There’s still no clarity on Brexit. There’s still no news on when there’s going to be another General Election. But this week there’s the SNP conference in Aberdeen, and the annual national Mòd is being held in Glasgow. There will be plenty on the pages of this blog about Brexit and the SNP conference over the coming days, but today, for a wee change, I thought that I would mark the Glasgow Mòd with a blog post about Gaelic bingo. Gaelic bingo is the game that Gaelic speakers play when confronted with arguments against the use and promotion of Gaelic in Scotland. Without exception, they’ve all heard all these arguments many times before. Gaelic bingo is when you reward yourself with a wee deoch, that’s Gaelic for drink, whenever one of these hackneyed old arguments rears its head again. What I propose to do in this blog post is to run through some of these arguments, although running over them might be a lot better, and to debunk them as best as I can.
Gaelic is a dead language
For a dead language, Gaelic is remarkably resilient. Dead languages are languages which have no speakers. Gaelic has, according to the most recent census in Scotland, over 57,000 speakers in Scotland. An unknown additional number of people have some knowledge of the language. Now of course, in terms of the population of Scotland that’s not a huge proportion, however modern Scottish Gaelic still has a sufficient body of speakers to put it amongst the top 5% of languages of the world in terms of number of speakers. You might think that’s surprising, unbelievable even, but the fact is that there are around 7 billion people in the world, and – very approximately – around 6,500 different languages currently spoken around the world. A relatively small number of languages together account for the great majority of the world’s population.
These are linguistic giants like Standard or Mandarin Chinese, which has some 1.5 billion speakers of whom around 920 million speak it natively. Then there’s Spanish, which has approximately 460 million native speakers. English comes third with about 400 million native speakers, but in addition it has as many as 1 billion second language speakers. English is followed by Hindi which has over 340 million native speakers, with tens of millions of second language speakers. The different varieties of Arabic, which are not all mutually intelligible, together account for over 320 million native speaker, and tens of millions of second language speakers.
The vast majority of languages however, are spoken by a small number of people. The Pacific island nation of Vanuatu has a population of 260,000 but over 113 indigenous languages. The largest of them, the Lennakel language of the island of Tanna, has just 13,000 speakers. The second largest, Nakanamanga, has 9,500 speakers in the north of the island of Efate. The nation of Papua New Guinea has a population of 8.1 million who together speak over 820 different languages, over 12% of the total number of languages in the world. The largest indigenous languages in Papua New Guinea have a few tens of thousands of speakers. Most of them are spoken in only one or two villages.
People wrongly think that Gaelic is a “dead language” because they compare its number of speakers with those of the linguistic giants of the world, and not the typical language with a couple of thousand speakers in Melanesia or Africa. In fact, there is a significant number of European languages which have fewer speakers than Gaelic. The Aranés language of the Val d’Aran in northwest Catalonia has about 9,000 speakers. The Sorbian languages of eastern Germany, two closely related Slavic languages related to Czech and Polish, have a total of 50,000 speakers between them, 10,000 speak Lower Sorbian and 40,000 speak Upper Sorbian. Also in Germany, there are only around 10,000 speakers of the various dialects of North Frisian, and a mere 2,000 speakers of the related East or Saterland Frisian. Northern Sami, which has more speakers than all other Sami languages combined, has about 25,000 speakers in the far north of Norway and Finland.
Gaelic was once far more widely spoken than it currently is. However languages do not lose speakers because there is some mythical free market of languages. They fail to retain speakers because of cultural, political, and economic decisions made by governments. Most of the languages of the world spoken by a mere couple of thousand of people are perfectly stable and are continuing to be acquired by children. Gaelic is under pressure because of the political decisions made within the British Isles over many generations. The current policies of support for Gaelic seek to reverse that tradition of centuries of neglect and outright persecution.
