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About Gaelic (Scots) Language

Scottish Gaelic (Scottish Gaelic: Gàidhlig) is a member of the Goidelic branch of Celtic languages, and is distinct from the Brythonic branch of the Celtic languages, which includes Welsh, Cornish, and Breton. Scottish, Manx and Irish Gaelic (collectively called the "Goidelic languages") are all descended from Middle Irish, and share an ancestry going back to Old Irish and Primitive Irish. Other common names for Scottish Gaelic are Scots Gaelic and Highland Gaelic.

Outside Scotland, it is occasionally also called Scottish, particularly when being compared to Irish and Manx, though Scottish Gaelic should not be confused with the Scots language (Lowland Scots, Lallans), which is an Anglic language descended from Old English. Within Scotland, the language is called Gàidhlig pronounced [ˈɡaːlɪkʲ] while outside Scotland it is usually referred to as Gaelic pronounced /ˈɡeɪlɪk/.

The 2001 UK Census showed a total of 58,652 Gaelic speakers in Scotland (1.2% of population over three years old). Compared to the 1991 Census, there has been a diminution of approximately 7,300 people (11% of the total), showing a decline in Gaelic. By 1991, attempts at language revival or reversing language shift had met with limited success, and there has been an increase in young Gaelic speakers.

History

Scottish Gaelic itself developed after the 12th century, along with the other modern Goidelic languages. Scottish Gaelic and its predecessors became the language of the majority of Scotland after it replaced Cumbric, Pictish and in considerable areas Old English. There is no definitive date indicating how long Gaelic has been spoken in today's Scotland, though it has been proposed that it was spoken in its ancient form in Argyll before the Roman period. No consensus has been reached on this question; however, the consolidation of the kingdom of Dál Riata around the 4th century, linking the ancient province of Ulster in the north of Ireland and western Scotland, accelerated the expansion of the language, as did the success of the Gaelic-speaking church establishment, started by St Columba, and place-name evidence shows that Gaelic was spoken in the Rhinns of Galloway by the 5th or 6th century.[citation needed] The language was maintained by the trade empire of the Lordship of the Isles the geographic and cultural descendant of Dál Riata, which continued to control parts of Ulster until the 1500s.

From the Middle Ages to the end of Classical Gaelic education

The Gaelic language eventually displaced Pictish north of the River Forth, and until the late 15th century was known in the Scots' English language as Scottis, and in England as Scottish. Gaelic began to decline in mainland Scotland from the beginning of the 13th century, accompanying its decline in its status as a national language, and by the beginning of the 15th century, the highland-lowland line was beginning to emerge.

From around the early 16th century, Scottish-English speakers gave the Gaelic language the name Erse (meaning Irish in Scottish-English), and thereafter it was invariably the collection of Middle English dialects spoken within the Kingdom of Scotland, that they referred to as Scottis (see Scots language). This in itself was ironic, as it was at this time that Gaelic was developing its distinct and characteristic Scottish forms of the modern period.

Scottish Gaelic was called "Erse" partly because educated Gaelic speakers in Ireland and Scotland all used the literary dialect (sometimes called Classical Gaelic) so that there was little or no difference in usage. When Classical Gaelic stopped being used in schools in both countries, colloquial usage began to predominate, and the languages diverged.

The Modern Era

Scottish Gaelic has a rich oral and written tradition, referred to as beul-aithris in Scottish Gaelic, having been the language of the bardic culture of the Highland clans for many years. The language preserves knowledge of and adherence to pre-feudal 'tribal' laws and customs (as represented, for example, by the expressions tuatha and dùthchas). The language suffered particularly as Highlanders and their traditions were persecuted after the Battle of Culloden in 1746, and during the Highland Clearances, but pre-feudal attitudes were still evident in the complaints and claims of the Highland Land League of the late 19th century. This political movement was successful in getting members elected to the Parliament of the United Kingdom. The Land League was dissipated as a parliamentary force by the 1886 Crofters' Act and by the way the Liberal Party was seen to become supportive of Land League objectives.

An Irish Gaelic translation of the Bible dating from the Elizabethan period was in use until the Bible was translated into Scottish Gaelic. Author David Ross notes in his 2002 history of Scotland that a Scottish Gaelic version of the Bible was published in London in 1690 by the Rev. Robert Kirk, minister of Aberfoyle; however it was not widely circulated. The first well-known translation of the Bible into Scottish Gaelic was made in 1767 when Dr James Stuart of Killin and Dugald Buchanan of Rannoch produced a translation of the New Testament. Very few European languages have made the transition to a modern literary language without an early modern translation of the Bible. The lack of a well-known translation until the late 18th century may have contributed to the decline of Scottish Gaelic.

Defunct dialects

Scottish Gaelic may be more correctly known as Highland Gaelic to distinguish it from the now defunct dialects of Lowland Gaelic. Of these Galwegian Gaelic was spoken in Galloway and seems to have been the last dialect of Gaelic to have been spoken in Lowland Scotland, surviving until the Early Modern Period. By the end of the Middle Ages, Lowland Gaelic had been replaced by Middle English/Lowland Scots across much of Lowland Scotland, while the Brythonic language had disappeared. According to a reference in The Carrick Covenanters by James Crichton, the last place in the Lowlands where Scottish Gaelic was still spoken was the village of Barr in Carrick (only a few miles inland to the east of Girvan, but at one time very isolated). Crichton gives neither date nor details.

