The non-issue of Gaelic in the indyref debate

2-a82-bi-lingual-scottish-gaelic-english-roadsign-scotland-uk-joe-foxIt has long been a commonplace observation that linguistic distinctiveness plays only a minor role in Scottish national identity and national movements. This claim has been abundantly supported by the public debate leading up to the 2014 independence referendum, most obviously in relation to what we can call the unofficial campaign, the grass-roots initiatives mounted by the likes of National Collective, Radical Independence, Women for Independence and so on. Following this campaign closely, I have been struck by the near-total absence of language issues from what we might call statements of vision. Scores and scores of articles, blog postings and so on, many of them eloquent and passionate, set out the writer’s personal reasons for supporting independence, Journeys to Yes, and through all these thousands and thousands of words. I have seen almost nothing at all that speaks about linguistic diversity and the importance of promoting and developing Scotland’s languages, particularly Gaelic.

We are told by YES campaigners of various stripes that an independent Scotland would be a fairer and more socially just place, that there would be less child poverty, better job training, more local democracy, a more humane immigration policy, more sustainable energy, no nuclear weapons. The more neoliberal elements tell us there would be more business start-ups and more job creation. But even when long lists of reasons are given almost no one includes in the catalogue that they support independence in order to secure the future of Gaelic, or of Scots, or to ensure that better policies are put in place to promote linguistic diversity in Scotland.

The hashtag #YesBecause was trending on Twitter across the UK recently. Thousands of tweets set out a myriad of reasons for voting Yes but predictably almost none mentioned Gaelic or the importance of linguistic diversity in an independent Scotland.

On the few occasions when language issues have arisen, it seems clear that many of those deeply engaged with the independence question, people who have grappled long and hard with what they see as core social and economic issues, have given minimal attention to matters of language and when they are called upon to address them do so crudely and naively, in a manner that suggests a lack of intellectual and emotional engagement.

The same criticisms certainly apply to the No side, but as has been widely noted there is very little positive articulation of the No argument. Even so, the No campaign’s “parades of horribles” do not include Gaelic: while we hear about currency problems, oil running out, and Scotland losing influence in the world, we do not hear that independence would somehow jeopardise the position of Gaelic or make Scotland a linguistically less diverse place.

There are some specific or technical reasons for this pattern of neglect but also some deeper underlying political issues.

A threshold problem is that language policy is a very difficult topic to get a handle on. Language policy is everywhere, it inhabits almost every aspect of social life, but is very often tacit. When one language is dominant, as is the case with English in the UK, and indeed Scotland, it is typically assumed without discussion that the dominant language will be used in a particular context, and no other. Thus it is sometimes mistakenly thought that Gaelic, or indeed Welsh, is a devolved matter, but this is not the case and could not be the case. Which language are House of Commons debates held in? Are UK income tax returns available in Gaelic? What languages do British consular staff use in their work?

The key problem for the Scottish Government, the SNP and the Yes campaign is that almost all the important things that could be done to strengthen provision for Gaelic could be done now, under devolution, and there is little additional that could be done with the new powers that would accrue to an independent state. In structural terms, it is not obvious how Scotland gaining control over those policy fields that are currently reserved could significantly strengthen the social position of Gaelic in Scotland. Certainly, the various arms of the Westminster government could be transformed into new Scottish departments and required to adopt Gaelic language plans, just as Scottish public bodies are, but it is difficult for Gaelic language advocates to get excited at this prospect, given the weakness of the plans adopted so far by Scottish public bodies (under the Gaelic Language Act, passed unanimously by the Scottish Parliament in 2005) and the very limited impact of such plans on language maintenance and use.

In terms of its implications for language policy, broadcasting is the most important field that would be affected by independence, but it would be difficult to argue that Westminster has plainly failed to make reasonable provision for Gaelic broadcasting. Be that as it may, very few voices in the Yes campaign can be heard arguing that an independent Scotland would significantly expand and improve Gaelic broadcasting, let alone offering convincing reasons why this should necessarily be a consequence of independence.

If we look at the ‘official’ Yes campaign as manifested by the Scottish Government’s White Paper, campaigners for Gaelic, and indeed Scots, can only be disappointed. Here, instead of any transformative improvement, the Scottish Government says again and again that existing forms of support would be continued and maintained. In effect, nothing new is on offer. Similarly, the Government’s consultation paper on an interim constitution says that a future constitutional convention could consider the constitutional status of Scotland’s languages, including Gaelic, but makes no commitments in this respect. This is the better approach, as it would defeat the purpose of the constitutional convention to announce core provisions in advance – yet we saw recently that the First Minister was willing to commit to the inclusion of a constitutional right to free health care. Why not such a commitment in relation to Gaelic?

The White Paper does include the fairly bold statement that ‘in an independent Scotland, Gaelic will have a central place in Scottish public life’, but gives no indication as to how this might come about, given that no significant new measures are proposed and the language very obviously does not hold such a central place at the moment. There is an echo here of an important lecture Alex Salmond gave back in 2007, in which he said that ‘we must recognise that a vibrant Gaelic language and culture are central to what it means to be Scottish in the modern world’. It would be very difficult to find much evidence from the referendum campaign to back up this claim.

