This is a quiet week for politics. So although I usually rant about Scottish politics, today I’ll rant about something else. When you rant about Scottish politics you invariably get a lot of negativity, and often outright abuse, on social media. You expect that. Politics affects people’s daily lives. It affects their employment and earnings. Politics can make a huge difference to our civil liberties and our human rights. All these things are important and fundamental, so it’s understandable that when you express a political opinion that someone objects to or disagrees with, whether their disagreement is well founded or not, you’re going to get some push-back for it.
But what’s harder to understand is the vehemence and sheer venom of the attacks that you get on social media when you dare to write about Scottish language issues. Language is a topic that for some bizarre reason seems to be immune to reason and logic. You can cite academic texts, you can quote from papers or books written by renowned experts in the field of linguistics, and you’ll still get someone whose knowledge of linguistics begins and ends with a school qualification in English popping up to tell you that you’re wrong. You’ll get people who don’t speak Scots informing you that words which appear in Scots dictionaries and have been recorded and defined by academics are not in fact proper Scots. Because if this person who doesn’t speak Scots has never heard a Scots word or pronunciation or it hasn’t impinged on the consciousness of someone who doesn’t speak Scots and who isn’t interested in Scots, then the word in question can’t possibly be Scots.
It’s not just Scots that comes in for wilful ignorance. You’ll get people who know nothing about the history of Celtic languages telling you that Gaelic was never spoken in a particular area of Scotland where Gaelic placenames lie thick on the ground. And then when you point out these placenames to the person and ask where they came from, they’ll reply with the immense confidence of someone who knows too little to realise how little they know, and tell you they come from ScotRail. And then they’ll howl in outrage at how Gaelic is being imposed on them, because it’s an offence to their eyeballs to have to see a couple of Gaelic words on a railway station sign. And then, having sought out things to feel victimised by, they accuse everyone else of grievance hunting.
Some people, and let’s be honest here they’re most commonly (although not always) Unionists, object to Scottish languages. The reasons they usually give are because it’s a dead language, in the case of Gaelic, or because it’s not a language at all, in the case of Scots. They object because admitting that Scotland has languages and a culture of its own is tantamount to admitting that the drive for Scottish independence is not motivated by hatred of the English, and that will never do.
Gaelic isn’t a dead language. It has 57,000 speakers in Scotland plus a few thousand more outside of Scotland, amongst the Scottish diaspora. That means Gaelic has more speakers than most languages in the world. Gaelic has approximately the same number of speakers as Greenlandic, the official language of Greenland, and almost as many as Faroese, the official language of the Faroe Islands. It has more speakers than the Romansh language, which is the fourth official language of Switzerland and only a few thousand less than German in Belgium, where it is the third official language. Gaelic has more speakers than the Sorbian language, which has official status in eastern Germany. Gaelic has more than ten times as many speakers as the Aranese language which is the official language of the Val d’Aran in Catalonia. It has twice as many speakers as the Ladin language which along with German is one of the official languages of South Tyrol in the far north of Italy. Gaelic has more speakers than every Native American language of the United States with the exception of Navajo. It has more speakers than there are speakers of the 300 or so native languages of Australia combined. Gaelic has more speakers than any of the official languages of the Federated States of Micronesia, and almost four times as many as Palauan, the official language of the Republic of Palau. For a supposedly dead language, Gaelic is surprisingly vital.
A language which has as many as 60,000 fluent speakers is very far from dead. According to a respected catalogue of world languages, the Ethnologue, there are approximately 7,000 living languages in the world, over half of which are spoken by fewer than 10,000 people. That places Gaelic very firmly in the upper half of the list of the world’s most spoken languages. Many of the languages with a small number of speakers are at no risk of disappearing and are spoken in “linguistic hotspots” where there is a concentration of linguistic diversity in a fairly small region, and there are large numbers of languages spoken by relatively small numbers of people. The Pacific island republic of Vanuatu has 252,000 people who speak 113 languages between them, an average of 2,000 speakers per language. The African country of Cameroon has 22.5 million people and approximately 250 languages, many of which are spoken by just a couple of thousand people.
The truth is that people who claim that Gaelic shouldn’t be taught or used or encouraged because it is a “dead” language are in fact killing it. They’re creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. When someone says, “Gaelic shouldn’t be used or taught because it’s a dead language,” they’re really saying, “I want to kill Gaelic off.” Last I looked, philistinism wasn’t a guide to government policy. At least when that government isn’t a Tory one.
Only 6% of the 7,000 languages of the world have over 1 million speakers. According to the most recent census, Scots has 1.54 million speakers in Scotland – and there is a considerably larger number who understand Scots without claiming to speak it themselves. That places Scots firmly within the category of “most spoken” languages in the world. Scots has more speakers than Maltese and about as many as Estonian, both of which are official languages of the European Union. It has as many speakers as Macedonian, the official language of the Republic of Macedonia.
