conveyed to them only by means of this language,—it must be of material service to preserve it in such a state of cultivation and purity, as that it may be fully adequate to these valuable ends; in a word, that while it is a living language, it may answer the purpose of a living language.

To those who wish for an uniformity of speech over the whole kingdom, it may not be impertinent to suggest one remark. The more that the human mind is enlightened, the more desirous it becomes of farther acquisitions in knowledge. The only channel through which the rudiments of knowledge can be conveyed to the mind of a remote Highlander is the Gaelic language. By learning to read and to understand what he reads, in his native tongue, an appetite is generated for those stores of science which are accessible to him only through the medium of the English language. Hence an acquaintance with the English is found to be necessary for enabling him to gratify his desire after further attainments. The study of it becomes, of course, an object of importance; it is commenced, and prosecuted with increasing diligence. These premises seem to warrant a conclusion which might at first appear paradoxical, that, by cultivating the Gaelic, you effectually, though indirectly, promote the study and diffuse the knowledge of the English.

To public teachers it is of the highest moment that the medium through which their instructions are communicated be properly adapted to that use, and that they be enabled to avail themselves of it in the fittest manner. A language destitute of grammatical regularity can possess neither {ix} perspicuity nor precision, and must therefore be very inadequate to the purpose of conveying one's thoughts. The Gaelic is in manifest danger of falling into this discreditable condition, from the disuse of old idioms and distinctions, and the admission of modern corruptions, unless means be applied to prevent its degenerating. It is obvious that a speaker cannot express himself with precision without a correct knowledge of grammar. When he is conscious of his ignorance in this respect, he must deliver himself sometimes ambiguously or erroneously, always with diffidence and hesitation, whereas one who has an accurate knowledge of the structure and phraseology of the language he speaks, will seldom fail to utter his thoughts with superior confidence, energy, and effect.

A competent degree of this knowledge is requisite to the hearer also, to enable him to apprehend the full import and the precise force of the words of the speaker. Among the readers of Gaelic, who are every day becoming more numerous, those only who have studied it grammatically are qualified to understand accurately what they read, and to explain it distinctly to others. Yet it cannot be denied that comparatively few ever arrive at a correct, or even a tolerable knowledge of grammar, without the help of a treatise composed for the purpose. Whoever, therefore, allows that the Gaelic must be employed in communicating to a large body of people the knowledge of revealed Truth and the way of eternal Life, will readily admit the extensive utility of investigating and unfolding its grammatical principles. Impressed with this conviction, I have been induced to offer to the public the following attempt to develop the grammar of the Scottish Gaelic.

While I have endeavoured to render this treatise useful to those who wish to improve the knowledge of Gaelic which {x} they already possess, I have also kept in view the gratification of others, who do not understand the Gaelic, but yet may be desirous to examine the structure and properties of this ancient language. To serve both these purposes, I have occasionally introduced such observations on the analogy between the Gaelic idiom and that of some other tongues, particularly the Hebrew, as a moderate knowledge of these enabled me to collect. The Irish dialect of the Gaelic is the nearest cognate of the Scottish Gaelic. An intimate acquaintance with its vocables and structure, both ancient and modern, would have been of considerable use. This I cannot pretend to have acquired. I have not failed, however, to consult, and to derive some advantage from such Irish philologists as were accessible to me, particularly O'Molloy, O'Brien, Vallancey, and Lhuyd. To these very respectable names I have to add that of the Rev. Dr Neilson, author of "An Introduction to the Irish Language," Dublin, 1808, and E. O'C., author of "A Grammar of the Gaelic Language," Dublin, 1808; to the latter of whom I am indebted for some good-humoured strictures, and some flattering compliments, which, however unmerited, it were unhandsome not to acknowledge. I know but one publication professedly on the subject of Gaelic grammar written by a Scotsman[1]. I have consulted it also, but in this quarter I have no obligations to acknowledge.

With respect to my literary countrymen who are proficients in the Gaelic, and who may cast an eye on this volume, less with a view to learn than to criticise, while I profess a due deference to their judgment, and declare my anxiety to obtain their favourable suffrage, I must take the liberty to entreat their attention to the following considerations.


The subject of Universal Grammar has been examined in modern times with a truly philosophical spirit, and has been settled on rational and stable principles; yet, in applying these principles to explain the grammar of a particular language, the divisions, the arrangements, and the rules to be given are, in a good measure, mechanical and arbitrary. One set of rules may be equally just with another. For what is it that grammatical rules do? They bring into view the various parts, inflections, or, as they may be termed, the phenomena of a language, and class them together in a certain order. If these phenomena be all brought forward, and stated according as they actually appear in the language, the rules may be said to be both just and complete. Different sets of rules may exhibit the same things in a different order, and yet may all be equally just. The superiority seems, on a comparison, to belong to that system which follows most nearly the order of nature, or the process of the mind in forming the several inflections; or rather, perhaps, to that system which, from its simplicity, or clear and comprehensive arrangement, is most fitted to assist the memory in acquiring and retaining the parts of speech with their several inflections.

In distributing the various parts of language into their several classes, and imposing names on them, we ought always to be guided by the nature of that language, and to guard against adopting, with inconsiderate servility, the distributions and technical terms of another. This caution is the more necessary because, in our researches into the grammar of any particular tongue, we are apt to follow implicitly the order of the Latin grammar, on which we have been long accustomed to fix our attention, and which we are ever ready to erect into a model for the grammar of all languages. To force the several parts of speech into moulds formed for the {xii} idioms of the Latin tongue, and to frame them so as to suit a nomenclature adapted to the peculiarities of Latin grammar, must have the effect of disguising or concealing the peculiarities, and confounding the true distinctions, which belong to the language under discussion.

Although, in treating of Gaelic grammar, the caution here suggested ought never to be forgotten, yet it is needless to reject indiscriminately all the forms and terms introduced into the grammar of other languages. Where the same classifications which have been employed in the grammar of the Latin, or of any other well-known tongue, will suit the Gaelic also, it is but a convenient kind of courtesy to adopt these, and apply to them the same names which are already familiar to us.

In stating the result of my researches into Gaelic grammar, I have endeavoured to conform to these general views. The field of investigation was wide, and almost wholly untrodden. My task was not to fill up or improve the plan of any former writer, but to form a plan for myself. In the several departments of my subject that distribution was adopted which, after various trials, appeared the most eligible. When there were terms already in use in the grammars of other languages that suited tolerably well the divisions which it was found requisite to make, I chose to adopt these, rather than load the treatise with novel or uncommon terms. If their import was not sufficiently obvious already, it was explained, either by particular description, or by reference to the use of these terms in other grammars. In some instances it was found necessary to employ less common terms, but in the choice of these I endeavoured to avoid the affectation of technical nicety. I am far from being persuaded that I am so fortunate as to have hit on the best possible plan. I am certain that it must {xiii} be far from complete. To such charges a first essay must necessarily be found liable. Still there is room to hope that the work may not prove wholly useless or unacceptable. Imperfect as it is, I may be allowed to think I do a service of its kind to my countrymen by frankly offering the fruits of my labour to such as may choose to make use of them. It has been, if I mistake not, the misfortune of Gaelic grammar that its ablest friends have done nothing directly in its support, because they were apprehensive that they could not do everything.

I confess that my circumscribed knowledge of the varieties of dialect used in different parts of the Highlands, may have left me unacquainted with some genuine Gaelic idioms which ought to be noticed in a work of this kind. The same cause may have led me to assert some things in too general terms, not being sufficiently informed concerning the exceptions which may be found in use in some particular districts. I respectfully invite, and will thankfully receive, the correction of any person whose more accurate and extensive information enables him to supply my omissions, or to rectify my mistakes.