What Gaelic most certainly is not is a dead language. A dead language is a language which has no remaining speakers. Any language which has been sufficiently recorded and attested retains the possiblity of being revived, even if it ceases to be passed on naturally from parent to child. Cornish ceased to be passed on to younger generations in the 18th century, but in recent decades has been successfully revived. A dead language is a language like Pictish, which not only does not have any remaining speakers, but also does not survive in sufficient attestations to enable it to be revived. No one can construct even a basic sentence in Pictish. Gaelic is very far from dead. It not only retains a significant body of native speakers and second language speakers, it is also abundantly attested. It’s not going to go away.
People who say Gaelic is a dead language and therefore it should not be supported are in fact trying to kill Gaelic off. By killing Gaelic off, they seek to prove the truth of their claim that Gaelic is a dead language. The Gaelic for self-fulfilling prophecy is fàisneachd féin-choileanaidh. If Gaelic really was a dead language, we wouldn’t be able to tell them that.
Gaelic is a political project of the SNP
People who claim that the Gaelic language is a political project of the SNP or Scottish independence supporters are themselves politicising the language. Gaelic is a part of the cultural inheritance of everyone who lives in Scotland, not just those who have recent Highland and Island heritage. Gaelic belongs to everyone in Scotland, irrespective of their political views on the position of Scotland within the UK or as an independent nation. When you try and identify the language with one side in Scotland’s constitutional debate, that is a blatant attempt to politicise the language.
In fact, the support that the Gaelic language enjoys from the Scottish government are not because of decisions of the SNP. It is probably true that people who are supportive of Scottish independence tend to be more supportive of Scottish culture, of which Gaelic is an important and vital part, however many of the most prominent and active supporters of the language do not believe in Scottish independence.
Gaelic enjoys the current level of government support and protection because of a decision made by the Labour government of Tony Blair. In 2001, the British Government signed and ratified the European Charter for Regional and Minority Languages in respect of Scottish Gaelic, Welsh, Irish in Northern Ireland, as well as Scots, Manx, and Cornish. The charter is an international treaty, and as such it could only be signed and ratified by the UK government. The effect of the charter was to guarantee a level of protection, funding, and recognition for the languages named by signatory governments.
Gaelic and Welsh enjoy one of the highest levels of protection. (Scots, although also recognised as a language to be protected by the charter, was granted a lower level of recognition by the UK government.) It’s because of the international treaty obligations of this charter that the UK government was obliged to facilitate the creation of a Gaelic language TV channel. It’s also because of the obligations of this treaty that we see the presence of the Gaelic language on road signs and public notices. Because of the political structure of the UK and the devolution of certain responsibilities to Holyrood and the Welsh Senedd, the powers and obligations to protect and nuture those languages mentioned in the charter which are spoken in Scotland fall to the Scottish Parliament and government.
In other words, the measures adopted by the Scottish Government with respect to the promotion and protection of Gaelic are due to obligations imposed upon the Scottish Parliament by an international treaty which was signed and ratified by the British Government.
It should be pointed out that the treaty obligations of the British government to protect and support Gaelic will not end with the withdrawal of the UK from the European Union. The European Charter for Minority and Regional Languages was signed and adopted under the auspices of the Council of Europe, a much larger organisation which has 47 members. The goal of the Council of Europe is to uphold democracy, human rights, and the rule of law in all of Europe, not just the EU. Norway, Switzerland, Iceland, Russia, Armenia, Bosnia, and many other nations are members of the Council of Europe but are not members of the EU.
There are more speakers of Polish in Scotland than Gaelic
There are many languages which are spoken in Scotland by minority ethnic communities. It is right and proper that the Scottish Government and the Scottish educational system encourages and supports those communities in their efforts to maintain language fluency in community languages. It enriches all of us if there is a confident and secure population of Polish speaking Scots. It enriches all of us if those Polish-Scots are able to pass on their language to their kids.