The most important area of policy in relation to Gaelic is that of education, yet this is already fully devolved. What is happening with Gaelic education policy? The Scottish Government is currently conducting a public consultation on a Gaelic Medium Education bill, with a closing date of 10 September. This is the most important new measure the SNP government has taken in relation to Gaelic since coming to power in 2007, but it was announced with a minimum of publicity and has attracted very little attention from those involved in the independence campaign. The government’s proposals are very modest and the document shows signs of having been weakened and watered down due to internal opposition. Crucially, the government is not proposing to establish a legal right to receive Gaelic-medium education, such as applies with French in Canada. This has been a key demand of Gaelic campaigners going all the way back to the 1990s but once again it seems to have been taken off the table. It is significant that the SNP introduced a parliamentary amendment to establish such a right back in 2000 when they were in opposition, but they have taken no action in this respect since coming to power in 2007.

In other words, at the very point when the independence debate is coming to a head, the SNP Government is pushing weak and ineffective plans for Gaelic in a very important policy area over which it already has full control. Why should a voter concerned with the situation of Gaelic have great hopes and expectations if this government were to acquire some additional powers in less important areas of policy?

However, the most worrisome step on the part of the SNP Government was its refusal to provide a bilingual Gaelic-English ballot paper for the referendum. The Scottish Government’s handling of this issue was clumsy and insensitive and Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s first response to demands for a bilingual ballot paper showed very little awareness of the sociolinguistic context of Gaelic or of current government policy to promote the language. In effect, the Deputy First Minister said that the English ballot paper had been tested with Gaelic speakers and all of them understood it perfectly well, so there was no need for a Gaelic version. This principle goes against thirty years of policy to promote the rights of Gaelic speakers, taking us back to the idea of forcing Gaelic speakers to use English when dealing with the public authorities. A subsequent petition to parliament was ignored and a proposed amendment to the referendum bill was taken off the table, perhaps under political pressure. Outside Gaelic circles, I heard no complaints about all this from campaigners on either side of the independence debate.

The SNP Government’s approach to the bilingual ballot issue can be understood in the wider context of its cautious, ‘don’t frighten the horses’ approach to independence, its emphasis on continuity and the ongoing connection to existing UK institutions. Having a bilingual ballot paper might have sent the wrong signals to some voters, not only that Gaelic might have a more prominent and visible place in an independent Scotland, but that a dreary, inward-looking Scottish culture would be forced down their throats, to use the preferred tabloid idiom.

Just as issues of Gaelic policy have been almost invisible in the independence debate, so too has there been very little discussion and debate conducted through the medium of Gaelic. As one illustration of this, the Yes Scotland Twitter account has 68,000 followers and the Gaelic counterpart Yes Alba has 548. The Scotsman’s Gaelic column has run a dozen or so articles of different kinds dealing with the referendum, and a handful of Gaelic contributions have appeared on Bella Caledonia and on the Gaelic e-zine Dàna. But that is more or less all. Almost all of the blog postings, all those ‘Journeys to Yes’ style essays have been in English, and almost all the public meetings and debates happening up and down the country are being conducted in English. In June the University of Edinburgh organised a debate which appears to have been the only public meeting conducted through the medium of Gaelic in all of 2014. The representatives of the two sides, Alasdair Allan, current MSP for the Western Isles, and Alasdair Morrison, former Labour MSP for the islands, have held a number of debates up and down the Western Isles but all of these have been held in English. This is understandable in a sense, as nowadays only a little more than half the residents of the Western Isles can understand Gaelic. But the conclusion from all this is that Gaelic is simply not functioning as a language of political discussion in the context of the indyref except to the most minimal extent.

In a sense this should not be surprising: in this hard-fought campaign everyone wants to communicate as effectively as they can, getting the message across as clearly as possible to as many people as possible. Scarcely 1% of Scotland’s population understands Gaelic, and almost everyone who is entitled to vote can understand English.

Nevertheless, a key principle in ensuring that minority languages have space to develop and thrive is that of active offer, ensuring supply in order to stimulate demand rather than insisting on demand before making any supply at all. BBC ALBA, with its excellent coverage of the referendum on radio and television, and its high-quality documentary series Rathad an Referendum, shows the valuable role that minority language media can play even in a linguistic environment where the language is little used in the wider society. But the various political parties and the official Yes and No campaigns have done little in this regard. For example, a recent small but successful crowdfunding appeal by Yes Alba has belatedly produced a range of Gaelic campaigning materials, but it is telling that the official Yes campaign could not find the time or money to produce them from its much greater human and financial resources.

Provision for Scots has been even worse than for Gaelic; most recently, at the beginning of August the Scottish Government produced its 12-page booklet Scotland’s Future: What Independence Means for You in no fewer than 15 languages, including Gaelic but not including Scots. So too the Electoral Commission’s guidance on voting in the referendum is available in several languages, again including Gaelic but not Scots. As with Gaelic, there has been very little substantive use of Scots to debate the referendum; have Bella Caledonia or National Collective ever published a substantial article in Scots?