In a few particulars I have differed from some of the highest living authorities,—I mean those gentlemen whose superior abilities are so conspicuous in the masterly translation of the sacred Scriptures with which the Highlands of Scotland are now blessed.[2] Here I have been careful to {xiv} state the grounds on which my judgment was formed. In doing this, I would always be understood to advance my opinion and propose my reasons with the view of suggesting them to the consideration of my countrymen, rather than in the expectation of having my conclusions universally sustained and adopted.

Among my grammatical readers, it is probable that some may have formed to themselves arrangements on the subjects different from mine. Of these I have to request that they do not form a hasty judgment of the work from a partial inspection of it, nor condemn it merely because it may differ from their preconceived schemes. Let them indulge me with a patient perusal of the whole, and a candid comparison of the several parts of the system with each other. To a judicious critic, some faults and many defects may appear, and several improvements will occur. On this supposition, I have one request more to make: that he join his efforts with mine in serving a common cause, interesting to our country, and dear to every patriotic Highlander.

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In preparing a Second Edition of the following treatise, the author has endeavoured to avail himself of every assistance in his power, from books, observation, and the communications of some literary friends, to whom he is indebted for several judicious remarks. In comparing the opinions of different critics, it was not to be expected that all should be found to agree together. It sometimes happened that one approved what another would have rejected. If the author has not adopted every hint that was offered him, but used the privilege of exercising his own judgment, the responsibility must rest with himself. He hopes those gentlemen who most obligingly favoured him with their remarks will forgive him for mentioning their names, for he is unwilling to withhold from the public the satisfaction of knowing that he has had the best assistance which his country could afford him in compiling and modelling his work. He thankfully acknowledges his obligations to the Rev. Dr Robertson, of Callander; Dr Graham, of Aberfoyle; Dr Stuart, of Luss; Dr Macleod, of Kilmarnock; and Mr Irvine, of Little Dunkeld.

From these sources of emendation, omissions have been {xvi} supplied, idiomatic phrases have been collected and inserted, some alterations have been made by simplifying or compressing particular parts, and new examples and illustrations have been introduced throughout, according as the advantages which the author enjoyed enabled him to extend his knowledge of the language, and served to correct, or to confirm, his former judgments. He thought it might be acceptable to Gaelic scholars to have a few lessons subjoined as exercises in translating and analysing. For this purpose he has selected some specimens of original prose composition, extracted from unpublished manuscripts, and from the oldest Gaelic books that are known to be extant. These specimens, short as they are, may suffice to exhibit something of the powers and elegances of the language in its native purity, unmixed with foreign words and idioms, as well as to show the manner in which it was written two or three centuries ago.

The present edition owes its existence to the generous patronage of Sir John Macgregor Murray of Lanrick, Bart., to whom the author is happy in avowing his obligations for the unsolicited and liberal encouragement given him in the execution and publication of his work. To the same gentleman he is indebted for the honour of being permitted here to record the names of those patriotic sons of Caledonia who, in concert with the honourable baronet, and at his suggestion, though residing in the remote provinces of India, yet mindful of their country's fame, contributed a liberal sum of money for promoting Celtic literature, more especially for publishing the poems of Ossian in their original language. It is owing, in a principal degree, to their munificent aid, that the anxious expectation of the public has been at last so richly gratified by Sir John Sinclair's elegant and elaborate edition of the poems of that tender and lofty bard.

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The Gaelic alphabet consists of eighteen letters: a, b, c, d, e, f, g, h, i, l, m, n, o, p, r, s, t, u. Of these, five are vowels, a, e, i, o, u; the rest consonants.

In explaining the powers of the letters, and of their several combinations, such obstacles lie in the way that complete success is not to be expected. In order to explain, in writing, the sounds of a particular language, the only obvious method is to represent them by the letters commonly employed to exhibit similar sounds in some well-known living language. But there are sounds in the Gaelic to which there are none perfectly similar in English, nor perhaps in any modern European tongue. Besides, the same combination of letters does not invariably represent the same sound in one age that it did in a former, or that it may do in the next. And this may be equally true of the letters of the Gaelic alphabet, whose powers are to be taught; and of the letters of any other language, by whose sounds the powers of the former are to be explained. A diversity of pronunciation is very distinguishable also in different districts of the Highlands of Scotland, even in uttering the same words written in the same manner. Though the powers of the letters, then, may be explained to a certain degree of accuracy, yet much will still remain to be learned by the information of the ear alone. {2}

Although the chief use of the vowels be to represent the vocal sounds of speech, and that of the consonants to represent its articulations, yet, as in many languages, so in Gaelic, the consonants sometimes serve to modify the sound of the vowels with which they are combined; while, on the other hand, the vowels often qualify the sound of the consonants by which they are preceded or followed.

It may not appear obvious at first sight how a vowel should be employed, not to represent a vocal sound, but to modify an articulation. Yet examples are to be found in modern languages. Thus, in the English words, George, sergeant, the e has no other effect than to give g its soft sound; and in guest, guide, the u only serves to give g its hard sound. So in the Italian words giorno, giusto, and many others, the i only qualifies the sound of the preceding consonant. The same use of the vowels will be seen to take place frequently in Gaelic orthography.

Besides the common division of the letters into Vowels and Consonants, it is found convenient to adopt some further subdivisions.

The Vowels are divided into broad and small: a, o, u, are called broad vowels; e, i, small vowels.

The Consonants are divided into Mutes and Liquids: Mutes, b, c, d, f, g, m, p, t; Liquids, l, n, r, s[3]. They are also divided into Labials, Palatals, and Linguals, so named from the organs employed in pronouncing them: Labials, b, f, m, p; Palatals, c, g; Linguals, d, l, n, r, s, t.

The aspirate h is not included in any of these divisions[4].



All the vowels are sometimes long, sometimes short. A long vowel is often marked with an accent, especially when the quantity of the vowel determines the meaning of the word; as, bàs death, sàil the heel, càraid a pair, rìs again, mò more, lòn a marsh; which are distinguished by the accent alone from bas the palm of the hand, sail a beam, caraid a friend, ris to, lon the elk.

All the vowels, but especially the broad ones, have somewhat of a nasal sound when preceded or followed by m, mh, n, nn. No vowels are doubled in the same syllable like ee, oo, in English.

In almost all polysyllables, excepting some words compounded with a preposition, the accent falls on the first syllable[6]. The other syllables are short and unaccented, and the vowels in that situation have in general the same short obscure sound. Hence it happens that the broad vowels in these syllables are often used indiscriminately.

There are no quiescent final vowels.


A has three sounds.

1. The first is both long and short; long, like a in the English words far, star; as, àr slaughter, àth a ford, gràdh, {4} love, sàruich oppress; short, like a in that; as, cath a battle, alt a joint; abuich ripe.

2. Both long and short, before dh and gh. This sound has none like it in English. Long, as, adhbhar a cause, adhradh worship; short, as, lagh a law, magh a field, adharc a horn.

3. Short and obscure, like e in mother; as, an, a the, ar our, ma if, and in the plural termination a or an.


E has three sounds.

1. Both long and short: long, like e in where, there; as, è, sè he, rè during. This e is generally marked with a grave accent. Short, like e in met; as, le with, leth half.

2. Long, as, ré the moon, cé the earth, and dé yesterday. This e is commonly marked with an acute accent.

3. Short, like e in mother; as, duine a man, ceannuichte bought.


I has two sounds.

1. Both long and short, like ee in seem: long, as, mìn smooth, righ a king; short, as, min meal, crith trembling.

2. Short and obscure, like i in this; as, is am, art, &c.


O has three sounds.

1. Both long and short: long, somewhat like o in more; as, mòr great, òr gold, dòchas expectation; short, like o in hot; as, mo my, do thy, dochann harm.

2. Both long and short: long, nearly like o in old; as, lom bare, toll a hole; short, as, lomadh making bare, tolladh boring.

