Scottish Gaelic grammar

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search

This article describes the grammar of the Scottish Gaelic language.

Grammar overview[edit]

The 10th-century Book of Deer contains the oldest known Gaelic text from Scotland, here seen in the margins of a page from the Gospel of Matthew.

Gaelic shares with other Celtic languages a number of interesting typological features:[1]

  • Verb–subject–object basic word order in simple sentences with non-periphrastic verbal constructions, a typological characteristic relatively uncommon among the world's languages.
  • conjugated prepositions (traditionally called "prepositional pronouns"): complex forms historically derived from the fusion of a preposition + pronoun sequence (see Prepositions below)
  • prepositional constructions for expressing possession and ownership (instead of a verb like English have):
Tha taigh agam — "I have a house" (lit. "A house is at me")
Tha an cat sin le Iain - "Iain owns that cat" (lit. "Is the cat that with Iain")
  • emphatic pronouns: Emphatic forms are systematically available in all pronominal constructions (See Pronouns below).
Tha cat agadsa ach tha cù agamsa – "You have a cat but I have a dog"

Consonant mutations[edit]

Lenition and slenderisation (also referred to as palatalisation or "i-infection") play a crucial role in Scottish Gaelic grammar.[2]

Lenition (sometimes inaccurately referred to as "aspiration"), as a grammatical process, affects the pronunciation of initial consonants, and is indicated orthographically by the addition of an h:

  • caileagchaileag "girl", beagbheag "small", facafhaca "saw", snogshnog "nice"

Lenition is not indicated in writing for l, n or r. Moreover, it does not affect words that begin with a vowel, or words that begin with sg, sm, sp, or st. In most cases, lenition is caused by the presence of particular trigger words to the left (certain determiners, adverbs, prepositions, and other function words). In this article, the leniting effect of such words is indicated, where relevant, by the superscript "+L" (e.g. glé+L "very").

Slenderisation, on the other hand, is a change in the pronunciation of the final consonant of a word, and it is typically indicated by the addition of an i:

  • facalfacail "word", balachbalaich "boy", òranòrain "song", ùrlarùrlair "floor"

In many cases slenderisation causes more complex changes to the final syllable of the word:

  • cailleachcaillich "old woman", ceòlciùil "music", fiadhféidh "deer", cascois "foot"

Slenderisation has no effect on words that end in a vowel (e.g. bàta "boat"), or words whose final consonant is already slender (e.g. sràid "street").

Most cases of slenderisation can be explained historically as the palatalizing influence of a following front vowel (such as -i) in earlier stages of the language. Although this vowel has now disappeared, its effects on the preceding consonant are still preserved.[3] Similarly, lenition of initial consonants was originally triggered by the final vowel of the preceding word, but in many cases, this vowel is no longer present in the modern language.[4]

Many word-final consonants have also disappeared in the evolution of Scottish Gaelic, and some traces of them can be observed in the form of prosthetic or linking consonants (n-, h-, t-, etc.) that appear in some syntactic combinations, for example, after some determiners (see below).[5]


Gender and number[edit]

Gaelic nouns and pronouns belong to one of two grammatical genders: masculine or feminine. Nouns with neuter gender in Old Gaelic were redistributed between the masculine and feminine.

The gender of a small number of nouns differs between dialects. A very small group of nouns have declensional patterns that suggest mixed gender characteristics. Foreign nouns that are fairly recent loans arguably fall into a third gender class (discussed by Black), if considered in terms of their declensional pattern. It is arguable that feminine gender is under pressure and that the system may be becoming simplified with the feminine paradigms incorporating some typically masculine patterns.

Nouns have three grammatical numbers: singular, dual (vestigially) and plural. Dual forms of nouns are only found after the numeral (two), where they are obligatory. For masculine nouns, the dual form is in fact identical to the singular, while for feminine nouns, the dual form has a slenderised final consonant. Plurals are formed in a variety of ways, including suffixation (often involving the suffix -(e)an) and slenderisation.

  • masculine: aon òran, dà òran, trì òrain – "one song (sg.), two songs (dual), three songs (pl.)"
  • feminine: aon uinneag, dà uinneig, trì uinneagan – "one window (sg.), two windows (dual), three windows (pl.)"


