Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Archive: Scots Gaelic - George McLennan

Scots Gaelic: An Introduction to the Basics
George McLennan

Since I've started my lessons I'm all enthused about learning, so I've had the books out to help get the words stuck in my head (does that make me a bit of a swot? Very likely...). My main concern about learning a new language is that I have very little understanding of how it all works in a technical sense - vocative, genitive, nominative, irregular verbs...Just the thought of all that brings back nightmares of Latin language lessons and me just not getting it. So I thought I'd get a good head start in the hope that I don't get completely lost when the time comes to get all technical. This book fits the bill nicely.

It's not the sort of book that will help you start having simple conversations in Gaelic - rather it aims to give an idea of the basics of all the technical aspects, so instead of learning how to introduce yourself and ask where the nearest toilet might be, McLennan covers lenition and aspiration, the basics of pronunciation, spelling, dialects, inflection, and so on (you will learn some vocabulary as you go, but that's not the primary focus). Each subject has a short chapter devoted to it, and everything is written in a clear and simple manner and the tone is engaging, which is always a help in my book.

The book itself is quite short and some might criticise it for being too simplistic in certain areas, but for me, less was definitely more. Anymore detail would have been overwhelming, I think, and now I'm a little more confident of facing the prospect of tackling different tenses, irregular verbs and so on, even if I know I don't have all of the basics down just yet.

The great advantage of this book is the way McLennan gives comparisons in the English language, which really helped me understand the points he was making - they allow the reader to put the Gaelic into a more familiar context, as it were. He gives examples of English cognates and sticks to words that will likely to be learned early on, rather than giving more obscure examples of vocabulary, which makes things simpler and more familiar. He also does a good job of showing some similarities between English and Gaelic grammar, which helps make the Gaelic seem less alien.

My only bugbear with the book is that while the basic rules of pronunciation are covered, phonetic pronunciations are rarely given along with the Gaelic. The last chapter gives a list of common words that can be used to get the general point across in pidgin Gaelic if you happen to find yourself stranded in the wilds of the Gàidhealtachd where nobody speaks a word of English (well not really...), but without phonetic prompts I don't imagine anyone would feel confident enough to try actually saying most of the words to a Gaelic speaker without the expectation of being laughed at. But really, the lack of phonetics is a distraction, more than anything else - it does kind of spoil the flow the first time round.

On the plus side, then - it's short and sweet, and very straightforward. Some things might need reading more than once to absorb it properly, but you probably won't get completely lost. McLennan also does a good job to accommodate all kinds of readers - not just Scots wanting to learn Gaelic, but readers from further afield as well. There's something for everyone in here, and the fact that dialects are mentioned is a big plus. That might be why phonetic pronunciations aren't usually given, though, because McLennan is presumably trying to accommodate people who might actually live in Gaelic speaking areas, who might learn different pronunciations. It is a bit distracting, though, and limits the usefulness of the final chapter.

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