However there are two main differences between these community languages and Gaelic. The first, and most obvious, is that these languages are not minority languages elsewhere. Polish is spoken by over 40 million people around the world and is the sole official and national language of Poland which has a population of 38.5 million. In order to ensure that Polish is passed on to future generations of Polish-Scots, Polish speakers in Scotland can and should make use of the vast quantity of linguistic output produced in Polish by speakers of Polish elsewhere. Thousands of books are published in Polish annually, including the works of winners of the Nobel Prize for literature. There’s a vast output of TV and film in Polish, which can be accessed in Scotland online. All these resources can and should be used by the Polish community in Scotland in order to help maintain fluency in Polish amongst younger generations.
However Gaelic and Scots stand or fall depending on what resources we produce for them here in Scotland. There is no huge body of speakers of these languages elsewhere in the world producing a vast output of literature, linguistic material, TV, or movies, that speakers in Scotland can piggy back upon in order to maintain fluency in the language. All that Gaelic has is what people in Scotland produce for it. We have a responsibilty in Scotland to produce and make accessible literature and film and TV in Gaelic which we don’t have with respect to Polish, Chinese, Urdu, or any other community language used in Scotland.
Of course this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t encourage say, the publication of a novel written in Polish about the experiences of Polish-Scots. Such a development would be hugely welcome. But it is definitely true to say that the survival of Polish in Scotland does not depend upon such a development. The survival of Gaelic and Scots most definitely does.
We do not object to the Scottish Government spending money on the protection of the tangible aspects of Scottish history or culture. There would be outrage if the Scottish Government were to permit Edinburgh Castle to fall into ruin and then allow the building of a shopping centre on the site. Gaelic and Scots are a vitally important part of the intangible heritage of Scotland. Yet many in Scotland are quite sanguine about seeing them fall into decay and an English language development being constructed on their ruins.
In terms of intangible aspects of Scottish culture and heritage, the Gaelic and Scots languages enjoy a role every bit as vital and important as some of the most iconic Scottish buildings do in terms of our built heritage. And this is another important distinction between Gaelic and Polish. The vast literature which is composed in the Polish language is not about Scotland. It is not primarily concerned with speaking to and from the Scottish experience. Literature in Gaelic is primarily about Scotland and the Scottish experience. It does tell us about ourselves and our country in a way that literature written in other languages does not and cannot.
Gaelic is at the very root of what it means to be Scottish. Originally to be a Scot meant to be a Gaelic speaker. That was the original meaning of the Latin term Scoti. It was the use of the Gaelic language which created Scotland, and the use of the Gaelic language which brought Scotland into being. It was only later that the term Scot became extended to those who lived in Scotland and identified with Scotland but who were not themselves Gaelic speakers.
If you want to study the early history of Scotland, you can only do so by reference to documents created and written by Gaelic speakers. Many of these documents are in Latin, but others are written in an early form of Gaelic. You cannot understand early Scottish history or the formation of the Kingdom of Scotland without understanding the role that Gaelic language and culture played. The tree of Scotland grew from a Gaelic seed.
Gaelic was never spoken in the Lowlands
Unlike Polish or other community languages used in Scotland, Gaelic is quite literally written into the Scottish landscape. All across Scotland, there are Gaelic placenames. Even the words we use in Scots and English to describe and talk about the Scottish landscape are frequently words which were borrowed from Gaelic, words like loch, ben, glen, bog. You can’t talk about the landscape of Scotland without having reference to Gaelic, and that applies as much to the Lowlands as it does to the Highlands.
Even in Glasgow, the location of this year’s Mòd, the place names of the districts where events are being held were often created in the Gaelic language by Gaelic speakers and date from a time when Gaelic was spoken natively in the city by established communities of speakers. In fact during the 11th and 12th centuries Gaelic was the dominant language in the Glasgow area and the language used by the majority of the residents of the area which was to become the city. The Gaelic place names of largely date from that time.
