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What I Learned On My First Scottish Gaelic Lesson

Having got through the first stage of Duolingo Scottish Gaelic, (and by the way, came top of the gold league, just sayin’ 💅 ) I thought it was time I booked my first online lesson.

It was really good! A bit daunting, but good. I found the teacher on iTalki and he was very nice, helpful and encouraging and as the torrent of new words came at me he typed them all into the skype chat for me so I wouldn’t have to write them down. Although writing things down might seem like a good idea, it’s quite confusing in Gaelic because the spelling is so weird. Up to now, I’ve been using Duolingo to load vocabulary into my head but although I know “gaothach” is pronounced like “Goo-hock” I have to type it in Duolingo, so I find myself memorising the spelling by saying it to myself phonetically as “gowt-hatch” so it’s like I am learning two parallel versions of everything and until I can read the syllables properly, writing things down is probably going to be a hindrance rather than a help. I’m addressing this by looking at the video tutorials on Gaelic with Jason‘s YouTube Channel and I’ve started reading a small introduction to the language called Scots Gaelic: An Introduction to the Basics by George McLennan. It’s surprisingly readable as an overview of the language and how it got that way.

So many words!

Anyway, no point wasting time asking a teacher about pronunciation, so let’s crack on! A bigger problem is why the hell there are so many words. For example, in the lesson about weather there is the following question:

And why does it bother me that there are so many “extra” words here? Well, I remember when I started learning French, the phrase that sounds like Kesker Say but is written Qu’est-ce que c’est just seemed like an arbitrary collection of letters and so I always found it hard to remember the spelling because i didn’t really understand what the components meant. It was only later when I twigged that it literally means “What is it that it is?” that I started to understand how it related to “c’est” and “est-ce que”, and the other little building blocks of the language. And from there I started to decode the rhythms and the… well, the plumbing of the language. So I thought if I could just parse this sentence then I could start to unravel Gaelic in the same way.

Here’s how it goes

Cò risa thaant-sìdecoltachan-dràsta
Cò means “who” usually but can be pressed into service to mean “what” or “where” sometimes. “Ris” means something like “against” usually (or “rice”!)Actually, “tha” on it’s own is the singular, present tense form of the word “to be” so it’s more like “this is” female articleWhy hyphenated? I have no idea. Presumably it could be broken down even further but Ididn’t get into thatEmbarrassingly, I thought this meant “weather” whch is probably why I was so confusedAs with “t-sìde”, I possibly could have asked whether an and dràsta have their own individual existences, but I didn’t go that far

I think the teacher was sceptical as to how useful this would be but I find it really helpful because I can watch out for the patterns in other sentences.


Cò ris isn’t always the word used for “what”. A more usual form of asking those kinds of questions is “Dè”, as in “Dè an obair a th’ agad?” (pronounced “Jane Opper a Hacket”) meaning “What work do you do? Obair must be related to “Obra” (in portuguese) and “Operation” in english via some circuitous etymological backchanneling, I think.

The answer to this question can be a bit odd or unfamiliar. “Is e IT consultant a th’ annam” which means “It is an IT consultant that’s in me”. Er… OK…

And, yes, like most languages, Gaelic uses some imported english words, especially for relatively modern words. “IT Consultant” was just written as-is, but it seems more common for them to be transformed into Gaelic spelling. I like “brabhsair” for “browser” for example and “cupa tì” for “cup of tea”.


First of all, there aren’t any conjugations. So “Tha” means “is” and “am” and “are”. It has a past (bha) and a future (bidh). I’m not quite sure where “chan eil” fits into this. On its own it means “no” but it always seems to go at the front of the sentence (which is where the verb is always found in Gaelic) so maybe the “chan” part is… a….negative— form… of… the… verb…? I’m thinking out loud here, obviously.

There are only eleven irregular verbs. What are they? I have no idea. He did give me one example and all I can say it was pretty damn irregular, but I can live with that for the joy of not having to memorise long lists. Yeeeessss! I picked the right language!


Gaelic, like french, has two forms of the word “you” (I was going to write “like portuguese” until I remembered that portuguese has about 17), and the more formal one is “sibh”. The effects of this aren’t always obvious: it messes with the endings of some common phrases like “thank you” which can be “tapadh leit” or “tapadh leibh” in the thu and sibh forms respectively, “and “what’s your name?” which can be “Dè an t-ainm a th’ ort?” or “Dè an t-ainm a th’ oirbh?”

Fhèin is a handy little word for returning a question or greeting back to someone. It means “yourself”. So if someone asks how you “Dè an t-ainm a th’ ort?” then after you tell them “Cailean a th’orm” (Colin = Cailean) you can lob the question back to them with “Dè an t-ainm a th’ ort fhèin?” (How are you yourself). So now I’m going to end this blog post and get back to work, so I’ll say tapadh leit for reading and wish you a good evening with a cheery “feasgar math”, and if you want to be able to tell everyone that you replied to a blog post in scots gaelic today, you can do that by replying in the comments below “feasgar math fhèin”. Don’t bother with the accent if your keyboard isn’t up to it: we’re all friends here.


Just a data nerd

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