So what's one of those?

O Goireasan Akerbeltz
Gearr leum gu: seòladh, lorg

I always felt that the term "register" was a bit odd for what we're now going to look at. But there you go, that's the term.

Still don't know what it means mate...

It means that even within one language, the way we speak can vary dramatically depending on who we're talking with and where we're having the conversation.

Some languages take this to extremes. In Basa Bali, the language of Bali, you almost have two languages side by side. One is polite and one is not quite as polite. Linguists can't agree on how many levels exist in between, but between 3-7 levels have been described.

For example, the simple sentence "is this giant gecko dangerous?" can come out as:

Tokene niki ila-ila? or Tokene ene baya?

Literally translated, they mean EXACTLY the same thing. The first sentence uses a very polite way of speaking. The second is what you, me, and Joe Bloggs would say. Annoying to a learner on the face of it ... or is it?

If you think about it, it's not that strange. We do the same thing in English, although not quite to the same extent. Think of the two sentences:

Excuse me Sir, would you be so kind as to direct me to the bathroom please?
Oi you, which way's the bog?

Again, the meaning is the same - you're looking for the locus. But beyond the literal meaning, these two sentences are miles apart in terms of their use/effect/politeness ... You might use the second with your best mate's friend but would you say that to your boss's wife?

Simply put, that's what register is about. And of course, it also exists in Gaelic.

You could write books on this topic. But to keep it digestible, we'll just look at a few prominent features in Gaelic.

Strictly speaking, we adjust our speech for every situation - that means we have certain ways of talking to friends, to parents, to our boss(es), to our partners, when we're giving a speech or presenting a paper, or when we're out shopping. We hear different registers when listening to a news broadcast on TV or Radio than when talking with a friend. And we read different registers when studying an academic text or looking at an e-mail. But, to keep things simple we'll distinguish a few general ideas about situations arranged according to formality and people spoken to.


In Gaelic, one very obvious register is church-speak. Gaelic church-speak is perhaps the most archaic Gaelic you'll find around, especially when it comes to texts from the Bible:

Formal expression Meaning Less formal expression
Imich air falbh leave! falbh
... a tha fòs ... who is still ... a tha fhathast
a-rìs again a-rithist
... a labhair rium ... who spoke to me ... a bhruidhinn rium
a' teachd coming a' tighinn
their e he will say canaidh
Cionnas a dh'fhosgladh do shùilean? How would your eyes open? Ciamar a dh'fhosgladh do shùilean?

That'll do. We can't give you a full list (unless someone wants to pay me to do this full time!) but it's enough to illustrate the point we're making. The point being that in very formal church Gaelic, there are lots of words and expressions used which we don't use in everyday Gaelic. It's rather similar to church English in many ways ... "thou art in heaven" ... when was the last time you used "thou art"?

A little less amen

You also get high register words and expressions in poetry and music:

Formal expression Explanation
Ò cànan tà lèath ri mo chridh From a song; normally tha in modern Gaelic; tà was in use a long time ago before it got lenited (cf. Irish tá)
mo nighean donn bhòidheach From a song; normally nighean dhonn, blocked lenition in such a case but hasn't been around for a long time

An the upshot it?

Well, for starters it explains why church Gaelic is weird or rather, why it isn't - it's just different from normal speech. It should also make us think about other instances in Gaelic when we're faced with a choice of words and don't know which to choose. Say you need the word for 'strong' and look it up. You'll probably find the three words: neartmhor, làidir, and treun. Now which one do you choose? Well, that depends on what you're saying/writing. For starters, even though neartmhor can be translated as 'strong', it's primary meaning is something more like 'emphatic', so we can probably dismiss it here.

In terms of meaning, there's hardly any difference between treun and làidir. But unless you want to sound comical, you can't just interchange the two. Treun is a very formal, almost old fashioned word, whereas làidir is the commonly used word for strong. So, if you're writing a tale about Fionn MacCumhail or a Gaelic script for a heroic movie, treun is your word. If you want to tell someone you have a strong dog, you use làidir.

This is exactly the same thing we do in English - strong, powerful, sthenic ... what's the difference? Not much, if any, but you would hardly tell your neighbour that you have a "sthenic dog" - now would you? Of course, we can use such words out of context but be aware of the effect you might have. You might well talk about your "sthenic canine" - but unless you were trying to be deliberately funny, by using a word outside its normal register, you'll just sound silly.

Doesn't that make Gaelic difficult? Well, we never said it would be easy but these issues don't make it any more difficult than having to learn German because German does the same thing, as does French, Sardinian, Balinese, Cantonese, Lingala ... What that means for you, as a learner, is that you have to listen to, and read, a lot of native Gaelic to learn what is appropriate when. Of course, native speakers intuitively know how to make the right choices. What makes it slightly tricky for Gaelic learners is that Gaelic dictionaries, to date, haven't really woken up to the need for helpful discussion about register, and there's little help around, so you need to pay extra attention! However, when you buy a German dictionary, it usually tells you that a word is "formal" or "colloquial" and it offers a lot about spoken or written German.

Beagan gràmair
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