3. Both long and short, like (2) a[7]: long, as, foghlum to learn; short, as, roghuinn choice, logh to forgive.



U has one sound, both long and short, like oo in fool: long, as, ùr fresh, ùraich to renew; short, as, ubh an egg, urras a surety.


There are thirteen Diphthongs reckoned in Gaelic; ae, ai, ao, ea, ei, eo, eu; ia, io, iu; oi; ua, ui. Of these, ao, eu, ia, ua, are always long; the others are sometimes long, sometimes short.


The sound of ae is made up of (1) a long, and (1) e short. This diphthong hardly occurs, except in Gael a Gaul or Highlander, and Gaelic the Gaelic language[8].


The sound of ai is either made up of the sounds of both the vowels, or like that of the former.

1. Made up of (1) a and (1) i: the a long, the i short; as, fàidh a prophet; the a short, the i short; as, claidheamh a sword.

2. Made up of (2) a and (1) i: the a long, the i short; as, saighde arrows.

Before a Lingual or a Palatal, not quiescent, the i often loses its sound, and only serves to qualify the sound of the following consonant[9]; hence,

3. Like (1) a alone: long, as, fàisg squeeze, fàilte salutation; short, as, glaic a hollow, tais soft.

4. Like (2) a alone: short, as, airm arms, gairm a call.


1. The sound of ao is like (2) a, long: as, caora a sheep, faobhar the edge of a tool, saothair labour.



The sound of ea is either made up of the sounds of both the vowels, or like that of one of them.

1. Made up of (2) e and (1) a: e very short, a long, as, beann a summit, pinnacle, feall deceit; a short, as, meal to enjoy, speal a scythe.

Before a Lingual or a Palatal, not quiescent, the a frequently loses its sound, and only qualifies that of the following consonant; hence,

2. Like (1) e, long: as, dean do; short, as, fear a man, bean a woman.

3. Like (2) e, long: as, easlan sick; short, as, fead whistle.

After a Lingual or a Palatal, not quiescent, the e loses its sound, and only qualifies that of the preceding consonant; hence,

4. Like (1) a, long: as, cèard an artificer; short, as, geal white.

5. Like (3) a, short: as, itheadh eating, coireach faulty.


The sound of ei is either made up of the sounds of both the vowels, or like that of e alone.

1. Made up of (1) e and (1) i: e long, i short, as, sgeimh beauty; e short, as, meidh a balance.

2. Made up of (2) e and (1) i: e long, i short, as, feidh deer; e short, as, greigh a herd, stud.

Before a Lingual or a Palatal, not quiescent, the i loses its sound, and only qualifies that of the following consonant; hence,

3. Like (1) e alone: long, as, mèise of a plate.

4. Like (2) e alone: long, as, éigin necessity; short, as, eich horses.


The sound of eo is either made up of the sounds of both vowels, or like that of o alone. {7}

1. Made up of (2) e and (1) o: e very short, o long, as, beo alive, eolas knowledge; o short, as, beothail lively.

After a Lingual or a Palatal, not quiescent, the e loses its sound, and only qualifies that of the preceding consonant; hence,

2. Like (1) o: long, as, leomhann a lion; short, as, deoch drink.


The sound of eu is like (2) e alone: long, as, teum to bite, gleus trim, entertainment.

One of the most marked variations of dialect occurs in the pronunciation of the diphthong eu, which, instead of being pronounced like long e, is over all the North Highlands commonly pronounced like ia; as, nial, ian, fiar, for neul, eun, feur.


The sound of ia is made up of the sounds of both the vowels.

1. Made up of (1) i and (1) a: both of equal length, as, fial liberal, iar west.

2. Made up of (1) i and (2) a: of equal length, as, fiadh a deer, ciall common sense.

In cia which? iad they, ia is often found like (1) è.


The sound of io is either made up of the sounds of both the vowels, or like one of them alone.

1. Made up of (1) i and (3) o: i long, o short, as, diol to pay, fior true; i short, as, iolach a shout, ionnsuidh an attack.

Before a Lingual or Palatal, not quiescent, the o sometimes loses its sound, and only qualifies that of the following consonant; hence,

2. Like (1) i: long, as, iodhol an idol; short, as, crios a girdle, biorach pointed.

After a Lingual or a Palatal, not quiescent, the i {8} sometimes loses its sound, and only qualifies that of the preceding consonant; hence,

3. Like u in fun, short and obscure: as, cionta guilt, tiondadh to turn.


The sound of iu is either made up of the sound of both the vowels, or like u alone.

1. Made up of (1) i and (1) u: i short, u long, as, fiù worthy; u short, as, iuchair a key.

After a Lingual or a Palatal, not quiescent, the i loses its sound, and only qualifies that of the preceding consonant; hence,

2. Like (1) u: long, as, diù worst part, refuse; short, as, tiugh thick, giuthas fir.


The sound of oi is either made up of the sounds of both the vowels, or like that of o alone.

1. Made up of (1) o and (1) i: o long, i short, as, òigh a virgin; o short, as, troidh a foot.

2. Made up of (3) o and (1) i: o long, i short, as, oidhche night.

Before a Lingual or a Palatal, not quiescent, the i loses its sound, and only qualifies that of the following consonant; hence,

3. Like (1) o long: as, mòid more; short, as, toic wealth.

4. Like (2) o long: as, fòid a turf; short, as, fois rest.

5. Like (3) o short; as, coileach a cock, doire a wood.


The sound of ua is made up of the sounds of both the vowels.

1. Made up of (1) u and (1) a, equally long; as, cuan the sea, fuar cold.

2. Made up of (1) u and (2) a; as, tuadh a hatchet, sluagh people. {9}


The sound of ui is either made up of the sounds of both the vowels, or like that of u alone.

1. Made up of (1) u and (1) i: u long, i short, as, suigheag a rasp-berry; u short, as, buidheann a company.

Before a Lingual or a Palatal, not quiescent, the i loses its sound, and only qualifies that of the following consonant; hence,

2. Like (1) u long: as, dùil expectation, cùig five; short, as, fuil blood, muir the sea.


There are five Triphthongs, in each of which i is the last letter: aoi, eoi, iai, iui, uai. In these the two first vowels have the same sounds and powers as when they form a diphthong. The final i is sounded short; but before a Palatal or a Lingual, not quiescent, it loses its sound, and only qualifies that of the following consonant.


1. Made up of ao and (1) i; as, caoidh lamentation, aoibhneas joy, laoigh calves.

2. Like ao; as, caoineadh wailing, maoile baldness.


1. Made up of (2) eo and (1) i; as, geoigh geese.

2. Like (1) eo; as, meoir fingers.

3. Like (2) eo; as, deoir tears, treoir ability.


1. Like (1) ia; as, fiaire more awry.


1. Like (2) iu; as, ciùil of music, fliuiche more wet. {10}


1. Made up of (1) ua and (1) i; as, luaithe quicker.

2. Made up of (2) ua and (1) i; as, cruaidh hard, fuaim sound.

3. Like (1) ua; as, uair time, an hour, cluaise of an ear.


The simple powers of the consonants differ not much from their powers in English. Those called mediae by the writers on Greek grammar, viz., b, d, g, approach nearer in force to the corresponding tenues p, t, c, than they do in English.

In accented syllables, where, if the vocal sound be short, the voice necessarily rests on the subsequent articulation, the consonants, though written single, are pronounced with the same degree of force as when written double in English; as, bradan a salmon, cos a foot; pronounced braddan, coss. No consonants are written double except l, n, r.

