Here we bloody go again. Another example of Gaelic illiteracy from the Scottish media, with an ill-informed and ignorant anti-Gaelic rant in the Herald which, as is typical for this kind of discourse, displays a fundamental misunderstanding of how language works and an almost complete absence of factual knowledge about the Gaelic language itself. I say misunderstanding because I’m being kind, but it’s not unreasonable to suspect that the misunderstanding is wilful because this kind of guff keeps getting repeated no matter how often people who do actually understand these things patiently explain the facts.
Of course by writing this article I’m a part of the Gaelic mafia, and am trying to oppress and silence a poor wee journo who is only expressing his opinion. It’s just a pity then that his opinion is based on outdated stereotypes, prejudice, and a deep lack of any actual knowledge of his subject matter. Maybe people wouldn’t correct and criticise him if he knew what he was on about. Just sayin’.
We’re talking here about someone who decided to write an article about Gaelic – and moreover actually got paid for it – but whose knowledge of Scottish languages is so woefully inadequate that he actually appears to believe that Scots is nothing more than a form of English which Scottish people have “coloured”, “derived from” and “distorted”. His knowledge of the role of Gaelic in Scotland is every bit as lacking. Here’s a wee tip for Scottish newspaper editors, see when you commission opinion pieces about Scottish languages, try and make sure that the person writing the piece has a modicum of knowledge about the topic.
The author of this article seems to have set out to allow us to play Gaelic Stereotype Bingo, and we all got an taigh làn. That’s the full house in Gaelic, in case you were wondering.
We got the social Darwinism klaxon. Languages do not expire because of some social Darwinism which is no one’s real fault and which is the natural result of free choices being freely made. They are murdered by states, strangled by negativity, and silenced by prejudice. The Gaelic language doesn’t suffer from a peculiar linguistic infection or a strange disease. It is not singularly inept at expressing the requirements of a modern society. If Gaelic is dying it is because it is being killed off. For the umpteenth time there is no free market in language use. Can the opponents of Gaelic not get that into their skulls?
No one wakes up of a morning and decides, Hmm, creo que hoy parlaré español or Hmm, tha mi a’ smaoineachadh gum bruidhneas mi sa’ Ghàidhlig an diugh. The choice of language that we use in our daily lives is strongly affected by the social capital that a society devotes to a particular language and whether there is a history of use of that language and a body of speakers of the language in a particular country. No one in Scotland wakes up and thinks “Hmm, I think that today I will speak Spanish,” because Spanish speakers in Scotland are few in number and widely dispersed. There is no history of Spanish use in Scotland, and no expectation that the language will be understood. So people don’t use it in their everyday lives in Scotland, even if, like me, they do speak it fluently.
There is however a history of Gaelic use in Scotland. Gaelic has in fact been spoken in the territory of modern Scotland for considerably longer than Standard English has, and for quite a bit longer than any linguistic variety that the likes of Herald opinion piece writers would describe as a deformed variety of English. There was until very recent times a substantial body of Gaelic speakers in Scotland, and those speakers were geographically concentrated in parts of the country where people could and did have a reasonable expectation that those that they encountered in their daily lives would speak the language. In fact at one point in Scottish history, Gaelic was the dominant or only language throughout most of the country, including the Lowlands.
However a language can only maintain its social capital if the wider society invests in it. The use of English spread in Scotland because the state fostered and supported it, and at the same time fostered a set of negative attitudes towards Gaelic and Scots while depriving Gaelic and Scots of the same support and resources that were and are given to English. Education in Scotland has for the past few centuries had the aim of imparting English to Scottish children. No one cared about imparting a knowledge of Gaelic or Scots and in fact for much of the past few centuries these languages were actively discriminated against. Gaelic and Scots are now fighting for survival not because they are and always were minority languages in Scotland, but because they have been minoritised by a Scottish establishment which aped the linguistic ideals of the monoglot English British establishment.
The state devotes vast resources to the maintenance and spread of English, but this is not perceived by opponents of Gaelic as support for the English language. In a modern developed society a language can only survive if it is given the resources that it needs, dictionaries, textbooks, literature, social media, maps, television, movies. The state already supports in one form or another a vast wealth of cultural output in English, it’s only right and proper that it does the same for Gaelic and Scots. In fact it must do so if Gaelic and Scots are to survive. Some in the English speaking establishment in Scotland say that Gaelic is a dying language, and are determined to ensure that Gaelic is deprived of the resources it needs to keep living. Gaelic for self-fulfilling prophecy is fàisneachd féin-choileanaidh. For political reasons they seek to deny Gaelic and Scots the resources the languages need to survive and thrive, and then they complain that other people are politicising the languages because they want to be able to use them as normal languages.
