Sunday, December 6, 2015

Outlander: An Interview with the Gaelic Consultant, Àdhamh Ó Broin

By Stella Murillo, Porcelain Thunderbird

Outlander Central is honored to re-print, with permission, the interview conducted by our friend Stella Murillo with Outlander's Gaelic consultant Àdhamh Ó Broin!  

Stella is a blogger of several topics that include fashion, wellness and Outlander. She is fluent in both English and Spanish. She earned her B.A. at the University of Toronto in 2001 in Spanish and Anthropology. Some of her academic achievements include the Governor General’s Academic Medal, earned when graduating from high school, and two scholarships, one of them received at the university level. She currently lives in Burlington, Massachusetts, with her husband.  Please check out her blog at:

Outlander: An Interview with the Gaelic Consultant, Àdhamh Ó Broin

photo courtesy of the  Àdhamh Ó Broinies

As a proud member of the Àdhamh Ó Broinies and as a linguistic enthusiast, I was given the opportunity to formulate some questions for Àdhamh Ó Broin. I had the pleasure of meeting Àdhamh at the Outlandish Gathering in Quebec City. He is exceptionally impressive due to his music talent and his knowledge of languages. Some of the questions were designed to inspire unilingual Outlander fans to learn Scottish Gaelic. I have added comments to the questions and answers at the bottom of this post.

The TV show has brought to life Scottish Gaelic, a language that I have read or heard about at a university course, but never heard before. Many Outlander fans are inspired to learn the language. However, I noticed back in my university days that unilingual students do experience some difficulties in learning a second language. In fact, many students who were learning a foreign language at university had English as a second language. Students coming from bilingual areas such as Quebec and Montreal were also more willing to learn a third language. What would you like to say to fans that might find learning a second language a challenge? Any tips?

You can learn anything for which you have a passion. Keep referring back to what inspired you in the first place, and keep your eyes, ears and heart open to learning as much about the culture into which the language is interwoven as possible. Don’t look at the long road ahead and constantly think about what you don’t know. This is one of the few times when looking back at the past rather than ahead at the future is absolutely the best thing. Spend a half hour learning every day, and as you go on, remember you knew next to nothing when you first started on your journey. After only a few weeks, if you count up the words you’ve learned, you’ll realize you have a few dozen at your disposal already. You can have a more or less functioning conversation on a basic topic in any language after having learned only 300-500 words. If you learn a dozen words a week, you’ll have that kind of vocabulary, and a good idea of how to fit the words together after less than a year of study. Start with the simplest possible sentences and hammer them until you don’t have to think about them. Learn your chosen language’s spelling system and do not write in phonetics, which just gives your brain one more thing to do. Avail yourself to every possible learning resource. Don’t justify the reasons for doing it constantly. Don’t war with yourself over whether to open a book or watch a video. Just do it, every day. Don’t tell yourself you haven’t the time. Make your new language your gift to yourself. Vary your learning materials as much as possible. If one way of learning doesn’t work, that doesn’t mean that you’re not able to learn, it just means you might want to try something else. Speak to yourself constantly. Make the people you share your house with think you’ve gone nuts. Chat happily to yourself in the shower. Describe the process of putting the coffee pot on in the morning, even in the simplest terms. Ask yourself how you are and answer. Let words that seem to have a nice ring to them repeat themselves in your mind until you wish you’d never heard them in the first place. Talk to others when you get the chance. The vast majority of natives will be helpful and don’t care if your accent isn’t great or that your grammar’s off. If you worry yourself about that, you’ll be monolingual for the rest of your life. My motto? Fake it till you can make it, baby! Above all, don’t get disheartened. I did it from scratch with several languages but I started with one. Every great journey starts with a single step, but continues in the exact same way. There’s no magic cure or cheat or hack, there’s just passion, and you’ve got to help that to burn bright with a little hard work!*

When studying a second language, reading helps in acquiring new words and in learning sentence structure. Are there some texts that you may recommend to students at the beginner or intermediate level?

Cunnartan Cuain by Aonghas Mac a’ Phì –that’s a lovely wee book and great for practicing reading. You can get it from Abe Books online.

Do students of Scottish Gaelic have a preference for a particular dialect? Is there a reason for this? Is there a dialect that exhibits more archaic characteristics? **

There is a standard tongue, called Mid-Minch Gaelic that was more or less dreamt up in a language lab to help learners. It’s only the very first step in learning Scottish Gaelic though, a language that is dependent on its dialects for its colour and beauty. The language doesn’t function like English. It’s not a linguistic monolith, despite people’s attempts to make it do exactly the same thing. Why learn a second language if it’s just going to do the same thing as the one you’ve already got? As Charlemagne put it: “to speak another language is to possess another soul”.

My first language is Spanish even though my accent sounds French to many North Americans. I guess it is related to the fact that I started to learn English at the age of four back in my native country. I struggled some years ago when trying to pronounce some German words just for fun. It took me about ten minutes to get the word “ich” right. Is it hard for a Spanish speaker to pronounce Scottish Gaelic sounds?