A propensity to aspiration is a conspicuous feature in the Gaelic tongue[10]. The aspirating of a consonant has been {11} usually marked, in the Irish dialect, by a dot over the letter aspirated; in the Scottish dialect by writing h after it. All the consonants have their sounds changed by being aspirated, and the effect is different on different consonants. In some cases the articulation is changed, but still formed by the same organ. In others the articulation is formed by a different organ. In others the h alone retains its power. And sometimes both the h and the consonant to which it is subjoined become entirely quiescent.


In treating of the consonants separately, it will be convenient to depart a little from the alphabetical order of the letters, and to consider first the Labials, next the Palatals, and lastly the Linguals.



1. Plain. Like p in English; as, poll a pool, pill return.

2. Aspirated. Like ph or f in English; as, a' phuill of the pool, phill returned[11].


1. Plain. Like b in English; as, baile a town, beo alive.

2. Aspirated. Like v in English, as, bhuail struck. In the end of a syllable the articulation is sometimes feeble, and often passes into the vocal sound of u[12]; as in marbh[13] dead, garbh rough, dabhach a vat.


1. Plain. Like m in English; as, mac a son, cam crooked.

2. Aspirated. Somewhat like v in English, but more feeble and nasal; as, mhathair O mother, lamh the hand. The sound mh has the same relation to that of bh, as the sound of m has to that of b. Sometimes, like bh, it becomes a vocal sound like a nasal u; as, in damh an ox, samhradh summer: and sometimes the articulation becomes so feeble as not to be perceived; as, comhradh speech, domhainn deep.



1. Plain. Like f in English, as, faigh to get, fòid a turf.

2. Aspirated. Quiescent; as, fheara O men. In fhuair found, the aspiration is retained, and the word is pronounced as if written huair. It is probable that it was originally written and pronounced fuair[14]; that huair is but a provincial pronunciation[15]; and that to adapt the spelling in some shape to this pronunciation, the word came to be written fhuair.


In treating of the Diphthongs (ai, ea, ei, &c.) notice has been often taken of the powers of certain vowels in modifying the sound of the adjoining consonants. This refers to a twofold mode of pronouncing the Palatal and Lingual consonants, whether plain or aspirated. The difference between these two modes of pronunciation is, in some consonants, abundantly striking; in others it is minute, but sufficiently discernible to an ear accustomed to the Gaelic. The one of these modes of articulation belongs to Palatals and Linguals, chiefly when connected with a broad vowel; the other belongs to them when connected with a small vowel. Hence, the former may be called the broad sound, the latter the small sound of a Palatal or a Lingual.

These sounds are not distinguished in writing, but may be known, for the most part, by the relative situation of the letters.


1. Plain. Broad: like c in come, curb; as, cùl the back, cridhe the heart.


2. Small: like c in care, cure; as, taic support, circe of a hen[16].

3. Aspirated. Broad: like the Greek [chi], as pronounced in Scotland, in [Greek: chora]; as, croch to hang, chaidh went.

4. Small: like [chi] in [Greek: chion]; as, chi shall see, eich horses.


1. Plain. Broad: like g in go, rogue; as, gabh to take, glor speech, bog soft.

2. Small: like g in give, fatigue; as, gin to produce, thig shall come, tilg to throw.

3. Aspirated. Broad: has no sound like it in English; ghabh took, ghleidh kept.

4. Small: nearly like y in young; as, ghin produced.

5. Gh in the end of a syllable is often quiescent; as, righ a king, tiugh thick, fuigheall remainder.


1. Plain. Broad: nearly like t in tone, bottom; as, tog to raise, trom heavy, brat a covering.


2. Small: like ch in cheek, choose; as, tinn sick, caillte lost.

3. Aspirated. Like h in house; as, thig shall come, throisg fasted, maith good.

4. Quiescent: in the middle of a polysyllable, in the end of a long syllable, and in certain tenses of a few irregular verbs when preceded by d'; as, snitheach[17] watery, sìth peace, an d' thug e? did he give? also in the pronoun thusa thou.


1. Plain. Broad: nearly like d in done; as, dol going, dlù near, close, ciod what.

2. Small: like j in June, jewel; as, diù refuse, maide a stick, airde height.

D, after ch, is commonly sounded like c; as, bochd poor, pronounced as if written bochc[18].


3. Aspirated[19]. Broad: like broad gh, as, dhruid did shut, gradh love.

4. Small: like small gh; as, dhearc looked.

5. Quiescent; as, fàidh a prophet, cridhe a heart, radh saying, bualadh striking.

RULE.—The consonants c, g, t, d, have their SMALL sound, when, in the same syllable, they are preceded, or immediately followed, by a SMALL VOWEL; in all other situations they have their BROAD sound.


1. Plain. Broad: like s in sun, this; as, speal a scythe, cas a foot, sùil an eye, scian a knife.

2. Small: like sh in show, rash; as, bris to break, sèimh quiet, sniomh to twine, stéidh foundation.

3. Aspirated: like h in him; as, shuidh sat, shrann snorted. Before l and n, it is almost, if not altogether, quiescent; as, shlanuich healed, shniomh twisted. S followed by a mute consonant is never aspirated.

RULE.—S has its SMALL sound, when, in the same syllable, it is preceded or followed by a SMALL VOWEL, with or without an intervening Lingual. In all other situations it has its BROAD sound. EXCEPT. S is broad in is am. It is small in so this, sud yon. It is customary to give s its broad sound in the beginning of a word, when the former word ends with r, in which case the r also has its broad sound; as, chuir sinn we put, air son on account.


OF L, N, R.

A distinction between a consonant when plain, and the same consonant when aspirated, has been easily traced thus far. This distinction readily discovers itself, not only in the pronunciation and orthography, but also (as will be seen in its proper place) throughout the system of inflection. It takes place uniformly in those consonants which have been already considered. With respect to the remaining linguals, l, n, r, a corresponding distinction will be found to take place in their pronunciation, and likewise in the changes they suffer by inflection. This close correspondence between the changes incident to l, n, r, and the changes which the other consonants undergo, seems to be a sufficient reason for still using the same discriminative terms in treating of their powers, though these terms may not appear to be so strictly applicable to these three consonants as to the rest. The powers of l, n, r, shall accordingly be explained under the divisions plain and aspirated, broad and small.


1. Plain. Broad: has no sound like it in English; lom bare, labhair speak, mall slow, alt a joint, ald a brook, slat a rod, dlù near.

2. Small: like ll in million; as, linn an age, lion fill, pill to return, slighe a way.

3. Aspirated. Broad: like l in loom, fool; as, labhair spoke, lom feminine of lom bare, mol to praise, dhlù feminine of dlù near.

4. Small: nearly like l in limb, fill; as, a linn his age, lion filled, mil honey, dligheach due, lawful.


1. Plain. Broad: has no sound like it in English; nuadh new, naisg bind, lann a blade, carn a heap of stones.

2. Small: like n in the second syllable of opinion; as, nigh wash, binn melodious, cuirn heaps of stones. {18}

3. Aspirated. Broad: like n in no, on; as, nuadh feminine of nuadh new, naisg bound, shnamh swam, sean old[20], chon of dogs, dàn a poem.

4. Small: like n in keen, near; as, nigh washed, shniomh twisted, coin dogs, dàin poems.

In an when followed by a Palatal, the n is pronounced like ng in English; as, an gille the lad, an comhnuidh always.

N, after a mute, is in a few instances pronounced like r[21]; as in mnathan women, cnatan a cold, an t-snàth of the yarn; pronounced mrathan, cratan, &c.


1. Plain. Nearly like r in roar; as, ruadh reddish, righ a king, ruith run, torr a heap, ceartas justice.

2. Aspirated. Broad: nearly like r in rear; as, car a turn, ruith ran, mòr great.

3. Small: has no sound like it in English; a righ O king, seirbhe satiety, mòir gen. of mòr great.

The plain, aspirated, broad, and small sounds of these Linguals are not distinguished in writing; but they may, for the most part, be known from the relative position of the letters.

