Why Irish Spelling Looks Familiar Yet Strange


March 17th is St. Patrick’s Day, or Lá Fhéile Pádraig (Irish), named for one of the most recognized of the patron saints of Ireland, Saint Patrick, who died on this date around 493 A.D. While St. Patrick is famous for allegedly driving snakes out of Ireland, he is also responsible for the oldest known Gaelic composition in existence. This fact provides to explore the question of why Gaelic uses familiar letters in such unfamiliar ways. Gaelic, pronounced: /ˈɡeɪlɪk/, is an adjective that means “pertaining to the Gaels” – the speakers of the Celtic language originating in Ireland around the fourth century.

Written Irish, or An Caighdeán Oifigiúil, from this period is known as Primitive Irish. The fifth century saw the language transition into Old Irish – which, with the placement of marginalia (marginal notes) from manuscripts, is known to have utilized the Latin alphabet.  A hymn entitled “The Cry of the Deer” written by Saint Patrick may be the only written proof of Gaelic from this time. By the 12th century, Middle Irish evolved into the Early Modern Irish  which was used through the 18th century. There is no standard pronunciation of the Irish language, and the phonology varies amongst the Irish Gaelic and its sister languages the Scottish and Manx Gaelic dialects. Even within the language there are three main dialects – Munster (the south of Ireland), Connacht (Connemara and Aran Island in the west of Ireland) and Ulster (the north of Ireland). Each dialect may vary in their word and phrase selection, pronunciation and even grammar. There is, however, a mutual intelligibility amongst speakers of different Gaelic dialects.

In the case of Irish Gaelic, familiar consonants come in pairs, except for /h/: One is’ broad’ – pronounced with the tongue placed on the back of the soft palate; the other is ‘slender’ – pronounced with the middle of the tongue pushed up towards the hard palate.The use of consonant mutations changes a word according to its morphological and syntactic environment. It helps to identify the relationship between two similar words and their various meanings, but also results in written combinations that can be unusual to the non-Gaelic speaker. As a result of the Great Famine (known outside of Ireland as the Irish Potato Famine) in the mid-nineteenth century, the Irish Gaelic language lost a great number of its speakers  to death and emigration due to poverty. The Gaelic Revival movement, which began at the end of the nineteenth century, encouraged the learning and use of the Irish language throughout Ireland. Today there are just over 72,000 people who use Irish Gaelic as a first language throughout different parts of the country.


  1. elli -  July 13, 2012 - 3:05 am

    haha just went on your blog and you already use those lessons, erin, oops ;D

  2. elli -  July 13, 2012 - 3:03 am

    Erin-I found this website recently and started to learn irish…Im nowhere near knowing much, but it might be a good place for you to start! http://www.irishpage.com/irishpeople/
    I don’t know if all the links work, but I think this is great!!! :)
    hope this helps

    Morvil73- you are too cool! when I was really small I read this series called ‘seahorses’ and there was a section of cornish which i learned off by heart ;) wish I could speak cornish—we need to give it a revival! otherwise it will die!!! NOOO

    Margh Glas-Margh a Hav, My a wra delwel- dhiworth mor, tewes, ha men..
    no idea what it is, i think it’s a spell or something XD

    • derinos -  March 20, 2016 - 1:00 pm

      1.That quote is Cornish and is almost word for word the same in Welsh .”Blue sea, summer sea, I make a wish, be a calm sea. Amen”
      2.The severe phonetic-idiomatism handicap of all versions of written Gaelic will ensure its continued decline,, because as with Hebrew, you can only read a word if you can already speak it. This is in contrast to Russian and Welsh orthography,which developed to render an unfamiliar word correctly, with knowledge only of the correct alphabet. sounds.
      I tried applying to Gaelic the concise and strict Welsh (p-Celtic) orthography which was designed specifically for this purpose,; It works quite well to render unfamiliar Gaelic words.,

  3. Mag -  March 16, 2012 - 6:11 am

    Irish Gaelic, Scots Gaelic, Manx, Welsh, Cornish and Breton are all CELTIC languages – The Gaelic branch belong to the CELTIC Q branch and Welsh, Cornish and Breton to CELTIC P. Welsh, Cornish and Breton are sister languages but only cousins to the Gaelic languages – if that helps. Some of the explanations were really long winded and foggy.

  4. Seosamh Mac Phadraic -  January 19, 2012 - 8:10 am

    Dia dhaoibh ‘a chuile dhuine !

    Tá daoine annseo go bhfuil a fhios acu céard atá siad a caint faoi, ach tá go leor eile nach bhfuil a fhios acu aon rud faoi’n Ghaedhilge, nó aon rud eile ach an oiread, tá mé a’ ceapadh !

    Slán tamaill.


  5. Spailpín -  June 21, 2011 - 2:25 pm

    Gaeilge has become known as Irish here in Ireland for the same reason that French is called French or German is called German; it’s simply the language’s country of origin. In Scotland, on the other hand, there was already a “language” called Scotts – not Celtic in origin – so Gaidhlig remained as Scotts Gaelic, or simply Gaelic. It does annoy me a bit when people refer to Gaelic solely as the Scottish variety, it is just as correct to call Irish Gaelic, it is simply not done as much. Go n-éirí libh.

