Scottish Gaelic orthography

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Scottish Gaelic orthography has evolved over many centuries. Scottish Gaelic spelling is mainly based on etymological considerations.

Due to the etymological nature of the writing system, the same written form may result in a multitude of pronunciations depending on the spoken variant. For example the word coimhead "watching" may result in [kʰõ.ət̪], [kʰɔ̃jət̪], [kʰʷi.ət̪], or [kʰɛ̃.ət̪].

Alphabet[edit]

A sample of traditional Gaelic type.

The alphabet now used for writing the Scottish Gaelic language consists of the following letters of the Latin alphabet, whether written in Roman type or Gaelic type:

a à b c d e è f g h i ì l m n o ò p r s t u ù;

Modern loanwords also make use of j k q v w x y z.

From a language internal perspective, the following digraphs are considered single letters:

bh ch dh fh gh ll mh ng nn ph rr sh th

Older manuscripts made use of the acute accent over vowels, but these are no longer used in standard orthography.

Stress[edit]

Stress always falls on the first syllable of the word, unless there is mid-word capitalisation or a hyphen in play. Many of the rules in the Vowels section below only apply therefore in the first syllables of words, since the vowels in question take simpler values in unstressed syllables.

Only certain vowel graphs exist in unstressed syllables; a, ai, e, ea, ei and i and very infrequently o, oi, u and ui.

Consonants[edit]

The consonant letters generally correspond to the consonant phonemes as shown in this table. See Scottish Gaelic phonology for an explanation of the symbols used. Consonants are "broad" (velarised) when the nearest vowel letter is one of a, o, u and "slender" (palatalised) when the nearest vowel letter is one of e, i. A "back vowel" is one of the following; o(ː), ɔ(ː), ɤ(ː), u(ː), ɯ(ː), a(ː), au; a "front vowel" is any other kind of vowel.

