Orthographic Conventions

1. Consonant Quality

1.1 The initial problem in representing consonant quality is that a system free from all ambiguity would involve cumbersome devices and an over-proliferation of symbols; this is especially the case when consonants have three qualities, for example l and n. On the other hand ambiguity should be reduced as far as possible.

The primary device for indicating consonant quality is the "Gaelic spelling rule" which lays down that

(a) consonants or consonant groups with palatal quality should be indicated by placing front vowels (e, i) adjacent to them, eg: (in word-initial position) ceann, geall, seall, steall, greann, spreòt, etc; (in word-final position) cruinn, Goill, saill, rùisg, cuirm, etc; (in word-medial position) tuilleadh, sileadh, cruinne, sailleadh, clisgeadh, guirme, etc.

(b) consonants or consonant groups with velar or neutral quality should have adjacent to them back vowels (a, o, u) eg: (in word-initial position) gaill, stòr, gràn, sprochd, etc; (in word-final position) ceann, seall, sealg, balach, cosg, etc; (in word-medial position) ceannaich, balach, cosgais, lochdan, etc.

1.3 Problems in this area have arisen over the interpretation of the spelling rule in its relation to consonant clusters, which may, on occasion, consist of sequences in which the elements belong to different classes. This disparity may be ignored in word-initial and word-final positions: the vowel simply marks the class of the consonant immediately next to it (eg: greann, spreòt above), and the other consonants have no vocalic elements next to them.

Intervocalic clusters, however, have vowels on each side of them, and it has sometimes been advocated that they should be flanked by vowels of the same class irrespective of any difference in the class of the consonants which constitute them. Here, the more straightforward interpretation is followed, viz that with consonant groups having consonants of different classes, as in all other situations, the class of the consonant should be signalled by the class of the adjacent vowel.

The commonest places for the occurrence of mixed groups are (a) at the boundary between stems and endings in certain word forms and (b) in compounds.

The following examples illustrate the application of the above for these cases.

(a) The commonest place of occurrence is with past participles passive, eg leag/te, tog/te where the t of the ending is palatal but the g of the stem is not. This is not always the case, of course, cf. mill/te, where the stem consonant is palatal and dèan/ta (beside dèan/te) where the t of the ending is not palatal.

(b) Examples of compounds with mixed groups are bànrigh, mocheirigh, etc.

1.4 There are a small number of words in which traditionally the spelling rule has not been observed: for example, ged, where the d is not palatal (in fact e is not usually found before consonants indicating palatality), and is where the s is not palatal. There have been several attempts to amend the spelling of is at different times: as, us, s, etc. However, the traditional spelling is should be retained, as should also the traditional spellings for ged and similar items as no recognisable gain would seem to flow from innovation.

1.5 Seo and siud are now widely accepted forms (beside so, sud) and the spellings showing palatal quality should be accepted.

1.6 r does not have palatal quality initially except occasionally in words such as riamh. Again the traditional spelling should be used, ie rìgh not raìgh (for example). In the case of taigh, however, the spelling indicating the non-palatal quality of the initial t is now generally accepted (instead of tigh).

2. Consonant Groups and Simplification

2.1 The normal group to indicate hiatus should be th: for example bithidh, fitheach, bathar, prothaid. Exceptions would arise from homographs: for example adhar (to avoid confusion with athar, gen. of athair).

2.2 There is some confusion apparent in the present practice of spelling words with st/sd groups. Word-initially this is always st-, and this should continue to be the case. Intervocalically and finally -st should be used: for example astar, rithist.

2.3 Svarabhakti groups with prefix an- should continue to be written and normalised as ana- (ie with the vowel written). When stress is initial they should be written as one word: for example anabarrach; when stress is not initial they should be hyphenated, for example ana-miann (cf an-iochd). (See section 4 on Word Stress below.)

