The government has a plan for gaelic and you won’t believe what it is

Griogair Labhruidh, with gaelic hip-hop or Ùp-Àp An important dimension that’s often missing from the debates about whether it’s worthwhile to support Gaelic or promote Scots in Scotland is why one would do such a thing in the first place. In today’s feverish political environment these things slide all too often into outright constitutional mudslinging or at least a debate that foregrounds the essential Scottishness of the country’s languages, either as a good thing or a bad thing. Scott Hames has written about this approach being unhelpful, and I agree. But if this is not about nationality, why indeed would one put up Gaelic signs in the Borders or push for more recognition of Scots?

Several misconceptions are widespread among both opponents and supporters of minority language promotion. For instance, the introduction of Gaelic or Scots into schools is often framed as an attempt by the government to ‘teach [alternatively, indoctrinate] the children to speak’ the minority language — ominously, at the expense of Standard English? The infamous Gaelic signs (the number of which in all of the Lowlands probably runs, let’s face it, into the low three figures) are seen as an attempt to stake a claim on territory for Gaelic, presumably on the basis of it having been spoken in the area historically; this often tends to provoke a backlash along the lines of ‘why don’t we promote Welsh then — isn’t it the closest living relative of the historical language of Lowland Scotland?’ Here is a typical example. This latter argument, of course, is only true if the purpose of Gaelic signs is to promote Gaelic for these historical reasons — which supporters of the language are often wont to support, pointing to the very real Gaelic heritage of much of the country.

These ideas, whether espoused by well-wishers or detractors of minority languages, suffer from a failure to invert the majority’s perspective. Those who do not identify as members of the linguistic minority tend to see language policy as largely aimed at them, rather than catering for the needs and desires of the minority speakers themselves. Hence the frequent trope of the language being ‘pushed down our throats’ and ‘subsidies’ and ‘catering to the needs of the minority at the expense of the majority’.

“Minority language policy should focus on protecting the rights of speakers, and the rights of speakers are best served with a coherent programme of language planning. This includes prestige planning that aims to build consent for the protection of speakers’ rights everywhere — not just in designated areas where they are tolerated, but wherever they choose to live. People who think others shouldn’t have these rights are of course entitled to their opinion, but it would be great if they argued their case on that basis, not referring to an imagined nationalist plot or bungled heritage programme.”

Here’s the problem: the kind of visible gestures that raise the most public ire are, in fact, just that: gestures. It is preposterous to think that having a ‘Burns week’ at school or a bunch of English lessons attempting to write a poem in Scots (it’s always a poem, of course) is sufficient to guide pupils’ linguistic behaviour outside class. The way people end up speaking depends on the speech first of their caregivers, then of their peers, perhaps particularly in adolescence, and also on their attitude to the different in- and out-groups they are members of.1 A lesson or two in written Scots will no more turn a child with a middle-class accent into a speaker of broad Scots than many years of schooling eradicate non-standard varieties in working-class communities.

Similarly, a couple of signs at a railway station or the introduction of Gaelic into local council branding will not indoctrinate children into speaking Gaelic, and I strongly suspect they will not be able to somehow push children into having a stronger Scottish identity than they otherwise would have. Such token gestures are utterly ineffectual at the aims that they are commonly seen to have. If you’re looking for an actually effective policy tool, look at the LEACAG project currently conducted by several Scottish universities working towards a reference grammar of Gaelic, with funding from Bòrd na Gàidhlig. Yet it doesn’t seem to be the target of quite so much ire.

Why do it then? It starts making sense if you look at it from the perspective of someone who is (or aspires to be) a speaker of a minority language or a non-standard variety. This is part of prestige planning — measures that improve the perceived status of the minority language in the broader society and building democratic consent for further policy initiatives in that area. In this respect, involving the language in ‘official’ uses such as signage or school teaching is a signal both to the minority language users themselves and to the society at large that minority and non-standard varieties are valued and respected, and not an irrelevance or an inconvenience to be dismissed. That is an important part of promoting the languages: speakers’ attitudes to their language are partly, of course, personal, but also shaped to a large extent by the broader societal attitudes — can we really always expect a person growing up in an environment for few signs of appreciation for the way they speak to have a positive attitude to it themselves?