Letter(s) Phoneme(s) Examples
b broad /p/ bàta /paːʰt̪ə/, borb /pɔrɔp/
slender before front vowel, or finally /p/ bean /pɛn/, caibe /kʰapə/, guib /kɤp/
before back vowel /pj/ beò /pjɔː/, bealltainn /pjauɫ̪t̪ɪɲ/, bealach /pjaɫ̪əx/
bh between vowels, sometimes /./ siubhal /ʃu.əɫ̪/, iubhar /ju.əɾ/
finally, sometimes none dubh /t̪u/, ubh /u/
usually broad /v/ cabhag /kʰavak/, sàbh /s̪aːv/
slender, before front vowel /v/ dhuibh /ɣɯiv/, dibhe /tʲivə/
slender, before back vowel /vj/ ro bheò /rɔ vjɔː/, dà bhealltainn /t̪aː vjauɫ̪t̪ɪɲ/
see below for abh, oibh when they come before consonants
c broad initially, or non-finally after consonant /kʰ/ cas /kʰas̪/, cam /kʰaum/
between vowels /ʰkʰ/ bacadh /paʰkəɣ/, mucan /muʰkən/
finally after vowel /ʰk/ mac /maʰk/
finally after consonant /k/
slender initially or after consonant /kʰʲ/ ceòl /kʰʲɔːɫ̪/, ceum /kʰʲeːm/
between vowels /ʰkʰʲ/ lice /ʎiʰkʲə/, brice /prʲiʰkʲə/
finally after vowel /ʰkʲ/ mic /miʰkʲ/
finally after consonant /kʲ/
ch broad /x/ loch /ɫ̪ɔx/, dòchas /t̪ɔːxəs̪/
slender /ç/ deich /tʲeç/, dìcheall /tʲiːçəɫ̪/
chd /xk/ lionntachd /ʎuːn̴̪t̪ʰəxk/, doimhneachd /t̪ɔiɲəxk/
cn /kr/ cneap /krɛʰp/, cneasta /krʲes̪t̪ə/
d broad /t̪/ cadal /kʰat̪aɫ̪/, fada /fat̪ə/
slender /tʲ/ diùid /tʲuːtʲ/, dearg /tʲɛrak/
dh in final -aidh, -éidh none pòsaidh /pʰɔːs̪ɪ/, méidh /meː/
broad between vowels /./
/ɣ/
odhar /o.ər/, cladhadh /kʰɫ̪ɤ.əɣ/
modhail /mɔɣal/
elsewhere /ɣ/ dhà /ɣaː/, modh /mɔɣ/, tumadh /t̪ʰuməɣ/
slender between vowels /./ Gàidheal /kɛː.əɫ̪/
elsewhere /ʝ/ dhìth /ʝiː/, dhìol /ʝiəɫ̪/
see below for adh, aidh, iodh when they come before consonants
f broad /f/ fathan /fahan/, gafann /kafənˠ̪/
slender before front vowel /f/ fios /fis̪/, féill /feːʎ/
before back vowel /fj/ fiùran /fjuːran/, feòl /fjɔːɫ̪/
fh none fhios /is̪/, a fharadh /arəɣ/
g broad /k/ gad /kat̪/, ugan /ukən/
slender /kʲ/ gille /kʲiʎə/, leig /ʎekʲ/
gh finally, sometimes none* an-diugh /əɲˈtʲu/, nigh /ɲiː/
between vowels /./*
/ɣ/
aghaidh /ɤː.ɪ/, fiughar /fju.əɾ/, nigheann /ɲiː.an̪ˠ/
laghail /ɫ̪ɤɣal/
elsewhere broad /ɣ/ mo ghoc /mə ɣɔʰk/, lagh /ɫ̪ɤɣ/
slender /ʝ/ mo ghille /mə ʝiʎə/, do thaigh /t̪ə hɤj/
see below for agh, aigh, eagh, iogh, ogh, oigh when they come before consonants
*the preceding vowel is often lengthened
gn /kr/ gnè /krɛː/
h /h/ a h-athair /ə hahɪɾʲ/, Hearach /hɛɾəx/
l broad /ɫ̪/ lachan /ɫ̪axan/, a laoidh /ə ɫ̪ɯj/, balach /paɫ̪əx/
slender initially, unlenited /ʎ/ leabaidh /ʎepɪ/, leum /ʎeːm/
initially, lenited /l/ dà leabaidh /t̪aː lepɪ/, bho leac /vɔ lɛʰk/
elsewhere /l/ cuilean /kʰulan/, sùil /s̪uːl/
ll broad /ɫ̪/ balla /paɫ̪ə/, ciall /kʰʲiaɫ̪/
slender /ʎ/ cailleach /kʰaʎəx/, mill /miːʎ/
m broad /m/ maol /mɯːɫ̪/, màla /maːɫ̪ə/
slender before front vowel /m/ milis /milɪʃ/, tìm /tʰʲiːm/
before back vowel /mj/ meall /mjauɫ̪/, meòg /mjɔːk/
mh between vowels, sometimes /./ comhairle /kʰo.əɾlə/
broad /v/ àmhainn /aːvɪɲ/, caomh /kʰɯːv/
