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Gaelic: A heritage language in Canada

One of the languages that has shaped the history and culture of Canadians is Gaelic, the Celtic language of Scotland and Ireland. Although not identical, Scottish and Irish Gaelic are so closely related that speakers of one language can understand much of what is written or said in the other.

Gaelic was brought to Canada in the 18th century. Many of the first traders working for the Hudson’s Bay Company were Gaelic speakers from the Scottish Highlands. By the mid-1700s, intermarriage between traders and Aboriginal peoples had created a sizeable Métis population fluent in Scottish Gaelic and Bungee (a western contact language influenced by Gaelic and Cree, among other languages).

In the 18th and 19th centuries, large numbers of Scottish and Irish emigrated to Atlantic Canada, Quebec and Ontario. The earliest Scottish settlers landed in Prince Edward Island and Alba Nuadh (“New Scotland,” or Nova Scotia). The first Irish emigrants came to Talamh an Éisc (“Land of Fish,” or Newfoundland), the only place outside Europe with an Irish Gaelic name.

By 1881, Canadians of Irish and Scottish descent outnumbered the English and French. Gaelic was Canada’s third most common language. In fact, it was the mother tongue of our first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, and most of the Fathers of Confederation! In 1890, a bill was introduced into Parliament to make Gaelic the nation’s third official language. Although unsuccessful, this bill shows the prominence of Gaelic in 19th-century Canada.

Contact with the Gaelic language over the centuries has enriched Maritime English, giving us such colourful terms as bonnyclapper (thick milk curds), cugger-mugger (whisper), sleveen (rascal) and smurry (a word to describe weather that looks like rain).

Of course, the rich Gaelic heritage has influenced the culture of both English and French Canada in other ways as well. A wide audience enjoys Gaelic music by Canadian fiddlers and singers. And let’s not forget the Gaelic game of camanachd (shinty). This 2,000-year-old Highland sport, played with a stick and ball, was one of the forerunners of hockey in Canada; Scottish Nova Scotians played it on ice as early as 1800.

Because of social and economic factors, Canadian Gaelic became an endangered language in the 20th century. Television and modern transportation brought Gaelic communities into increasing contact with English. At the same time, use of the Gaelic tongue was discouraged at school and even at home, because parents saw English fluency as the passport to prosperity.

As a result, the number of native speakers has dwindled from roughly 200,000 at the time of Confederation to fewer than 1,000 today, living mainly on Cape Breton Island. But efforts are now underway to preserve Gaelic in Canada. Hundreds of Canadians are learning the language of their Scottish and Irish forebears, ensuring that the mother tongue of our first prime minister will continue to be spoken here.

To those dedicated to reviving this rich heritage language, we send this greeting in Scottish Gaelic:

Cumaibh Suas a' Ghàidhlig!
(Keep up the Gaelic!)