Of course, the symbolic function of language is often as important as its communicative function and it is clear that a large proportion of people in Scotland understand Gaelic in largely symbolic terms. For the small minority of people who use Gaelic as a means of daily, ordinary communication, Gaelic is often unmarked and banal; it may be very important in their personal relationships and to their sense of identity but it is by no means romantic or mysterious. But for many others who do not know the language or know people who use it routinely, Gaelic is above all symbolic, and the symbolism in question may be attractive or unattractive. Recent data from the Scottish Social Attitudes Survey suggests, probably unsurprisingly, that people who are in favour of independence are a little more likely to have supportive attitudes towards Gaelic. But perhaps the key finding in that survey was how many supporters of independence did not even express minimal support for Gaelic. One of the questions in the survey asked people whether in fifty years’ time they would like to see more Gaelic speakers in Scotland, fewer Gaelic speakers, or about the same number of Gaelic speakers. Of those who supported independence, only 53% said that they would like to see more Gaelic speakers half a century from now. Considering that the number of Gaelic speakers has declined by almost three-quarters in the last century and that Gaelic is almost extinct as a traditional community language, it may seem astonishing that any fair-minded person could not wish to see an increased number of speakers, but such is the survey finding. If that is indeed an accurate reflection of public opinion, it is hardly surprising that the SNP and other elements of the Yes campaign might not wish to over-promote Gaelic in the mainstream of its campaign. Of course, it is entirely possible that many pro-independence voters do not actually realise how bad the position of Gaelic is. But if that is the case, it seems that they do not feel any imperative to inform themselves or to engage with the real policy issues affecting Gaelic as part of their commitment to an independent Scotland.

Is it surprising that Gaelic has played so small a role in the independence debate? In some respects, obviously not. As noted at the beginning, it is a commonplace that language issues are not important in movements for Scottish autonomy. Gaelic is only spoken by a tiny minority of the population and is thus ineffective as a language of mass communication (and persuasion). On the other hand, there has been a policy commitment from all governing parties for the last thirty years to build a sustainable future for Gaelic and this policy has been supported by a small but sometimes vigorous grass-roots movement, especially in relation to the provision of education. Gaelic is an issue that involves complex and difficult questions of historical justice and of minority rights. It is often said that societies should be judged by how they treat the vulnerable groups within them, including their cultural minorities. Gaelic deserves more attention and future generations may wonder why it was so overlooked in a campaign that ranged so widely, probed so deeply and engaged so many people.

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  1. Full support for our Celtic cousins from a Welsh native speaker and professional linguist (teacher/translator/editor/examination verifier) in that language.

    The author is mistaken however in stating that Welsh is not a devolved issue. As per the Welsh Language Measure 2011 (passed unanimously by the National Assembly for Wales), the language is now to all intents official in Wales and this has been re-inforced by the Official Languages Act for the work of the National Assembly itself.

    Indeed, on the creation of the Welsh Office (as was in 1965) Welsh language matters were devolved to that Office. Subsequent legislation was passed by Westminster (1967, 1993 and SI’s) … but most certainly matters concerning the Welsh language are now within the remit of the National Assembly and the Welsh Language Ombudsman.

    We also have semi-official status within the European Union – far in advance of what we also wish for for campaigners in Scotland for her “minority” or “lesser used” languages. There is still so much to do – and we should work together in order to help, promote and exchange ideas between each other – that way we will win against the narrow minded, parochial, bigoted and monoglot dinosaurs.

    Tros Gymru/For Scotland/Saor Alba!

    1. Wilson McLeod says:

      Correct of course about these official protections but the Welsh language is not and could not be a devolved matter. Any time Westminster exercises any of its reserved powers it makes a decision, at least implicitly, to use Welsh or not to use Welsh. The extent of
      Westminster control over Welsh was demonstrated by the hugely damaging financial restructuring it imposed on S4C in 2010, on which Cardiff wasn’t even consulted.

  2. Clootie says:

    It is not mentioned because it is a given that Scottish identity is all it’s aspects from history to language will receive greater focus. Doric has almost gone and Scots branded as slang. A dozen other regional tongues have already been lost.

    This topic as with many,many other issues can only be addressed fully when we have the powers to do so.

    We have to cross the one uniting barrier first – Independence.

    Gaelic has received more focus in the last few years than the previous 300. That highlights to me it will be best served by people in Scotland managing Scotland.

    I understand your passion but for others it will be specific local art, history, the enviroment, literature, land ownership etc

    Who do you trust most to deliver increased focus on each of these issues?

    1. An Duine Gruamach says:

      As the airticle pynts oot, we awready *dae* hae the pooers tae address thir issues. Whit mair pooers, specifically, dae we need? Whit wey hae thir issues no been addressed wi the pooers we awready hae?

      1. Clootie says:

        Powers without funds is the point.
        To maintain the NHS you divert from something else in your fixed budget.
        To counter bedroom tax you divert from something else in your fixed budget.

  3. Michael says:

    Wilson makes many valuable points but I fear he is looking for leadership from above when the Yes movement shows that it is ground level initiatives that are most successful. Scots has played a part in the campaign but I’m not certain we should be surprised about where and when that contribution has been made in view of the fact that the language has not developed the full range of registers that English or (possibly) Gaelic have. Many of the ‘home produced’ elements of the campaign have featured Scots reflecting the widespread use of the language and its capacity to endow cultural authenticity. The points Wilson makes about language policy are of course right but in a sense the government’s approach is entirely predictable given its strategy of bringing as many people as possible onto the Yes side. Language campaigners and enthusiasts will continue to have to make their case after a Yes vote, government faces demands for resources from a range of interest groups and communities, in order to have our voices heard and our concerns addressed we need to learn from the successes of Yes, organise at grass roots level and build from there rather than waiting for help from above.