slender before front vowel /v/ caoimhin /kʰɯːvɪɲ/, làimh /ɫ̪aiv/
before back vowel /vj/ do mhealladh /t̪ɔ vjaɫ̪əɣ/, dà mheall /t̪aː vjauɫ̪/
see below for amh, eamh, oimh, uimh when they come before consonants
n broad initially, unlenited /n̴̪/ nàbaidh /n̴̪aːpi/, norrag /n̴̪ɔr̴ak/
initially, lenited /n/ mo nàire /mɔ naːɾʲɪ/, bho nàbaidh /vɔ naːpɪ/
elsewhere /n/ dona /t̪ɔnə/, sean /ʃɛn/
slender initially, unlenited /ɲ/ neul /ɲiaɫ̪/, neart /ɲɛɾʃt̪/
initially, lenited /n/ mo nighean /mɔ ni.an/, dà nead /t̪aː nɛt̪/
elsewhere, after back vowel /ɲ/ duine /t̪ɯɲɪ/, càineadh /kʰaːɲəɣ/
elsewhere, after front vowel /n/ cana /kʰanə/, teine /tʰʲenɪ/
ng broad /ŋɡ/ teanga /tʰʲɛŋɡə/, fulang /fuɫ̪əŋɡ/
slender /ŋʲɡʲ/ aingeal /aiŋʲɡʲəɫ̪/, farsaing /faɾs̪ɪŋʲɡʲ/
nn broad /n̴̪/ ceannaich /kʰʲan̴̪ɪç/, ann /aun̴̪/
slender /ɲ/ bainne /paɲɪ/, tinn /tʰʲiːɲ/
p broad
slender not before back vowel
initially or after consonant /pʰ/ post /pʰɔs̪t̪/, campa /kʰaumpə/, peasair /pʰes̪ɪɾʲ/,
between vowels /ʰpʰ/ cupa /kʰuʰpə/, cipean /kʰʲiʰpan/
finally after vowel /ʰp/ cuip /kʰuiʰp/
finally after consonant /p/ ailp /alp/
slender before back vowel after consonant, or initially /pj/ piuthar /pju.əɾ/, peall /pjauɫ̪/
between vowels /ʰpj/
ph broad /f/ sa phost /s̪ə fɔs̪t̪/, bho phàiste /vɔ faːʃtʲə/
slender before front vowel /f/ dà pheasair /t̪aː fes̪ɪɾʲ/, mo pheata /mɔ fɛʰt̪ə/
before back vowel /fj/ mo phiuthar /mɔ fju.əɾ/, sa pheann /s̪ə fjaun̴̪/
r initially, unlenited /r̴/ ràmh /r̴aːv/, rionnag /r̴un̴̪ak/
initially, lenited /ɾ/ do rùn /tɔ ɾuːn/, bho réic /vɔ ɾeːʰkʲ/
elsewhere broad /ɾ/ caran /kʰaɾan/, mura /muɾə/
slender /ɾʲ/ cìr /kʰʲiːɾʲ/, cuireadh /kʰuɾʲəɣ/
rr /r̴/ cearr /kʰʲaːr̴/, barra /par̴ə/
-rt, -rd /ɾʃt̪/ neart /ɲɛɾʃt̪/, bord /pɔːɾʃt̪/
s broad /s̪/ sàr /s̪aːɾ/, casan /kʰas̪ən/
slender /ʃ/ siùcair /ʃuːʰkʰɪɾʲ/, càise /kʰaːʃɪ/
sh broad /h/ ro shalach /ɾɔ haɫ̪əx/, glé shoilleir /kleː hɤʎɪɾʲ/
slender before front vowel /h/ dà shìl /t̪aː hiːʎ/, glé shean /kleː hɛn/
before back vowel /hj/ de shiùcair /tʲe hjuːʰkɪɾʲ/, a sheòladh /ə hjɔːɫ̪əɣ/
sr, str /s̪t̪ɾ/ sràc /s̪t̪ɾaːʰk/, strì /s̪t̪ɾiː/
t broad initially, or non-finally after consonant /t̪ʰ/ tasdan /t̪ʰas̪t̪an/, molta /mɔɫ̪t̪ə/
between vowels /ʰt̪ʰ/ bàta /paːʰt̪ə/
finally, after vowel /ʰt̪/ put /pʰuʰt̪/
finally, after consonant /t/
slender initially, or non-finally after consonant /tʰʲ/ tiugh /tʰʲu/, caillte /kʰaiʎtʲə/
between vowels /ʰtʰʲ/ litir /ʎiʰtʲɪɾʲ/
finally, after vowel /ʰtʲ/ cait /kʰɛʰtʲ/
finally, after consonant /tʲ/ ailt /altʲ/
th finally none teth /tʰʲe/, leth /ʎe/, srath /s̪t̪ɾa/
between vowels /./
/h/
leotha /lɔ.ə/, piuthar /pju.əɾ/, cnòthan /kɾɔː.ən/
beatha /pɛhə/, fathan /fahan/, a mhàthair /ə vaːhɪɾʲ/
initially broad /h/ mo thòn /mɔ hɔːn/, do thaigh /t̪ɔ hɤʝ/
slender, before front vowel /h/ thig /hikʲ/, ro thinn /r̴ɔ hiːɲ/
slender, before back vowel /hj/ do theaghlach /t̪ɔ hjɔːɫ̪əx/, glé thiugh /kleː hju/