RULE.—L, N, R, have their PLAIN sound when, in the same syllable, they are immediately preceded by a plain Liquid, or immediately followed by a plain Lingual; also in the beginning of certain cases and tenses; in all other situations, they have their ASPIRATED sound. They have their SMALL sound when, in the same syllable, they are preceded or followed by a small vowel, with or without an intervening Liquid; in other situations, they have their BROAD sound.



H is never used as an independent radical letter. When prefixed to a word beginning with a vowel, it is pronounced like h in how; as, na h-òighean the virgins, na h-oidhche of the night.

The following scheme exhibits a succinct view of the letters, both singly and in their several combinations. The first column contains the letters whose sound is to be exhibited; the prefixed figures marking the number of different sounds denoted by the same letter. The second column explains the sounds by examples or by references. The third column contains Gaelic words, with their translation, in which the several sounds are exemplified.


1 a {long far star àr slaughter, àth a ford. {short that ar to plow, abuîch ripe.

2 a {long adhradh worship, adhbhar reason. {short adharc a horn, adhart a bolster.

3 a short similar ma if, an the, a his, her.

1 e {long there è sè he, gnè sort, kind. {short met le with, leth half.

2 e long an dé yesterday, cé the earth.

3 e short mother duine a man, briste broken.

1 i see {mìn smooth, righ a king. {min meal, crith a shaking.

2 i short this is am, art, is.

1 o {long more mòr great, lòn food. {short hot mo my, do thy, lon the ouzle.

2 o {long } old lom bare, toll a hole. {short} lomadh making bare.

3 o {long } (2) a roghnuich to choose. {short} roghuinn choice. {20}

1 u {long } fool {ùr fresh, sùgh juice. {short} {ubh an egg, tur quite.


1 ae (1) a (2) e laeth days. 1 ai (1) a (1) i fàidh a prophet, claidheamh a sword. 2 ai (2) a (1) i saidhbhir, rich. 3 ai (1) a fàisg squeeze, tais soft. 4 ai (2) a airm arms, gairm to call. 1 ao (2) a faobhar edge of an instrument. 1 ea (2) e (1) a beann a pinnacle, meal enjoy. 2 ea (1) e dean to do, make, bean a woman. 3 ea (2) e easlan sick, fead whistle. 4 ea (1) a ceard an artificer, geal white. 5 ea (3) a coireach faulty. 1 ei (1) e (1) i sgèimh beauty, meidh a balance. 2 ei (2) e (1) i feidh deer, greigh a herd. 3 ei (1) e mèise of a plate. 4 ei (2) e éigin necessity, eich horses. 1 eo (2) e (1) o beo alive, beothail lively. 2 eo (1) o leomhann a lion, deoch a drink. 1 eu (2) e teum to bite, gleus trim. 1 ia (1) i (1) a fial liberal, fiar oblique. 2 ia (1) i (2) a fiadh a deer, biadh food. 1 io (1) i (3) o diol to pay, iolach a spout. 2 io (1) i iodhol an idol, crios a girdle. 3 io fun cionta guilt. 1 iu (1) i u fiù worth, iuchair a key. 2 iu u diù refuse, tiugh thick. 1 oi (1) o (1) i òigh a virgin, troidh a foot. 2 oi (3) o (1) i oidhche night. 3 oi (1) o mòid more, toic wealth. 4 oi (2) o fòid a turf, fois rest. 5 oi (3) o coileach a cock, goirid short. 1 ua u (1) a cuan the sea, fuath hatred. 2 ua u (2) a tuadh a hatchet, sluagh people. {21} 1 ui u (1) i sùigheah a raspberry, buidheann a company. 2 ui u dùil expectation, fuil blood.


1 aoi (1) ao (1) i caoidh lamentation. 2 aoi (1) ao caoin mild, saoil to think. 1 eoi (2) eo (1) i geoigh geese. 2 eoi (1) eo meoir fingers. 3 eoi (2) eo deoir tears. 1 iai (1) ia fiaire more oblique. 1 iui (2) iu ciùil of music. 1 uai (1) ua (1) i luaithe quicker. 2 uai (2) ua (1) i cruaidh hard, fuaim sound. 3 uai (1) ua gluais to move, uair time.



1 p part poll a pool, streap to climb. 2 ph Philip phill returned. 1 b boil baile a town, breab to kick. 2 bh vile bhuail struck, gabh to take. 1 m my mòr great, anam life, soul. 2 mh mhothuich perceived, damh an ox. 1 f feel fill to fold. 2 fh quiescent fheara O men.


1 c cock can to say, sing, creid to believe. 2 c kick ceann end, head, reic to sell. 3 ch [Greek: chora] chaidh went, rach go. 4 ch [Greek: cheimon] chi shall see, crìche of a boundary. 1 g go gabh to take, rag stiff. {22} 2 g give geinne a wedge, ruig to reach. 3 gh ghabh took, ghleidh kept. 4 gh you gheibh will get. 5 quiescent righ a king, sluagh people.


1 t tone tog to raise, slat a rod. 2 t chin tinn sick, àite a place. 3 th have thainig came. 4 th quiescent maith good, fàth occasion. 1 d done dol going, dragh trouble. 2 d join diom resentment, maide a stick. 3 dh (3) gh dhall blind. 4 dh (4) gh dhearc looked. 5 dh quiescent radh saying, bualadh threshing. 1 s so sannt desire, sloc a pit. 2 s show sèimh gentle, so this. 3 sh how shuidh sat, shaoil thought. 1 l lom bare, slat a rod, moll chaff. 2 l million lìnn an age, caillte lost. 3 l look blàth blossom, shlanuich healed. 4 l believe leum leaped, shleamhnuich slipped. 1 n crann a tree, naomh holy, naisg bind. 2 n opinion seinn to sing, nigh wash. 3 n no fan to stay, naisg bound. 4 n near coin dogs, nigh washed. 1 r roar fearr better, righ a king, ruith run. 2 r rear fear a man, ruith ran. 3 r fir men, a righ O king, treoir strength.

There is no doubt that the Gaelic has been for many ages a written language. It is equally certain that its orthography, since it was first committed to writing, has undergone {23} considerable changes. In this respect it has shared the common fate of all written languages.

In the first exhibition of the sounds of a living language, by alphabetical characters, it is probable that the principle which regulated the system of orthography was, that every elementary sound should be represented by a corresponding character, either simple or compounded, and that the same sound should be represented by the same character. If different sounds were represented by the same letter; if the same sound were represented by different letters; if more letters were employed then were necessary to exhibit the sound; or if any sound were not represented by a corresponding character; then the written language would not be an adequate representation of the spoken. It is hardly to be supposed that, in the first rude attempts at alphabetical writing, the principle above laid down could be strictly and uniformly followed. And though it had, yet, in the course of a few generations, many causes would occur to bring about considerable departures from it. A gradual refinement of ear, and increasing attention to euphonia; contractions and elisions brought into vogue by the carelessness or the rapidity of colloquial speech, or by the practice of popular speakers; above all, the mixture of the speech of different nations would introduce numberless varieties into the pronunciation. Still, those who wrote the language might choose to adhere to the original orthography for the sake of retaining the radical parts, and preserving the etymon of vocables undisguised, and for maintaining an uniformity in the mechanism of the inflections. Hence the pronunciation and the orthography would disagree in many instances, till at length it would be found expedient to alter the orthography, and to adapt it to such changes in the speech or spoken language as long use had established, in order to maintain what was most necessary of all, a due correspondence between the mode of speaking and the mode of writing the same language.

