15: Observations on the phonology of Gaelic at the north of Lewis

Written by Linden Alexander Pentecost, 18th to 20th of April 2023

This section includes: a description of the difficulties of writing Lewis Gaelic in an adapted orthography, of the presence and occurance of the [ð]- like slender 'r' sound according to Informant One in the Survey of the Gaelic dialects of Scotland: questionnaire materials collected for the Linguistic Survey of Scotland - edited by Cathair Ó Dochartaigh, followed by how this speaker's language may also have a [q]-like phoneme, with notes the migratory initial s- in Lewis Gaelic. Speaker One is from close to the northernmost point of the Isle of Lewis. This section contains: 1,025 words.


 The dialects of Lewis are not one dialect, but they share an interconnectedness which other speakers of Gaelic can easily recognise as being from Lewis. Lewis Gaelic has notable prosodic differences to the other dialects in the Outer Hebrides, although I might argue that the prosodic differences heard in South Uist and St Kilda are also very noticeable. This article is not a thorough description of Lewis Gaelic by any means. It is more an article that includes some personal observations on Lewis Gaelic and its correlations to the standard written form of Scottish Gaelic, used to write Lewis Gaelic.

In quite a lot of my other work on Scottish Gaelic dialects, I have tried to write the dialect with an adapted or different orthography of some kind. For example, pages on this website on Perthshire Gaelic, St Kilda Gaelic, Lismore Gaelic and MacKay Gaelic include examples of those dialects in adapted orthographies.

But in the case of Lewis Gaelic, I have found that vowel variations and variations of the slender r, things that make Lewis Gaelic distinct, are very hard to write whilst maintaning a consistent relationship to the standard spelling. I am not saying that this is impossible, I personally just don't know how to approach it at this stage. Therefore in this article I will not be writing Lewis Gaelic in an adapted orthography, but will give notes on the pronunciation alongside the form written in standard orthography.

One of the key distinctions of Lewis Gaelic is the presence of a slender 'r' sound, which approaches the 'th' in English 'then', but which is articulated somewhat differently, and in a sense similarly to some of the other slender 'r' sounds in Gaelic dialects. Were it a case of every slender 'r' in Lewis Gaelic dialects being consistently this sound, written in the IPA as [ð], there would perhaps be less need in my opinion to put some work towards trying to spell Lewis Gaelic dialects. The examples below are according to those given by Informant number 1 in the Survey of the Gaelic dialects of Scotland: questionnaire materials collected for the Linguistic Survey of Scotland - edited by Cathair Ó Dochartaigh.

In the language of Informant 1, the [ð]-like sound is not present in for example the words rìgh - king, and riochd - kingdom. It does however occur frequently in other words beginning with ri-, for example ris - to him/it, and ri - to, with. This [ð]-like sound seems to occur more commonly as a part of an initial consonant cluster, rather than in words where ri- on its own is at the start of a word, for example in sgrìobhadh - writing, and sgrìobadh - scratching, the [ð]-like sound occurs after sg-. In the word grian - sun, this sound occurs after the g-.

This sound can also occur at at the ends of certain words, as in saothair - work, .and in iuchair - key and in làir - mare. It can also occur in words where a sleder r is not present in the standard written form, e.g. in saighdear - soldier. The slender r is however widespread in this word across dialects of Scottish Gaelic and of Irish, and is also in the Irish Caighdeán.

Perhaps what I find most interesting is how this sound occurs in particular words and not in others. This sound, in Informant One's language, does also not seem to occur so frequently when the slender 'r' occurs next to a written 'e'. I had not researched Lewis Gaelic dialects in great depth before from the surveys, and I have often heard before that the slender 'r' is consistently a [ð] on Lewis. I would say perhaps that the [ð] in Lewis Gaelic is really a [ð]-like sound, and that its occurance is probably part of an underlying later of early language on Lewis, possibly prehistoric language, which manifests in a way that does not necessarily match up to occurance of a slender 'r' in the written language. My question is, how can the original sounds of Lewis Gaelic be accurately conveyed to future generations through written form in teaching the dialect?

In the Survey of the Gaelic dialects of Scotland: questionnaire materials collected for the Linguistic Survey of Scotland, the dialect of speaker 1 also has a sound shown as [q] in certain instances, rather than [k]. For example in sealg - hunt, and in the word lagan - a hollow. The word lagan is given with an intial [s] sound in the Dialect Survey referenced above, which is said was perhaps because of the influence of the word sloc - a hollow. I would argue though that these words are already related, the difference being that the so-called migrational Indo-European s- occurs in some forms and not in others. I personally think that this migratory Indo-European s- is far older than Indo-European, and originally served a grammatical fuction, perhaps similarly to how a mobile -s- has a grammatical function in some Salishan languages. I have briefly mentioned the occurance of a [q]-like sound on Harris on my St Kilda article on this website. This article is distinct from the article about St Kilda Gaelic which was published on Omniglot.


Tapadh leibh!


.The language of Informant Number 1, from Survey of the Gaelic dialects of Scotland: questionnaire materials collected for the Linguistic Survey of Scotland - edited by Cathair Ó Dochartaigh.