  6. Royal -  May 9, 2011 - 12:29 pm

    I believe George Bernard Shaw advocated the reform of English orthography, but met all kinds of criticism and sarcastic commentaries. In this ‘word processor’ age, I challenge some young bright linguist to ‘give it another go’ and post a better version where we all can see it–and possibly write articles in it. Esperanto has a very logical orthography: example using c and k differently.

  7. Daffyd -  April 7, 2011 - 8:37 pm

    St Patrick was a Welsh, and his first language was Welss/Cymru

  8. Morvil73 -  March 18, 2011 - 5:39 pm

    Irish and Scottish Gaelic spelling actually works quite well for the phonology of these languages. Yet, especially Irish has a lot of “silent” letter combinations which were pronounced at an earlier point in its history, some of these features may be alive in one dialect, but not in another.

  9. Morvil73 -  March 18, 2011 - 5:36 pm

    Prag yth erow’whei ow leverel dr’ew marow an Kernowek? Nag ew hedna gwir! Mirewgh orthi’vy! Th ero’vy orth y usya!
    “Why are you saying that Cornish is dead? That’s not true! Look at me! I’m using it!”

    The three Gaelic language communities maintained a long cultural and linguistic connection until the early modern age. That’s why they are referred to as Gaelic. Later specifications were made to distinguish Scottish Gaelic from Irish Gaelic and Manx Gaelic. It was only the establishment of the Irish nationalist movement in the later 19th and early 20th century that insisted on calling Irish Gaelic “Irish”. This is why “Irish” is used in Ireland whereas the rest of the English speaking world says Gaelic.
    I would say that the three Gaelic languages are as close to each other as the three continental Scandinavian languages. They are even mutually intelligible to some degree. Especially the (now largely extinct) dialects of north eastern Ireland and the western Scottish Highlands. But Manx is also intellgible to speakers of south western Scottish Gaelic. An Irish native speaker once told me she couldn’t make heads or tails (or in this case ‘tales’) of a passage of written Manx, but once it was read out aloud to her by a Manx speaker she claimed to understand every word.
    Welsh, Breton and Cornish are also similar to each other, but not as close as the three Gaelic languages.

    What’s this about the claim that specific languages are “old”? What a weird statement to make. A language is as old as the generations alive that speak it. Languages ‘reinvent’ themselves all the time – and every language is ancient, or derived from another equally ancient language, but living languages change all the time and become something slightly different generation by generation. Some cease to be spoken, other languages are consciously resurrected.

    • Teanaimh -  January 21, 2015 - 3:36 pm

      Hi Morvil73. It is a common myth that the nationalist movements are responsible for the use of ‘Irish’ in English. Indeed ‘Irish’ and precedent terms like it have a history of being used to describe all Gaelic varieties in the English language including in the lowlands of Scotland. The use of ‘Gaelic’ in English to refer to the Irish language is more recent phenomenon that likely arose from contact with emigrant native speakers who would not have referred to their language as Irish when speaking English. The term “Irish” was then displaced in most English speaking countries as a result. In Ireland itself ‘Gaelic’ was a common name for the language in English speaking Ireland but the use of “Irish” was still well-established particularly in Dublin.

  10. Ruiseart -  March 18, 2011 - 1:50 pm

    Slànte! I’m Scottish myself, but I just thought I’d drop by to leave a couple of notes.

    It’s pronounced “gah-lik” not “gay-lick”. Well, at least that’s the way we pronounce it around here.

    Neither Manx nor Scots Gaelic are dialects of Irish. They are different languages that share the same root as Gaelige (the Irish language), in the same way that Dutch and German are considered distinct languages.

    As already pointed out, there’s no such thing as Welsh Gaelic as Welsh is not a Goidelic language. It is a Brythonic language, much closer to Cornish and Breton (spoken in Brittany, France).

    @Liz Nicholson, Welsh is Old English??

    “HereIAm on March 17, 2011 at 6:49 am
    Both are Germanic languages, and English is relatively newer than most. So what’s the point of reforming it”
    I just hope that, by “both”, you are not referring to Irish/Gaelige and English. Irish is a Celtic language. Nothing to do with the Germanic branch.

    And concerning the answer, I believe it has been answered only partially. The reason as to why the words are spelt in such unique ways has to do with the fact that Old Irish employed the Ogham system as its sole writing system. When Christianity was introduced in Ireland, priests had a difficult time attempting to transcribe Irish phonemes into the limited Latin alphabet, especially due to the fact Irish consonants undergo slenderisation. As a result, ‘extra’ letters had to be added to reproduce variations in sound that could be reproduced by slenderisation and lenition. The spelling was indeed complicated, but it served its purpose well – the pronunciation of Old Irish is much more loyal to its spelling. With time, however, the phonology of Irish changed greatly, yet the spelling did not fully reflect the changes that occurred over time. Scots Gaelic is even more conservative. Whereas Irish is referred to as “Gaelige”, we call Scots Gaelic “Gàidhlig”. The Irish-speaking areas are collectively called Gaeltacht. Scots Gaelic-speaking areas are called, erm.. the Gàidhealtachd.

  11. Peter O'Connor -  March 18, 2011 - 10:37 am

    I agree with Andi above that the article fails (singularly) to answer the question itself posed. Can we now move on??

