Profile of an Endangered Language: Gaelic

Lionbridge onDemand is proud to be bringing you a brand-new blog series designed to profile some of the world's thousands of endangered languages. Yes, that's right - some languages are, in fact, in danger of going extinct. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) sets forth the criteria for and categorizes languages that may be endangered or extinct.

For our first profile, we have chosen the mighty Gaelic language. When you think of the word "Gaelic," what comes to mind? Is it thoughts of Ireland or Scotland? Gaelic music? Did you know that some Irish and Scottish people speak a language other than English?

In this entry, we will try to  present some interesting facts on this endangered language group. After reading, check out some resources on Gaelic and see what you can do to help preserve its legacy!

What is Gaelic?

The Gaelic languages, also referred to Goidelic languages, are a group of languages indigenous to Ireland, the Isle of Man, and Scotland. 

There are three classifications of Gaelic: Irish Gaelic, Manx Gaelic, and Scottish Gaelic. All three of these Gaelic dialects branched out from Primitive, or Archaic, Irish, which evolved into Old Irish in the 6th century. Old Irish transitioned into Middle Irish, which in turn transitioned into Modern Irish - Gaelic as we know it today. Gaelic spread from Ireland to the surrounding areas through centuries of migration. 

Irish Gaelic: Irish Gaelic is most commonly referred to as just "Irish." Although Irish is one of the official languages of Ireland, it is not widely spoken these days. From the 13th century to the 18th century, Irish was a primary language in Ireland and was the basis for literary works. The language started to decline when Ireland came under British rule, and then saw a resurgence during the Great Famine (1845-49). Irish has seen a decrease in use again since this time, and most modern Irish speakers use the tongue as a second language.

Manx Gaelic: Manx Gaelic was a language historically spoken by the Manx people indigenous to the Isle of Man. The Isle of Man is located in the Irish Sea and is about equidistant from England, Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. 

The Isle of Man, located between the UK and                                             Ireland

The Isle of Man, located between the UK and                                             Ireland

While Irish and Scottish Gaelic are listed by UNESCO as only "definitely endangered," Manx Gaelic is listed as "critically endangered." In the mid-1800s, over 30% of the population of the Isle of Man spoke Manx Gaelic; that number has decreased to 2% as of 2015. However, Manx Gaelic is the subject of revival efforts, which is aided by the fact that Manx is very well recorded. The Bible has even been translated into Manx!

Scottish Gaelic: Scottish Gaelic is indigenous to Scotland and is a recognized minority language of the UK. Gaelic was brought to Scotland from Ireland circa 4th-5th century CE. By the 10th century, Gaelic had become the dominant language in Scotland; however, as of 2011, less than 2% of the population of Scotland regularly speaks Scottish Gaelic.

fun facts about gaelic

Here are some informational tidbits that you may not have known about the Gaelic language varieties!

  • The name "Sean" is the Irish version of "John." Who knew? (I didn't.)
  • There are no words for "yes" and "no" in Irish.
  • Irish has just 11 irregular verbs, as compared to English's 80.
  • When it comes to Scottish Gaelic, don't get it confused with the Scots, a completely different Anglican language spoken in lowland Scotland. The Scots language is currently a lot more prevalent in Scotland!
  • Due to the "Gaelic revival" of the late 19th century, there are some modern authors who write in Gaelic and publishing houses who deal exclusively with Gaelic materials. This is in an effort to try and revive the language.
  • Irish is not only an official language of Ireland, it's also an official language of the European Union (EU).
  • The Gaelic language has left an indelible mark on the English language. For more information on just how much we have borrowed, check out the book How the Irish Invented Slang: The Secret Language of the Crossroads, by Daniel Cassidy.

Gaelic resources

Here are a few websites that can provide more education about the history and preservation of Gaelic!

Endangered Languages Project

How the Manx language came back from the dead

the bottom line

Don't count Gaelic out just yet. Thanks to concerted efforts to revive the Gaelic languages, a reported 1% of the Irish population speaks Irish as a first language and 10% have some working knowledge of the language. However, speakers of Scottish Gaelic and Manx Gaelic have decreased since 2001, so preservation efforts are as crucial as ever.

Languages have been brought back from extinction ("revived") on several occasions; examples of revived languages include Latin, Hebrew, Hawaiian, and even Manx Gaelic!

Despite Gaelic's current "endangered" status, you may still encounter a situation where a Gaelic translation is needed. If the need arises, call on your good friends at Lionbridge. Our vast network of over 25,000 linguists allows us to source translators for hundreds of languages, including Gaelic. To learn more about our services and our onDemand portal, visit our website.

See you again for our next endangered language profile!


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