This is also the problem with the often-made argument that Scotland-wide promotion of Gaelic is a waste of resources and funding should be concentrated in areas where it has a stronger claim to being a ‘regional’ language (in practice, the Highlands — not even perhaps all of it — and Islands). But look at it from the perspective of a speaker or user of Gaelic. The intent of the current policy is to signal to them: ‘we value your language because of who you are — one of us — not because of where you live’. A ‘regional’ policy says: ‘we’ll allow you weirdos to have your fun where there’s enough of you around, but please don’t come here inconveniencing us, the numerical majority who actually matter’. This is, in some ways, quite an insidious argument that makes a ‘democratic’ appeal to the will of the majority against the interests of the minority.

Have a look at this programme recently broadcast on BBC Alba. It’s on Gaelic in Aberdeen, showing how people with backgrounds from both the north-east and elsewhere keep the flag flying. All too often they hear people say ‘but it was never spoken here’, ‘it is being imposed’. And yet they have lived in the north-east for years, sometimes, as some of those interviewed, all their lives — they are living proof that it is spoken. How do you tell such a person that their language is an imposition and an inconvenience? This sort of argument betrays a fundamental lack of empathy.

This is true even when the argument is couched in the language of ‘I have nothing against it, but it should stand on its own two feet’. It is majority communities that have the luxury of being confident their culture and language aren’t going away, because they already have the support structure and the social scaffolding that ensures their culture and language remain in it. Building and maintaining these structures requires the kind of time and effort that very few people have to spare. Telling them to get on with it and stop being so damn visible shows the very same lack of empathy for these circumstances.

(Parenthetically, the programme, quite well done and produced, is largely preaching to the choir when it’s on BBC Alba. An establishment really keen on promoting and imposing Gaelic would be showing it, probably in English, on prime-time BBC One. As noted, if the SNP or whoever are intent on pushing the language down everybody’s throats, they are doing a pretty rubbish job of it.)

There is, of course, a cultural, heritage argument to be made for the promotion of Gaelic — one that can be legitimately appealed to if we want to decide on, say, the appropriate level of support for ‘immigrant’ minority languages that have a ‘home base’ outside of Scotland. But it is by no means a central plank of Gaelic-language policy. Minority language policy should focus on protecting the rights of speakers, and the rights of speakers are best served with a coherent programme of language planning. This includes prestige planning that aims to build consent for the protection of speakers’ rights everywhere — not just in designated areas where they are tolerated, but wherever they choose to live. People who think others shouldn’t have these rights are of course entitled to their opinion, but it would be great if they argued their case on that basis, not referring to an imagined nationalist plot or bungled heritage programme.

PS- If you want to put yourself into the shoes of a minority language speaker Who Has Had Enough, I highly recommend this tweetstorm by @Madeley.

 

1. Incidentally, some of the groundbreaking research in this area was conducted in the significantly Scots-speaking community of Buckie in the north-east of Scotland.

Comments (22)

Join the Discussion

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. Eric Morrison says:

    About time Scots got the opportunity to see their native language in written form and, hopefully, they then might take the opportunity to learn to speak it for themselves. The writer talks about Standard English which was portrayed as the only way to speak. Not to mention History at school in Scotland which had a decided South of the Border slant in my day (mid 50’s -60’s)
    BBC Scotland Radio then TV’s Scottish presenters all spoke with a “posh” voice. Speaking normally in Scotland was frowned on and derided. Thankfully some things are changing.
    It is about time Scots stopped being embarrassed by their accents.
    More power to the Scottish Government’s elbow

  2. Welsh Sion says:

    Welsh language activist, professional linguist (Welsh mother tongue) and political animal (Member of Plaid Cymru, diverse lang pressure groups and SNP) gives the author wholehearted support and happy to exchange ideas with similar.

    Not sure can leave email address here. Will do so next time or let author (and others) contact Welsh Sion on Facebook.

    Diolch yn fawr.

  3. Karen MacGill'Fhaolain Palmer says:

    I am currently learning Gàidhlig here in Canada.
    My daughter is a linguist and we both have a passion for saving lost or endangered languages.
    Learning multiple languages has benefits in and of itself but learning a language that is a window into your culture is priceless.

  4. Finlay Macleoid says:

    I am often taken aback at how little discussion there is about the level of taxation made from the Gaelic language cultural and heritage products in Scotland and indeed world wide but especially in Scotland. Yet almost nothing of this tax bonanza ever goes to the Gaelic language for any form of development.