Vowels[edit]

Abbreviations used in this table;

  • AV = another vowel
  • AVON = another vowel or no letter
  • ACON = a consonant or no letter

The vowels/consonants in rules relying on the above abbreviations include epenthetic vowels that are not visible in a first glance at the word; see their section below.

Letter(s) Phoneme(s) Examples
a unstressed in -ag
in -an (when not plural)
/a/ cnèatag /kʰriaʰt̪ʰak/, luchag /ɫ̪uxak/
lochan /ɫ̪ɔxan/, beagan /pekan/
elsewhere /ə/ balach /paɫ̪əx/, balla /paɫ̪ə/
stressed before dh/gh then AVON /ɤ/ dragh /t̪ɾɤɣ/, laghail /ɫ̪ɤɣal/
before ll/m/nn then ACON /au/ bann /paun̴̪/, calltainn /kʰauɫ̪t̪ɪɲ/, campa /kʰaumpə/
before rr then ACON
before rn, rd
/aː/ barr /paːr̴/, carnadh /kʰaːɾnəɣ/
elsewhere /a/ acras /aʰkɾəs̪/, gealladh /kʲaɫ̪əɣ/, barra /par̴ə/
See below for abh, adh, agh, amh when they come before consonants
ai unstressed in -ail /a/ modhail /mɔɣal/, eudail /eːt̪al/
elsewhere /ɪ/
/e/
/ə/
caraich /kʰaɾɪç/, mholainn /vɔɫ̪ɪɲ/
air an fhéill /eɾʲəˈɲeːʎ/
comhairle /kʰo.əɾlɪ/
stressed before ll/m/nn then ACON
before bh/mh then consonant
/ai/ caill /kʰaiʎ/, cainnt /kʰaiɲtʲ/
aibhne /aivɲə/, aimhreid /aivɾʲɪtʲ/
before rr then ACON
before rn, rd
/aː/ aird /aːɾʃt̪/
elsewhere /a/ baile /palɪ/, lainnir /ɫ̪aɲɪɾʲ/
See below for aidh, aigh when they come before consonants
à /aː/ àlainn /aːɫ̪ɪɲ/, bràmar /praːməɾ/
ài /aː/
/ɛː/
àite /aːʰtʲɪ/, càil /kʰaːl/
Gàidheal /kɛː.əɫ̪/, pàipear /pʰɛːʰpəɾ/
ao /ɯː/ maol /mɯːɫ̪/, caomh /kʰɯːv/
aoi before mh/bh then ACON /ɯi/ aoibhneas /ɯivɲəs̪/, caoimhneas /kʰɯivɲəs̪/
elsewhere /ɯː/ faoileag /fɯːlak/, caoimhin /kʰɯːvɪɲ/
e unstressed /ə/ maise /maʃə/, cuine /kʰuɲə/
stressed /e/ teth /tʰʲe/, le /le/
ea unstressed in -eag /a/ faoileag /fɯːlak/, uiseag /ɯʃak/
elsewhere /ə/ rinnear /ɾiɲəɾ/, mìltean /miːltʲən/
stressed before dh/gh finally /ɤ/ feadh /fjɤɣ/, seagh /ʃɤɣ/
before d/g/s /e/ eadar /et̪əɾ/, creagan /kʰɾekən/
before ll/nn then ACON /au/ peann /pʰjaun̴̪/, teannta /t̪ʰʲaun̴̪t̪ə/
before rr then ACON
before rn
/aː/ fearna /fjaːɾnə/, dearrsadh /t̪ʲaːr̴s̪əɣ/
before ll/nn/rr then AV, initially /ja/ eallach /jaɫ̪əx/, earrach /jar̴əx/
before ll/nn/rr then AV, elsewhere /a/ ceannard /kʰʲan̴̪aɾʃt̪/, gealladh /kʲaɫ̪əɣ/
elsewhere /ɛ/ fear /fɛɾ/, earrann /ɛr̴ən̴̪/
See below for eagh, eamh when they come before consonants
èa /ia/ dèan /tʲian/, cnèatag /kʰɾiaʰt̪ak/
ei unstressed /ɪ/ aimhreid /aivɾʲɪtʲ/, bigein /pikʲɪɲ/
