Sunday, 17 November 2013

Speaking about this land

I got hooked on Gaelic when Roddy Maclean came to Lochinver to talk about the language. He said, 'you know how Inuit are supposed to have 50 words for snow? Well, given that Gaelic is the language of the Highlands, I wondered how many words could I think of for a bit of high land.' He put up a powerpoint slide crammed full of words, and said, 'I got to 72 and couldn't fit any more on the slide...' 

I realised that Gaelic has evolved to speak with real precision about the landscape. The language is customised for this loch-and-cnocan place. And it's not just about reading maps, though that is greatly assisted by a working knowledge of Gaelic.

I love reading Gaelic poetry and I have tired of only being able to read the right hand side of the page. As I've grasped some basic grammar and learned how sentences are constructed, I've become increasingly aware of how often a word like 'moor' is used repeatedly in the English translation, yet several different words are used in the Gaelic original. There are nuances about the shapes and textures of this land that can only be expressed in the native tongue.

I can't speak it yet, but I'm working on it. This week, a group of five of us in Assynt reached a landmark, completing the 144 units of the Ulpan course. I've just spent the weekend at Glencanisp Lodge, for some intensive but very enjoyable Gaelic learning, and singing, and joking, and an indecent amount of chocolate. My favourite session was one on similes: how about 'Cho caol ri taghan' - thin as a pine marten? 'Cho trang ri triur ann an leabaidh' - as busy as three in a bed! And that specificity is there again: in English we'd say 'as old as the hills', but in Gaelic it's 'Cho sean ri ceĆ² nam beann' - as old as the mist on the mountain. What an evocative image!

The other thing I remember from Roddy Maclean's talk, back then, was him telling us that the oyster catcher says 'bi glic, bi glic, bi glic, bi glic'. It's a perfect rendering of their sound, and it means 'be wise'. 'If you learn to speak Gaelic,' Roddy said with a twinkle in his eye, 'you discover that all of the birds are giving us good advice.'

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