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The Gaelic language


Of the Gaelic language in which this literature exists, this is not the place to say much. To know it, it is necessary to study its grammars and dictionaries, and written works. With regard to the class of languages to which it belongs, many and various opinions were long held; but it has been settled latterly without room for dispute that it belongs to the Indo-European, or as it is now called, the Aryan class. That it has relations to the Semitic languages cannot be denied, but these are no closer than those of many others of the same class. Its relation to both the Greek and the Latin, especially the latter, is very close, many of the radical words in both languages being almost identical. Natural objects, for instance, and objects immediately under observation, have terms wonderfully similar to represent them. Mons, a mountain, appears in the Gaelic Monadh; Amnis, a river, appears in Amhainn; Oceanus, the ocean, in Cuan; Muir, the sea, in Mare; Caballus, a horse, in Capull; Equus, a horse, in Each; Canis, a dog, in Cu; Sol, the sun, in Solus, light; Salus, safety, in Slainte; Rex, a king, in Righ; Vir, a man, in Fear; Tectum, a roof, in Tigh; Monile, a necklace, in Muineal. This list might be largely extended, and serves to bring out to what an extent original terms in Gaelic and Latin correspond. The same is true of the Greek, but not to the same extent.

At the same time there is a class of words in Gaelic which are derived directly from the Latin. These are such words as have been introduced into the srvice of the church. Christianity having come into Scotland from the European Continent, it was natural to suppose that with it terms familiar to ecclesiastics should find thier way along with the religion. This would have occurred to a larger extent after the Roamn hierarchy and worship had been received among the Scots. Such words as Peacadh,sin; Sgriobtuir, the scriptures; Faosaid, confession; aoibhrinn, mass or offering; Caisg, Easter; Inid, initium or shrove-tide; Calainn, new year’s day; Nollaig, Christmas; Domhnach, God or Dominus; Diseart, a hermitage; Eaglais, a church; Sagart, a priest; Pearsa or Pearsoin, a parson; Reilig, a burying place, from reliquiœ; Ifrionn, hell; are all manifestly from the Latin, and a little care might add to this list. It is manifest that words which did not exist in the language must be borrowed from some source, and whence so naturally as from the language which was, in fact, the sacred tongue in the early church.

But besides being a borrower, the Gaelic has been largely a contributor to other languages. What is usually called Scotch is perhaps the greatest debtor to the Gaelic tongue, retaining as it does, numerous Gaelic words usually thought to be distinctive of itself. A list of these is not uninteresting, and the following is given as a contribution to the object : - Braw, from the Gaelic Breagh, pretty; Burn, from Burn, water; Airt, from Airde, a point of the compass; Baugh, from Baoth, empty; Kebbuck, from Cbaig, a cheese; Dour, from Dr, hard; Fey, from F, a rod for measuring the dead; Teem, from Taom, to empty; Sicker, from Shicker, sure, retained in Manx; Leister, from lister, a fishing spear, Manx; Chiel, from Gille, a lad; Skail, from Sgaoil, to disperse; Ingle, from Aingeal, a fire; Arles, from Earlas, earnest; Sain, from Sean, to consecrate. This list, like the former might be much increased, and shows how the relics of the Gaelic language may be traced in the spoken tongue of the Scottish Lowlands after the language itself has retired. Just in like manner, but arising from a much closer relation, do relics of the Celtic language appear in the Greek and Latin. The fact seems to be that a Celtic race and tongue did at one time occupy the whole of Southern Europe, spreading themselves from the Hellespont along the shores of the Adriatic, and the western curves of the Mediterranean, bounded on the north by the Danube and the Rhine, and extending to the western shores of Ireland. Of this ample evidence is to be found in the topography of the whole region; and the testimony of that topography is fully borne out by that of the whole class of languages still occupying the region, with the exception of the anomalous language of Biscay, and the Teutonic speech carried by the sword into Britain and other northern sections of it.

Mere resemblance of words does not establish identity of class among languages, such a similarity being often found to exist, when in other respects the difference is radical. It requires similarity of idiom and grammatical structure to establish the existence of such an identity. This similarity exists to a remarkable extent between the Gaelic and the Latin. There is not space here for entering into details, but a few examples may be given. There is no definite article in either language, the simple form of the noun including in it the article, thus, a man is fear, Latin vir, the former having in the genitive fir, the latter viri. The definite article am, an, , in Gaelic has no representative in Latin; thus an duine represents homo. The inflection in a large class of Gaelic nouns is by attenuation, while the nominative plural and genitive singular of such nouns are alike. So with the Latin, monachus, gen. monachi, nom.plur. monachi;Gaelic, manach,gen. manaich,nom.plur. manaich. The structure of the verb is remarkably similar in both languages. This appears specially in the gerund, which in Gaelic is the only form used to represent the infinitive and the present participle. The use of the subjunctive mood largely is characteristic of the Gaelic as of the Latin. The prepositions which are so variously and extensively used in Gaelic, present another analogy to the Latin. But the analogies in grammatical structure are so numerous that they can only be accounted for by tracing the languages to the same source. Another series of resemblances is to be found in the peculiar idioms which characterise both tongues. Thus, possession is in both represented by the peculiar use of the verb to be. Est mihi liber, there is to me a book, is represented in Gaelic by tha leabhar agam, which means, like the Latin, a book is to me.

But there is one peculiarity which distinguishes the Gaelic from and the whole class of Celtic tongues from all others. Many of the changes included in inflection and regimen occur in the initial consonant of the word. This change is usually held to be distinctive of gender, but its effect is wider than that, as it occurs in cases where no distinction of gender is expressed. This change, usually called aspiration, implies a softening of the initial consonants of words. Thus b becomes v, m becomes v, p becomes f, g becomes y, d becomes y, c becomes ch, more or less guttural, s and t become h, and so on. These changes are marked in orthography by the insertion of the letter h. This is a remarkable peculiarity converting such a word as mr into vr, spelled mhr; bs into vs, spelled bhs; duine into yuine, spelled dhuine. This peculiarity partly accounts for the number of letters h introduced into Gaelic spelling, loading the words apparently unnecessarily with consonants, but really serving a very improtant purpose.

It is not desirable, however, in a work like this to prosecute this dissertation further. Suffice it to say, that philologists have come to class the Gaelic with the other Celtic tongues among the great family of Aryan languages, having affinities, some closer, some more distant, with almost all the languages of Europe. It is of much interest to scholars in respect both of the time and the place which it has filled, and fills still, and it is gratifying to all Scottish Celts to know that it has become more than ever a subject of study among literary men.