Nouns and pronouns in Gaelic have four cases: nominative, vocative, genitive, and dative (or prepositional) case. There is no distinct accusative case form; the same nominative base form is used for both subjects and objects. Nouns can be classified into a number of major declension classes, with a small number of nouns falling into minor patterns or irregular paradigms. Case forms can be related to the base form by suffixation, lenition, slenderisation, or a combination of such changes. See the example paradigms below for further details. The case system is now under tremendous pressure and speakers exhibit varying degrees of paradigm simplification.[citation needed]

Nouns in the dative case only occur after a preposition, and never, for example, as the indirect object of a verb.

Nouns in the vocative case are introduced by the particle a+L, which lenites a following consonant, and is elided (and usually not written) before a vowel. The vocative form of feminine singular nouns is otherwise identical to the nominative; masculine singular nouns are slenderised in the vocative.

  • feminine: Màiri, Annaa Mhàiri, (a) Anna
  • masculine: Seumas, Aonghasa Sheumais, (a) Aonghais

Genitival constructions are syntactically very unusual when compared to non-Celtic western European languages. They have frequently been compared with the construct state in Afro-Asiatic and particularly Semitic languages.


Gaelic has singular and plural personal pronouns (i.e., no dual forms). Gender is distinguished only in the 3rd person singular. A T-V distinction is found in the 2nd person, with the plural form sibh used also as a polite singular.

simple emphatic
singular 1st mi mise "I, me"
2nd thu thusa "you"
3rd masculine e esan "him"
feminine i ise "her"
plural 1st sinn sinne "we, us"
2nd sibh sibhse "you"
3rd iad iadsan "they, them"

The emphatic pronouns are used to express emphasis or contrast:

  • Tha i bòidheach — "She's beautiful"
  • Tha ise bòidheach — "She's beautiful (as opposed to somebody else)"

Emphatic forms are also available in other pronominal constructions:

  • an taigh aicese — "her house"
  • chuirinn-sa — "I would put"
  • na mo bheachd-sa — "in my opinion"


Adjectives in Gaelic inflect according to gender and case in the singular. In the plural, a single form is used for both masculine and feminine genders, in all cases (although it may be lenited depending on the context).

Adjectives normally follow the noun they modify, and agree with it in gender, number and case. In addition, in the dative singular of masculine nouns, the leniting effect of a preceding definite article (see Articles below) can be seen on both the noun and the following adjective:

  • (air) breac mòr – "(on) a big trout"
  • (air) a' bhreac mhòr – "(on) the big trout"

A small number of adjectives precede the noun, and generally cause lenition. For example:

  • seann chù, droch shìde, deagh thidsear – "old dog, bad weather, good teacher"


Possessive determiners[edit]

Gaelic uses possessive determiners (corresponding to my, your, their, etc.) differently than English. In Gaelic, possessive determiners are used mostly to indicate inalienable possession, for example for body parts or family members.

As indicated in the following table, some possessive determiners lenite the following word. Before a word beginning with a vowel, some of the determiners have elided forms, or require a linking consonant.

before consonant before vowel examples
singular 1st mo+L m' mo mhàthair "my mother", m' athair "my father"
2nd do+L d' (or t') do mhàthair "your mother", d' athair "your father"
3rd masculine a+L a a mhàthair "his mother", athair "his father"
feminine a a h- a màthair "her mother", a h-athair "her father"
plural 1st ar ar n- ar màthair "our mother", ar n-athair "our father"
2nd ur ur n- ur màthair "your mother", ur n-athair "your father"
3rd an/am an am màthair "their mother", an athair "their father"

The 3rd plural possessive an takes the form am before words beginning with a labial consonant: b, p, f, or m.

As discussed above, the linking consonants n- and h- reflect the presence of a final consonant that has disappeared in other contexts. Ar and ur are derived from genitive plural forms that originally ended in a nasal.[6] The feminine singular a derives from a form ending in final -s, whose only trace is now the prefixation of h- to a following vowel.[7]

To refer to non-permanent possession, one uses the preposition aig, as described above:

  • an taigh aige – "his house" (lit. "the house at him")
  • an leabhar agam – "my book" (lit. "the book at me")


Gaelic has a definite article but no indefinite article:

an taigh — 'the house', taigh — '(a) house'

The form of the (definite) article depends on the number, gender, case of the noun. The following table shows the basic paradigm, as used when there is no assimilation to the initial sounds of the following word.

singular plural
masculine feminine
nominative AN AN +L NA
dative AN +L
genitive AN +L NA NAN

The superscript "+L" indicates that the following word is lenited. The actual realization of the capitalised forms in the paradigm above depends on the initial sound of the following word, as explained in the following tables:

The forms of the definite article trace back to a Common Celtic stem *sindo-, sindā-. The initial s, already lost in the Old Irish period, is still preserved in the forms of some prepositions (see below). The original d can be seen in the form an t-, and the leniting effect of the form an+L is a trace of a lost final vowel. The form na h- reflects an original final -s.[8]

Example paradigms[edit]

The following examples illustrate a number of nominal declension patterns, and show how the definite article combines with different kinds of nouns.

