Scottish Gaelic, an endangered language, is predicted to fall out of use within the century as a consequence of native speakers turning to English instead.
And those concerned with preserving and advancing the use of Scottish Gaelic face another dilemma – the lack of measures accurately stating what constitutes normative Gaelic speech.
At the University of Arizona, Andrew Carnie is leading a team in an analysis of Scottish Gaelic and its use among native speakers.
The team intends for the research – which involves modern instrumental and experimental measurements – to boost preservation efforts and improve what is understood about the language.
"It is a reasonably well-documented language," said Carnie, a UA linguistics professor whose ancestry is rooted in Scotland "But we now have the equipment to gather more precise data."
One practical goal of the project is to provide a base-line measure of the speech of native speakers to use in creating materials to use in teaching the language to younger people.
Diana Archangeli, a UA linguistics professor and a collaborator on the project, comes with expertise in utilizing ultrasound to study ways native speakers form words in their mouths, offering important insight into articulations of consonants and vowels.
Other team members are: Mike Hammond, who heads the UA linguistics department; Natasha Warner, a UA associate professor of linguistics; native speaker Muriel Fisher, also a UA instructional aide and senior research specialist; and also Colin Gorrie, Lionel Mathieu, Micaya Clymer and Jessamyn Schertz, all gradute students in the linguistic department.
The team also used artificially modified sounds to test the perception of sounds among native speakers.
In studying Scottish Gaelic – the most at-risk of Celtic languages – Carnie and his team are using the equipment and other methods to analyze sentence structure, rare sounds and also perceptions about the language native speakers hold, among other features.
The researchers are incorporating advanced technology previously unavailable in the study of sound systems.
Carnie, who also works on Modern Irish Gaelic, has earned several research grants for his work, including funding from the National Science Foundation.
Today, various estimates suggest between 30,000 and 60,000 people still speak the language, with most native speakers living in the Highlands and Islands region of Scotland.
Carnie also has traveled to Scotland with Fisher, who also teaches Gaelic at the UA, to interview 18 native speakers.
"There are a couple of things about the language that are alien to the English-speaking brain," said Fisher, who teaches with the UA's Critical Languages Program.
"Because Gaelic is a verb-initial language, once you have said the first word of a sentence you often just tend to keep on going," said Fisher, who is currently teaching at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig on the Isle of Skye in Scotland, where she was raised.
"You could easily start and, the next thing you know, there is a story involved," she said.
Team members emphasized the difficulty in understanding and researching the language, noting that the elusive nature of Scottish Gaelic is rooted in it being such a rare and unique language.
For instance, it is not uncommon for speakers to change the first consonant of a word depending on the meaning they are trying to convey.
"There are a lot of very strange properties," Archangeli said.
Carnie has been invited to present the team's preliminary findings during the annual Celtic Linguistics Conference to be held in Ireland in September.
Preliminary data suggests broad variation among grammar and word usage. The team has also found that native speakers exhibit inconsistency in spelling and pronunciation of certain words with some speakers being unable to appropriately determine the number of syllables in certain words.
This indicates that it is particularly necessary to develop materials for teaching the language, Carnie said.
In recent years, the Scottish government has boosted efforts to help elevate the status of the language while encouraging citizens to began learning it.
In 2003, the government established a language development agency and, earlier this year, released a plan to educate "a new generation of Gaelic speakers," boosting support of early language instruction.
Yet, while certain Scottish schools do teach the language, the number of students in training tends to be low. Additionally, little research is being conducted on the language abroad, Carnie and Archangeli said.
Archangeli said: "A very highly complex language is what we're dealing with."