  12. Andi -  March 18, 2011 - 9:29 am

    This article fails to answer the question it seeks to answer. It leaves out the part about how monks were responsible for writing down the language. Monks transcribed Gaelic with Latin phonology although their understanding of Latin itself was limited.

  13. Peter O'Connor -  March 18, 2011 - 8:44 am

    @HenInLA Go back and read the article I wrote. It answered the question as concisely as I could make it without getting into either politics or pedantics.
    Consider for a moment the pronunciation of Paris. Or the fact that English speakers speak of Holland when meaning The Netherlands (Koningrijk van de Nederlands) why/how indeed are many North American place names “lifted” from the First Nations languages etc etc
    Places like Mostrim became Edgworthstown under the British. However most Irish nameplaces were (very) simply Anglicised and therefore seem to be similar. Lazyness accounts for part of it too English is creeping in even to Irish conversations – my (Irishspeaking ) family will often say CAR when the ‘correct’ term is gluasteán. A fiddle – as I’ve played for the last 48years is now called a veidhlín – which actually brings a whole new letter into the alphabet. In German it’s a Geige – in Hungarian it’s Hegedu in Dutch – Viool, Swedish – fiol and so forth – we in Ireland now use an English word to describe an instrument that has many other names.

  14. meg -  March 18, 2011 - 8:36 am

    interesting. im part irsish and i didnt know that!

  15. faoi dho -  March 18, 2011 - 6:11 am

    the reason irish (gaeilge) looks so familiar to anglophones is because most place names in ireland are (rather unsympathetic) english phonetic renditions or (VERY loose) translations of their irish original.

  16. John -  March 18, 2011 - 5:49 am

    HenInLA – The letters in Gaelic look familar but are often pronounced differently.

    For example “cafaidh” is pronounced the same as the English “Cafe”, “tìops” is “chips” and “cidsin” is “kitchen”. “Glè bhath” (meaning ‘very well’) is pronounced “gley vaar”, which may come as a surprise to an English speaker.

    Chinese languages (Manadarin, Cantonese) when written in latin script do the same.

    ps. Welsh is neither Gaelic nor Old English. It’s the modern form of Old Welsh/Brytonnic once spoken across the UK. It’s one of the oldest languages in Europe but not as old as Basque, Albanian or Greek.

  17. LauraB -  March 18, 2011 - 4:40 am

    I don’t understand why people call is Gaelic outside of Ireland! For example, in Ireland, on our school timetables it would say Gaeilge (prounanced gay-ill-ga), definitely not Gaelic!

  18. Mickey -  March 18, 2011 - 12:35 am

    Pogue mahone.

  19. Prince -  March 18, 2011 - 12:05 am

    I know, right? @ HenInLA

    Anyways, I’d say it’s because: 1) it’s extremely difficult to spell in Irish how a word actually sounds. Its phonology and morphology are what I call “much too volatile”. The whole soft vs. hard palate business? Yep. And the fact that shit changes the way it sounds depending on whether is before or after this consonant or that vowel and so does the morpheme blah blah blah. Basically Irish’s phonology just isn’t straightforward the way that, say, Hawaiian’s is. This isn’t wrong or right, it’s just how it is; some languages like Irish have an extemely inflection-prone phonology while others, like Spanish, not so much.

    tl;dr – To me it looks very unfamiliar b/c there simply isn’t a truly accurate way to spell the way Irish sounds unless you use IPA. This is also true of English, in my opinion; you can reform all the spelling you like, but personally I think it’s just easier to stick to what’s current and be done with it. Some languages just don’t seem to be “meant” to have a writing system that is more or less phonetically accurate; Danish, English and Irish are the best examples I can think of. On the other hand, languages such as Finnish, Italian and Turkish have almost completely phonetically-accurate spelling, i.e. words are spelled almost exactly how they sound.

    …So why can’t you do that for English and Irish? B/c they have an unusually large consonant-vowel inventory, and, phonetically speaking, the languages are doing too many things at once that would just be too complicated to note in spelling without resorting to just using the IPA.

    This is just my opinion, however, as an undergrad linguistics student. I don’t know the definite reasons behind Irish’s bizarre spelling, but I still think it’s probably b/c of its phonology, as well as language change (i.e. it used to sound this way but now it sounds this other way yet the spelling remains the same – English “knight” is a perfect example of a word whose spelling actually made sense centuries ago but it no longer sounds anything like its spelling suggests lol).

  20. Sintpeter -  March 17, 2011 - 11:00 pm

    Entertaining and educational discourse going here – even the Brit bashing. Love the Welsh – especially their Rarebit.

  21. anna -  March 17, 2011 - 10:45 pm

    My nose bleeds.

  22. Fergus -  March 17, 2011 - 7:25 pm

    You forgot the Celts in Brittany, France.
    When you’ve solved that, you can move on to explaining how a Bernardo O’Higgins gets to be the Liberator of Chile after 1810…
    (When somebody has to do it, you can count on a fighting Celt…20 to one against us? Finally, an even fight…)

  23. Erin -  March 17, 2011 - 7:16 pm

    i’ve always wanted to learn Gailec. My family’s all from England and Ireland, but living in Ontario, Canada, there’s not a lot of resources to learn it :(

  24. MNIce -  March 17, 2011 - 7:10 pm

    Alex, Plato is the proper name of a famous Greek philosopher and writer who lived shortly after the time the Jews returned to Israel from the Babylonian Captivity (b. 429 years Before the Christian Era). Evidently Plato is at present not sufficiently famous for you.