stressed before ll/m/nn then ACON /ei/ greim /kɾeim/, peinnsean /pʰeiɲʃan/
elsewhere /e/ ceist /kʰʲeʃtʲ/, seinneadair /ʃeɲət̪ɪɾʲ/
è, èi /ɛː/
/eː/
crè /kʰrɛː/, sèimh /ʃɛːv/
/tʲeː/, cèile /kʰʲeːlə/
eo /ɔ/ deoch /tʲɔx/, leotha /lɔ.ə/
, eòi initially /jɔː/ eòlas /jɔːɫ̪əs̪/, eòin /jɔːɲ/
elsewhere /ɔː/ seòl /ʃɔːɫ̪/, meòir /mjɔːɾʲ/
eu before m /eː/ Seumas /ʃeːməs̪/, leum /ʎeːm/
elsewhere /ia/ ceud /kʰʲiat̪/, feur /fiaɾ/
i unstressed /ɪ/ litir /ʎiʰtʰʲɪɾʲ/, fuirich /fuɾʲɪç/
stressed before ll/m/nn then ACON /iː/ till /tʰʲiːʎ/, sinnsear /ʃiːɲʃəɾ/
elsewhere /i/ thig /hikʲ/, tinneas /tʰʲiɲəs̪/
ì /iː/ cìr /kʰʲiːɾʲ/, rìbhinn /r̴iːvɪɲ/
ia /iə/
/ia/
liath /ʎiə/, iarraidh /iər̴ɪ/
sgian /s̪kʲian/, dia /tʲia/
io before ll/nn then ACON initially /ju/ ionnsaich /juːn̴̪sɪç/
elsewhere /uː/ lionn /ʎuːn̴̪/, fionntach /fjuːn̴̪t̪əx/
before ll/nn then AV /u/ fionnar /fjun̴̪əɾ/, sionnach /ʃun̴̪əx/
elsewhere /i/ fios /fis̪/, lios /ʎis̪/
See below for iodh, iogh when they come before consonants
ìo /iə/ mìos /miəs̪/, cìoch /kʰʲiəx/
iu initially /ju/ iubhar /ju.əɾ/
before rr, rs /uː/ ciurr /kʰʲuːr̴/, siursach /ʃuːɾs̪əx/
elsewhere /u/ fliuch /flux/, siubhal /ʃu.əɫ̪/
, iùi /uː/ diù /tʲuː/, ciùil /kʰʲuːl/
o before b/bh/g/gh/m/mh /o/ gob /kop/, bogha /po.ə/
before ll/m/nn then ACON /ɔu/ tom /t̪ʰɔum/, tolltach /t̪ʰɔuɫ̪t̪əx/
before rr then ACON
before rn, rd
/ɔː/ torr /t̪ʰɔːr̴/, dornan /t̪ɔːɾnan/
elsewhere /ɔ/ loch /ɫ̪ɔx/, follais /fɔɫ̪ɪʃ/, dorra /t̪ɔr̴ə/
See below for ogh when it comes before consonants
oi before b/bh/g/gh/m/mh /o/
before ll/m/nn then ACON /əi/ broinn /pɾəiɲ/, oillt /əiʎʲtʲ/
elsewhere /ɤ/
/ɔ/
goid /kɤtʲ/, doirbh /t̪ɤɾʲɤv/, coileach /kʰɤləx/
toil /t̪ʰɔl/, coire /kʰɔɾʲə/
See below for oibh, oigh, oimh when they come before consonants
ò, òi /oː/
/ɔː/
/poː/, còig /kʰoːkʲ/
òir /ɔːɾʲ/, bòid /pɔːtʲ/
u before ll/m/nn then ACON
before rr/rn
/uː/ cum /kʰuːm/, sunndach /s̪uːn̴̪t̪əx/, murn /muːɾn/
elsewhere /u/ dubh /t̪u/, cumail /kʰumal/
ua, uai before m/n/ng /ua/ cuan /kʰuan/, uaine /uaɲə/
elsewhere /uə/ tuagh /t̪ʰuəɣ/, duais /t̪uəʃ/
ui before m/n/ng/s /ɯ/ uisge /ɯʃkʲə/, duine /t̪ɯɲə/
before dh /ɯi/ buidhe /pɯi.ə/, suidhe /s̪ɯi.ə/
before ll/m/nn then ACON /ɯi/ druim /t̪ɾɯim/, muinntir /mɯiɲtʲɪɾʲ/
before ll/m/nn then AV /ɯ/ cluinneadh /kɫ̪ɯɲəɣ/, tuilleadh /t̪ʰɯʎəɣ/
elsewhere /u/ cuir /kʰuɾʲ/, tuit /t̪ʰuʰtʲ/
See below for uimh when it comes before consonants
ù, ùi /uː/ sùil /s̪uːl/, cùis /kʰuːʃ/

