connecting birds & words

Every so often I’ll notice a Gaelic name or word and think ‘that looks a bit…odd’. While I’ve spoken the language for as long as I’ve spoken English, I am not a linguist. I’ve not seriously studied the minutiae of Gaelic- that is for the language specialists and I am not one. I have long been fascinated, however, by the relationship between Gaelic heritage and the impact of visitors and emigrants to the Highlands and Islands on the language.

This is a long and exhaustive topic – and not one I’m going to delve into in any great depth just now. It deserves more than that. I did think, however, that I’d share one example of the beautiful – in my opinion – manner in which languages and cultures can collide, and the result illustrating a wee bit of our shared heritages.

My example today is of a rather poorly thought of bird; oft the subject of disdain and victimisation. It is the black blacked gull. Now, asides from the fact that I am actually quite fond of these birds, in all their squaking, brash, bolshy way, their name tells an interesting story. While researching some work for the day-job and discussing linguistic anomalies with a colleague, it struck me how odd looking the word farspag is. This is the Gaelic name for a black backed gull (pron. far-spak). Its quite distinct from faoileag, the term for a general gull. A little digging confirmed my expectations – farspag is Norse in origin. Through this one word you can see the impact of Scandinavian visitors to the Highlands and Islands, that a thousand years later we’re not just carrying on placenames with Scandinavian suffixes, but even the name for this scorned bird. The following are some names used in (largely) contemporary languages for a black backed gull – you can see the connections yourselves.

Gaelic:  farspag

Icelandic: svartbakur

Norn: svartbak

Danish: svartbag

Norwegian: svartbak

Shetlandic: swabbie

I like to think that we are but one small part of a much larger heritage, and I particularly like that a bird as humble as a black backed gull can help demonstrate part of that. Please feel free to share any terms you know that tie in with this – I’d love to hear them.

2 thoughts on “connecting birds & words

  1. Long winded comment ahoy!!

    Love it – not the evil gull, but the word as I’m becoming more and more in love with words and their origins – mainly Auld Scots at the moment. Anyhoo, I remember in 3rd or 4th year, whenever it was I was happily back in Mrs MacGregors class we had a Norwegian teacher in on a visit. Can’t remember why, but she said that she could understand a lot of what we were being taught because of the similarities in the language. So my question is (forgive my ignorance) but how much of Gaelic today is influenced by the Vikings/Norse folk?

    Also wanted to ask what influence, if any and if you know (i’m assuming you do cos you’re my go-to history genius and personal Indy Jones) did vikings/celts have on us Lowlanders language wise?

  2. Sorry for taking so long to get back to you Claire, but a great couple of questions. Firstly, there’s a great deal of Norse influence on Gaelic, but nowhere near enough for the two to be mutually intelligible. You can trace the influence most clearly in placenames: suffixes of -dale, -bost, -bus and variations thereof are all common, and Norse in origin (there are many more). Some words are more oblique in origin but if you’ve a good feel for the language it’s easier to ascertain from where it comes, one way or another. I think it’s easier to understand if you consider that of communities and peoples travelling from Northern Europe and islands further N & W did so over water. To this end, the Gaidhealtachd (or Scotland/Britain more broadly) wasn’t on the periphery as it’s so often stated, but rather perfectly central and easily got to. Hence the mass moves in population, in both directions, for centuries.

    For your second question, in all honesty I’ve really not got much of a clue. I know very, very little about dialects or languages from The Sooth so can’t say in all honesty. I’d presume a fair amount though – them Scandinavians got everywhere…

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