2.4 The prefix comh- should be simplified to co where it does not take the stress: for example comh-chòrdadh -> co-chòrdadh etc. When it bears stress and has lost distinctive nasalisation it should be simplified also: for example coitheanal, coileanta (but not coimhleanta with nasal vowel, meaning "compos mentis").

2.5 Where the groups -dhgh- are juxtaposed they should be simplified to gh: for example buadhghallan -> buaghallan.

2.6 It should be noted that, notwithstanding certain dialectal pronounciations, the historical spellings should be retained for groups with preaspiration: ie mac (not machd or machc), sloc (not slochd), boc (not bochd = "buck") etc.

3. Vowel Representations

For the most part the established conventions for vowel representations are adequate. There are some problems however.

3.1 In the case of words spelt with eu (for example beul, ceud, meud) there would be no great gain in making a change in the spelling generally (to bial, ciad, miad, for example, though such spellings are commonly enough found in contemporary sources and have to be recognised, therefore, as occurring forms).

3.2 The traditional spelling should also be retained for words of the type fìon, fìor, mìos.

3.3 When there are homophones, however, these should be differentiated in spelling where such differentiation is feasible. For example, in the case of ceud = 100 / ceud = 1st, ceud = "100" should be retained and "1st" should be written ciad; and mìos = "month" while the word for "basin" should be written mias; feur = "grass"; fìor = "true"; fiar = squint.

3.4 The long central vowel (phonetically a long schwa) is often represented by ao, for example aobhar, aobrann, aoradh. These and similar words should be written as adhbhar, adhbrann, adhradh (which was the traditional spelling) as the -ao- digraph is more appropriate to represent the sound in, for example, faobhar, saor, daor, gaoth, etc.

3.5 The variation to be found in unstressed syllables should be reduced and based on -a- instead of -o- or -u-, for example:

(a) instead of boirionn, firionn, timchioll etc, boireann, fireann, timcheall etc.

(b) instead of àluinn, altrum, Bìobull, dorus, fallus, maduinn, solus, turus etc, àlainn, altram, Bìoball, doras, fallas, madainn, solas, turas etc.

3.6 Agus should, in view of its frequency and familiarity, be allowed as an exception to this rule.

3.7 Of the two length marks at present used in Gaelic, the acute accent should be dispensed with, in view of the small number of words on which it occurs, and the grave accent alone should be used to indicate length.

3.8 In the case of the spelling of diphthongs occurring before m in words such as cam, lom, lampa, the traditional spelling should be retained, except that am, "time", should be spelt àm to differentiate it from other am forms.

3.9 The traditional spelling should also be used in the representation of the vowel quality of the adjectival endings in such words as ainm/eil, sgil/eil, which in many areas contain back vowels (as in fearail, for example, where the spelling rule allows a closer representation of the occurring sound).

4. Word Stress

4.1 In Gaelic the stress comes on the first syllablee in words and proper compounds. In such items any secondary stress has no bearing on orthographic representation. Items conforming to this pattern should be spelt as one word, irrespective of the number of syllables they contain, and irrespective of whether they are compounds (recognisable or otherwise) or not: for example, balach, smaoineachadh, cuingealachadh, imeachd, atharrais, barrall, bànrigh, dìochuimhnich, eatarrasan.

4.2 By the same argument, items in which the stress does not fall upon the first syllable should, in general, be hyphenated with the hyphen coming, normally, before the word bearing the stress: for example, cas-chrom, ban-diùc.

4.3 The case of words with prefixes might raise some problems, for, in some instances, the stress falls upon the prefix and in some cases upon the word. In these cases, as the simplest expedient, the rules stated above should apply, viz when the stress is initial the item should be written as one word; when it is not, a hyphen should intervene. For example, anacothram, anabarrach, eucoir, aocoltach, etc, but ana-miann, mì-earbsach, ao-coltach etc.

4.4 There are problems with words that have unstressed suffixes also, for example:

(a) -sa, -se, -san, the emphasising particles. These should be written generally, as one word, for example dhòmhsa, dhìse, dhasan; leis-san and ris-san are exceptions (to accommodate the two ss). Where the emphasising particle follows a noun or adjective, it should be hyphenated, for example mo thaigh-sa "my house", mo chota gorm-sa, "my blue coat".