  4. I’ve actually suspended my Gàidhlig lessons until after the Referendum to free up time for campaigning.

    I read what you write and I fully sympathise but we MUST win.

    Afterwards I can spend the rest of my life fully immersed in Gàidhlig.

  5. zenbroon says:

    One of the reasons that Gaelic has not been much discussed is simply that it is a divisive issue. It shouldn’t be but it is, especially in what are nowadays non-Gaelic areas, and particularly where Scots is the main minority or historic language.

    Language is just one of the many issues – another significant example is republicanism – that have been put on the back-burner until after the referendum. I predict that whatever the result, these issues will come back to the fore quite quickly.

    1. Tocasaid says:

      Understand your points re. lots of ‘other’ issues are standing in line. As to ‘divisiveness’, isn’t that what the naysayers say about the referendum itself?

  6. Frank Lynch says:

    I have tried, really, really tried to get a grip with Gaelic. I can speak a bit of French, German and a wee bit Italian, all of which I’ve learned at school or taught myself. But Gaelic is one of your more difficult languages; and expensive to learn. If it were taught in lowland schools, with speakers from the Islands and the Gaelic college, it would stand a chance. But there doesn’t seem to be any real tie up between the Gaelic teaching community and the education authorities within the central belt; or not, it would seem enough to make a difference. Methinks, a certain proportion of Gaelic speakers would prefer to keep it that way. When you look at the level of education on BBC ALBA, with Speaking Our Language, programming from the 1970’s, you get an idea of the dearth of imagination by those who should be pushing something they regard as of such importance to an independent Scotland.

    1. Scots Anorak says:

      “When you look at the level of education on BBC ALBA, with Speaking Our Language, programming from the 1970’s, you get an idea of the dearth of imagination by those who should be pushing something they regard as of such importance to an independent Scotland.”

      Speaking Our Language may look a little dated now, but it ran in the 1990s, not the 1970s.

    2. Ian Vallance says:

      No where in the world, other than Israel’ has ever seen the recovery of a near dead language to full use as a state language. e.g. nearly 100 years of serious Government support in Ireland has not really halted the decline of Irish. I had an Irish pal once who had officially study all his subjects in Irish, because it offered a 15% start in exams to do so.( a ludicrous position really). Yet despite this he didnt really speak a word he had actually cribbed the maths etc from the notes of those who studied in English he assured me he wasnt uncommon, the teachers in his classes were often mostly speaking to folk who didnt have much of clue what they were saying and they knew this. I also know plenty of folk from the Scots islands who despite being indigenous don’t send their kids to Gaelic school (sometimes middle class English incomer folk do) and they are also not uncommon. Language recovery needs a willingness of wider populations to want to use it and that doesnt seem to be there in Scotland and the Irish case shows governments can’t force it down folks throats either.

      1. Abulhaq says:

        When the Irish government was attempting language revival it did have other pressing things to deal with. Also, the language learning techniques were primitive as was the extant technology. Sending city dwellers to the Gaeltacht, cold, wet and dirt poor didn’t help either. Scotland is urban. Language must reflect that in the way it is taught. Kailyaird and Croft imagery is harmful. It turns off the young and all but the passionately committed. How to make language learning cool is problematic. The ubiquitous “English”,in actuality, American leads to laziness or capitulation in the face of overwhelming odds or a “why bother as everybody speaks English” attitude. In reality, of course, many people do speak some English, usually to school exam level, which for most purposes other than pleasantries is inadequate for any meaningful cultural exchange. Language is a mark of nationality, the reason the Irish for example set great store by its being constitutionally the national language of Ireland. Any future Scottish governments, assuming its officials are sensible of cultural matters, will need to address some time or other this question. English is the language of England. The language/s of Scotland is/are……? Recondite or at the very heart of the matter? Time will tell.

  7. Abulhaq says:

    The main issue here is that, through systematic neglect, lack of use or restricted use neither Gaelic nor Scots/Scottis is sufficiently developed to handle the breadth of topics covered by the referendum. Also both suffer from the dread “cringe” when faced with Global English. Gaelic has been developing a more modern media vocabulary but largely in isolation from the mainstream.. Few Gaelic speakers would actually be familiar with the modern lexicon turning to English usages when required. This is normal linguistic behaviour when one language, particularly a tongue such as English, dominates public discourse. Hindi and Urdu have examples of that. By bringing Gaelic out of the cold, by forcing it into the mainstream away from its usual “Highland & Islands” domains new lexis, structures, usages, idioms etc will develop in sympathy with the genius of the language. In other words a “metropolitan Gaelic”. Translation, especially from languages other than English, is significant in language development as it stretches the core. There is some history of this in Gaelic with regard to religious works. The field simply needs to be extended.
    In the case of what survives of Scots the situation is more complex. What is modern Scots? Is it just Standard English with “Scotticisms”, a fair amount of styles do suggest that exhibiting irregular spelling and an underlying English model. Or is it a rich, “feisty”, developing language with roots in the classic leid of the 15th/16th centuries with its internationalising French and Latin influences informing its vocabulary and style. This was a language of administration and the court as well as the hearth. The latter has survived, more or less, the former survives only in literature.
    If, as an independent state, we are happy to be a province of the Anglo-American cultural domain then none of this language stuff will matter. If the contrary then we need the politics, political structures and the will to breath new life into these treasures of our national patrimony. Language, our languages, are also part of the democratic political infrastructure and potent signs of our unique identity. Stimulating times are ahead.

