In 2006, the £4 million Glasgow Gaelic School (the cost equivalent to one mile of a two-lane road) threw open its doors in the city’s west end to a mere 320 pupils. This was to meet enormous pent up demand (to which it is now having to expand to meet). This, and simple initiatives to recognise our cultural heritage after decades of abuse and neglect is too much for the commentariat. The tired predictable argument is that the latest onslaught of Westminister cuts should be made to our culture and our language evoking the response: Cuimhnichibh air na daoine bho ‘n d’thainig sibh (Remember the people whom you come from).
By Alasdair Mac Gill-eain
Most Gaels are wearily tholed to the almost vituperative outpourings of the Daily Mail against state support for Gaelic: they couldn’t sell their tabloids any other way. However when a substantial broadsheet such as the Sunday Herald starts guddling in the same foetid water one needs to raise questions about what our opinion formers are up to (see Roxanne Sorooshian, ‘Leave Endangered Languages to Die‘ Sunday Herald).
Under the guise of covering a significant meeting of The Foundation of Endangered Languages (FEL) and in Carmarthen, Wales, to discuss the world’s linguistic future we are informed that “ Language is such a basic human quality that we blether away without even thinking about what an amazing talent it really is. Sadly it would appear from her exegesis that Rozanne has put pen to paper without thinking much further apon the role of language in society. Admittedly we are told that we might watch our Ps and Qs when in certain company; we might adopt a certain style for formal telephone exchanges. We might speak really s-l-o-w-l-y, and perhaps unnecessarily LOUDLY when communicating with someone who does not share the same native language. All of this is the commonplace of language discourse where it is well understood all of us use a range of linguistic translation to move between cultures.
The article moves swiftly to the advice of the FEL that if half of the languages currently spoken die out, they fear that with them, cultural diversity and tradition will perish and so it wishes to raise awareness of endangered languages . Now Roxanne our self-confessed language anorak, applauds some element of the sentiment since her study of Latin and Greek did much for my grasp of English. Anorak she may be but it is given to few of us to have a command of Latin and Greek, a part, with Gaelic, of the great Italo-Celtic group of languages. But thus we learn of the value of dead or dying languages- their contribution to a better grasp of English.
With a bittersweet valedictory to defunct !Kung – a lingo that uses an exclamation mark to indicate a click has to be up there in the language salvation stakes- we learn a second of her criteria for language maintenance is that of quaint cuteness. No such mercy for Gaelic: we are urged to look no further than Scotland to appreciate the lengths to which people, though who these people are, we never learn, will go when they are passionate about saving a language. But we are told that Gaelic is being rammed down Roxanna’s throat; it penetrates to the very depths of her suburbia, so that even her local railway station now bears its presumably original Gaelic name. The likelihood that this name might be understandable as part of a cultural landscape is no defence against this desperate act of ramming. Not only that, but these forces make Pope Benedict, feel obliged to speak some Gaelic in Glasgow so that Roxanne suspects that the pilgrims already perplexed with much of the Latin had yet more confusion heaped upon them.
Roxanne now reveals the fact that a body called Bòrd na Gàidhlig, which she manages but only by an educated guess to translate as the Gaelic Board, has been created to plan Gaelic’s revival, partly through education. But in her view the challenge to be faced by local authorities in educating children goes far beyond language. The teaching of children in their native language is apparently not considered a cost-effective strategy by Roxanne. But worse still, the rights of children in Scotland that speak Urdu on a daily basis to specialist schools are not being considered. All this begs the question that if Roxanne is to deny Gaelic children the hard won right to be educated in one’s own tongue what chance for the rights of Urdu speaking children?
Next are paraded the shibboleths of manipulators the cultural landscape, pumps gushing with public money, minority intrests , selfish, middle-class parents seeking a school with smaller class sizes, Highland great-granny providing some form of ethnicity test for eligibility for Cameron/Mairi’s entrance to such hallowed halls of academe, the nation’s future cultural heritage forced along an unnatural path, culminating in the human vanity of our belief in the right to intervene and so prevent nature taking its course, whether it’s a dying breed of rare beetle or a minority language.
Roxanne’s resigned conclusion that its really all too difficult and that perhaps it’s healthier to leave well alone. We are all to be left consoled with the re-assuring fact that no-one ever forgot the dodo. A apt Victorian icon to sum up an article that seems to speak with the language of that age.
But might there be room for a differing perspective?
Samuel Johnson observed in 1773 “there is no tracing the connection of ancient nations but by language; and therefore I am always sorry when any language is lost, because languages are the pedigree of nations”. Scotland has a fortunate “pedigree” since its three tongues can still be heard daily — Scottish Gaelic among them. It has always been the case that there was a Babel of languages in Scotland; Gaelic as well as Norse and Norman French would have been spoken along with Inglis (Scots) in the Scottish camp before Bannochburn. But by then although Bruce almost certainly used the language to communicate with his Western allies, Gaelic was no longer the language of power and prestige throughout Scottish territory as it had been in the three centuries up until 1130. Such a loss of prestige is one of the factors of language loss that David Crystal, the renowned linguist, cites in his excellent manual for language survival — “Language Death”. Among the others, population loss through starvation and disease, war and immigration, cultural change, natural resource exploitation, assimilation by the dominant culture, official disdain and neglect, most particularly through the education act of 1872 that imposed a blanket monoglot English education system (refining an earlier similar Act against the native language of New Zealand), feelings of shame about using the old language and now globalisation, have all contributed to Gaelic’s retreat to the north and western fringes of Scotland.
Some commentators claim that it is precisely at times of economic stress that countries are forced to take a sober look at what is of value to them. While much ink and spleen has been vented by the tabloid press on the nationally insignificance sums of budget expenditure on Gaelic support, our tourism sector of greater value to us than whisky, sinks in gentle decline. Perhaps rather than rounding on vulnerable poorly-funded services run on shoe-string, our opinion formers should be challenging these supposed shadowy manipulators of cultural landscapes to deliver a vision that would enable us to crawl our way back into the world’s fastest growing industries and secure a future livelihoods of many thousands of us. The Scottish Government has already articulated the fact that this has to be about delivering a culturally distinctive destination that celebrates its traditional heritages.
Scotland has its several distinctive cultural heritages and a large part of that is its Gaelic heritage. Perhaps it’s time for the chattering classes to put down their pens, stop blethering, heed what a crusty old Englishman (‘though hardly friend to the Scot) had to say about cultural heritage some 200 years ago and actually consider why it is the fact that the bulk of the Scottish people, when asked, are sympathetic towards these modest efforts to retain Gaelic as part of Scotland’s distinctive cultural landscape. Perhaps it is because they alone recognise and appreciate that shared heritage and shared destiny?