(b) The marked indefinite forms in -eigin should, generally, be written as one word also: for example rudeigin, feareigin, air choreigin. The forms latha-

eigin and tè-eigin should, however, be hyphenated (to accommodate the juxtaposition of the vowels).

(c) The unstressed forms of seo, sin, siud should be written as follows: am fear sa/seo, am fear sin, am fear ud.

4.5 Certain expressions which are strongly felt to constitute a unit but have primary stress on a non-initial element may be hyphenated: for example a-mach, a-steach, a-muigh, a-staigh, a-null, a-nall, an-àird, a-nuas, a-bhos, a-rithist, a-nis, a-mhàin etc.

Compound prepositions (taking the genitive case) having primary stress on non-initial elements should be written as two words, eg à measg ("from among"), am measg ("among"), a rèir, os cionn, ri taobh, etc.

Ciamar, carson and airson should be written as one word (in spite of such forms as air a shon fhéin).

4.6 There are special cases:

(a) The days of the week should be written as one word without internal capitalisation: for example Diluain, Dimàirt, Diciadaoin, Diardaoin, Dihaoine, Disathairne, Didòmhnaich (but Latha na Sàbaid).

(b) Similarly surnames should be written as one word but with capitalisation, for example MacAilein, MacBeatha, MacDhòmhnaill. Exceptions are names of the form Mac an Aba, Mac a' Ghobhainn etc.

(c) On place names the following rules should apply: (1) names consisting of two (or more) Gaelic elements should reflect this in their spelling: eg Inbhir Nis, Dùn Eideann, Ceann Loch Chille Chiarain; (2) where elements have become obscure a hyphen may be inserted: eg Earra-Ghaidheal; (3) names with a final element derived from Norse -ey, "island", should be spelt -aigh (not -aidh) to indicate the distinctive open `a' pronunciation in the last syllable: eg Bearnaraigh, Sgalpaigh, etc.

Hyphens should not be used in borrowed words that have non-initial stress, for example tombaca, buntàta, telebhisean etc.

4.8 Some words appear in both stressed and unstressed position. This is particularly the case with parts of the verb `tha'; both of the forms bithidh/bidh and bhitheadh/bhiodh are acceptable. Thubhairt/thuirt are acceptable for similar reasons. (See section 7 on Irregular Verbs.)

5. The Article, Abbreviation, and the use of Apostrophes

5.1 With regard to the forms of the article in article + noun structures, the traditional practice should be retained in all cases. This applies inter alia to the use of the apostrophe with the article.

5.2 The usage of the apostrophe in prepositional phrases is dealt with below in the sectio on that topic.

5.3 In constructions with ag + possessive + verbal noun the apostrophe should be dropped: for example Bha e gam iarraidh (not Bha e 'gam iarraidh). Similarly, constructions with gu should no longer use the apostrophe. It should, however, be retained with reduced forms of ag before consonants: for example Tha e a' falbh.

5.4 In reported speech the apostrophe should not be used in the introductory gun, gum, gur in affirmative clauses: for example gun cuala, gum faca, gur e.

5.5 The apostrophe should be retained after the past tense marker dh' before vowels and f followed by a vowel, for example dh'òl, dh'fhalbh, in affirmative, negative and interrogative sentences. There should be no space between the apostrophe and the following letter.

5.6 If the verb is is not written out in full in constructions like is math, is dòcha etc, then the apostrophe should be retained: for example 's math, 's dòcha. The s should not merge with the following word.

5.7 When linking is (= agus) is not written out in full the apostrophe should be retained: for example duine 's bean.

5.8 The apostrophe should be retained with forms of the possessive mo and do before vowels and f followed by a vowel: for example m' athair, d' fheannag and a space should intervene between the apostrophe and the next word.

