Review by Richard Gwynallen
Gaelic In Your Gob
Four Dozen English Words That Came from the Scottish Highlands
Michael Newton, Ph.D
Illustrations by Natalia Lopes
with a foreword by Àdhamh Ó Broin
Saorsa Media, 2021
Recently I was at a pub where our small Gaelic reading circle meets. There was a group having a little party and a fellow from that group noticed our book. He said that some of his family had come from Ireland, but as an English teacher he was more interested in languages that had influenced English, and Gaelic had not had much impact. For being at a party he seemed pretty gloomy, and, because I had read Gaelic In Your Gob, I was able to reply: “Now that’s a bit brash, and you are looking far too dour for a shindig like this where there’s food and whiskey galore. Glom onto one of those scones, eat a smidgen, and we’ll talk about Gaelic.” There are eight words in my reply with roots in Gaelic. Do you know which they are? If not, you will if you, too, read Gaelic In Your Gob.
Michael Newton is a creative and insightful Scottish Gaelic scholar whose articles, books, and teaching have shed new light on many aspects of Scottish Gaelic history and heritage. In his foreword to the book, the well known Scottish Gaelic consultant and advocate for the preservation and restoration of regional Scottish Gaelic dialects, Àdhamh Ó Broin, writes that Newton’s “ . . . perspective . . . brought me closer to understanding the inner workings of my ancestral culture than I had managed to come.”
Here, Michael Newton turns those considerable scholarly skills and personal passion onto a subject that might strike the prospective reader as a lighter subject – words in English that have some root in Gaelic; some that the reader might quickly recognize as words in their own gob and think, “Really? I never knew that. How cool.” – and others that might not immediately come to mind, such as “jilt” and “coronach”.
Did you know that when you boogie on the dance floor, or cry out “fore!” on the golf course, or speak of going on a shopping spree, there is a Gaelic word lurking in the shadows of your speech? (Though the shouting of the Gaelic word on the golf course might have a very different impact on the golfers, as illustrated on page 98.) I didn’t.
The illustrations by Natalia Lopes throughout the book add to the lighthearted tone. They underscore points the author makes with humor but also at times with warmth, such as the mouse curled up snug in the hollow of a tree on page 147. They bring the terms being used to life.
Enjoyable? Definitely. Light? Perhaps not as you follow Michael down what Ó Broin refers to as “rabbit-hole dives” unpacking more and more interesting information about each word.
As the subtitle informs the reader, the author explores four dozen words that he has separated into seven sections: People and Names, Community and Customs, Warfare, Sport and Music, Food and Domestic Life, Landscape and Nature, and Slang and Idioms. Those seven sections demonstrate how Gaelic has influenced a wide range of life in the English-speaking world.
The author’s introduction is nearly as interesting as the wander through the words themselves. It prepares the reader for the journey they are about to take. As enjoyable, and even funny, as the book is, it is also a serious examination of the interplay between Gaelic and English, historically and culturally. For the North American Gaelic learner, understanding that interplay will enrich the understanding of our own history. The person who is not a Gaelic learner will also find in these pages the beauty of the Scottish Highland heritage and language, perhaps from a new angle, and, perhaps, find in these 48 terms, 48 stepping stones that lead to learning this beautiful language.
The introduction also frames an understanding of what words actually exhibit a borrowing from Gaelic, and which just appear similar. Newton points out that “Finding a word in English that resembles one in Gaelic may simply be a coincidence . . . ” because “ . . . humans make a limited range of sounds, so there are bound to be words in other languages that remind us of ones that we know.”
The other possibility is that two words are simply cognates because “English and Gaelic are distant cousins . . . both members of the extended Indo-European language family. Newton uses the example of the English word, “mother”, for which the cognate in Gaelic is “màthair”.
So, understanding that Michael has selected words that do not fall into either of the above complicated categories, I invite you to get a copy of Gaelic In Your Gob and enjoy the dive down the linguistic rabbit-holes.