Masculine noun paradigms[edit]

Feminine noun paradigms[edit]


Verbal constructions may make use of synthetic verb forms which are marked to indicate person (the number of such forms is limited), tense, mood, and voice (active, impersonal/passive). Conjugational paradigms are remarkably consistent between verbs, with the two copular or 'be' verbs being exceptional. In the paradigm of the verb, the majority of verb-forms are not person-marked and independent pronouns are required (as in English). Alongside constructions involving synthetic verb forms, analytic (or 'periphrastic') verbal constructions are extremely frequently used and in many cases are obligatory; (compare English "be + -ing" verbal constructions). These structures also convey tense, aspect and modality.

So-called 'verbal nouns' play a crucial role in the verbal system, being used in periphrastic verbal constructions preceded by a preposition where they act as the sense verb and a copular verb conveys tense information, in a pattern that is familiar from English. True nouns from the point of view of their morphology and inherent properties (they have gender and case) and their occurrence in what are (or were historically) prepositional phrases, yet playing a verbal semantic and syntactic role in such core verbal constructions, verbal nouns have both verbal and nominal characteristics. English '-ing' forms are in many respects very much comparable. In other constructions verbal nouns play a role like infinitives in for example German.

Traditional grammars use the terms 'past' and 'future tense' and 'subjunctive' in describing Scottish Gaelic verb forms, however modern scholarly linguistic texts reject many of these terms which are borrowed from the traditional study of other languages including Latin and traditional English grammar. Very different from that found in Irish, the tense–aspect system of Gaelic is ill-studied; Macaulay (1992) gives a reasonably comprehensive account.

Copular verbs[edit]

The number of copular verbs and their exact function in Gaelic is a topic of contention among researchers. There is a certain amount of variation in sources, making it difficult to come to a definitive conclusion about certain aspects of copular verbs. However, there is some information that consistently shows up across these sources, which we will discuss in this section.

Gaelic has a small number of copular verbs, two of which both mean "be" (though some grammar books treat them as two parts of a single suppletive verb): bi is used to attribute a property to a noun or pronoun (its complement is typically a description that is not nominal), whereas in general usage is is used to identify a noun or pronoun as a complement; in most grammars books is is referred to as "the copula" (i.e. the main copular verb of the language).[9]


Historically called the “copula” verb, is can be used in constructions with nominal complements and adjectival complements. It also has the additional function of “topicalization”, a term that means a certain element of a sentence is being emphasized as the topic of interest.[10]

In English, italics (for text) and stress (for speech) are used to emphasize different elements of a sentence; one can also change the word order to put the emphasized element first. Scottish Gaelic, however, does not use stress and very rarely uses word order changes to create emphasis. Instead, it uses topicalization. MacAulay says it is done when “a sentence with the verb is followed by the element topicalised” (189).

Examples (from MacAulay, pages 189-190):

1- The subject is emphasized

    Is e                      Iain a   thug an  leabhar do Anna an dè
    is 3SG-MASC-PRON          Iain REL gave the book    to  Anna yesterday
    ‘It is Iain who gave the book to Anna yesterday.’

2-The direct object is emphasized

    Is e              an  leabhar a   thug Iain do Anna an dè
    is 3SG-MASC-PRON  the book    REL gave Iain to Anna yesterday
    ‘It is the book that Iain gave to Anna yesterday.’

3- The indirect object is emphasized

    Is ann    do Anna a   thug Iain an  leabhar an dè
    is in-it  to Anna REL gave Iain the book    yesterday
    ‘It is to Anna that Iain gave the book yesterday.’

4-The adjunct is emphasized

    Is ann    an dè     a   thug Iain an  leabhar do Anna
    is in-it  yesterday REL gave Iain the book    to Anna
    ‘It was yesterday that Iain gave the book to Anna.’

5-The complement is emphasized (for aspectual sentences)

    Is ann    a’ toirt     an  leabhair to Anna a   bha Iain
    is in-it  at giving-VN the book-GEN to Anna REL was Iain
   *‘It was giving the book to Anna that Iain was.’