    The point you make about checking spelling is a good one, that is, where the English language is used. I have no idea if an Irish Gaelic automatic spell checking dictionary exists, or if one does, whether the spell checker can distinguish between English and Gaelic words and apply the correct dictionary.

  25. Othername4me -  March 17, 2011 - 5:48 pm

    Liz Nicholson,

    Welsh is part of the Celtic branch of Indo-European languages. It’s not related to English in the way you described.

  26. Shelia -  March 17, 2011 - 5:41 pm

    Wacky! Happy Saint Patricks Day!

  27. Brigid Ryan -  March 17, 2011 - 5:39 pm

    Also, at HenlnLA, I do not see where they answered the initial question. Thumbs up for bringing that out. From my perspective, this whole thing is more so about St. Patrick’s Day, than the question that it asked. Bloody hell.

  28. HenInLA -  March 17, 2011 - 3:55 pm

    DaNcErGiRl isn’t the only confused one.
    I’m still looking for the answer to the question in the headline of this story that got me to read it in the first place:
    “Why DOES spelling in Irish (Gaelic) looks so familiar, yet unfamiliar?”

  29. The Gael -  March 17, 2011 - 3:42 pm

    I had two posts from earlier, but somehow they’ve disappeared.

    The article does not mention that the decline of Irish Gaelic (also known as Erse – which predates the Scots using the term) was forced by British Rule.

    When the Anglo settlers/colonists infiltrated the country, eventually the parliament was dominated by non-Irish. One law was the ban on speaking Gaelic, so the language went underground. Irish were forced into poverty (land ownership was outlawed and therefore many were forced into slums).

    When the Great Famine hit, the poorest areas of the country were hit hardest. Death and immigration further led to the decline of the language.

    Note, too, that there are only 18 characters in the Irish alphabet, so spelling (using the English alphabet) looks rather strange. Accents (´ and ˙) are used over certain characters, and letters are also grouped to form different sounds. It may seem strange to non-Irish, but have you seen some of the village signs in Wales?

  30. Lola Bean -  March 17, 2011 - 2:47 pm

    David, they still do call it Gaelic. Just to let you know. I lived there.

  31. DaNcErGiRl -  March 17, 2011 - 2:26 pm

    i’m confused….

  32. David -  March 17, 2011 - 1:29 pm

    Irish people speak Irish. Nobody calls it Gaelic in Ireland so the rest of the world should follow suit.

  33. Svenjamin -  March 17, 2011 - 1:27 pm

    Hats off to you ‘Patt’ for sppeaking the truth. Let us not forget or diminish the blinding cruelty of the British. Although the Great Famine claimed many Irish lives, it was the jolly old Brits who almost terminated the laguage along with the people. During the Famine they promised Irish people hope and prosperity by sending them to the “New World” on ships that were then intentionally sunk at sea. My grandparents immigrated to the United States in their early teens around 1917 for fear that their heads would end up detached by the Orangemen and displayed on pikes in public squares and at crossroads as they had seen of their family members and friends. That’s right, the British were still Medieval and barbaric less than 100 years ago! Although they had “Irish” accents, my grandparents never learned to speak any form of Gaelic out of fear for their lives. The fact that much of the language survived merely verbally may explain why there is so much variation.

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  35. jack norman -  March 17, 2011 - 12:19 pm

    When I was in Eire, the bus tickets in Dublin were printed in Gaelic. In Galway, the center of the Gaeltacht, where Gaelic is spoken, the bus tickets were printed in English.

  36. Bryan H. Allen -  March 17, 2011 - 12:13 pm

    The Hot Word, 2011/03/16

    Yes, PR (03/16/2011 at 3:53 pm), the soft pallet is made of balsa wood instead of fine oak. 
    (Cf. “portable platform”.  Maybe, PR means Pretty Rough, my dear sir and good sport?)

    The soft palate, also anatomically called the “velum” (adjective “velar”)
    is the flexible back of the roof of the mouth. 
    The proverbial doctor (general practitioner of medicine) asks you, the patient, to say “ah” [ɑː] to make you raise your velum (soft palate). 
    It leads you concurrently to open your mouth and to breathe through it, and it exposes your throat (upper pharynx) to his/her diagnostic vision. 
    One pronounces [m] with the velum down (nasal passage open) and [b] with it up (sealed); otherwise, the two consonants are pronounced substantially the same.

    In contrast, the hard palate (just “palate”, adjective “palatal”) is inflexible and cannot be moved relative to the neighboring tissue.

    Owing to the resulting different sizes and shapes of the oral cavity, a palatal consonant (pronounced near or against the “hard” palate) exhibits more high-pitch sound partials than a velar consonant (pronounced against the “soft” palate). 
    This makes them distinguishable in listening to speech. 
    In most languages, adolescents and adults learn to ignore the difference. 
    (Commonly, they learn that the pairs of consonants are “the same”, but really they are merely not meaningfully different in their own language.)

