So what's one of those?
I always thought that referring to what we're going to look at now as "register" was a bit odd ... but there you go, that's the term.
What I mean by that is that even within one language, the way we speak can vary dramatically depending on who you're talking to and where you're having this conversation.
Some languages take this to extremes. In Basa Bali (the language of Bali) you almost have two languages side by side, one polite and one not quite as polite and various levels in between - linguists can't agree, anything between 3-7 levels are 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 one however 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 - perhaps not quite to the same extent but think of the two sentences:
Excuse me Sir, would you be so kind as to direct me to the toilet please? and 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?
That is, simply put, what register is about. And of course it exists in Gaelic too.
Now 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 a certain way of talking to friends, to parents, to our boss(es), to our partners, when we're holding a speech, when we're out shopping, when we're reading a news broadcast on TV or Radio, when we're presenting a paper ... But to keep things simple we will distinguish a few general ideas about situations arranged according to formality and people spoken to.
One very obvious register in Gaelic is church-speak. Gaelic church-speak is perhaps the most archaic Gaelic you will find around, especially when it comes to the texts from the Bible:
Imich air falbh
Leave > falbh
... a tha fòs
... who is still > fhathast ... a-rìs ... again > a-rithist ... a labhair rium ... who spoke to me > bhruidhinn ... a' teachd ... coming > tighinn
... their e
... he will say > canaidh
Cionnas a dh'fhosgladh do shùilean?
How would your eyes open? > Ciamar
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 a lot 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"?
This doesn't make church Gaelic weird, just different from normal speech. It should also make us think about other instances in Gaelic when we are faced with a choice of words and don't know which to face. 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.
Now in terms of meaning there is hardly any difference between treun and làidir. But unless you want to sound comical, you can't just interchanges 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 got 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 ... and it doesn't make it any more difficult than having to learn German because German does the same thing. Or French, Sardinian, Balinese, Cantonese, Lingala ... What that means for you as a learner (native speakers intuitively know when to use which) you have to listen to - or read - a lot of native Gaelic to learn what is appropriate when. What makes it slightly tricky is that when you buy a German dictionary, it usually tells you that a word is "formal" or "colloquial" and then there is a lot of spoken or written German about. Gaelic dictionaries to date haven't really woken up to this and there isn't as much Gaelic around so you need to pay extra attention!
You also get such high register words and expressions in poetry and music: Ò cànan tà lèath ri mo chridh
(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
(song) normally nighean dhonn, blocked lenition in such a case hasn't been around for a long time
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