It has been suggested that this article be merged into Early Modern Irish. (Discuss) Proposed since January 2023.

Classical Gaelic
Classical Irish
Native toScotland, Ireland
Era13th to 18th century
Early forms
Language codes
ISO 639-3ghc

Classical Gaelic or Classical Irish (Gaoidhealg) was a shared literary form of Gaelic that was in use by poets in Scotland and Ireland from the 13th century to the 18th century.

Although the first written signs of Scottish Gaelic having diverged from Irish appear as far back as the 12th century annotations of the Book of Deer, Scottish Gaelic did not have a separate standardised form and did not appear in print on a significant scale until the 1767 translation of the New Testament into Scottish Gaelic;[1] however, in the 16th century, John Carswell's Foirm na n-Urrnuidheadh, an adaptation of John Knox's Book of Common Order, was the first book printed in either Scottish or Irish Gaelic.[2]

Before that time, the vernacular dialects of Ireland and Scotland were considered to belong to a single language, and in the late 12th century a highly formalized standard variant of that language was created for the use in bardic poetry. The standard was created by medieval Gaelic poets based on the vernacular usage of the late 12th century and allowed a lot of dialectal forms that existed at that point in time,[3] but was kept conservative and had been taught virtually unchanged throughout later centuries. The grammar and metrical rules were described in a series of grammatical tracts and linguistic poems used for teaching in bardic schools.[4][5]


The grammar of Classical Gaelic is laid out in a series of grammatical tracts written by native speakers and intended to teach the most cultivated form of the language to student bards, lawyers, doctors, administrators, monks, and so on in Ireland and Scotland. Some of the tracts were edited and published by Osborn Bergin as a supplement to Ériu between 1916 and 1955 under the title Irish Grammatical Tracts[6] and some with commentary and translation by Lambert McKenna in 1944 as Bardic Syntactical Tracts.[7][4]

Neuter nouns still trigger eclipsis of a following complement, as they did in Middle Irish, but less consistently. The distinction between preposition + accusative to show motion toward a goal (e.g. san gcath "into the battle") and preposition + dative to show non–goal-oriented location (e.g. san chath "in the battle") is kept in the standard even though it is lost in the spoken language during this period. The standard also keeps the distinction between nominative and accusative case in some classes of nouns and requires the use of accusative for direct object of the verb if it's different in form from the nominative.

Verb endings are also in transition.[8] The ending -ann (which spread from conjuct forms of Old Irish n-stem verbs like benaid, ·ben "(he) hits, strikes"), today the usual 3rd person ending in the present tense, was originally just an alternative ending found only in verbs in dependent position, i.e. after particles such as the negative, but it started to appear in independent forms in 15th century prose and was common by 17th century. Thus Classical Gaelic originally had molaidh "[he] praises" versus ní mhol or ní mholann "[he] does not praise", whereas later Classical Gaelic and Modern Irish have molann sé and ní mholann sé.[9] This innovation was not followed in Scottish Gaelic, where the ending -ann has never spread, but the present and future tenses were merged: glacaidh e "he will grasp" but cha ghlac e "he will not grasp".[10]


ISO 639-3 gives the name "Hiberno-Scottish Gaelic" (and the code ghc) to cover both Classical Gaelic and Early Modern Irish.


  1. ^ Thomson (ed.), The Companion to Gaelic Scotland
  2. ^ Meek, "Scots-Gaelic Scribes", pp. 263-4; Wormald, Court, Kirk and Community, p. 63.
  3. ^ Brian Ó Cuív (1973). The linguistic training of the mediaeval Irish poet. Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies. ISBN 978-0901282-699. But what was achieved in the second half of the twelfth century was something completely radical: the formal adoption of vernacular speech as the basis for a new literary standard. (...) If what they observed of the language at that time had been written down and identified according to regions, and if the manuscripts containing their observations had survived the vicissitudes of the intervening centuries, we would have to-day a fascinating and unique collection of descriptive linguistic material. However, what the poets did was to co-ordinate this material to produce a prescriptive grammar.
  4. ^ a b Brian Ó Cuív (1973). The linguistic training of the mediaeval Irish poet. Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies. ISBN 978-0901282-699.
  5. ^ Eoin Mac Cárthaigh (2014). The Art of Bardic Poetry: A new Edition of Irish Grammatical Tracts I. Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies. ISBN 978-1-85500-226-5.
  6. ^ Baumgarten, Rolf; Ó Maolalaigh, Roibeard (2004). "Electronic Bibliography of Irish Linguistics and Literature 1942–71, Irish grammatical tracts". Retrieved 11 January 2022.
  7. ^ Baumgarten, Rolf; Ó Maolalaigh, Roibeard (2004). "Electronic Bibliography of Irish Linguistics and Literature 1942–71, Bardic Syntactical Tracts". Retrieved 11 January 2022.
  8. ^ Bergin, Osborn (1930). "Language". Stories from Keating's History of Ireland (3rd ed.). Dublin: Royal Irish Academy.
  9. ^ McManus, Damian (1994). "An Nua-Ghaeilge Chlasaiceach". In K. McCone; D. McManus; C. Ó Háinle; N. Williams; L. Breatnach (eds.). Stair na Gaeilge: in ómós do Pádraig Ó Fiannachta (in Ga). Maynooth: Department of Old Irish, St. Patrick's College. pp. 335–445. ISBN 978-0-901519-90-0.
  10. ^ Calder, George (1923). A Gaelic Grammar. Glasgow: MacLaren & Sons. p. 223.