It will probably be found on inquiry that in all languages when the speech has undergone material and striking changes, {24} the written language also has varied in a considerable degree in conformity to these changes, but that it has not scrupulously kept pace with the spoken language in every smaller variation. The written language of the Greeks suffered many changes between the time that the old Pelasgic was spoken and the days of Demosthenes. The various modes of pronunciation used in the different districts of Greece are marked by a diversity in the orthography of the written language. The writing of the Latin underwent considerable alterations between the era of the Decemviri and the Augustan age, corresponding, no doubt, to the changes which had taken place during that interval in speaking the Latin. English and French books printed within the last century exhibit a mode of orthography very different from what is found in books printed two or three hundred years ago. These instances show the tendency which the written language has to follow the lead of the spoken language, and to maintain a certain degree of conformity to those modes of pronunciation which are from time to time adopted by those who speak it.

On the other hand, numberless examples might be adduced from any living language to prove that the written language does not adapt itself, on all occasions and with strict uniformity, to the sounds of speech. Words are written differently which are pronounced alike. The same combinations of letters, in different situations, represent different sounds. Letters are retained in writing, serving to point out the derivations of words, after they have been entirely dropped in speaking.

From such facts as these, it appears a just conclusion that written language generally follows the spoken language through its various revolutions, but still at a certain distance,—not dropping so far behind as to lose sight of its precursor, nor following so close as to be led through all its fantastic deviations.

Here a question occurs of importance in settling the orthography of any particular tongue: How near ought the written language to correspond to the spoken, and where may a disagreement between them be allowed with {25} propriety? The following observations may serve to throw some light on the subject of this question, though by no means sufficient to furnish a complete answer.

It is obvious that in speech the articulations (which are represented by consonants in writing) are the least liable to variation. Vowel sounds are continually varying. In this variety chiefly consists that diversity of tone and dialect which is found in the speech of different districts of the same country, where the same words are spoken. The changes, too, which are introduced by time fall with greater effect on the vowel sounds than on the articulations. This circumstance will strike an observer who steps into any deliberative assembly, where the speakers are of different ages. St Jerome makes a remark on the reading of Hebrew, which is applicable, in some measure, to the pronunciation of all languages: "Nec refert utrum Salem aut Salim nominetur; cum vocalibus in medio literis perraro utantur Hebraei; et pro voluntate lectorum, ac varietate regionum, eadem verba diversis sonis atque accentibus proferantur." It may be observed that the superior stability of the articulations above the vowel sounds is the natural consequence of the position of the organs of speech in uttering them. The different modifications of the vowel sounds are effected by minute changes in the conformation of the organs; those of the articulations are made by more distinct and operose inflections of the organs.

It seems, then, a warrantable conclusion that, of the elementary constituents of speech, viz., articulations and vowel sounds, the articulations are, in their own nature, ESSENTIAL, PERMANENT, and PREDOMINANT; the vowel sounds, comparatively considered, are ADJUNCTIVE, FLUCTUATING, and SERVILE.

Further, all the vowel sounds that usually occur in speech seem to be uttered with equal ease, in whatever situation they occur, as the same organs are employed for all. In forming the common articulations of speech, as different organs are employed, a degree of difficulty is sometimes felt in making a transition from one articulation to another. {26} Thus a difficulty will occasionally occur in pronouncing certain words, where the general analogy of inflection or of collocation has brought together articulations which do not easily coalesce. Hence a necessity arises of departing in such a case from the general analogy, and altering or displacing some of those discrepant articulations, for the sake of ease and convenience in pronunciation, and to relieve the ear from an offensive discordant sound. Departures are made from the general rules of speech in the case of the vowel sounds also, of which the Greek tongue abounds with examples. These departures, however, seem to have been made from a desire to indulge the ear in certain national predilections or aversions which it had conceived with regard to particular sounds. In examining the anomalies of speech, or those peculiarities which have been reckoned anomalous, it will be found that such of them as affect the articulations have, for the most part, been adopted for the purpose of ease and convenience in pronunciation; while those which affect the vowel sounds have proceeded from the peculiar taste of the speakers. Thus the former spring from a cause urgent and constant in its nature, and uniform in its operation; the latter, from a cause local and temporary in its nature, and variable in its operation.

If this theory be just, it ought to follow that, in all polished tongues, an agreement will be found among those irregularities which affect the articulations, that is not so observable in those which affect the vowel sounds. There is reason to believe that, if a full comparison were made between different languages, this would accordingly be found to be the case. Let it be observed, then, that in speech a deference has been usually paid to the articulations which has not been paid to the vowel sounds, inasmuch as the latter have been changed from the state in which the structure of each tongue had at first placed them, frequently and from peculiar taste or humour; the former more rarely, and for the most part from necessity. If this observation be found to be well supported, we shall have the sanction of general practice in favour of the conclusion that was formerly {27} drawn from the nature of articulate sounds, viz., that the articulations are ESSENTIAL, PERMANENT, and PREDOMINANT; the vowel sounds ADJUNCTIVE, FLUCTUATING, and SERVILE.

If it appear, then, that the vowel sounds in speech are perpetually varying in the mouths of different speakers, from causes which either elude our search, or, when discovered, are seen to be of small importance, may we not judge that it would be equally vain and improper to attempt to make Writing follow all these minute variations; and that, however it may happen that the same vowel sound may be represented in many instances by different letters, and different vowel sounds by the same letters, yet this disagreement between Speech and Writing must be connived at, for the sake of preserving some degree of uniformity, where alone it can be preserved, in the written language? If it appear, again, that the variations from the established analogy which are made on the articulations are less frequent, and proceed from causes obvious and cogent, ought not these variations to be exhibited in writing, for preserving that general correspondence between the written and the spoken language which ought to be preserved, as far as the limited powers of letters will permit, and without which the words I speak and those I write do not belong to the same language?

One exception from this principle seems allowable in the case of quiescent consonants. It may be inferred, from the practice of all living languages, that consonants whereof the corresponding articulations have been suppressed in speaking may yet be retained with propriety in writing, when they are requisite to point out the derivation of vocables, or the radical part of declinable words. But this exception ought to be allowed only to a moderate extent, for the reasons already assigned; to which it may be added, that the far greater part of the suppressed articulations can be easily discovered and retraced to their roots, without any index in the written any more than in the spoken language to point them out. {28}

These observations being premised, I shall proceed to explain the present state of Gaelic Orthography, and shall endeavour to assist the reader in forming a judgment of its merit, and how far it may admit of improvement.

I. It may be laid down as one settled principle in orthography, that each letter or combination of letters in the written language ought always to denote one and the same sound. From the explanation that has been given of the powers of the letters, it may be seen how far this principle has been regarded in the Gaelic. Though almost every one of the letters represents more than one sound, yet there is an evident affinity between the several sounds of the same letter. And it may be readily allowed that less confusion and inconvenience follow from exhibiting a few kindred sounds by the same letter, than would have taken place had the characters been multiplied to such a degree as that a separate one could have been appropriated to each minute variety of sound.

It is obvious to remark, as a departure from this principle, that in the case of the consonants l, n, r, the distinction between their plain and their aspirated state is not marked in writing, but that in both states the consonant is written in one way. In the middle and end of words, as has been shown, this distinction may be known from the relative situation of the letters. In the beginning of certain cases and tenses of declinable words, it may often be known from their grammatical connection, but is not marked by any graphical index whatever. The proper reading is to be determined by the sense of the passage, instead of the sense being understood by the proper reading. It is not easy to discover how those who first committed the Gaelic to writing neglected to mark such a material distinction. Inconveniencies and ambiguities not unfrequently arise from this cause, which have been long felt and regretted. Is there room to hope that it is not yet too late to recommend a method of remedying this defect? The method I would suggest is the most simple and obvious of any. It is to annex to the initial l, n, and r, in their aspirated state, the letter h, just as has been {29} done to all the other consonants. The analogy of orthography would thus be maintained, the system of inflection would be more justly exhibited, and carried on by an uniform process in Writing as it is in Speech, and errors in reading and ambiguities in syntax would be avoided[22].