Barrachnie in the city’s east end is from the Gaelic Bàrr Fhraoichnidh, the heathery hill. Barlinnie is Blàr Leanaidh, the marshy plain. Garscadden is Gart nan Sgadan, the farm or yard of the herring. Garscube is Gart nan Sguab, the farm of the sheafs. The Calton is A’ Challtainn, the hazel trees. Bellahouston is Baile Ùisdeain, Hugh’s farm. Blochairn is Blàr a’ Chàirn, the plain of the cairn. Killermont is a much corrupted form of Ceann Tearmainn, the head or height of the sanctuary. Dalmarnock is Dail Mheàrnaig, the meadow or haugh of St Marnock. Drumchapel is Druim a’ Chapaill, the horse’s ridge. Garrioch, the older name of what is now called Ruchill is from An Garbhach, the rough hilly area. Ruchill is a Scots translation of the original Gaelic name. Everywhere you turn in Glasgow, you are confronted by Gaelic.
It’s a similar story in all of Scotland’s cities, and all across the Lowlands with the exception of the far south east of Scotland. Even in Edinburgh you will encounter place names created in Gaelic, dating from a time when there were large and politically important and influential communities of Gaelic speaking people in the Edinburgh area. Names like Craigentinny, Craig an t-Sionnaich, the rock of the fox, Corstorphine, Crois Thoirfinn Thorfinn’s cross, Craiglockart Craig Luchairt the rock of the palace, date from this time.
The extent of these place names proves that the Gaelic language was at one time the dominant or sole language everywhere in mainland Scotland north and west of a line drawn very approximately from Gretna to Musselburgh. Gaelic wasn’t merely once spoken in the Lowlands, it survived in the Lowland until surprisingly recent times. Gaelic remained especially strong in South Ayrshire and Galloway right into early modern times. There are reports from the 1500s which inform us that the people of Carrick and Galloway were for the most part Gaelic speaking. The last known speaker of Galloway Gaelic was a woman called Margaret McMurray who died in the Ayrshire town of Maybole in 1760, although it is thought by some that the educator and minister Alexander Murray, who was the professor of Hebrew at Edinburgh University, acquired Galloway Gaelic from his father. Murray died in 1813.
Kids would be better learning a more “useful” language
People who make this remark are thinking about time spent in school learning French and Spanish. They assume that time spent learning Gaelic is time that could be spent on learning some other language. However this is a fundamental misunderstanding of modern Gaelic education. The rise of Gaelic medium schools is the main way in which fluency in Gaelic is being spread amongst younger generations. When a child is taught through the medium of Gaelic, not only does that child end up speaking the language with far greater fluency than those of us who struggle with O Grade French, it is also possible for the child to be taught French, Spanish, or German through the medium of Gaelic.
Indeed, and speaking as a person who has studied many languages, including Gaelic and Spanish, I can assure you that the more languages you learn the easier it becomes to acquire others. An early grounding in Gaelic makes it easier for a child to later acquire French or Spanish or some other language, because that child has received an early education in the mental flexibility that is necessary in order to achieve fluency in a second or third language.
Children who acquire a second language early in life, and who are educated partly through the medium of that language, acquire a fluency in it which is out of reach to those of us who never experienced another language until one hour a week of French or German in secondary school. The benefits of bilingualism are well known to educationalists. Children who acquire another language early in life are better at dealing with abstract concepts, because the have, if you like, two mental coathooks upon which they can hang their thoughts. They have an advantage when it comes to learning a third or fourth language, because they have acquired the mental flexibility that comes from bilingualism. So for example they are going to be unsurprised that the values of letters in the written form of the new language will often be different from those of English.
The benefit of bilingualism last a lifetime. There was even a recent study which showed that bilingual people have some protection against the onset of dementia because they have two mental pathways for forming thoughts as opposed to the single pathway which monoglots have. When we teach our kids Gaelic, we are not only ensuring that they are in contact with Scotland’s past and present, we are also facilitating their contact with an international future.
Dè nach eil a bhith ag còrdadh? What’s not to like?
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