5.9 If an uair is not written out in full (as a conjunction only) then it should take the form nuair, without an apostrophe.

5.10 When a word ending in a vowel is followed by a word beginning with a vowel and the final vowel of the first word is not written then an apostrophe should replace it: for example duine òg/duin' òg.

5.11 It should be noted that in formal written discourse forms such as in 5.7 and 5.10 and similar contractions such as eg bh' aig, bh' ann, etc, should in fact be written out in full (but not nuair (as a conjunction)).

5.12 The phrases là'rna mhàireach, ce'là-deug (ceithir latha deug), co'là-deug (cóig latha deug), should be written as làrna-mhàireach, ceala-deug, cola-deug.

6. Borrowed Words

Borrowed words raise considerable problems since they contain sounds not easily rendered unambiguously in Gaelic.

6.1 This is the case especially with the alveolar sound of English d, t, l, n; and it is accepted that these symbols will simply have to carry the extra burden: for example làraidh (cf làrach), nàidhlean, dàibhear, dràibhear, tàidh ("tie"); and teatha ("tea").

6.2 Initial h- should be allowed in borrowed words: for example hama, hangar etc.

6.3 Initial qu- should be represented by cu-: for example cuaraidh, "quarry".

6.4 V should be represented by bh: for example bhan(a) "van". Exceptions are proper names: Bhictoria/Victoria, Vicky, Villon, Voroshilov and abbreviations V.C., V.A.T. etc.

6.5 W should be represented by ue/ua: for example uèir(e) "wire", ualras "walrus". (N.B. Uilleam "William", Uilidh "Willie".)

6.6 X should be represented by -cs-: for example tacsaidh "taxi"; by s: for example saidhlofòn "xylophone". X-ray as an international term should retain its form. Proper names and trade names such as Xerox would also be exceptions.

6.7 Y + u may be represented by iu: for example Iùgoslàbhia "Yugoslavia".

6.8 Z should normally be represented by s: for example sutha "zoo".

6.9 The words "jazz", "jet", "yacht" should retain their English spellings, since an attempt to Gaelicise them results in forms which look somewhat bizarre.

There are also some problems with the rendering of vowels.

6.10 The obscure vowel schwa should normally be represented in loans from English as oi: for example soircas "circus", coiridh "curry". The word bus, because of its familiarity in that form, should be an exception.

6.11 Diphthongs in borrowed words should have syllable final -dh (not -gh): for example bàidhsagal "bicycle"; stoidhle "style".

6.12 Final [i] in loan words should be represented by -(a)idh: for example cofaidh "coffee"; poileasaidh "policy".

7. Irregular Verbs

The forms shown below should apply.

Verb tha

7.1 a bhith rather than a bhi for the infinitive, and bi/bhi for future/habitual.

7.2 Both bithidh and bidh, and bhitheadh and bhiodh as alternative forms, respectively stressed and unstressed. (See section 4 on Word Stress.)

7.3 a bheil and gu bheil (but am beil and gum beil are also acceptable). Similarly a robh and gu robh.

7.4 bhite/bhithist as spellings for impersonal forms of the past habitual.

Verb chì

7.5 chì (with accent)

7.6 Spellings for impersonal forms:

(a) past independent: chunnacas;

(b) past habitual: chìte; faicte and chithist; faicist.

Verb cluinnidh

7.7 cluinnear (not cluintear).

7.8 chluinnte (not chluinnteadh) and chluinnist.


7.9 and dèanamh, both with accents.

7.10 nìthear/nìtear, and dèanar (not dèantar).

7.11 gun do rinn/gun d'rinn/gun rinn; an do rinn/an d'rinn/na rinn; nach do rinn/nach d'rinn are all acceptable forms. The same rules hold for the past tenses of other verbs in r (for example rug, ràinig, etc).

Verb thig

7.12 an tig; gun tig etc, and an tàinig; gun tàinig etc.

Verb thèid

7.13 an tèid etc (cf. 7.12).

