Gaelic – The Sound of Silents

Photo by James H on Flickr

Help ma boab! April is Scottish-American Heritage Month, which got us Yappnites wondering why there’s a world of difference between written Gaelic and the way all those letters disappear when it’s spoken.

Gaelic isn’t the only language that pleads guilty to sounding worlds apart from its spelling and English is easily named an accessory to the crime of too many silent letters, like gh and double letters and what is up with that silent ‘k’ business combined with ‘n’? While we’re on the subject, why is it the Knights Who Say ‘Ni’ and not the Knights Who Say ‘Knee’? Bloody English ka-nigits!



Gaelic and Brittonic are the two groups of Insular Celtic languages and Gaelic’s modern children include Irish, Scottish and Manx, once spoken on the Isle of Man, which died out in the last century but has since begun a revival. Gaelic and Irish have diverged enough to be regarded as two separate languages, with Irish dropping the ‘Gaelic’. Differences between Gaelic and Irish include differing and individually lost sounds and opposing accent marks.


– Acute (´) as in sláinte (Irish only)

– Grave, (`) as in matà (Scottish only)

The importance of regular vowel movements

If you want to learn Gaelic, be prepared to dig deep into your vowels.

According to the Unofficial Guide to Pronouncing Gaelic, published by the UK Cambridge University Hillwalking Club, which loves to spell out their club’s acronym with their bodies, the first thing you want to do when learning Gaelic or Irish is to throw out all the unnecessary letters: J, K, Q, V, W, X, Y and Z. We hope you’re not too attached to consonants because Gaelic has less need of them than English. Then you’ll want to differentiate between ‘slender’ and ‘broad’ vowels.

Gaelic vowels


Vanna White & vowels

You’ll need to buy a lot of vowels on the Gaelic Wheel of Fortune. Photo by Lloyd Klein on Flickr

You’ll be exhausted! Fortunately, the remaining rule is simple: In Gaelic, words are only stressed on the first syllable which is where all this fankle comes from; vowels are far less problematic in the rest of the word.

Need some help remembering all that? According to The Mysteries of Irish Spelling, much of it can be summed up with one of the basic spelling rules: ‘Slender with slender and broad with broad.’ Caol le caol agus leathan le leathan.

(Don’t ask us how to pronounce that. We’re lying down with a cold compress and debating whether to enroll in a simpler language class, like Mandarin Chinese.) Once you’ve learned everything you need to know about the vowels, Caol le caol agus leathan le leathan is one of those simple slogans like ‘I’ before ‘e’ except after ‘c’.

Scottish and Irish and Manx, oh my!


Hearing Gaelic and Irish spoken can be deceiving; the languages sound similar to the non-Gaelic ear and one would guess they’re more likely dialects and that a Scotsman and an Irishman can largely understand each other.  In fact, the languages have evolved separately while Manx Gaelic came to a bit of a halt in 1974 when the last native speaker died. In fact, it was even declared an extinct language by UNESCO in 2009, but there were enough speakers in the small island population fluent or at least knowledgeable enough in Manx that efforts to revive it have been quite successful, as it is considered, like indigenous languages everywhere, to be an important part of the people’s culture and heritage.


Ned Maddrell, last native Manx Gaelic speaker


All three languages are still very much minority languages in their home countries where English has predominated for many years. In 1971 the Manx census counted 284 speakers; by 2001 that had grown to over 1,500 and no one is quite sure how many speakers there are today. Irish is regularly spoken by an estimated 1% of the Republic of Ireland’s 4.5 million people according to the 2011 census. The Scottish census that same year also showed around 1% of regular Gaelic speakers. The three languages have reversed decades of decline through political changes and social movements and have begun to reclaim their respective cultural heritage.

American and Canadian Gaelic, eh?


Interestingly, despite the designated National Scottish-American Heritage Month, there’s no appreciable use of Gaelic in the United States, and certainly no American Gaelic dialect, despite a 2013 survey which estimated 5.3 million Americans of Scottish descent and nearly three million more claiming Scotch-Irish descent. The Battle of Culloden launched an eighteenth-century migration from the Highlands to the American colonies although the very first Scots came to the New World with the Vikings.

Farther north, the Canadian Gaelic dialect is spoken as a community language in only one region of North America, Atlantic Canada. It’s been spoken for close to two and a half centuries on Cape Breton Island, north of Nova Scotia, and also on Prince Edward Island, the smallest of Canada’s provinces. It’s also spoken in some parts of Nova Scotia’s northeastern mainland. Atlantic Canada claims about 2,000 speakers out of an estimated 7, 195 (once again, according to the 2011 census).

Not surprisingly, the language has diverged from the mother tongue as a dialect – different but still comprehensible to other Gaelic speakers – and may well become a language in its own right, just as Irish has evolved.

America’s Scottish descendants may have near-zero knowledge of Gaelic but that hasn’t stopped GaelicUSA, a small collection of activists, scholars and artists, to encourage the revitalization of Gaelic in American education.

Best of luck to you, friends! Tha sinn ag iarraidh thu fhortan, charaidean!




Yappn Corp is an enhanced machine translation company who will happily partake of haggis on Robbie Burns Day and always welcomes a glass of Glenfiddich. For more information please contact or call us at +1.905.763.3510 x246.


Never miss out on another Yappn blog post! We love language, translation, and the cool machine translation technology driving it. Not to mention eCommerce, Asian growth, and how we’re all learning to communicate better with each other. Sign up for our new post email notifications today! We update the blog once a week. You might also get the occasional press release. We respect your Inbox!



Written by Nicole Chardenet, Sales Development Rep at Yappn

Share This Post