    Furthermore, having your child in a Gaelic medium school is hardly a gimmick considering they will have everything taught through Gaelic for the first 2 years and then 75% plus taught again through Gaelic until they leave primary school. The Gaelic subjects in the high school is not being developed as quickly as I would like. But we know on its own that is not enough. The Gaelic of the home and the child also needs to be developed as well.

    It has always taken me aback as to why anyone who is against the Gaelic language would wish to use any part of its culture or heritage products to form an identity while the core of that very identity is its language. Just seems so strange. Maybe someone can explain.

  5. finlay Macleoid says:

    I am often taken aback at how little discussion there is about the level of taxation made from the Gaelic language cultural and heritage products in Scotland and indeed world wide but especially in Scotland. Yet almost nothing of this tax bonanza ever goes to the Gaelic language for any form of development.

    Furthermore, having your child in a Gaelic medium school is hardly a gimmick considering they will have everything taught through Gaelic for the first 2 years and then 75% plus taught again through Gaelic until they leave primary school. But we know on its own that is not enough. The Gaelic of the home and the child also needs to be developed as well.

    Finally, it has always taken me aback as to why anyone who is against the Gaelic language would wish to use any part of its culture or heritage products to form an identity while the core of that very identity is its language. Just seems so strange. Maybe someone can explain.

  6. Pru Freeder says:

    Not sure whether my browser’s acting up or you forgot the link, but here’s @Madeley’s tirade:

    https://storify.com/nwdls/on-being-a-rude-welsh-speaker

    1. K.A.Mylchreest says:

      Tapadh leibh, gu dearbh tha i air ceann an tarraige a bhualadh 🙂

      Unfortunately mono-lingual English speakers have an enormous blind spot (ball-dall??) when it comes to other languages, minority languages in particular, they simply “don’t get it”, can’t comprehend their importance as it’s something quite outside their own experience. Perhaps we ought to pity them, were their attitudes not so damaging to others.

  7. Alf Baird says:

    I’m not so sure that Scots is a “minority language” within Scotland. The last census was also probably wrong in its dubious finding that only 1.5 million Scots speak Scots, which raises the question, what do the other 4.0 million fowk speak, Swahili? If there is any respect here for human rights and equality then the Scots language, which is still spoken in one dialect or another probably by a majority of Scots (yet who remain ignorant by virtue of the state/Holyrood refusing to teach Scots how to read and write in Scots), should be afforded the same treatment as Gaelic, namely a Scots Language Act delivering the following:

    – National 5/Higher in Scots Language courses taught in schools
    – Degree in Scots Language
    – Scots Language TV Channel
    – Annual funding (pro-rata with Gaelic, per capita of resp. language speakers)
    – Scots Language Board to coordinate the above

    Until such an Act is passed the Scottish people and the Scots language will continue to be discriminated against, and Scottish culture forever diminished. Arguably this refusal to teach Scots bairns an aw fowk thair ain langage is also the primary reason for the ‘cultural cringe’ and also perhaps one of the main reasons many Scots still vote against their own nationhood.

    1. John Tracey says:

      Agree on your proposals for a way forward, qualifications, funding, etc. I do not see it as damaging in any way. Indeed, it is a benefit to all – education about our complete cultural heritage. Would there be any mileage in trying a Scots language programme on Alba? Alba as the ‘true’ Scots channel?

  8. Fay Kennedy says:

    I do believe your analysis is spot on Alf. Residing in Australia (Glaswegian born) for most of my life it still irks me when folk I’ve just met think they have the right to make some negative comment about the Scots when manners my mother taught me I was not to be pass remarkable about other folk when you did not even know them. And aye it has made me super sensitive about my cultural origins in as much as am aware of them through a biased English education.

  9. John Monro says:

    I write from New Zealand, where the indigenous population, Maori, have similar issues, with the added complication of their very different cultural values and their being a minority and “overrun” culture in their own land. Around about 21% of Maori can hold a conversation about everyday things (a definition of being able to speak Maori) which is about 130,000 people. The percentage is gradually falling, as the older Maori have more language facility. A programme of Maori language development for youngsters, called Te Reo, is helping just a bit to stem this tide. An article here http://www.stuff.co.nz/national/education/89223687/Compulsory-Te-Reo-Can-it-really-be-done describes the issues and relates to the Green party policy to have compulsory Maori language teaching in all schools. But we live in an age of government reticence to push any agenda, except that of individualism and selfish capitalism, and a reluctance to challenge a deep undercurrent of entrenched racism.