7.14 an deachaidh and an deach etc (but not an deacha)

7.15 an deigheadh, an dreigheagh etc are both acceptable (but not an teigheadh etc); an deadh is the shortened form.

Verb bheir

7.16 tabhairt and toirt and an tabhair and an toir are acceptable (depending on stress; see section 4).

7.17 an tug is recommended (cf 7.12). Similarly an tugte and an tugaist.

Verb ràdh

7.18 ràdh (not radh or radha).

7.19 ag ràdh and a' ràdh are both acceptable.

7.20 an tubhairt and an tuirt, depending on stress (see 7.12 and section 4 above).

Verb is

7.21 is e and 's e are both acceptable.

8. Prepositional phrases and prepositional pronouns

(A) Prepositional phrases

Structures (A1) preposition + article + noun

and (A2) preposition + possessive + noun

8.1 Several versions of (A1) exist for most prepositions: for example do + an + baile yields do'n bhaile (to take the present accepted form), don a' bhaile, dhan bhaile (sometimes spelt dh'an or dha'n), and dhan a' bhaile, depending on dialectal provenance and orthographic practice.

8.2 It is not considered appropriate to select one of these as correct and reject the others. In appropriate circumstances any of them might be acceptable. The forms which come first below are those which should be used for formal written discourse. In order to avoid apostrophes where possible, the forms should be spelt: don bhaile; don a' bhaile; dhan bhaile; dhan a' bhaile.

8.3 Similar rules are applicable, as appropriate, to other examples of the structure preposition + article + noun.

8.4 As for (A1), different versions of (A2), preposition + possessive + noun, also exist, and the same principles apply.

do + mo + baile yields dom bhaile; do mo bhaile; dham bhaile; dha mo bhaile.

do + do + baile yields dod bhaile; do do bhaile; dhad bhaile; dha do bhaile.

do + a(masc.) + baile yields da bhaile; dha bhaile.

do + a(fem.) + baile yields da baile; dha baile.

do + ar + baile yields do ar baile; dar baile; dhar baile; dha ar baile.

do + ur + baile yields do ur baile; dur baile; dhur baile; dha ur baile.

do + an + baile yields dom/dam baile; dham baile; do am baile.

8.5 Similar rules should apply to (A2) structures with other prepositions. In the first and second plural forms contractions should be avoided in instances where homographs would result: de ar and de ur should be used rather than der, dur.

(B) Prepositional pronouns.

8.6 Different forms have to be admited in this case also, for example

do + personal pronoun

1 sg. dhomh/domh

2 sg. dhut/dut

3 sg. masc. dha/da

3 sg. fem. dhi/di

1 pl. dhuinn/duinn

2 pl. dhuibh/duibh

3 pl. dhaibh/daibh

Examples with different prepositions are given in the list of words appended.

9. Common Errors

9.1 Many common orthographic problems giving rise to errors are covered in the word list appended. Some examples might be raised, however, that have a particular interest.

9.2 Many "errors" appear to stem from dialectal usage which has been considered, in terms of general literary usage, to be sub-standard. It is difficult to establish general rules in this area. An attempt has been made not to allow dialectal prejudice to enter into the decisions, and this consideration has in some instances caused a variety of forms to be regarded as acceptable. This is considered the sensible policy in the present circumstances. At the same time a list of recommended forms is given, based on what are regarded as the demands of formal literary Gaelic. The following examples may help to show the sort of criteria which are considered important.

(a) Most Gaelic dialects do not make a distinction between the forms of the prepositions do and de in most circumstances (only in some forms of the prepositional pronouns). Nevertheless in the written form, in order to avoid ambiguity as far as possible, it is desirable to keep the forms distinct.

(b) Some dialects use le where others use ri. This is regarded simply as a difference of usage, which does not enter into domains where ambiguity might ensue. On the other hand some dialects use ro for tro, where confusion might occur; it is considered best to keep the forms distinct in the written language.

1996-03-10 CPD