Vowel-consonant combinations[edit]

Lenited bh, dh, gh, mh are commonly pronounced as vowels or are deleted if they are followed by a consonant. For example, in cabhag the bh is usually /v/ but in cabhlach the bh has turned into an /u/ vowel, yielding /au/ rather than /av/ in the first syllable.

Letters Phoneme(s) Examples
abh, amh /au/ cabhlach /kʰauɫ̪əx/, samhradh /s̪auɾəɣ/
adh, agh /ɤː/ adhbran /ɤːpɾan/, ladhran /ɫ̪ɤːɾan/
aidh /ai/ snaidhm /s̪naim/
aigh /ɤi/ saighdear /s̪ɤitʲəɾ/, maighdean /mɤitʲən/
eagh /ɔː/ do theaghlach /t̪ə hjɤːɫ̪əx/
eamh /ɛu/ geamhradh /kʲɛuɾəɣ/, leamhrag /ʎɛuɾak/
iodh, iogh /iə/ tiodhlaic /tʰʲiəɫ̪ɪʰkʰʲ/, ioghnadh /iənəɣ/
ogh /oː/ foghnaidh /foːnɪ/, roghnaich /r̴oːnɪç/
oibh /ɤi/ goibhle /kɤilə/, goibhnean /kɤinən/
oigh /ɤi/ oighre /ɤiɾʲə/, sloighre /s̪ɫ̪ɤiɾʲə/
oimh /ɔi/ doimhne /t̪ɔiɲə/, doimhneachd /t̪ɔiɲəxk/
uimh /ui/ cuimhne /kʰuiɲə/, cuimhneachadh /kʰuiɲəxəɣ/

Epenthetic vowels[edit]

Where an l, n or r is followed (or in the case of m, preceded) by a b, bh, ch, g, gh, m or mh, an epenthetic vowel is inserted between the two. This is usually a copy of the vowel that preceded the l/n/r. Examples; Alba /aɫ̪apə/, marbh /maɾav/, tilg /tʰʲilikʲ/, arm /aɾam/, iomradh /imiɾəɣ/.

If this process would lead to the sound sequence /ɛɾɛ/, the epenthetic vowel is an /a/ in many dialects. Example; dearg /tʲɛɾak/.

Defunct combinations[edit]

The acute accent is no longer used in standard Scottish Gaelic orthography, although it may be encountered in late twentieth century writings, and occasionally in contemporary writings, especially in Canadian Gaelic.

Letter(s) Phoneme(s) Examples
á /aː/ ás
é déan
ó, ói /oː/ /poː/, cóig /kʰoːkʲ/
mór

Certain spellings have also been regularised where they violate pronunciation rules. "Tigh" in particular can still be encountered in housenames and certain placenames, notably Tighnabruaich and Eilean Tigh.

  • So -> Seo
  • Sud -> Siud
  • Tigh -> Taigh

Source[edit]

  • Bauer, Michael Blas na Gàidhlig - The Practical Guide to Gaelic Pronunciation (2011) Akerbeltz ISBN 978-1-907165-00-9

See also[edit]

A comprehensive critique of the "New" Gaelic Orthographic Conventions by a fluent speaker, originally published in the Stornoway Gazette