CEUD MILLE FAILTE - A Hundred Thousand Welcomes

Date: Today of course
The Smelly-Wellie-Tele-Graph

This article first appeared in 2006 at Bella Online when I was the Scottish Culture Editor. In September 2008 I started a part-time M. Litt. in Celtic Studies at Glasgow University and I now know a wee bit more about the Gàidhlig than I did then. However, I've resisted the temptation to re-write the whole thing, although I probably will in the near future when the data from the 2011 census starts to become available. What I have done is tweak a couple of paragraphs a bit to make it more interesting for children as well as grown-ups. Try out the pronunciation. It's a good giggle.

Tip: if you're having difficulty reading the different font (made by Steve Deffeyes at Font Squirrel and modelled on The Book of Kells) then go over the words with the mouse and you should see a label in normal font.

Ceud mille failte is a traditional Gàidhlig greeting and if you pronounced it correctly then either you've heard it before or you should seriously consider buying a lottery ticket this week because you're dead jammy.

The Gàidhlig is notoriously difficult for English speakers because it's full of false friends: letters and combinations of letters which you think you know how to pronounce but which are completely different from English. Even the English translation Gaelic is a problem. You pronounce the word Gàidhlig (Scottish Gaelic) like "garlic" without the "r" but the Gaelic peoples are "the Gaels", pronounced to sound like a weather forecast for high winds, and the phrase "Irish Gaelic" takes this latter pronunciation too.

As for ceud mille failte, ceud is pronounced "kay-u(d)t" with just the hint of a "d" in there, mille is pronounced something like "meel-ih" and failte is pronounced "falsh-uh" with each of these "ih" and "uh" sounds a bit like when a Scottish rugby player expels air after being thumped in the ribs by an opponent's shoulder. You're allowed to do that in rugby. You're not allowed to do it in Sauchiehall Street though.

Before you get too impressed by my Gàidhlig pronunciation skills, however, I have to confess that I can only pronounce ceud mille failte correctly - now - because I asked more than half a dozen different folk and one of them eventually phoned Invernesshire and got the definitive answer from her 13-year-old nephew who has been taking Gàidhlig lessons since he was aged about 5.

You see, although Gàidhlig is thought of as the traditional language of Scotland and although it was indeed the language of most of Scotland for hundreds of years, according to the census1 in 2001 less than 1.2% of the population (58,552 from a total population of 5,062,011) can now speak Scottish Gàidhlig.

Compare this to a separate study2 carried out in Edinburgh schools in the same year which suggests that around 1.54% of the population can speak Urdu, the same percentage speak French, 1.26% speak Chinese, and 1.12% speak Panjabi, and you start to get a clearer perspective not only of the pluralistic nature of modern Scotland but also of Gàidhlig's position as a (very) minority language.

That same study identified a total of 59 languages other than English currently in use in Scotland, the most common being Lowland Scots or "Lallans" at 2.66%. It would be fitting then, since I welcomed you in Gàidhlig, to close with a short lesson in Lowland Scots. Where "reek" means "to smoke", "yir" means "your", "lang" means "long" and "lum" means "chimney", I'll leave you with the immortal words of my granny:

"Lang may yir lum reek"

Then she would give a wee smile, " - wi' other folk's coal."

1 Census 2001 Scotland

2 Edinburgh Schools Study (PDF 1.2MB)