One of the challenges facing a language which is struggling against extinction is making it attractive to learn. On the face of it, Gaelic is a beautiful language to hear and speak, but frightful to read and spell. Some would say the quaintness of unusual letter combinations is part of Gaelic’s charm; others would wonder why Latin letters—the basis of English and Romance languages—have been adhered to at all, given the resultant complexity and lack of apparent relationship to the phonemics.
Tengwar is a script devised by J.R.R. Tolkien for writing an Elvish tongue, as explained in Appendix E of Lord of the Rings. Using a popular “elvish” script (with slight modification) for Gaelic is somewhat appropriate, given the strong connection in traditional lore through the Old Irish ancestry to the otherworldly Tuatha Dé Danann. It also resembles slightly the uncial alphabet of medieval Celtic manuscripts, or an historical sideways development of it, so the visual component is already quite familiar.
Adapting this then to the /phonetic/ form of the living language, rather than directly substituting for the highly evolved (though unusual) use of Latin letters, should make it seem apt and natural. In addition, this use of a fictitious, lighthearted and beautiful script for the fading Gaelic tongue may both help to lighten the somewhat gloom-ridden topic of Scottish cultural survival, and encourage young people and foreigners to explore the language.
Almost the entire consonant series (Elvish téma) is used, and fits Tolkien’s original scheme comfortably. In turn, these series were clearly inspired by the Brahmi-Sanskrit arrangement. The velar nasal (in red) is reserved for loan words.
Three extra letters emerging from lenition, and two from slenderizing (ie. palatization):
Scribal variations, for when final or vowel-less:
Note that the /k/ series has slender forms in the palatal /c/ series, with /n/ also having its slender form there; /s/ and /l/ have their own slender forms. Others will use a following or preceding semivowel /j/ to achieve the palatizing effect, if the slender vowels /e/ and /i/ are not able to do this by themselves. The spelling rule of “slender to slender, broad to broad” no longer applies, since we are just writing the sounds.
Lenition is the grammatical change of initial consonants; it involves a change to the fricative of the consonant series. In almost all cases, a swapping of the vertical stem is all that is required. This also shows where fricatives in general have come from:
There is equivalence of sound in the pairs th/sh and dh/gh and bh/mh but their written forms distinguish the phonological or grammatical derivation of the phoneme. This goes a little way toward preserving historical roots, where the use of a phonetic method will generally obscure them. It may be noted that in Old Irish, th dh bh would have been unvoiced dental fricative, voiced dental fricative and voiced bilabial fricative respectively, which makes even more sense of the consonant series.
Vowel marks (Elvish tehtar) are written above their preceding consonant, in the Quenya style of diacritic placement. This system is similar to those used in scripts of the far eastern branches of the Indo-European language family; Gaelic is the farthest west of this family.
If initial and/or long, vowels must sit above a carrier; for diphthongs, a semivowel follows. Optional forms of some vowels are available, for avoiding top stems, etc.
NB. There are no silent letters except lenited /f/ and the elison-marker.
Numerals are stylistically related to the letters, and were designed in sets of three, with optional forms for 10 11 12. Elvish numbers were formed with digits going right to left, as in the Arabic language; that might prove confusing, so is avoided here.
Differences in spelling by phonetic Tengwar may occur where dialects differ. There would seem no reason to discourage this, since it merely preserves the local speech, and would be no less intelligible than the hearing of it.
But even for a standard Gaelic, the Tengwar system outlined here relies on phonetic information being available, and this would be generally helpful. For learners, having to study spelling rules and a bundle of exceptions before we can know how a word sounds is neither great incentive nor a direct path to the language. With a foolproof framework of phonetics at hand, Gaelic can be brought to life; and a beautiful script like Tengwar can then preserve the sounds in a direct and admirable manner.
[Font used on this page is Tengwar Annatar © 2004 Johan Winge]
A version of this page can also be found on Omniglot.