For further discussion on the subject of Gaelic in the South of Scotland, see articles Gàidhlig Ghallghallaibh agus Alba-a-Deas ("Gaelic of Galloway and Southern Scotland") and Gàidhlig ann an Siorramachd Inbhir-Àir ("Gaelic in Ayrshire") by Garbhan MacAoidh, published in GAIRM Numbers 101 and 106.

There is, however, no evidence of a linguistic border following the topographical north-south differences. Similarly, there is no evidence from placenames of significant linguistic differences between, for example, Argyll and Galloway. Dialects on both sides of the Straits of Moyle (the North Channel) linking Scottish Gaelic with Irish are now extinct.

Today, the closest tied Irish dialect with Highland Gaelic is Ulster Irish, spoken in County Donegal - most notably the Gaeltacht of Gaoth Dobhair (Gweedore). Written Ulster Irish as well as common grammatical and vocabulary traits reflects more archaic Classical Gaelic still providing more of a solid link between the two languages than with Official Standard Irish, based on the dialects of southern provinces. However, to claim that Ulster Irish is a perfect intermediate between the Irish and Scottish forms of Gaelic still remains perhaps an over-exaggerated statement.

What is known as Scottish Gaelic today seems to have evolved from the Gaelic spoken in The Outer Hebrides and on Skye. Generally speaking, the Gaelic spoken across The Western Isles (with perhaps exception to that of Arran and Kintyre) is similar enough to be classed as one major dialect group, although there is still regional variation, for example the pronunciation of the slender 'r' as [ð] on Lewis, where the Gaelic has a unique Nordic accent, and is described as being 'toned'.

Gaelic in Eastern Scotland is now largely defunct, although the dialects which were spoken in the east tended to preserve a more archaic tone, which had been lost further west. For example, Gaelic speakers in East Sutherland prefer to say Cà 'd robh tu m' oidhche raoir? (where were you about last night), rather than the more common càit an robh thu a-raoir?.

Current distribution in Scotland

The 2001 UK Census showed a total of 58,652 Gaelic speakers in Scotland (1.2% of population over three years old). Compared to the 1991 Census, there has been a diminution of approximately 7,300 people (11% of the total), meaning that Gaelic decline (language shift) in Scotland is continuing, albeit at a far slower rate.

Considering the data related to Civil Parishes (which permit a continuous study of Gaelic status since the 19th century), two new circumstances have taken place, which are related to this decline:

  • No parish in Scotland has a proportion of Gaelic speakers greater than 75% any more (the highest value corresponds to Barvas, Lewis and Harris, with 74.7%).
  • No parish in Mainland Scotland has a proportion of Gaelic speakers greater than 25% any more (the highest value corresponds to Lochalsh, Highland, with 20.1%).

The main stronghold of the language continues to be the Outer Hebrides (Na h-Eileanan Siar), where the overall proportion of speakers remains at 61.1% and all parishes return values over 50%. The Parish of Kilmuir in Northern Skye is also over this threshold of 50%.

Outside of the Outer Hebrides the only areas with significant percentages of Gaelic speakers are the islands of Tiree (with 47.8%), Skye (with 36.8%), Raasay (with 36.1%) and Lismore (with 28.8%) in the Inner Hebrides.[16] Regardless of this, the weight of Gaelic in Scotland is now much reduced. From a total of almost 900 Civil Parishes in Scotland:

  • 9 of them have a proportion of Gaelic speakers greater than 50%.
  • 20 of them have a proportion of Gaelic speakers greater than 25%.
  • 39 of them have a proportion of Gaelic speakers greater than 10%.

Outside the main Gaelic-speaking areas a relatively high proportion of Gaelic-speaking people are, in effect, socially isolated from other Gaelic-speakers and as a result they have few opportunities to use the language. Complete monolingualism is almost non-existent except among native-speaking children under school age in traditional Gàidhealtachd regions.

Alphabet

The modern Scottish Gaelic alphabet has 18 letters:

  • A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H, I, L, M, N, O, P, R, S, T, U.

The letter h, now mostly used to indicate lenition of a consonant, was in general not used in the oldest orthography, as lenition was instead indicated with a dot over the lenited consonant. The letters of the alphabet were traditionally named after trees (see Scottish Gaelic alphabet), but this custom has fallen out of use.

European Union

In October 2009, a new agreement was made which allows Scottish Gaelic to be used formally between Scottish Government ministers and European Union officials. The deal was signed by the UK's representative to the EU, Sir Kim Darroch, and the Scottish government. This does not give Scottish Gaelic official status in the EU, but gives it the right to be a means of formal communications in the EU's institutions. The Scottish government will have to pay for the translation from Gaelic to other European languages. The deal was received positively in Scotland; Secretary of State for Scotland Jim Murphy said the move was a strong sign of the UK government's support for Gaelic. He said that "Allowing Gaelic speakers to communicate with European institutions in their mother tongue is a progressive step forward and one which should be welcomed". Culture Minister Mike Russell said that "this is a significant step forward for the recognition of Gaelic both at home and abroad and I look forward to addressing the council in Gaelic very soon. Seeing Gaelic spoken in such a forum raises the profile of the language as we drive forward our commitment to creating a new generation of Gaelic speakers in Scotland."

Bilingual signs in English and Gaelic are now part of the architecture in the Scottish Parliament building completed in 2004.Gaelic has long suffered from its lack of use in educational and administrative contexts and has even been suppressed in the past but it has achieved a degree of official recognition with the passage of the Gaelic Language (Scotland) Act 2005.

 

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