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What's in a name?

Well, I've seen it all now. Gaelic's users have become so self-conscious that they have changed the name of the language not only when they write in English but also now when they write in Gaelic.

For several years now, I've been observing a trend in which Gaelic has gradually been acquiring the national adjective as if it was part of the name. A decade or two ago, it was rare to see anyone writing 'Scottish Gaelic' as if that was the name of the language. Very occasionally, in those rare moments when you actually had to specify which of the various Gaelic languages you meant, you might write something like '(Scottish) Gaelic' or 'Gaelic (of Scotland)' or similar. Then you would carry on with your article (or whatever) and revert back to calling the language by its actual name: Gaelic.

I recall picking up a copy of Teach Yourself Gaelic in a second-hand bookshop in Galway about twenty years ago. It wasn't called Teach Yourself Scottish Gaelic. Of course, this was the heart of Irish-language Ireland. So someone had helpfully pencilled in on the title page 'Scottish'. That was all you needed, in one of the very specific settings where uncertainty might arise. Bear in mind, though, that the book was sitting on the shelf right beside Teach Yourself Irish, and the blurb got rid of any possible doubts you might have anyway.

(See how not-confusing it is?)

Where does the confusion come from?

Of course, it is easy to make a case for potential confusion. After all, Gaelic is not only the name of our language that we use here in Scotland, but it is also a generic term for a sub-group of Celtic languages: those languages academics often refer to as 'Goidelic'. We can talk about 'Old Gaelic', 'Middle Gaelic', 'Common Gaelic', 'Early Modern Gaelic', 'Classical Gaelic', and each of these, while in some way or another arguably an ancestor of our Gaelic, is a demonstrably different language from the modern vernacular we study in the Progressive Gaelic course. In the most recent centuries, we have three modern Gaelic languages, spoken in Ireland, the Isle of Man and Scotland.

Right, so that must be confusing... no?

Well, no. If we mean 'Old Gaelic', we write 'Old Gaelic' (the language referred to as 'Old Irish' in Ireland), and then everyone knows we aren't referring to the modern language as spoken today in Scotland. We use a similar cunning trick to differentiate between English and its ancestor varieties. When we refer to the language spoken in Ireland, we almost always call it 'Irish', and similarly the language spoken in the Isle of Man is almost always referred to as 'Manx'. If we listed Gaelic, Irish, and Manx, no one would be confused about which language we meant by the first in our list. If we were in a situation where there was the possibility of confusion, we could simply do what we used to do and add a parenthesis the first time we referred to Gaelic.

Despite this, the world has lately been insisting that Gaelic should now be called 'Scottish Gaelic' more or less at all times (but you will not find a Department of Scottish Gaelic at any of the universities). Look for Gaelic on Google Translate and you won't find it, unless you scroll all the way down to 'S'. The effect of this is disheartening, and it serves to reduce the visibility of Gaelic for those of us who have used it on a daily basis for decades. Even my Word spellchecker insists on this new name. How ironic!

How do the Gaelic languages handle the issue?

This has been getting silly in recent years, too. In the past, we used to call Gaelic 'Gàidhlig', because that's the name of the language. If we needed to refer to one of the other languages, we would add a little explicitation: 'Gàidhlig na h-Èireann', 'Gàidhlig Mhanainn'. If we really needed to be clear that we meant Gaelic and not one of the other languages, we used to say things like 'a' Ghàidhlig againne' (our Gaelic), but only right there where the additional information was needed.

Now, you can find any number of texts where people unnecessarily borrow the Irish (or, more rarely, Manx) word into Gaelic and treat them as Gaelic terms. This is mainly problematic when it comes to pronunciation, because the people who do this usually have no idea how to pronounce them correctly, but it also has grammatical effects, with people then not knowing how to deal with definite articles, etc. You can even look up certain online dictionaries and find this eccentric usage. I will not be sad if this bizarre practice disappears one day in the future.

What did I mean when I said I'd seen it all now?

The other day, I was reading yet another blog post that treated 'Scottish Gaelic' as if it was the name of the language and not just a way to make it clearer which of the languages was being referred to. Sighing, I read on, only to discover that there was a Gaelic translation of the post as well. In the translation, Gaelic was referring to itself (I jest not) as 'Gàidhlig na h-Alba'!

Has the process now gone so far that Gaelic users are unable to see themselves and their language from their own perspective? Have we reached a stage where we are so apologetic for our own existence that we have to explain and define even the name of the language itself within the language itself?

It wouldn't be so bad, but the post came from an institution that decidedly should know better.

As a Translation Studies professor, I recognise that this particular mistake likely came about because the person who translated the blog post felt bound by too much Source Text loyalty, but mistakes like this shouldn't be allowed to go unchallenged.

When you need to clarify, by all means clarify. But please don't go the whole hog and change the name of the language... especially in the language itself!

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