    1. Douglas says:

      Agreed Abulhaq.

      We need an Academy of Scottish Languages surely in the first indie parliament. Urgently in any case.

      Both languages are too weak to get by as they do at the moment, Gaelic thanks to the universities like SMO, and Scots, mainly thanks to the tradition in Scottish literature and everyday language – but as you say, no high register or anything like it.

      We need to give both Scots and Gaelic a massive shot in the arm in terms of status, and an Academy does that, or at least has the potential to do that. A national Academy with all the prestige and status that brings will bolster the profile of the languages and provide an institution to fight their corner.

      It could also run an annual literary prize in all three of our languages, with the English language prize open to international writers. English has great status worldwide, and some of that can rub off on Scots and Gaelic.

      As for the presence of Gaelic in the campaign, it’s par for the course…

      1. Abulhaq says:

        Yes Douglas it IS all about “register”. Independence will raise considerably our register as a nation. All the rest, culture, language etc.will be up to us. A Scottish Academy of Sciences, linguistics is a science, would deliver a massive impetus.

      2. Douglas says:

        I would say language is an act of freedom above all, and that under normal conditions you would not want that, you would shun the idea of an Academy.

        And of course, you would always defend the use of English, otherwise you would be a Tuscan fighting against Latin at the height of the Roman Empire.

        But that in the case of Scotland’s indigenous languages, you have to accept you are in the causality ward. We need an institution.

        The Scots, notwithstanding absurd and ridiculous gimmicks – kirch/church; banal beyond words – are stubbornly opposed to learning foreign languages. Anybody who learns German will find Gaelic a piece of cake. The decline in foreign language learning is, at least, half the problem.

        Reconnect Scotland to Europe (our tradition there is in its death throes) – where everybody is learning at least one foreign language – and you will light up the interest in our indigenous languages.

      3. Ian Vallance says:

        Here’s a thought maybe given that only circa 1% (and probably less than that in reality) of the Scottish population speak or more importantly actually use Gaelic, just maybe it aint really an issue for the coming debate?
        Folk like the writer of this article have, for me a hint of the zealot, about them, for them these “cultural” issues are to the fore, but surely the reality for most Scots whether they are voting Yes or No and whether the author likes it or not, its a non issue.
        And again sadly perhaps would also not miss, or even give much thought to total loss of Gaelic which is probably going to happen soon anyway with or without government help. This might be sad but given the economic reality of future Scotland independent or otherwise support for what is a virtually dead language is almost bound to be questioned and right so. The issue for “Scots” is easier and cheaper to to do something about if government was inclined to. Far from being dead indeed more than 90% of working class Scots use it daily to some extent in some form or other.
        The Scottish middle classes, who dominate Holyrood, on the other hand would normally rather eat a “piece oan sh*t* ” than let the words dinni ken leave their lips.
        To promote Scots and even see its own standard forms develop automatically would merely require a more a more laisse fair attitude to use of the current vernacular in wider society, the medjaa, particularly newspapers and maybe some mild tinkering in primary and secondary education e.g. a simple requirement in Schools to write one story a week in “your own version” of the braid,
        But the idea that working class speech is the sign of stupidity and ignorance is deeply in ingrained in the Scottish middle class.
        Thing is Scot’s doesnt need formal academies and over intellectual guff, which have done nothing to prevent the fall of French from world prominence or indeed the spread of Franglais, it just needs the professional and middle classes to not be afraid to use it. (They already understand it).

      4. Abulhaq says:

        Ian Vallance.
        Scots is more of a “dead” language than Gaelic. What passes for modern Scots is standard English laced with surviving dialect words and regional accents. There is a peculiar “Scots” on Wiki which proves how anglicised this language is. English phrases, syntax, spellings are indiscriminately used because to write Scots requires more intellectual effort and linguistic skill than speaking the Anglo-Scottish dialect. Scottis as a living language had died out in the 17th century when it ceased to be an official language and was replaced by English in education; and lowland Scots did that, no English involved.
        Gaelic, on the other hand, is still spoken and written and is developing a modern vocabulary. Dead languages do not do that.
        Both, however, cannot be left to nature; a lazy, very British view anyway. Languages are systems that do become untidy. English is a good example of a system that can be syntactically confusing, orthographically illogical and when spoken occasionally totally incomprehensible because there is no “norm”. Anything goes in English including the ability to tell social caste, education, ethnicity etc from the way it is used. A design fault if ever there was one.
        The Académie Française can look superfluous in the face of the tyranny of Globish but it sets style and proposes neologisms for invasive anglicisms and is of course a body to which French authors aspire. The decline of French has more to do with geopolitics. Two disastrous WWs in Europe gave Anglo-American a boost. The anti-intellectualism present in its culture has certainly aided its spread. As of course the fact that Anglo-American is THE language of global capitalism, UN, Nato etc.

