As I’m finishing up the draft of Book 3, I have been struggling with a character’s name. He’s a new character in this book and I am confident that everyone is going to love him (And I mean LOVE him). The thing is, he has a Gaelic name. It’s not a difficult or crazy Gaelic name, but with its Gaelic spelling, R-U-A-R-A-I-D-H, it might be a bit hard for some folks to pronounce. It’s kind of essential to this guy’s character that he uses the Gaelic form of the name. He’s from the Highlands and works with tourists, so his Scottishness is part of his brand. But then I worry about readers who are challenged by Gaelic names. Should I anglicize it to Rory?
I had a similar question about spelling Eilidh (AY-lee) in Cauldron and thought I would handle Ruaraidh in a similar way. I thought about posing this question to my readers group, the Kettle Holler Literary Society, on Facebook. So, I popped on to Facebook and I ran into this.
This has shown up in my Facebook feed at least a dozen times in the last 48 hours. The first time I saw it, it was kind of funny. By the tenth time it and people's reactions to it are starting to grind my gears.
As a Gaelic learner, I’ll be the first to admit that Gaelic spelling both Irish and Scottish is hard, especially if English is your first language. I try to have a sense of humor about these things but the language nerd in me sometimes gets my back up when people start sneering at Gaelic spelling. Admittedly, Gaelic names can be difficult, but I have a few issues with this particular list.
- These names are Irish. While Irish is a Celtic language, the word Celtic encompasses some other languages that are not included in this list; Scottish Gaelic, Welsh, Cornish, Manx…
- These phonetic pronunciations are gross oversimplifications of the actual pronunciations. Mostly because there are a wealth of subtle vowel and consonant sounds in Irish that most anglophones (That’s English speaking people) have trouble wrapping our clumsy tongues around.
- Some of these sounds and spellings did make their way from Celtic languages into English. Where do you think our multiple gh sounds come from or our tendency to soften consonants when they are followed by slender vowels (i or e)? English speakers can quit their sneering at Gaelic spellings because English is flipping weird. There are a lot fewer exceptions to the rules of grammar and spelling in Gaelic than there are in English. That’s why English is such a hard language to learn. What you’re missing while you’re marveling at Gaelic spelling and pronunciation is that it’s the hardest part of the language. Once you’ve got those down, the grammar is actually pretty easy, easier than English.
- While some folks are laughing at a few Gaelic names on the internet, there are people hard at work preserving and promoting these languages. Calling these “Celtic” names implies that they are somehow ancient and only used in fiction or fairy tales. That couldn’t be further from the truth. There are plenty of people out there with these names, because this is a living language. Unfortunately, thanks to cultural shifts and anglophone dominance most of the Celtic languages are under threat.
Language is a lot more than just words. Culture informs language. It determines a people’s frame of reference. It displays a community’s priorities and social mores. Studying a language is studying a culture. And preserving those languages is preserving the culture they came from. Minority languages, not just Celtic languages, are under threat every day. Native speakers die out. Children don’t learn or use the language of their grandparents. Outsiders move into areas where they are spoken and expect minority speakers to use the dominant language.
So go on yucking it up over Irish spelling while the language fades. I hate to tell you, but all the things you probably love about Ireland are tied up in that language and as it goes, some of those uniquely Irish things will fall away as well.
I realize that Gaelic spelling and pronunciation is hard for people who aren’t used to it. For most folks it’s not something you just casually pick up. I will grant that some of the mispronunciations can be hilarious (Loaghaire/Leghair). They can also be painful and occasionally hurtful especially when they are a person’s name.
That’s why when we were naming our daughter, I (the Gaelic speaker in the family) talked my husband out of names like Moira and Sorcha. Having gone through childhood with an anglicized Welsh name was enough for me to know the difficulties she would face with Gaelic names.
However, my fictional Scottish guy who lives along the north coast. Well, he gets to keep his Gaelic name, because it works for him and because he’s fiercely Scottish. So when Book 3 is released and you get around to reading it, just remember R-U-A-R-A-I-D-H sounds like ROO-ree, at least to English speakers.