    But surely the Scots can collectively see the value of first preserving, and then promoting, their own native language. I’d love to visit Scotland and hear some more of you speaking such a beautiful language, but every year of delay makes the problem harder. I see though that Google now has a Scottish Gaelic translator, that’s new, and welcome. But really, I can’t see why Gaelic shouldn’t be considered as valuable an asset to your country as your whisky, your music, your poetry or your lochs, mountains and moorlands. Beannachd leat, agus gach dùrachd à New Zealand.

  10. James Thompson says:

    I am a native Scots speaker learning Gaelic and I feel this beautiful language is as much a part of our cultural background as English and Scots. I have never found any antagonism between Scots and Gaelic. A lot of Gaelic words have been absorbed into Scots and it feels like the two languages are almost connected. We should be open to all the myriad linguistic strands which make up our identity and nurture them. Had the Pictish language survived beyond the fact that it was probably P-Celtic I would definitely champion it as another strand of our linguistic DNA!
    It is the uniqueness of our languages which make us who we are.
    I do agree with Finlay MacLeoid above though and find it strange that Scots who are vehemently against the Gaelic language are happy to use token words and dip into its culture and heritage when it suits them.
    With our new found self determination it is definitely time for us to embrace all the linguistic strands of our identity.

  11. Monty says:

    Not sure. I speak and write Scots but frankly the official and self declared Scots language bodies and individuals are largely annoying, detrimental and an irrelevance with a few exceptions. Perhaps Gaelic with its official status is different but I imagine some of the policies and statements are not wholly endorsed by or in the interests of Gaelic speakers. I sort of hope Scots does not get official status.

    1. Alf Baird says:

      ” I sort of hope Scots does not get official status.”

      Whit! Dae ye no lyke yer ain langage? Daes it scunner ye sae muckle ye want tae forfaut yer mither tung?

      1. K.A.Mylchreest says:

        No Alf, you’ve misunderstood him. He clearly lo’s his leid, even though it’s a bit o a fangled mess right now. But he’s afeart o yon high heidit yins camin alang and sorting it to their own academical/political liking, probably with little regard to the tastes and need of “the Scot in the street”. Basically it’s a tickly business that needs great tact and awareness if it’s to be handled at all.

        1. Alf Baird says:

          A tak yer pynt, K.A.M. Many of Scotland’s senior civil servants have questionable allegiance to Scotland anyway given they are all Whitehall (i.e. ‘UK Home’ civil service) appointees, in typical colonial fashion. Hou muckle Scots leid dae thay Anglicised heid bummer fowk hiv in thair heids, niver mynd interest in Scots langage? Nane A wid fancy. That probably explains why we will never see a Scots Language Act, even if SNP MSP’s wanted it, which they evidently don’t.

  12. Gery says:

    A lot more could be done without ‘forcing’ anyone. 3 million people are learning Irish Gaelic via a language learning app http://www.duolingo.com/comment

    1. finlay Macleoid says:

      What will be interesting is to find out in another year or two how many have actually learnt Irish with this system especially as both English and Irish is being used to teach Irish.

  13. Fearghas MacFhionnlaigh says:

    One world language (with but one accent). One world government (in Uzbekistan, let’s randomly say, in honour of Craig Murray). One world broadcasting corporation (yeeks!). One world currency (a grey plastic token with a hole in it. No po-face). One dwelling plan (a cube). One dungaree uniform (in permanent fashion stasis). One car model. One type of flower (one smell). One bird (not a songbird unfortunately – bureaucratic blunder). One quadruped. One colour. One musical instrument (which quietly toots but one note).

    Reductionism. Functionalism. Rationalisation. Standardisation. Economisation. Mechanisation. Robotisation.

    At what point do we start screaming? At what point does the diminishment and impoverishment of soul begin to grievously bite?

    What about outdoing New York, and naming not just our streets but every town and village with numbers alone? What about going beyond Putonghua (Mandarin/ “Common Speech”), and allocating numbers not just to days of the week and to months, but to every hill and loch. (“We climbed Hill 5 on Day 3 of Month 8 last year. The view of Lake 53 was stunning! We were practically speechless!”)

