Group: Celtic Nation
Aspiration is a way of indicating grammatical change in SG and, since it is widely used, it's best to start off by illustrating how it works. There are eighteen letters in Gaelic: five are vowels (a, e, i, o, and u, as in English), one is the letter "h", which is in a category all by itself, and the remaining letters are consonants (b, c, d, f, g, l, m, n, p, r, s, and t). Of the vowels, two (e and i) are called "slender" vowels, and three (a, o, and u) are called "broad" vowels. Of the consonants, all of them except l, n, and r can become aspirated in writing, and this changes their sound as well. (L, n, and r also sound different when aspirated in speech, but this is not marked in writing). To aspirate a letter, you simply put "h" after it when it appears at the beginning of a word, for example:
Letter Aspirated Form Sounds Like...
b bh "v" as in "vet"
c ch "ch" as in "loch"
d dh silent after a slender vowel; like "y" in "yet" before a slender vowel; like "gh" in "ugh!" after or before a broad vowel.
f fh silent
g gh silent after a slender vowel; like "y" in "yet" before a slender vowel; like "gh" in "ugh!" after or before a broad vowel.
m mh "v" as in "vet"
p ph "f" as in "fox"
s sh "h" as in "his"
t th "h" as in "his"; silent at the end of a word
The purpose of aspiration is to show certain kinds of grammatical change, just as in English we put "-ed" to the end of a verb (e.g. "walk" --> "walked") to show the past tense or put "s" at the end of a word to show the plural (e.g. "hat" -- "hats"). The difference is that Scots Gaelic, in common with the other Celtic languages, puts the change at the beginning of the word instead. For example, one common use of aspiration is to indicate certain kinds of possession. The SG word "mo" means "my" and causes aspiration (where possible) on the following word. The word "taigh" means "house". To say "my house" in Gaelic, you would say "mo thaigh". "Taigh" is pronounced like the English word "tie", but "mo thaigh" sounds like "mo hie". Or to take another example, "cù" means "dog", so to say "my dog" you would say "mo chù". "Cù" sounds like "koo", but in "chù" the "k" sound is dropped in favour of a "ch" sound like in the word "loch" -- a sound halfway between "k" and "h".
There is no "eclipsis" in Scots Gaelic as there is in Irish.
i) Present Tense, Affirmative
Like some other languages, for example Spanish, the Gaelic languages have two verbs that cover the range of the English verb "to be". One of them is used to join a noun with a noun, e.g. "Iain is a teacher" or "Calum is a Scotsman". The other one, which we'll look at in this lesson, is used to join a noun with an adjective -- e.g. "Ruairidh is tall", "Colin is old", etc. The basic present tense form of the verb is "tha" and the pronouns equivalent to English "I", "you", "he", etc. are as follows:
tha mi -- I am (ha me)
tha thu -- you [singular] are (ha oo)
tha e -- he is; it is (ha eh)
tha i -- she is; it is (ha eye)
tha sinn -- we are (ha shen)
tha sibh -- you [plural] are (ha seev)
tha iad -- they are (ha eahd)
(Note the difference between "thu" and "sibh"; "thu" means "you" when speaking to one person only. "Sibh" means "you" when speaking to more than one person but is also a polite form you can use when showing respect to someone who is older). The pronouns "e" and "i" mean "it" when they refer to masculine and feminine nouns rather than people, but for now I'll just use them in their personal sense.
The above forms are easily joined with adjectives like "beag" (little), "mór" (big), "òg" (young), "sona" (happy), etc.:
Tha mi sona. -- I am happy. (ha me sohna)
Tha iad beag. -- They are little. (ha eahd beak)
Tha e mór. -- He is big. (ha eh more)
Tha sinn òg. -- We are young. (ha sheen ohg)
"Tha mi fallain, tha mi òg" -- "I am healthy, I am young" (ha me fahllen, ha me ohg)
-- that last example is a line from a Runrig song, incidentally.
Some other adjectives to get you started:
sgìth -- tired (skee) tioram -- dry (cherum)
fuar -- cold (fuer) fliuch -- wet (fleurch)
blàth -- warm (blah) snog -- nice (snohg)
trang -- busy (trahng) math -- good (mah)
leisg -- lazy (lehsg) dona -- bad (dohnah)
brèagha -- beautiful (braagchah) dorcha -- dark (dorcha)
ciallach -- sensible (kayallach) gòrach -- stupid (gohrach)
ii) Present Tense, Negative
Just as in English and other languages, the verb "to be" in SG is highly irregular. To give the negative form of "tha", i.e. in order to say "... is not...", you have to use a different form altogether -- "chan eil":
Chan eil mi sgìth. -- I am not tired. (chan eil me skee)
Chan eil iad beag. -- They are not little. (chan eil ehad beak)
Chan eil i òg. -- She is not young. (chan eil eye ohg)
Chan eil sinn sona. -- We are not happy. (etc.) (chan eil sheen sohna)
iii) Present Tense, Question
In English to ask a question we can just rearrange the word order (e.g. "you are happy" becomes "are you happy?") or we can even leave the word order as it is and just change the tone of voice ("you *are* happy?") In SG, however, we have to use a question word before a verb in order to ask a question using that verb. The question word is "an", but this changes to "am" before the letters b, f, m, and p. Unfortunately since "tha" is irregular, we can't just put the question word before "tha"; we have to put it in front of an irregular form called "bheil". Since "bheil" begins with a "b", this makes the question word "am":
Am bheil thu sgìth?/a bheil thu sgìth? Are you tired? (am vwil oo skee/ a vwil skee)
Am bheil iad sona?/a bheil iad sona? Are they happy? (am vwil ehad sohna/ a vwil sohna)
Am bheil e òg?/a bheil e òg? Is he young? (am vwil eh ohg/a vwil eh ohg)
Am bheil mi fuar?/a bheil mi fuar? Am I cold? (am vwil me fuer/ a vwil me fuer)
Over time, however, the "am" has become shortened in speech and writing to "a", so that questions are now usually asked with "a bheil...?" I've shown you both forms because you will still come across them both in books and writing and because it helps to understand the basic rules involved with asking a question generally.
There is no word for "yes" or "no" as such in Gaelic, so a question tends to get answered with either an affirmative or negative form of the verb that was contained in the question. For example, the question "am bheil iad sona?" (are they happy?) can be answered affirmatively with "tha", which just means "are"; the negative answer would be "chan eil" (are not). When the question is "am bheil...?", "tha" becomes a "yes" answer and "chan eil" becomes a "no" answer -- but "yes" and "no" in Gaelic are always different depending on what verb is in the question.
iv) Present Tense, Negative Question
A negative question corresponds to the English phrases "Isn't he/she/it...?" or "Aren't I/they...?" In SG the negative question word is "nach" and, as usual, an irregular form of "tha" is used -- "eil":
Nach eil mi sona? Aren't I happy? (nahch eil me sohna)
Nach eil e gòrach? Isn't he stupid? (nahch eil eh gohrahch)
As with "am bheil...?" the answer to a negative question with "nach eil...?" is either "tha" (corresponding to "yes") or "chan eil" (corresponding to "no").