However the real objections to Scots aren’t about how many speakers it has. The objections are about whether Scots is a “real” language. The people who claim Scots isn’t a real language are most often people who understand Scots, but whose use of it is typically confined to a number of Scots features in their Scottish English – a variety of English which is itself defined and characterised by massive influence from Scots. So these people are starting out from a position of considerable knowledge of Scots, but because they don’t recognise it as such and identify it as Scottish English they don’t regard themselves as having any degree of bilingualism. And if they’re not bilingual but they can understand Scots then Scots can’t be a proper language. This is a problem of their own perception, not proof that Scots isn’t “really” a language. Speakers of Scottish English typically understand Scots fairly well, but that’s because they use a variety of English which is itself strongly influenced by Scots and because they’ve had a lifetime of exposure to Scots speakers. English speakers from other countries who lack this exposure to Scots typically find it very difficult to follow.
There is in fact quite often a fairly considerable degree of mutual intelligibility between closely related languages, even without a degree of passive knowledge acquired from exposure. Spanish speakers can understand a lot of written Catalan or Portuguese, even a fair amount of written Italian. Norwegians, Swedes and Danes all understand each other’s written languages without too much difficulty, the same applies with Slovak and Czech, or Bulgarian and Macedonian. Scots and English are closely related, so there’s going to be a degree of mutual intelligibility, especially in their written forms. That doesn’t mean Scots isn’t a language.
The use of Scots as a literary standard went into decline after the Reformation when the political decision was made to make use of the English bible. The spoken language went into decline after the Treaty of Union when English became the sole de facto official language. The lack of cultivation of Scots as a written prose standard means that Scots often lacks the terminology and vocabulary typical of a modern written standard. All emerging standard languages have faced this problem, and writers tackle it by raiding older stages of the language for vocabulary, by borrowing, by loan-translations (the Scots neologism wab-steid for web-site is an example of a loan-translation) or by using existing words in new ways. Older spelling systems are systematised and regularised, and applied in a more logical and consistent manner. This is the way any living language increases and develops its expressive capacity.
This is exactly how the written standards of all modern languages were developed. Modern written Catalan was self-consciously developed in the 19th century on the basis of the mediaeval language, and Catalan authors used exactly the processes I’ve listed here in order to establish the modern standard language. Catalan was far from alone – writers in Czech, Slovene, Norwegian, Basque, Latvian, Estonian, Lithuanian, and many other European languages, all achieved their modern literary forms in the exact same way.
Yet when modern writers do exactly the same with Scots, it’s decried as artificial. Scots is an invented and made up language, they scoff. For political motives they want Scots, uniquely, to be denied the same routes to standardisation that every other written standard language has taken, and then they claim that when Scots writers do what every other written standard has done that they’re artificially creating an invented and made up language. They claim the use of Scots as a written language is to politicise it, but what is really politicising the language is to deny it the same avenues to standardisation that every other standard written language has used.
You don’t have to speak Scots or Gaelic to be every bit as Scottish as someone who does. Scotland has always been a multilingual country, that’s what defines the linguistic history of Scotland. English speakers are every bit as Scottish as Scots speakers or Gaelic speakers – but some of them do have a fear that those who promote and foster Gaelic and Scots are somehow making a claim that English speakers are less Scottish, that they are somehow illegitimate. That’s not true. But what is true is that a Scotland which has lost Gaelic and Scots would be less Scottish than a Scotland in which the use of the languages is respected, encouraged, and fostered. No one has any interest in forcing unwilling English speakers to use Gaelic or Scots, far less insisting that they must use Gaelic or Scots in order to access public services.
More commonly the claim is made that Scots or Gaelic are being “imposed” on English speakers. That’s not true either. Seeing a Gaelic version of a place name is not “imposing” Gaelic on you. Imposing Gaelic would be insisting that you could only receive public services, that you could only interact with agencies of the state, through the medium of Gaelic. Yet that’s precisely what Gaelic and Scots deniers want to do to speakers of those languages, they want to impose English on them. When they object to the supposed imposition of Gaelic or Scots, they’re really expressing the fear that Gaelic and Scots speakers will treat them the way they want to treat Gaelic and Scots speakers.
None of what I’ve written here will make the slightest bit of difference to those who deny that Scots is a real language, or those who insist that Gaelic is being imposed upon them. What I hope it can do however is to give those of you who do value Scotland’s languages access to the truth, and to know that fact and research are on your side. The real politicisation of Scottish languages is claiming that Scots isn’t really a language and shouldn’t make use of the approaches to enrichment that other written languages use. The real politicisation of Scottish languages is claiming that Gaelic is a dead language and shouldn’t be taught. The real linguistic imposition comes from those who want English and only English to be the only publicly acknowledged and supported language in Scotland. They’re the ones who are politicising Scottish languages, not those who seek to use them as normal vibrant living tongues.
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