Of all non-Celtic European languages, Gaelic has most in common with the Latin tongues, even mirroring Spanish more or less exactly with the fact that we have two ways of expressing the verb “to be”. While Spanish usage of esand está is to do with “permanent” and “temporary” situations, Gaelic uses almost identical words is and ta(which in Scottish has latterly been lenited to tha) to describe the “definition” and the “condition” of words. People often assume that because there is a guttural quality to both German and Gaelic that they are similar, but this could not be further from the truth. Apart from the second verb in the construction of some sentences being thrown to the end, there is little or no similarity outside of words that are common to most western European languages. Gaelic in fact is not actually a very guttural language at all, it being highly musical and fluid, unlike English that is somewhat staccato and rough sounding, especially to Gaelic ears. Our nickname for the language is a’ Bheurla chruaidh “the hard English”. ***

I have read that you like Croatian beaches. I always go to Croatia for three weeks in the summer since my husband has beach properties there and a boat. Which Croatian beach is your favourite?

I enjoyed the beach at Bol on the far side of Brač. We stayed in Supetar for five days back in 2002 during three months in Slovenija. I’ve also enjoyed trips to Pula in Istria from where we went by boat to Brijuni when I was eight, back in 1987.****

The picture of the “Golden Cape” in Bol “Golden Cape” is by Szabolcs Emich.

Scottish Gaelic is also spoken in the Canadian East Coast. How much different is this dialect from the ones currently present in Scotland?

Not too different from my own. Most of the remaining speakers have a decidedly Lochaber slant to their Gaelic. The original district in Scotland is only 50 miles from my own dialect area in Argyll. It is however, fairly distinct from the predominant Scottish dialects today which are to be found still spoken in the Western Isles and Skye.

This year is about to end in a few weeks. Do you have any resolutions for the New Year in regards to your efforts in preserving the Scottish Gaelic language?

Nothing new! My plans are all long-term and have been in place for a good while now. Just working through each stage bit by bit…. much like learning the tongue in the first place!

Thanks Àdhamh for taking your time in answering these questions for your fans. Here are my comments.

* In the Outlandish Gathering in Quebec, Àdhamh mentioned that it is possible to speak a second language without an accent if you are a good mimic. However, not everybody is a good mimic, and some people are naturally shy or reserved, a characteristic that may impair slightly oral practice in the second language. First, do not be scared of having an accent. In fact, accents are attractive. Furthermore, there are people who are able to write and read proficiently in a second language even when having a heavy accent.

** I decided to ask this question since there are regions of the Spanish-speaking world where a particular person speaks with a certain, distinct intonation. For example, Argentinian speech is recognizable because they tend to displace the syllable stress compared to other dialects. The sound of certain consonants is slightly different too. However, many foreigners have a tendency to prefer this Argentinian speech to the more standard Castilian and Andalusian / Latin American dialects.

*** Based on what I have heard on the TV show, Scottish Gaelic sounds expressive. In fact, its level of expressiveness is comparable to that of Spanish and French (at least to me). Àdhamh mentions that Gaelic is fluid, a characteristic that is present in both French and Spanish. What that means is that when the language is spoken or read aloud, the words sound connected to each other as opposed to English in which the sounds are more “halting” (staccato). A way to visualize this is by hearing a native speaker of English or German speak Italian or Spanish. Of course, there is a strong accent. However, I have encountered three English speakers that are able to speak Spanish with a nice flow to it and with no accent.

In the Outlander series, there are several characters who describe Scottish Gaelic as “barbaric” for most likely the following reasons:
It was no longer the language spoken by monarchs. Part of its past prestige is related to the fact that it was spoken by Scottish monarchs and by members of the court.
By the eighteenth century, it was spoken mainly in the Scottish Highlands, an isolated and rural area with a more “traditional” lifestyle. Of course, “traditional” is equivalent to “backward” in the mindset of an eighteenth century “Sassenach.” Even Lord John was surprised to find that “Erse” was written in the Latin alphabet in The Scottish Prisoner.

The truth is that there is nothing unsophisticated about the language. Claire does not see it as a barbaric tongue, and Bobby Higgins learns it from his wife. He even sings in Scottish Gaelic to his stepsons. At the same time, it is interesting to note that Gaelic speakers describe English as “hard.”

****My husband and I guessed this answer right. Bol is a popular beach destination in Croatia. I assume that Àdhamh is also familiar with the Roman Colloseum in Pula.

If you are an Outlander fan, please join the Àdhamh Ó Broinies on Facebook. Their posts are informative, and the administrators make everybody feel welcome.

The picture of the “Golden Cape” in Bol “Golden Cape” is by Szabolcs Emich. It was originally posted to Flickr as Bol na Bracu – Zlatni rat. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Commons –

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