  8. Coinneach I am the same. I have been learning gaelic and fully intend to study it again and use it in my work, but the campaign has to be won in order that Gaelic and all other elements of Scottish culture are given the attention and rejuvination that they deserve. Gaelic seems, to my mind, to be getting greater prominence, there is more demand for it in schools and more people learning it which is great, so let’s win the YES vote then get about building our new country together. Gaelic will have a huge part to play in that.

    1. Phew!

      Somebody on the same wavelength.

      As someone else here has stated it is difficult because we come at it from a Germanic (Scots and English) perspective. It would be a lot easier if our first language was Cornish.

      Persistence pays off though. A group of us refused to give up when our class folded. We’ve been teaching ourselves. If nothing else we’ve kept the flame alive until classes become available again.

      The only trouble is that I suspect that the others are Onionists. They can’t understand why I am suddenly unavailable at the moment.

      I really need to have that “Bu Chòir” converstaion with them and offer them badges.

      … but I risk losing a beautiful friendship.

  9. habibbarri says:

    I grew up speaking a language at home, with my friends and in the playground, that was forbidden in the classroom. The headmaster of Newarthill Primary School taught the final year before we left for secondary school. I well remember that headmaster reacting to a boy who spoke to him in the vernacular with speech which humiliated him.The headmaster told the boy not to be cheeky, and ranted about the language the boy spoke. He said that it was bad English, and contrasted it to the beautiful language in the writings of Burns.

    I left Scotland 40 years ago. As I read about my own culture and language I realised that we had not been speaking bad English, but bad Scots, meticised Scots, Scots mixed with English, Bowdlerised Scots. When I returned to Scotland in 2013 I determined that I would speak Scots everywhere, but I only speak it with my siblings and other working class folk who also speak it. I don’t speak it with educated or middle class friends because I would be embarrased to be thought uneducated and working class. I am working class, educated, with an honours degree and a masters degree, but I identify myself as working class because I was raised in a working class family and my siblings are working class, and I are about social and economic justice for working class folk.

    For the Scots language to be renewed, the educated, and middle and upper classes need to use it. It needs to become the language of teaching in our Lowland schools with English and Gaelic taught as important second languages. I’ve heard it said that Education must be in the English language for the sake of communication with government, officialdom and international communication. I don’t believe that this is so.

    Children in Lowland Scotland could well be taught in revitalised Scots, with the ancient vocabulary enriched by modern vocabulary,, without impairing their ability to function if the anglophone world and the international world.

    Is anyone willing to form a league of Scots language speakers?

    1. Ian Vallance says:

      Why does the ludicrous attitude of the Scottish middle classes bother you? Their patronising ignorance is what needs to be challenged. Language and linguistics is a fascinating area of study and there is essentially no real standard way to distinguish a language from a dialect. (the old adage that a language is a dialect with an army and navy is useful one though) e.g. a Swedes and Norwegians can easily watch the News in each others languages but no one would seriously say Norwegian was a dialect of Swedish. One other useful concept when considering language usage is code switching that is changing how we speak depending on who we are speaking to and where we are etc, it something we all do indeed are probably programmed to do. The key for Scots recovery is merely to widen the areas where code switching to Scots vernacular is acceptable, e.g. the courts, the television and radio news, the classrooms. The beauty of human language and our innate use of it is that widen the usage and the standard forms and broader vocabulary automatically development.
      Further when you say you were using bad Scots you simply duplicate the error of your headmaster. there is no good or bad forms of any language only wider or narrower usage forms which also have varying degrees of social currency and acceptability
      You and your friends in school were just using the language you grew up with it was not a degraded form of a once pure beautiful language etc it was a full language in its own right and wider use would see it automatically redevelop the tools to produce poetry the equal of Burns and literature as powerful as any in the world. (You may not like the content of Irvine Welsh’s books but he writes fantastic modern vernacular Scots I can hear folk I know speaking in his books) All languages evolve no one is speaking bad Scots etc its just that its use of the vernacular today is still viewed by the utterly ignorant middle classes as all the things you list. Children don’t need to taught in Scots they just need to be allowed to use it in wider society without feeling the wrath of middle class snobbery and they also need to understand that code switching is normal behaviour. e.g.. if your speaking to a TV from the US a more standard English would be needed. the ability to use a Standard English will always be useful in the world but inside our own country we should be more free to speak how we like?