    In the alphabet of the International Phonetic Association,
    the unvoiced,
    fricative consonant is symbolized as ç,
    and the unvoiced, fortis, dorso-velar fricative consonant is symbolized as x. 
    and “dorsum
    in phonetics refer to areas of the tongue’s upper surface, the active articulator. 
    Untrained English speakers listening to the sounds commonly confuse the slit fricatives ç and its more frontal neighbor ɕ
    with ʃ, a groove fricative: “sh”. 
    For example, the Austrian and Swiss [ʔɪç] is mistakenly recognized as [ɪʃ].) 
    The corresponding plosive consonants are written c (high pitched) and k (low pitched) in the IPA alphabet, making ç/c and x/k matched pairs.

    Divvie (are you reading this?), the 03/16/2011 column/blog shows my lack of erudition! 
    I know practically nothing about the Gaelic and Celtic languages! 
    The orthography stumps me!  Shame on me! 
    (Is my comment today any more intelligible than my previous ones? 
    Regardless, it merely regurgitates stale information, manifesting nary an insight.)

    If only I had the spare time, I would devote today, St. Patrick’s Day, to penitential learning of some of the basics of Irish Gaelic.  Alas, I don’t, so I will persist in loathsome ignorance.

  37. J -  March 17, 2011 - 11:48 am

    If you cite wikipedia, you lose all credibility…

  38. LRahm -  March 17, 2011 - 11:40 am

    Welsh is actually different. I speak some Scot, some Irish, and a good deal of Welsh and see very little (if any) similarity in sentence construct or word sound between Gaelic and Welsh. There are several varieties but I do not believe it is much different than saying “varieties” for US English Slang versions.
    Just a humble observation

  39. DIVVIE -  March 17, 2011 - 10:04 am

    My former father-in-law was a “come over” and still spoke Gaelic, as well as English. He was from County Kerry, the town of Dingle. When his nephew emigrated to the states he lived with my father-in-law. This young man’s gaelic was nearly impossible for my father-in-law to understand. The reason was a difference in dialect despite having lived only a few miles apart

  40. Ted Henderson -  March 17, 2011 - 9:40 am

    Actually, Welsh is not a Gaelic dialect. It’s a Brythonic language and is considered to be one of the original languages of the British Isles.

  41. Prince -  March 17, 2011 - 9:24 am

    There is no such thing as ‘Welsh Gaelic’. Welsh is Welsh. It IS related to Scottish Gaelic, Manx Gaelic and Irish Gaelic, however, it’s from a different branch. There two branches of extant Celtic languages: Goidelic and Brythonic. Goidelic = Irish Gaelic, Manx Gaelic, Scottish Gaelic. Brythonic: Breton, Cornish, Welsh.

    Irish, Manx and Scottish are no more dialects of each other than Portuguese, Spanish and Catalan are. That is to say, they aren’t dialects. They’re very close, and speakers of any one of these will be able to understand quite a bit if spoken to or if reading a text written in one of these languages, but there isn’t total mutual intelligibility.

    For instance, as a Spanish speaker, I can tell what most texts written in Catalan or Portuguese are saying, but when I hear people speak, not so much; I’ll pick out words here and there but I can’t make out a lot of it.

    Anyways, this article is useless for people without a linguistic and/or phonetic basics background, i.e. if you don’t know so much as the basics you won’t know wtf the soft palate vs. the hard palate is. Furthermore most people which have never read a book or taken a course on such things won’t understand any of the “consonant mutation” or “morphological or syntactic environment” mumbo-jumbo. Try Wikipedia.

  42. Mark Scanlan -  March 17, 2011 - 8:54 am

    “The Great Famine” is what it’s called in English history books. Ireland was a food exporter throughout the period that some us know as “The Great Starvation.” People just don’t want to acknowledge that the cuddly British committed genocide.

  43. Kate -  March 17, 2011 - 8:47 am

    Scots, Manx & Irish Gaelic are closely related – belonging to the Goidelic grouping.

    Welsh is realted to Cornish and Breton – in the Brythonic grouping.


  44. The Gael -  March 17, 2011 - 8:41 am

    By the way, there are only 18 letters in the Irish alphabet.

    Accents ( ´ and ˙) are placed over certain letters to obtain a different pronunciation, as well, letters are combined to create different sounds.

  45. Reader #5,385 -  March 17, 2011 - 8:27 am

    Can you guys write a blog about my other half now- Armenian? It is one of the oldest languages and Armenians are the first known accepters of Christianity. I don’t follow religion myself, but it’s an interesting “information tid-bit.” Anyway, awesome entry.

  46. Brandon -  March 17, 2011 - 8:12 am

    @PR …. If you push your tongue straight up, it’s hard (“roof of your mouth”). Further back, it’s soft–your soft palate.

    @Eyewitness … I think the reason it said “sister languages” for Scots Gaelic and Manx is that they are those two along with Irish are all Goidelic languages whereas the other known Celtic languages–Welsh, Breton and Cornish–are Brythonic.

  47. The Gael -  March 17, 2011 - 8:09 am

    What this article fails to mention is how the use of Irish Gaelic (known as Erse) was FORCED to decline as a result of the English.

    In the 1600s, Ireland fell to the English conquests militarily. With the infusion of Anglo settler/colonists, soon the parliament was taken over. The Irish were forced out of their own parliament. British rule outlawed the use of Erse – England’s attempt to dominate the island – and the language went underground.

