Muriel Gray is such a wag, sending witty Tweets about railway station name signs which are bilingual in English and Gaelic. Well I say witty. It’s witty in the same way that Adam Sandler is a comedian, or deep fried Mars bars with a Buckie chaser aren’t a stereotype. I hesitate to repeat it in case you fall about laughing so much you hit your head on the coffee table and kill yourself, but Muriel said that the biggest social problem in Scotland used to be lost Gaelic speakers begging to know where they were, but now with bilingual railway signs we have so sorted that one. I know, right. Laugh? I nearly contributed to the School of Art restoration fund.
Muriel’s unfunny wee jokette with its redolence of cultural cringe might have been just an off the cuff remark, but it taps into the arrogance of the Scottish British establishment. Scottish culture only has value or worth when it’s a particular kind of Scottish culture, preferably the kind that can be used to impress ironic beards in cereal cafés in Shoreditch, or sold as conceptual art for an inflated price tag to a rich collector. When it can be monetised, in other words.
But Gaelic is a dead language, protest people who are determined to kill it off. Gaelic is not dead. It still has speakers, but it would seem that there are people in Scotland who really ought to know better – self-described political or cultural commentators – who insist that it’s dead and we should just pull the plug on the life support machine. Some people really need to reflect on the meaning of the term ‘self fulfilling prophecy’. And while they’re at it they should ponder the amount of time, energy and money that the British state has put into killing the other languages of these islands.
Scotland would not exist without Gaelic or Scots. The languages made this country what it is, Gaelic brought Scotland into existence, Scots was the language of the Scottish state. They made us who we are, and they are proper to Scotland and nowhere else. Only Scotland can save them. A vast amount of Scottish literature and writing was composed in Gaelic and Scots, and if we lose the languages we lose that part of ourselves. Gaelic and Scots form the roots of the Scottish tree, without them the tree dies and we become a parasitical culture.
Imagine there was a harmless cute and fluffy wee animal which now only lived in a small part of Scotland but which was once widespread throughout the country. No one would object to government money being used to save the creature. No one would object to initiatives to restore it to parts of its former range. People like those who inhabit Schools of Art would front impassioned appeals to save this vital part of Scottish natural diversity which has shaped our landscapes and informed our mythology. Scottish languages are a part of natural diversity too. If we don’t protect them, they’ll die. And we will be the generation that killed them.
Then there are those who indulge in whataboutery. What about Pictish eh? What about the language of the Cumbric Britons. Are they not Scottish languages too? Why should we not try to revive them as well as Gaelic and Scots? But we’re not comparing like with like here. Gaelic and Scots are living languages. They still have speakers, they are fully attested. Pictish and Cumbric are fossil languages, surviving only in place and personal names and a handful of words in ancient texts and inscriptions. Not enough of them survives to attempt to revive them. It would be like trying to revive a long extinct creature from a few scraps of bone. Gaelic and Scots still live and breathe.
Often the people who insist that Gaelic is dead and of no relevance to modern Scotland regard themselves as socialists or social democrats. Yes, Labour supporters, we’re looking at you. It’s ironic then that a person who believes that the role of the state is to intervene in the workings of the free market to ameliorate its negative effects on society believe so strongly in an entirely mythical free market of languages.
There’s no such thing as a free market in languages. No one wakes up one morning and decides, today I’m going to transfer my linguistic allegiance to Classical Nahuatl and do my shopping in Morrison’s just like an ancient Aztec. Although to be fair the ritual sacrifice of check out staff is frowned upon nowadays. The truth is there is no free choice in language use, the language you use is determined by politics and power. Gaelic has been marginalised and driven to the verge of extinction because of politics and power, not because Scottish people made a free and unforced choice to give it up in favour of English. The same holds true for Lowland Scots.
The attitude is that the Gaelic language isn’t like a Charles Rennie Mackintosh masterpiece, it doesn’t bring in the tourists, and so has no value and it’s a waste to spend public money on it. Public money should of course be spent on restoring the School of Art – and it should be spent on protecting and fostering the Gaelic language as well. Both are equally artefacts of Scottish culture.
The purpose of Gaelic signage is to give the language a public presence. Gaelic was once the dominant language of all of Scotland north and west of a line drawn roughly from Gretna to Musselburgh, and was even found in the far south east as well. Gaelic signs remind us all that the English language has never been the only language of Scotland, and make a public statement that the language enjoys respect and support. That’s why they’re there, to remind English speaking Scots that their lazy assumption of English language dominance can and should be challenged, and that’s why members of the Scottish political and cultural establishment object to them.
But more than that, Gaelic and Scots have been marginalised because of the actions of the state, so the state has a duty to ensure that the languages survive. That’s moral restitution, it’s the repayment of a debt. We owe it to our languages, we owe it to ourselves.
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