    And the hypocrisy so rife. Carping about pennies spent on Gaelic signage while potholes need filled. Yeah. The reality being that even if the streets were paved with burnished gold and if fragrantly blossoming boulevard trees glistened with diamonds, many fellow Scots would still carp if a Gaelic syllable strayed into peripheral vision. It is not ultimately the money, is it. Let’s be honest. We all have aspirations for which we would leave ourselves bankrupt many times over. For some it might be regaining sight itself. Or the ability to simply get up and walk. We value this but not that. “What a waste of good money! A monkey could have done that painting the Council just bought!”

    Anyone who thinks languages are mutually interchangeable has never tried to translate prose, never mind a poem. Languages are not just about what cheese is called abroad. Tenses reconfigure Time itself. Subject and object dance new minuets, waltzes and tangos. Gary Witherspoon in his article ‘Holism in Navajo Language and Culture’ writes:

    “The focus of Navajo ontology is not on the particle, the element, or the individual, but on the whole and the links…From the Navajo perspective, the fundamental reality is the whole, not the part.”

    And social etiquette. I remember watching Sesame Street with my kids years ago. One of the characters addressed Kermit with the words: “Listen, Frog!”. It suddenly struck me how street-level American that sounded. I imagined that the equivalent French would likely have to be something rather more elegant, more formal, such as: “Écoutez, Monsieur la Grenouille!” (My French is open to correction…)

    Juan Luis Borges has a wonderful short story about someone setting out to render a perfect translation of Don Quixote. Each sentence length and rhythm is matched. The taste of every consonant, the resonance of every vowel. Each subtle multivalence captured. It takes a very long time. But it is ultimately completed. A translation so flawless that it is utterly indistinguishable from the original…

    The point of all this is of course that each language is a unique articulation of reality. Therefore the extinguishing of any language is an irretrievable loss to human consciousness at large. And that further linguistic bereavement leaves us one less “escape-route of the mind” from totalitarian thought-control (as Orwell has so well taught us). Thus some of us weep and reach out as Gaelic stumbles, lest it fail to rise again. Others of us wait ready to kick it in the mouth if it even tries. Poverty of soul. Barbarian nihilism. One final viscious spasm of Imperial disdain.

    And herein lies an answer to the equally hypocritical anti-Gaelic jibes that Polish or Urdu would make more sense on our road-signs. Gaelic rehabilitation raises our long-tortured placenames from orthographic Hades and honours them once more as bright beacons of meaning. It is a civilising act of self-enlightenment (“The landscape can once more be read by us”, to paraphrase an Irishman).

    But even more pointed and poignant: crucially, the survival of Polish, Urdu, Chinese etc is not down to the Scots (and just as well, we might add). The survival of Scottish Gaelic, however, does in effect depend on us alone, in the sense that it has no other secure territory on this planet which it can call “home” (a point well made by Pavel Iosad in his very helpful article above). Gaelic finds itself (unhappily) under our Scottish stewardship alone. Do we realize that the Latin for “Scot” once simply designated “Gaelic-speaker”?

    Remember when there was said to be a hole in the ozone layer over Tierra del Fuego and Scotland? How did we manage such a mystical twinning? Coinneach Odhar, the Brahan Seer, was reputed to be able to see the future by looking through a hole in a stone. Let’s bring all this positively together and suggest:

    “There’s a hole in the eternal sky, invisible to all but the Gaelic eye…”

  14. kevan Hubbard says:

    The British nationalist types should promote Welsh as the Britons seem to have been a Welsh Celtic tribe.although I doubt that they had much in common with the union jack waving British idiots we have now!it’s interesting that the ‘British’laughed when the USSR, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia fell to bits but their equally unnatural united kingdom is set in stone.

  15. Neil McRae says:

    A’ bruidhinn mun a’ Ghàidhlig anns a’ bheurla – mar a bha, mar a tha agus mar a bhitheas. Meuranaich!

    Fuirich ort! Fhuair seo còrr is fichead freagairt – way to go, Bella!

Keep our Journalism Independent

We don’t take any advertising, we don’t hide behind a pay wall and we don’t keep harassing you for crowd-funding. We’re entirely dependent on our readers to support us.

Subscribe

Don’t miss a single article. Enter your email address to subscribe for free here and receive Bella direct to your inbox.

 
Bella Caledonia