      1. Abulhaq says:

        You still need spoken and literary norms. Artificial or synthetic though they might be they are systematised patterns of language usage. The norms are not sacrosanct. The creative user will challenge, test and experiment. Language is a hot topic for new/old nations. The Greeks and Norwegians are still fighting battles over issues of style. Arabs debate over the merits of mutually unintelligible regional dialects v Modern Standard Arabic ie division and diversity v unity and politico-cultural coherence. There are arguments for both perspectives. As human language is rather more than a glorified version of Google Translate there is much room for innovation in thinking on the status of language in the construction of a modern Scottish state and how we use it to articulate our long neglected cultures

      2. Ian Vallance says:

        Abulhaq living language doesnt actually need literary forms these are as you say in effect artifice, their role is as you suggest to record, yes standardise and to facilitate wider communication, not least through time.
        Literary forms while artificial however still only reflect genuine spoken usage and rules. Modern English for example developed from the usage of the legal and government bureaucratic establishment, its base rules arising from the dialect of the East Midlands (not the local London/Kentish speech) its predominance is essentially an accident of History.
        I am familiar with the debate on Modern forms of Arabic I have been told many times that Egyptian usage is/was usually considered the best modern form but on standards Arabic has the huge advantage in that speakers have the beautifully stylised and highly conservative usage of the Koran as an kind of ultimate standard on best usage forms? I am told you can if it were necessary at least for learned Arabs from across the Arab world to communicate in Koranic Arabic even if it seems a tad artificial. (Note I have avoided using the useful English third person form “one” here essentially for purely stylish reasons it usage these days generally being considered pompous.)

        You are probably right that “the braid” Scots of the 17th century is dead but my point is if you extend current still widely and highly creatively used vernacular forms onto wider social and cultural stages (which is easy to do) it will automatically develop its own vocabulary, grammar forms and structures that literary, bureaucratic and even a recognised standard form can develop from.
        It might be a new Scots that develops but so what I am not wedded to any ideal past standard, that route leads only to stagnation and death. Such a thing cannot be done for Gaelic as it simply doesnt have enough speakers and cannot effectively, at least not quickly ever have.

        In another post you mention the chaos of modern English being the result of a lack of equivalent to the Academie Francais A body who’s role in the development of the French language has entirely undermined the ability of the French language to adopt, adapt and innovate in the way that English has.
        It is precisely the lack of stuffy drivel and acedemic piffle that has seen English advance to the status it has today.

        It is possible, even probable that a new International Standard English will develop to address the need for effective communication but this cannot and mustn’t be under the guidance of any formal body. For example one trend in international English is the loss of strong verb forms, e.g. all verbs are often used with regular tense markers so stuff like. goed and maked are just accepted as correct usages, (such usages are indeed simply logical) oh and went and made are not howevernot now considered wrong by new stuffy academic body. If this new trends becomes the norm it will be an organic development any new standard will/should simply happen, by necessity and most common practice.
        That is effectively what happened to English already, the grammarians of 17th and 18th centuries with their dumb rules on splitting infinitive etc not withstanding.

        In virtually all languages social class can be determined from how you use it, if not always as easily on how you pronounce its words as with UK English. In Australia and the US accent alone is less of indicator of social class than in the UK, where in England the middle class almost all speak the same way regardless of where they come from, this along with their obvious populating the influential professions meaning that their accent is the most widely recognised form of modern UK English and frequently considered a standard to aspire to. (In reality it is no better or worse than if we had standardised on the Geordie dialect of Northhumbria for example). The same is true for modern Standard Scots English really. In other European countries, Germany for example, code switching to dialect forms among the middle classes is much more common, while “Hoch Deutsch” still remains the recognised standard across the entire German speaking world. Swiss German and Bayerisch being good examples.

      3. Abulhaq says:

        Ian Vallance….you could go on and on about this topic until as the French say “chickens grow teeth” . 10 individuals and probably a dozen or so views. As the witticism goes, Max Weinreich the Yiddish linguist is seemingly its originator, “a schprach is a dialekt mit’n armey un flot”. Modern English is a dialect, synthesised by Chaucer, Shakespeare & co. with more than its fair share of lucky breaks. Re Arabic Egyptian dialect does have certain prestige due to Egypt’s political and cultural clout, alas history, though it is usually not written except in cartoons and stuff, however wouldn’t recommend talking like the Qur’an some people might get the wrong idea. Enjoyed the “chat”.

  10. Marconatrix says:

    If an attempt were to be made to standardise and rehabilitate Scots post independence the problems faced would I think be rather like those faced by Norway a century ago, where the urban educated classes spoke Danish (more or less) and the country folk a wide variety of varied dialects. It would be worth closely examining their experience, although by working from both ends and never quite meeting in the middle, they’ve ended up with two standards for the price of one!

    1. Ian Vallance says:

      You make a good point and it is indeed worth studying their experience but it was Sweden Norway separated from I believe, and I know that Modern Norwegian is closer to Swedish than it is Danish which while it can be pretty easily read by most Swedes and Norwegians I am told its spoken form is the least intelligible to their fellow Scandinavians. (Indeed their modern languages have not fallen very far from their parent tree). One lesson from the Norwegian experience is that a new standard can develop from a wide range vernaculars. My understanding of the two standard thing is that official direction was involved in one but not really or to a lesser extent the other? My view would be if you wanted to try to establish a new modern Scots (and its a big if of course), only the lightest touch of the state should be involved. Real folk have got to want it, only then will/can it happen.
      Only for example when MSP’s are unafraid, and more importantly unashamed to stand up and speak sentences like “wees yins are here to see yous yins are aw right” and folk watching don’t find it cringe worthy or folk can give evidence in court without worrying that lawyers, judges and juries are (pre-) judging them for the way they speak, or when use of vernacular Scots in the medjaa is more than just a form of humour, will we be ready to make a start down that road I feel.