    The Irish people became second-class citizens in their own country, and forced into poverty. When the Great Famine hit, the poorest areas of the country suffered the most. Death and immigration resulted in the use of the language to practically die out.

  48. Alex McAoidhe -  March 17, 2011 - 7:34 am

    @Eyewitness: No, Welsh is not Gaelic. It’s a Celtic language but finds pedigree in an altogether dissimilar matrix, namely, Brythonic-Celtic. Perforce,these are the two bisected variants of the Celtic language: Brythonic and Gaelic.

    @ Arianwen: Yes, Scots-Gaelic is just an offshoot, dialect, variant (whatever you want to call it) of the Irish language (what this site calls Gaelic). Irish nomads arrived in their thousands to Scotland in the Middle Ages, bringing the Irish language with them. The same goes for Manx. Both are derivative of the Irish tongue.

  49. Paul -  March 17, 2011 - 7:08 am


    Welsh, Cornish and Breton are also modern survivors of ancient Celtic languages but they form a distinct group, considered to be younger than the Irish/Scottish/Manx grouping. The former are normally described as “P” Celtic or Brythonic languages, the latter as “Q” Celtic or Goidelic languages.

    Sadly, I speak none of them, beyond a few words of Welsh my Grandfather taught me!

  50. HereIAm -  March 17, 2011 - 6:49 am

    Both are Germanic languages, and English is relatively newer than most. So what’s the point of reforming its spelling?

    Modern English would include up to Shakespeare. Anything before his time is ridiculous when trying to read it, especially old English. Middle isn’t too bad at all, but even that still has its difficulties. Then English language, sir, has reformed a lot during the last 1000 years if you think about it.

  51. THE_IRISH_LORD -  March 17, 2011 - 6:40 am


  52. draechaeli -  March 17, 2011 - 6:33 am

    @Eyewitness: Welsh isn’t Gaelic, it is however Celtic. Modern Celtic is a language sub-group that encompasses Gaelic (Scottish, Irish, and Manx) also known as the Goidelic language grouping, and the Brythonic language grouping (Welsh, Breton and Cornish.) Modern day Scottish and Irish are derived from Classical Gaelic, while Welsh and Breton come from the Roman British era language.

    @Ray:There are two other language groupings within Celtic (or Proto-Celtic) that are extinct, Gaulish and Celtiberian. So yes Gaelic and Gaulish are related

  53. Susan -  March 17, 2011 - 6:14 am

    Hi Eyewitness, the reason for considering Scottish and Manx as ‘sister languages’ to Irish (i.e. Gaelic, or Gaeilge, as it’s known in the Irish language) is that there are two strains of Celtic languages, the ‘P’ Celtic and the ‘Q’ Celtic. Irish, Scottish and Manx are examples of ‘Q’ Celtic languages. Welsh, Breton and Cornish are all examples of ‘P’ Celtic languages. The two types of languages are quite different, and the characterstic difference is that one strain substitutes a ‘k’ sound where the other uses a ‘p’ sound.

  54. Scott Leonard -  March 17, 2011 - 6:08 am

    Welsh and Cornish are from a different branch of the Celtic tree (Brythonic) than Irish and Scottish (Goidelic). They are far enough removed linguistically and culturally that they tend to be treated differently.

  55. Kelly -  March 17, 2011 - 6:02 am

    Richard: There was an attempt in the mid-20th century to simplify English spelling, and write everything exactly as it sounded.

  56. John Connell -  March 17, 2011 - 5:52 am

    Eyewitness, there is no such thing as “Welsh Gaelic”. Welsh is a Cymric (or Brythonic) as opposed to a Gaelic (or Goidelic) language. Welsh and the Gaelic languages are, however, all classed in a wider group known as “Celtic”. But Scottish Gaelic is much more closely related to Irish Gaelic than it is to Welsh.

  57. BruceMcF -  March 17, 2011 - 5:49 am

    @Arianwen Dialects normally differ by more than pronunciation, and whether two closely related languages are dialects or distinct languages is not a black and white question, but a matter of degree. For example, whether Catalan is a “closely related language” to Castilian or a “regional dialect” of Spanish is largely a political question in Spain of unitary nationalism versus regionalism.

    In any event, Irish Gaelic, Manx Gaelic and Scots Gaelic are all descended from Classical Gaelic, also known as Early Modern Irish, just as Portuguese, Castilian and Catalan are all descended from the common Iberian Latin of the early part of the first millenium.

    @Eyewitness: Welsh is more closely related to Breton. Irish Gaelic, Scots Gaelic and Manx Gaelic have a common ancestor within the last thousand years, while at the time of Roman conguest, British Gaelic was a distinct language in the general Celtic family of languages (like Romance languages today ~ Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Romanian, etc.).

    @Ray Yes, Gaul was a general Roman term for some of the Celtic-speaking peoples and the territory they inhabited. Pre-Rome and before great migrations of the first millenium, Celtic-speaking people in Europe extended from the British Isles in the west as far east as the Black Sea. When Julius Caesar got appointed proconsul of “Cisalpine Gaul” ~ the part of the Italian peninsula north of the Rubicon river up to the alps ~ he cleverly got it extended to “Transalpine and Cisalpine Gaul”, which basically implied that he would be proconsul for as much of the territory north of Italy and Spain as he could grab.