The point of road signs in Gaelic or railway station signage in the language isn’t to provide a translation for monoglot Gaelic speakers who might get lost. It’s to make a public statement that this is a country which values and cherishes its Gaelic linguistic heritage. A sign in a railway station that says Pàislig is about giving a message to Gaelic speakers, but that message isn’t merely “You’re in Paisley”. The additional message is that Gaelic is welcome and valued in Paisley and elsewhere in Scotland. Very often these signs are simply the correct spelling of a name that’s Gaelic anyway, like Àird Rosain / Ardrossan, An t-Àrd Ruigh / Airdrie, or Cille Mheàrnaig / Kilmarnock. The purpose of these signs is to give Gaelic speakers the confidence that they can and should use the Gaelic language as much as possible. Signs in Gaelic make a very public statement that the site of the sign is part of the proper range of the Gaelic language. That range is the whole of the territory of Scotland.
We also got the Polish klaxon. Every single article complaining about Gaelic feels the need to point out that there are more speakers of Polish in Scotland than there are speakers of Gaelic. However every single article pointing out that there are more speakers of Polish in Scotland than speakers of Gaelic equally fails to point out that the cultural and demographic centre of the Polish language is not in Scotland. Of course Scotland should encourage and support the Scottish Polish community in maintaining the Polish language, but in order to do so Polish speakers in Scotland can make use of the wealth of literature, movies, TV and other resources produced by the 38 million Polish speakers in Poland. Gaelic stands or falls by the resources produced for it in Scotland. The future of the Polish language does not depend on the resources that Scotland produces for it. The future of Gaelic does.
A vast amount of Scottish history is bound up with the Gaelic and Scots languages. That’s not true of Polish, Chinese, Urdu or any other community language spoken in this country. That doesn’t mean that taxpayers’ money should not be spent on supporting the usage of Polish and other community languages in Scotland, of course it should, but the fact remains that these languages have a demographic and cultural centre outwith Scotland, and they have never acted as vehicles for important parts of Scottish literature and cultural expression. There is nothing in Polish equal in its importance to a distinctively Scottish literature as the poetry of Sorley MacLean or George Campbell Hay, or as important as the ancient Gaelic chronicles which are the primary sources for early Scottish history. Place names formed in the Polish language do not define the Scottish landscape, place names formed in Gaelic do. All these reasons and more are reasons why Scotland has a debt to Gaelic and the major responsibility to keep the language alive, a responsibility which it does not shoulder with Polish.
The author of the Herald’s piece claims that “the language of the Hebrideans is harder to learn than trigonometry and almost unpronounceable.” For starters, Gaelic is not solely the language of Hebrideans, and by identifying it as such the author is attempting to downplay the significance of Gaelic for Scotland as a whole and to deny that the language is in reality the cultural property and inheritance of all of Scotland. Now it’s certainly true that Gaelic may be harder to learn than trigonometry and almost unpronounceable, but that would be only if you’re less capable of applying yourself than a three year old. Little kiddies can learn the language, but apparently big grown up Herald opinion piece writers can’t. Maybe it would have been more honest for him to say that he doesn’t want to learn it. That would at least have been more accurate.
It was once believed that young children have an aptitude for language learning which adults lost around the age of puberty. That’s now thought not to be true, but instead reflects more a difference in exposure to the target language and a difference in expectations about speaking it. No one expects a young child to have the fluency and competence of an adult native speaker, but adult learners compare themselves with adult native speakers, and not with young children. Children spend a very long time passively acquiring a language without actively speaking a great deal, and when they do start speaking they are not expected to produce complex statements with fluency and ease, whereas adult learners feel they have failed if they’re not speaking the language immediately. It’s true that language learning is a skill and that some people seem to be naturally better at it than others, but it’s also true that anyone can, with enough time, exposure, and motivation, learn any language. All sounds in all human languages are, by definition of being linguistic sounds, pronounceable.
Gaelic spelling might be confusing to people who don’t speak the language, but so is English spelling. There are rules to Gaelic spelling just as there are rules to English spelling. Those rules are not the same, but Gaelic isn’t unpronounceable just because you’ve never learned the rules. You personally might not know how to pronounce it, but that’s your failing, not a failing of the Gaelic language. It’s no harder to achieve literacy in Gaelic than it is to achieve literacy in English.
All states spend a considerable amount of money supporting and protecting the cultural inheritance and heritage of the country. We spend money on museums, on sporting activities, on supporting music and the arts. We spend money on our built environment, protecting buildings considered to be of cultural value or which have historical significance. It’s only money spent on our linguistic heritage which attracts such ire.
But what really upsets the Gaelophobes and the Scots averse is any public acknowledgement that Scotland is not a monolingual English speaking country, because in making that acknowledgement we are also recognising that Scotland is a country with a culture, a heritage, and a history in its own right. And if that’s the case, then there must be rather more to this whole Scottish nationalism thing than an atavistic hatred of the English. That’s an admission that British nationalists in Scotland just can’t bring themselves to accept.
The Wee Ginger Dug has got a new domain name, thanks to Indy Poster Boy, Colin Dunn @Zarkwan. http://www.indyposterboy.scot/ You can now access this blog simply by typing www.weegingerdug.scot into the address bar of your browser, the old address continues to function, the new one redirects to the blog. The advantage of the new address is that it’s a lot easier to remember if you want to include a link to the blog in leaflets, posters, or simply to tell a friend about it. Many thanks to Colin.
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