Is can also be used to ascribe a description to a noun or pronoun. Most commonly one will see classificatory or adjectival complements, as shown below:


    Is duine Iain
    is man   Iain
    ‘Iain is a man.’


    Is math sin!
    is good that
    ‘That is good!’[11]


Historically called the “substantive” verb, tha (the present indicative independent 3rd person singular form of bi) can be used in constructions with adjectival complements, locative predicates, and in aspectually marked sentences (180 MacAulay).

Examples (178 MacAulay):

(c) adjectival complement

    Tha an  càr mòr
    is  the car large
    ‘The car is large.’

(d) locative

    Tha an  càr air an  rathad 
    is  the car on  the road
    ‘The car is on the road.’

(e) aspectually marked

    Tha an  càr a’ siubhal
    is  the car at travelling
    ‘The car is travelling.’

It is also possible to use tha to describe a noun or pronoun with a nominal complement by using an embedded pronoun (MacAulay 179):

(f) Example with tha

    Tha Iain 'na                                                    shaighdear
    is  Iain  in.3SG.MASC.PRON (in-his; for convenience)            soldier
    ‘Iain is a soldier.’

(g) Example with is

    Is  saighdear Iain
    is  soldier    Iain
    'Iain is a soldier.'

Notice that the example using is exhibits a diversion from the typical VSO word order. In this case, VOS word order (or VCS for verb+complement+subject) is used. The tha example maintains VSO/VSC word order.

Another way to think of the difference between tha and is is that tha describes temporary states:

tha mi sgìth – "I am tired" (or, lit. "am I tired")
tha an duine reamhair – "the man is fat" (lit. "is the man fat")

Is, on the other hand, describes more permanent conditions — that is, states of being that are intrinsic:

is beag an taigh e – "it's a small house" (lit. "is small the house it")
is Albannach mi - "I am Scottish" (lit. "is Scottish I")

Verb forms and tense[edit]

Tense is marked in Gaelic in a number of ways.

Present tense is formed by use of the verb "tha" and the verbal noun (or participle) form of the main verb.

Tha mi a' bruidhinn. – "I am speaking" or "I speak" (lit. "Am I at speaking")

Simple past tense in regular verbs is indicated by lenition of the initial consonant. For example, the verb bruidhinn (pronounced [ˈpri.ɪɲ] means "speak", but bhruidhinn mi (pronounced [ˈvri.ɪɲ mi]) means "I spoke." For the English speaker learning Gaelic, it is sometimes difficult to learn to listen to the beginning of a word for its time indicator rather than the end (in English, the end of a verb is marked with an -ed to indicate past tense).

Unlike English, Gaelic allows for the inflexion of a verb to indicate future tense without a helping verb.

Bruidhnidh mi – "I speak" or "I will speak"

Among other uses, this formation can also denote states, or habitual action as in "I speak (at times/occasionally/often)".

Constructions formed with the verb bi plus the verbal noun can denote states, habitual action or future time:

Bidh mi a' bruidhinn – "I speak" or "I will be speaking"

As in other Celtic languages, Scottish Gaelic lacks a number of verbs that are commonly found in other languages. This includes modals and psych-verbs; examples 'like', 'prefer', 'be able to', 'manage to', 'must'/'have to', 'make'='compel to'. These functions are instead fulfilled by periphrastic idiomatic constructions involving various prepositional phrases and the copula or other verb, some of which involve highly unusual syntactic patterns.


Prepositions in Gaelic govern sometimes the nominative/accusative case, but more commonly the dative or genitive case.

  • with nominative: eadar "between", gu(s) "until", mar "as", gun "without"
  • with dative: air "on", aig "at", anns/ann an "in", le(is) "with", ri(s) "to"
  • with genitive: tarsainn "across", "during", chun "towards", trìd "through", timcheall "around"

All "compound prepositions", consisting of a simple preposition and a noun, govern the genitive case:

  • ri taobh a' bhalaich – "beside the boy" (lit. "by side [of] the boy")

Many prepositions exhibit different forms (ending in -s or -n) when followed by the article:

  • le Iain, leis a' mhinistear – "with Iain, with the minister"
  • fo bhròn, fon a' bhòrd – "under sorrow, under the table"

Most simple prepositions do not combine with personal pronouns syntactically. For example, *aig mi "at me" and *le iad "with them" are incorrect. Instead, the preposition takes "conjugated" forms, like a verb (see Inflected preposition). The follow table presents some commonly used paradigms.