    After the Romans and then the Huns, Vandals, Goths and German migrations, Norse invasions, etc. etc., only Irish Gaelic, Scots Gaelic, Welsh and Breton are really left, with some language revivals of Manx Gaelic in the western branch and Cornish in the british branch.

  58. Laura -  March 17, 2011 - 5:45 am

    In answer to your question, the article omits Welsh from its list of Gaelic “sister languages” because Welsh (Cymru) is not part of the Gaelic language family. Welsh, along with Cornish and Breton, are Brythonic languages.

  59. Patt -  March 17, 2011 - 5:41 am

    The Irish language was sytematically eradicated from use by the Orangemen (British) who forbade and punished its use!

  60. Peter O'Connor -  March 17, 2011 - 5:35 am

    This doesn’t answer the question posed. Why such a similarity?
    Most Irish names were translated by British map makers – some with an anti-Irish agenda, some were very sympathetic. (in Ireland btw we call it Irish – not Gaelic though in Irish it is correctly called Gaeilge – teanga na gael = language of the Irish) .
    Most place names were (sort of) translated, others Anglicised. My home town Dún Dealgan -fort on a man-made hill of Dealga, became Dundalk. Dubh Linn (Black Pool) became Dublin. Corcaigh (Place of the Marshes) became Cork. Lios Mór(Fort at the confluence of the Big River – and another) simply Lismore. Others were translated – Tobar Óin = John’s-well or Johnstown.
    Much was lost as driving around or even looking at a place name will tell you something of the landscape or history of a place – Carrick on Suir the cliff at the river, Cluan Méala (Meadow of Honey) became Clonmel. Glen Ribín where we now have our B&B (Valley of the thread-like river) became Glenribbeen. Most names were shortened Monín na gClícán (Little bog of the small skull) became Boston (Co Clare).
    English is a wonderful (global) language and I love it – but I miss my Irish placenames greatly. Is trua liom é nach bhuil sé so – ach tá sé anois.

  61. MuirisOD -  March 17, 2011 - 5:10 am

    Beannachtaí na Féile Pádraig oraibh.

    Good article, as always. While it’s true that today only a small percentage of the population of Ireland uses Irish as its first language, the revival of the tongue is definitely ongoing. There is an ever-increasing number of gaelscoileanna (schools where all subjects, including maths, English and other European languges, are thought through the medium of Irish), there are televsion and radio stations broadcasting in Irish, and many feel that some of the best poetry being produced in the country is in the Irish language.

    Internationally, interest is also increasing in the language. A case in point is Poland, where the language is actively taught in the Celtic Studies Departments of two major universities, Poznan and Lublin.

    Anyway, enough proselytising – time perhaps for a pint (the soft power of Irish culture…..)


  62. John -  March 17, 2011 - 5:01 am

    Irish Gaelic is a little different from Scots Gaelic but I think they are mutually intelligible. Lá Fhéile Pádraig (St Patrick’s Day) in Scots Gaelic would be Latha fheill Pàdraig.

    Both languages use latin letters in different ways than in English eg. “th” has a silent t and “dh” is a softened g sound. Dipthongs are different eg “io” is a long i sound. For example “fiolm” for film. Other languages do the same such as Polish, Slovak, Russian and so on except Gaelic really goes to town.

    Also Gaelic has certain sounds we just don’t have in English (lots of gutteral g and ch sounds) and these have to be represented by grouped consonants (eg. gh, ch, dh)

  63. Alex -  March 17, 2011 - 4:48 am

    dictionary.com has some exciting articles but could indeed use a spell-checker. The entry on Atlantis, for instance, refers to a “plato.”

  64. David -  March 17, 2011 - 4:25 am


    Padraig would be pronounced pawdrik

  65. Becky -  March 17, 2011 - 2:12 am

    The soft palate is the back of the roof of your mouth. The method of using the tongue there to form particular sounds in several languages is called lenition. Russian is another language where lenition is noticeable. One good example of familiar words – goleor (can’t remember if it’s accented, sorry) is galore in English.

  66. Emily -  March 16, 2011 - 10:26 pm

    PR: The soft palate is the part of the roof of the mouth that is toward the back (the part where the roof feels smoother and kind of slippery). The hard palate is the roof of the mouth at the front and has tiny bumps and ridges. The sound of a letter differs depending on its place of articulation in the mouth. For instance, the further forward in the mouth an [s] is produced, the more it sounds hissing (sibilant). As you go further back, it will sound more like “sh” and, near the back of the soft palate, like a deeper “sh,” almost a “shr.”

  67. Kath -  March 16, 2011 - 10:25 pm

    I don’t think Welsh is generally considered to be a Gaelic language.

  68. KrisM -  March 16, 2011 - 9:05 pm

    Just a clarification for Eyewitness’s query: the Celtic subfamily of the Indo-European family of languages has 2 branches. A Goidelic branch (in Old Irish Goidel meant Gael) which includes Irish Gaelic, Scottish Gaelic, and Manx. And a Brythonic branch which includes Welsh, Breton, and the extinct Cornish. So – Welsh is from a different branch than their main discussion above.