II. Another principle of authority in regulating orthography is, that each sound ought always to be represented by one and the same letter, or combination of letters. The deviations from this rule in Gaelic are extremely few. The sound of ao is represented sometimes by a alone, sometimes by o alone. The sound of gh is represented also by dh; and final c often, though corruptly, represents the same sound with chd.

III. A third principle in orthography is, that no more letters ought to be employed than are necessary to represent the sound. There are probably few polished languages in which departures from this rule are not found in abundance. Reasons have been already mentioned which render it expedient to retain letters in writing many words, after the corresponding sounds have been dropped in pronouncing the same words. Quiescent letters, both vowels and consonants, are not unfrequent in Gaelic. Though these quiescent letters have no sound themselves, they are not always without effect in pronunciation, as they often determine the sound of other letters. Most, if not all, the quiescent vowels seem to have been introduced for this purpose. They ascertain the broad or the small sound of the adjoining {30} consonants. This has been made sufficiently clear in treating of the vowels and diphthongs separately. A consonant, as has been shown, has its broad sound, both when preceded and when followed by a broad vowel; and in like manner has its small sound, both when preceded and when followed by a small vowel. If a consonant were preceded by a vowel of one quality, and followed by one of a different quality, the reader, it has been thought, might be doubtful whether that consonant ought to be pronounced with its broad or with its small sound. Hence this rule has long obtained in Gaelic orthography, that in polysyllables the last vowel of one syllable and the first vowel of the subsequent syllable must be both of the same quality[23]. To the extensive application and the rigid observance of this rule it is owing that so many diphthongs appear where one vowel is sufficient to express the vocal sound, and that the homogeneous vowels, when used in their quiescent capacity, are often exchanged for each other, or written indiscriminately[24]. From the former of these circumstances, most of the words in the language appear loaded with superfluous vowels; from the latter, the orthography of many words appears, in some respects, arbitrary and unsettled. Even a partial correction of these blemishes must be desirable. It may therefore be worth while to examine this long established canon of Gaelic orthography, with a view to discover whether it has not been extended farther than is necessary, and whether it ought not in many cases to be set aside.

We have seen that the Labials b, m, f, p, whether aspirated or not, have no distinction of broad and small sound.

{31} It cannot, then, be necessary to employ vowels, either prefixed or postfixed, to indicate the sound of these. Thus, abuich ripe, gabhaidh will take, chromainn I would bow, ciomaich captives, have been written with a broad vowel in the second syllable, corresponding to the broad vowel in the first syllable; yet the letters abich, gabhidh, chrominn, ciomich, fully exhibit the sound. The prepositive syllable im, when followed by a small vowel, is written im, as in imlich to lick, imcheist perplexity. But when the first vowel of the following syllable is broad, it has been the practice to insert an o before the m, as in iomlan complete, iomghaoth a whirlwind, iomluasg agitation. Yet the inserted o serves no purpose, either in respect of derivation, of inflection, or of pronunciation. The unnecessary application of the rule in question appears most unequivocally in words derived from other languages. From the Latin words imago, templum, liber, are formed in Gaelic iomhaigh, teampull, leabhar. Nothing but a servile regard to the rule under consideration could have suggested the insertion of a broad vowel in the first syllable of these words, where it serves neither to guide the pronunciation, nor to point out the derivation.

Another case, in which the observation of this rule seems to be wholly unnecessary, is when two syllables of a word are separated by a quiescent consonant. Thus in gleidheadh keeping, itheadh eating, buidheann a company, dligheach lawful, the aspirated consonants in the middle are altogether quiescent. The vocal sound of the second syllable is sufficiently expressed by the last vowel. No good reason, then, appears for writing a small vowel in the second syllable.

Thus far it is evident that the rule respecting the correspondence of vowels is wholly impertinent in the case of syllables divided by Labials, or by quiescent consonants. If we examine further into the application of this rule, we shall find more cases in which it may be safely set aside.

Many of the inflections of nouns and verbs are formed by adding one or more syllables to the root. The final {32} consonant of the root must always be considered as belonging to the radical part, not to the adjected termination. The sound of that consonant, whether broad or small, falls to be determined by the quality of the vowel which precedes it in the same syllable, not by the quality of that which follows it in the next syllable. It seems, therefore, unnecessary to employ any more vowels in the adjected syllable than what are sufficient to represent its own vocal sound. The rule under consideration has, notwithstanding, been extended to the orthography of the oblique cases and tenses, and a supernumerary vowel has been thrown into the termination, whenever that was requisite to preserve the supposed necessary correspondence with the foregoing syllable. Thus, in forming the nominative and dative plural of many nouns, the syllables an and ibh are added to the singular, which letters fully express the true sound of these terminations. If the last vowel of the nominative singular is broad, an alone is added for the nominative plural; as, lamh-an hands, cluas-an ears. But if the last vowel be small, an e is thrown into the termination; as, sùil-ean eyes, sròin-ean noses. Now if it be observed that, in the two last examples, the small sound of the l and n in the root is determined by the preceding small vowel i, with which they are necessarily connected in one syllable, and that the letters an fully represent the sound of the termination, it must be evident that the e in the final syllable is altogether superfluous. So in forming the dative plural: if the last vowel of the root be small, ibh is added; as, sùil-ibh, sroin-ibh. But if the last vowel of the root is broad, the termination is written aibh; as, lamh-aibh, cluas-aibh, where the a, for the reason already assigned, is totally useless.

These observations apply with equal justness to the tenses of verbs, as will be seen by comparing the following examples: creid-idh will believe, stad-aidh will stop; chreid-inn I would believe, stad-ainn I would stop; creid-eam let me believe, stad-am let me stop; creid-ibh believe ye, stad-aibh stop ye.

The same observations may be further applied to derivative words, formed by adding to their primitives the syllables {33} ach, achd, ag, an, ail, as; in all which e has been unnecessarily introduced, when the last vowel of the preceding syllable was small; as, sannt-ach covetous, toil-each willing; naomh-achd holiness, doimhn-eachd depth; sruth-an a rivulet, cuil-ean a whelp; cauch-ag a little cup, cail-eag a girl; fear-ail manly, caird-eil friendly[25]; ceart-as justice, caird-eas friendship.

The foregoing observations appear sufficient to establish this general conclusion, that in all cases in which a vowel serves neither to exhibit the vocal sound, nor to modify the articulations of the syllable to which it belongs, it may be reckoned nothing better than an useless incumbrance. There seems, therefore, much room for simplifying the present system of Gaelic Orthography, by the rejection of a considerable number of quiescent vowels[26].


Almost the only quiescent consonants which occur in Gaelic are d, f, g, s, t, in their aspirated state. When these occur in the inflections of declinable words, serving to indicate the Root, or in derivatives, serving to point out the primitive word, the omission of them might, on the whole, be unadvisable. Even when such letters appear in their absolute form, though they have been laid aside in pronunciation, yet it would be rash to discard them in writing, as they often serve to show the affinity of the words in which they are found to others in different languages, or in different dialects of the Celtic. The aspirated form of the consonant in writing sufficiently shows that, in speaking, its articulation is either attenuated or wholly suppressed.

The writers of Gaelic seem to have carefully avoided bringing into apposition two vowels which belong to different syllables. For this purpose they have sometimes introduced a quiescent consonant into the middle of compound or of inflected words; as, gneidheil, or rather gnethail kindly, made up of gnè and ail; beothail lively, made up of beo and ail; diathan gods, from the singular dia; lathaibh days, from the singular là, &c. It may at least bear a question, whether it would not be better to allow the vowels to denote the sound of the word by their own powers, without the intervention of quiescent consonants, as has been done in {35} mnaibh women, déibh gods, rather than insert consonants which have nothing to do with either the radical or the superadded articulations of the word.