  11. Neil McRae says:

    Wilson criticises statutory Gaelic language plans. Doesn’t he know that these plans are a cornerstone of Bòrd na Gàidhlig’s esteemed language strategy? A strategy described (by Bòrd na Gàidhlig) as “making great strides” … More:

    1. Ian Vallance says:

      Formal boards of Bureaucrats (esspecially state funded ones) are usually pretty good a making statements about their strategies making great strides, what matters surely is what is recorded in the statistics of the national census which essentially shows continued decline.

      Ireland experience suggests that political will,and government strategies as well as a shed load of government cash etc on their own are not enough.
      What is needed is a genuine willingness on the part of enough folk to actually use a language, or possibly just see a reason to use it. (That is what actually happened in Israel post 48 and its why modern Hebrew developed into the language of the Israeli state).
      If not enough folk have/see this need to use a language it will effectively die or perhaps worse fossilse into twee cultural backwater, and no amount of government cash and no number of government boards with strategies will change this.

  12. sosolidshoe says:

    You’ll have to forgive me for being blunt but I have to ask; is it really that important an issue that we should be devoting limited time and resources to it in the context of the referendum debate?

    Don’t get me wrong my Mum was a linguist and I’ve always found languages a fascinating area of study even though I seemingly completely failed to inherit her talent for learning them, and I understand that Gaelic is an important part of some people’s lives, but what justification is there for making language policy a big part of the debate when there are dozens of other issues which impact everybody regardless of whether their first language is Gaelic, English, Hindi, or anything else? Can we really put “Gaelic isn’t getting enough support” up on the same platform as foodbanks & other signs of endemic poverty and inequality, nuclear disarmament, climate change, or basic mechanical democratic accountability and expect to be taken seriously as a movement? Particularly when so many other issues that are of great importance to a much larger number of people -NATO membership, the monarchy etc- have been set aside so we can focus on the most universal problems we face?

    I’d like to see a proper effort to revitalise Scots and Gaelic post-independence much as Norway worked to resurrect their own spoken dialects and written language after they broke away from Sweden, but making it a central plank of the Yes campaign wouldn’t just distract us from other issues it could well actively work against us; some would resent it exactly because of that distraction, others would resent it because the intersection of independence movements and language is ordinarily the kind of ethnocentric nationalism which we’ve worked so hard as a campaign to avoid(note I’m not accusing the author of any such thing, merely pointing out the common perception).

  13. Highland girl says:

    The Radical Independence Campaign Inverness Conference held in May organised a specific workshop on The Role of Language and Culture with Aonghas Dubh and George Gunn. The aim of the workshop was to encourage new and radical ideas which can contribute to a more just and equal Scotland. The workshop was well attended but similar to any workshop, it only really began to scratch the surface of the subject. But the aim was to ensure that language would be up there for discussion alongwith Progress not Poverty , The Need for Radical Land Reform, and Building a new Democracy, etc.
    There are lots of issues to be considered in creating a new Scotland and the role of Language and Culture is clearly one of them. But the pro-independence campaigners are all volunteers and trying to cover all bases and fight on all fronts is pretty challenging!

  14. Douglas says:

    The thing that people ought to take into consideration is that language is a political act. And you have to accept the fact that, when you learn even a wee bit of Gaelic, your whole perception of Scotland radically changes: a new territory. And so you suddenly have this new map. And it does’t really matter that few people know about this map, which, in its simplest forms, is all too evident in the place names of Scotland.

    And I would say there are few spokesmen for Gaelic who write about it with passion.

    And would say, also, to anybody young enough to listen to me, yes, aye, learn Gaelic. It will change your life and reconnect you to Scotland in a way you had never imagined. You will suddenly hear your grandparents speaking in you head: you will hear the dead speak, and the old songs. A kind of penny drops (and no a Scots pound). In my case, the MacNaughtons of Arrochar, who were cleared people. And go back and look at the census and once, 30% spoke Gaelic in Scotland. And it is an incredible language, and go for it while you are young, please, and don;t be feart of failure.
    And I agree with Wilson MacLeod largely though I think he is writing a letter to the Scottish government more than anything else. But that, also, and I don’t include Wilson in this, or Murdo from SM who is a bit of a legend, you have these totally dreadful, appalling and bureaucratic academics who fuck up Gaelic and who expel hard-working people from courses, people who are having a few months heavy work and can’t do the bullshit academic module that month, who have paid, maybe 2,000 pounds to learn Gaelic?

    And so you have to say that there are many enemies of Gaelic in the Gaelic speaking world.

  15. Aaron says:

    I am broadly supportive of “independence”. Though I don’t actually believe such a thing exists in the global system we live under.
    Anyway the SNP promises that Gaelic will have a “central place” in the life of the newly independent country. I think this central place will strongly resemble the central place Gaelic has now in Scottish life – as an easy target of attack from English language chauvinists. When things go bad economically, and there will be good and bad periods, Gaelic will be amongst the first to get the chop.
    I hope I am wrong.

  16. Round and Furry says:

    An Leabhar Beag Gorm! Math fhèin seo fhaicinn ann an Gàidhlig.

  17. Ray Bell says:

    Leis an fhirinn innse, ‘s tric gu bheil iad a’ bruidhinn na Beurla air BBC Alba fhein!

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