+ mi "me" thu "you, sg." e "him" i "her" sinn "us" sibh "you, pl." iad "them"
aig "at" agam agad aige aice againn agaibh aca
air "on" orm ort air oirre oirnn oirbh orra
le "with" leam leat leis leatha leinn leibh leotha
ann an "in" annam annad ann innte annainn annaibh annta
do "to, for" dhomh dhut dha dhi dhuinn dhuibh dhaibh

Like the personal pronouns, inflected prepositions have emphatic forms, derived by adding the following suffixes:

  • agamsa, agadsa, aigesan, aicese, againne, agaibhse, acasan

When the preposition ann an is followed by a possessive determiner, the two words form a contraction. This also occurs with the verbal markers ag (related to the preposition aig) and a+L. The resulting forms have the same effects on the following word (lenition, consonant insertion) as the possessive determiners.

+ mo "my" do "your, sg." a "his" a "her" ar "our" ur "your, pl." an "their"
ann an "in" 'nam+L 'nad+L 'na+L 'na [h-] 'nar [n-] 'nur [n-] 'nan/'nam
ag "at" 'gam+L 'gad+L 'ga+L 'ga [h-] 'gar [n-] 'gur [n-] 'gan/'gam
a+L "to"


  1. ^ See Celtic languages#Characteristics of Celtic languages.
  2. ^ The phonological aspects of these processes are discussed in Scottish Gaelic phonology. See also Irish initial mutations.
  3. ^ Lewis & Pedersen (1989), §167ff; Calder (1923), §6
  4. ^ Thurneysen (1946), §230ff; Calder (1923), §19
  5. ^ Thurneysen (1946), §§230, 236ff; Calder (1923), §§13, 48
  6. ^ Lewis & Pedersen (1989), §357 ("ⁿ" indicates nasal mutation):
    *nserōm > *ēsar/asar > OI athar > arⁿ > ar n-
    *sweserōm > *sear > OI sethar > farⁿ > (bh)ur n-
  7. ^ Lewis & Pedersen (1989), §358; Thurneysen (1993), §§240, 441 ("g" indicates gemination):
    *esjās > OI ag > a h-
  8. ^ Lewis & Pedersen (1989) §200; Thurneysen (1993) §467
  9. ^ MacAulay, D., Dochartaigh, C.Ó., Ternes, E., Thomas, A.R., & Thomson, R.L. (1992). The Celtic languages. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  10. ^ MacAulay, D., Dochartaigh, C.Ó., Ternes, E., Thomas, A.R., & Thomson, R.L. (1992). The Celtic languages. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  11. ^ MacAulay, D., Dochartaigh, C.Ó., Ternes, E., Thomas, A.R., & Thomson, R.L. (1992). The Celtic languages. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

See also[edit]


  • Black, Ronald (1997). Cothrom Ionnsachaidh. Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh, Department of Celtic. ISBN 0-906981-33-6. 
  • Calder, George (1990) [1923]. A Gaelic Grammar. Glasgow: Gairm. ISBN 978-0-901771-34-6. 
  • Dwelly, Edward (1988) [1901–11]. The Illustrated Gaelic-English Dictionary (10th ed.). Glasgow: Gairm. ISBN 978-1-871901-28-3. 
  • Gillies, H. Cameron (2006) [1896]. Elements of Gaelic Grammar. Vancouver: Global Language Press. ISBN 978-1-897367-00-1. 
  • Lamb, William (2008). Scottish Gaelic Speech and Writing: Register Variation in an Endangered Language. Belfast: Cló Ollscoil na Banríona. ISBN 0853898952. 
  • Lewis, Henry; Holger Pedersen (1989). A Concise Comparative Celtic Grammar (3rd ed.). Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht. ISBN 3-525-26102-0. 
  • Macaulay, Donald (1992). The Celtic Languages. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-23127-2. 
  • Mark, Colin (2006). Gaelic Verbs: Systemised and Simplified (2nd rev. ed.). Glasgow: Steve Savage Publishers Limited. ISBN 978-1-904246-13-8. 
  • Ó Maolalaigh, Roibeard; Iain MacAonghuis (1997). Scottish Gaelic in Three Months. Hugo's Language Books. ISBN 978-0-85285-234-7. 
  • Thurneysen, Rudolf (1993) [1946]. A Grammar of Old Irish. Translated by D. A. Binchy and Osborn Bergin. Dublin: Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies. ISBN 1-85500-161-6. 

External links[edit]