From the want of an established standard in orthography, the writers of Gaelic, in spelling words wherein quiescent consonants occurred, must have been often doubtful which of two or three consonants was the proper one, and may therefore have differed in their manner of spelling the same word. Accordingly we find, in many instances, the same words written by different writers, and even at different times by the same writer, with different quiescent consonants. This variation affects not indeed the pronunciation, or does it in a very slight degree. Hence, however, some who judge of the language only from its appearance in writing, have taken occasion to vilify it, as unfixed and nonsensical[27]. A proper attention to the affinity which the Scottish Gaelic bears to some other languages, particularly to other dialects of the Celtic, might contribute to fix the orthography in some cases where it appears doubtful, or has become variable[28].

IV. The last principle to be mentioned, which ought to regulate orthography, is that every sound ought to be represented by a corresponding character. From this rule there is hardly a single deviation in Gaelic, as there is no sound in the spoken language which is not, in some measure, {36} exhibited in the written language. The fault of the Gaelic orthography is sometimes a redundancy, but never a deficiency of letters.

A few observations on the mode of writing some particular words, or particular parts of speech, remain to be brought forward in the sequel of this work, which it would be premature to introduce here.

The Scottish writers of Gaelic in general followed the Irish orthography, till after the middle of the last century. However that system may suit the dialect of Ireland, it certainly is not adapted to the Gaelic of this country. In the Gaelic translation of the New Testament, printed in 1767, not only were most of the Irish idioms and inflections which had been admitted into the Scottish Gaelic writings rejected, and the language adapted to the dialect of the Scottish Highlands, but the orthography also was adapted to the language. In later publications, the manner of writing the language was gradually assimilated to that pattern. The Gaelic version of the sacred Scriptures lately published has exhibited a model, both of style and orthography, still more agreeable to the purest Scottish idiom, and has a just title to be acknowledged as the standard in both. Little seems to be now wanting to confer on the orthography of the Scottish Gaelic such a degree of uniformity as may redeem its credit and ensure its stability. This, it is to be hoped, may be attained by a judicious regard to the separate, and especially the relative powers of the letters, to the most common and approved modes of pronunciation, to the affinity of the Scottish Gaelic with other branches of the Celtic tongue, to the analogy of inflection and derivation, and, above all, to the authority of some generally received standard, to which pre-eminence the late Gaelic version of the Scriptures has the only indisputable claim.

* * * * *




The parts of speech in Gaelic may be conveniently divided and arranged as follows:—Article, Noun, Adjective, Pronoun, Verb, Adverb, Preposition, Conjunction, Interjection. Of these, the first five are declinable; the other four are indeclinable.



The Gaelic article an corresponds to the English definite article the. There is in Gaelic no indefinite article corresponding to the English a or an. The inflections of the article are but few. They depend on the gender, the number, and the case, of the noun to which it is prefixed. Hence the article is declined by gender, number, and case, as follows:

Singular. Plural. Masc. Fem. Masc. & Fem. Nom. an, am an, a' na Gen. an, a' na nan, nam Dat. an, a', n' an, a', n' na

In the singular, final n of the article is sometimes cut off, and its absence marked by an apostrophe. The same happens to the initial a of the dative singular.



A Noun is the Name of any person, object, or thing whatsoever, that we have occasion to mention. In treating of {38} this Part of Speech, we have to consider the Gender and the Declension of Nouns.


In imposing names on sensible objects, the great and obvious distinction of Sex in the animal world suggested the expediency of inventing names, not only for the particular species of animals, but also for distinguishing their Sex. Such are vir, femina; bull, cow; coileach, cearc, &c. To mark at once identity of species, and diversity of Sex, the same word, with a slight change on its form, was applied to both sexes: as equus, equa; lion, lioness; oglach, banoglach. In most languages, distinction of Sex has been marked, not only thus by the form of the noun, but further by the form of the adjective connected with the noun. Most adjectives were furnished with two forms, the one of which indicated its connection with the name of a male, the other its connection with the name of a female. The one was called by grammarians the masculine gender, the other the feminine gender of the adjective. Adjectives possessing thus a two-fold form, must necessarily have appeared under one or other of these forms, with whatever noun they happened to be conjoined. Even nouns significant of inanimate objects came thus to possess one mark of nouns discriminative of Sex, as they happened to be accompanied by an adjective of the masculine or by one of the feminine gender. If any noun was observed to be usually coupled with an adjective of the masculine gender, it was termed by grammarians a masculine noun; if it was found usually coupled with an adjective of the feminine gender, it was termed a feminine noun. Thus a distinction of nouns into masculine and feminine came to be noted, and this also was called gender.

It is observable, then, that gender, in grammar, is taken in two different acceptations. When applied to an adjective, {39} it signifies a certain form, by which bonus is distinguished from bona. When applied to a noun, it signifies a certain relation of the word to the attributives connected with it, by which amor is distinguished from cupido. As Sex is a natural characteristic pertaining to living objects, so gender is a grammatical characteristic pertaining to nouns, the names of objects whether animate or inanimate. The gender of nouns is not, properly speaking, indicated; it is constituted by that of the attributives conjoined with them. If there were no distinction of gender in adjectives, participles, &c. there could be none in nouns. When we say that amor is a noun of the masculine gender, and cupido a noun of the feminine gender, we do not mean to intimate any distinction between the things signified by these nouns; we mean nothing more than to state a grammatical fact, viz., that an adjective connected with amor is always of the same form as when joined to a noun denoting a male, and that an adjective connected with cupido is always of the same form as when joined to a noun denoting a female[29].


When an adjective was to be connected with a noun that denoted an object devoid of Sex, it is not always easy to guess what views might have determined the speaker to use the adjective in one gender rather than in the other. Perhaps Sex was attributed to the object signified by the noun. Perhaps its properties were conceived to bear some resemblance to the qualities characteristic of Sex in living creatures. In many instances, the form of the noun seems to have decided the point. It must be confessed that in this mental process, the judgment has been often swayed by trivial circumstances, and guided by fanciful analogies. At least it cannot be denied that in the Gaelic, where all nouns whatever are ranked under the class of masculines or of feminines, the gender of each has been fixed by a procedure whereof the grounds cannot now be fully investigated or ascertained. Neither the natural nor artificial qualities or uses of the things named, nor the form of the names given them, furnish any invariable rule by which the gender of nouns may be known. It ought to be remembered, however, that the Gaelic is far from being singular in this respect. The oldest language with which we are acquainted, as well as some of the most polished modern tongues, stand in the same predicament.

The following observations may serve to give some idea of the analogy of gender in Gaelic nouns; though they do not furnish a complete set of rules sufficient to ascertain the gender of every noun:—


MASCULINES. Nouns signifying males are masculines; as, fear a man, righ a king, sagart a priest, tarbh a bull, cu a dog.

Many nouns, signifying the young of animals of either Sex, are masculine, even when the individual objects they denote are mentioned as being of the female Sex; as, laogh a calf, isean a gosling, uan a lamb, &c.[30].

Diminutives in an; as, rothan a little wheel, dealgan a little pin, &c.

Derivatives in as, which are, for the most part, abstract nouns; as, cairdeas friendship, naimhdeas enmity, ciuineas calmness, breitheamhnas judgment, ceartas justice, maitheas goodness, &c.

Derivatives in air, ach, iche, which are, for the most part, agents; as, cealgair a deceiver, sealgair a huntsman, dorsair a door-keeper, marcach a rider, maraiche a sailor, coisiche a foot traveller, &c.

Names of such kinds of trees as are natives of Scotland; as, darach oak, giuthas fir, uimhseann ash.

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