  69. Henry -  March 16, 2011 - 7:59 pm

    Dear Arianwen,

    relatively speaking, the connection between Irish and Scottish is profound, and not that old. It goes to show how separation of geography and culture can mimic in language the evolution of species in nature. The separation of common intercourse among Irish and Scots (who were Irish) quickly gives rise to the differences between them, but they have happened only since the earliest of the middle ages, I believe. The culture, especially the shared instruments, clothing, dance, etc., is easily recognized and quite close between them.

  70. Henry -  March 16, 2011 - 7:56 pm

    Dear Ray, the Irish from Ireland, my mom and dad among them, pronounce it as if it were spelled “porrig”, with a short, sharp ending of the “g” sound. Perhaps, “porick” may be closer to the sound of that spelling of Patrick in Gaelic. Remember, these are also taking an alphabet fashioned whole cloth from Latin, I believe, by scholars, not the common speakers of the tongue, who spoke it indigenously…without written structure

  71. Henry -  March 16, 2011 - 7:53 pm

    Dear Eyewitness; I believe you have a question and the answer is that I believe Welsh Gaelic is significantly different from the others, it or the others being a much older version (I think the Welsh is the older, and perhaps because of their much earlier inhabitance of the Isle of Britain than the Scots, who came from Ireland after the fall of Roman culture in Britain.

  72. Cathal -  March 16, 2011 - 7:31 pm

    The Irish language is actually called ‘Gaeilge’ not ‘Gaelic’. So before you go rambling on about a language its probably best you call it by the correct name.

    Beidh ar la linn,

    La Fheile Phadraig Shona Diabh

  73. Ladygoshawk -  March 16, 2011 - 7:18 pm

    If I remember correctly, Irish and Scots Gaelic have their roots in Welsh, which is a Celtic language brought over from the Continent. All three have evolved and grown over time.

  74. GlasDrache -  March 16, 2011 - 6:52 pm

    Eyewitness–Welsh is a seperate language from Gaelic; they are loosely related, but Welsh is a Brythonic language, and Gaelic is a Goidelic language, so they are not that close (for comparison, English is a Germanic language).

  75. Woo Girl -  March 16, 2011 - 6:44 pm

    WHOA… WOW… My head hurts… XD

  76. Becca -  March 16, 2011 - 6:34 pm

    Let’s not forget the English conquest and hundreds year long occupation of Ireland. That didn’t do much to keep the language alive either.

  77. Callisto -  March 16, 2011 - 6:12 pm

    Okay, firstly, Welsh is not of the Gaelic branch of the Celtic languages: it is as Brythonic, as is Cornish and Breton, spoken in Brittany (Little Britain) in France. Brythonic was spoken by the ancient British Celts, of Britain, that evolved into modern day Welsh: Welsh is the oldest spoken language in Europe.
    Saint Patrick himself was not Irish, but a Briton (a British Celt), who was taken to Ireland when he was a young man, where he most assuredly learned to speak the Gaelic branch of the Celtic languages. Patrick would have also spoken Latin.

    Gaelic was most assuredly spoken in Ireland LONG before the 4th century, so this article is erroneous on a number of points. Scots Gaelic came from Ireland, and is related to Irish. In other words, the Scots, known as the Scotti, came from Ireland and settled in Northern Britain.

  78. Liz Nicholson -  March 16, 2011 - 5:39 pm

    In regards to Eyewitness,
    The Welsh language is not Gaelic at all and has no Gaelic roots. Welsh is actually what is called today Old English. It’s what the English language was back in the Middle Ages, or maybe further back, I’m not entirely sure. But English evolved over the centuries leaving this version behind, and it had continued to be used as the Welsh language.

    Hope this clarifies.

  79. Richard Comaish -  March 16, 2011 - 5:01 pm

    Will English reform its spelling first, or Gaelic?: a snail race or what?

  80. Ray -  March 16, 2011 - 4:32 pm

    Are we reading this right–? Padraig, pronounced, PatrIgk rather than Patrigk … LIk we pronounce I as ‘ai’ (and ai as ‘ae’ (e.g. bait) and ae as ‘ee’ (i.e. Caesar)) rather than ‘ih’…?

    Would Gaelic be related to Gaul in an even-earlier era…?

    P.S. Please, Spell ‘marginalia’.

  81. Arianwen -  March 16, 2011 - 4:17 pm

    One thing — Scottish Gaelic isn’t a dialect, it’s a different language. Irish and Scots Gaelic do share common roots, but they’re a very long way back. I think Manx is also a language. It’s not just the pronunciation that’s different — there are many similar expressions, but the comparison might be something like that between Spanish and Catalán (please correct me if I’m wrong :)

  82. Eyewitness -  March 16, 2011 - 4:07 pm

    When mentioning Gaelic “sister languages,” the article omitted Welsh Gaelic, or is Welsh Gaelic for some reason (historical, geographical, other?) not a related, Gaelic-based language. I would think if the article cited Scottish Gaelic, then one would expect Welsh Gaelic to be included.

  83. THE IRISH MAN -  March 16, 2011 - 4:05 pm

    Thank god tommorrow is saint patricks day :D

  84. waaaaafle -  March 16, 2011 - 3:59 pm

    you guys are crazy! =( :D :)

  85. PR -  March 16, 2011 - 3:53 pm

    soft pallet?


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