Does people speaking a language that’s not important to you make you “Weep for Humanity”?

Occasionally the rational version of Unionist discourse about “pooling and sharing” “economic benefits” the “UK single market” (etc etc) gives way to a more visceral display.

After we published last week two pieces about language issues the Swiftian “English Roadsigns: a Waste of Public Money?” by Griogair Labhruidh and our own Tammas Clark reporting on how the Microsoft subsidiary SwiftKey, along with Dr Rhona Alcorn an her group at Scottish Language Dictionaries had been using Bella Caledonia articles and other Scots work to create a programme to recognise, autocorrect and autopredict in Scots, all hell broke out.

As the National reported:

“Dr Rhona Alcorn of Scottish Language Dictionaries commented: “We are really excited — for the first time we can write texts and not have them turned into a kind of mangled English.

“This is a validation of a living, thriving language.”

Alcorn and her team in Edinburgh collected examples of current and historical Scots texts for the SwiftKey team after being contacted by the developers. This includes material from The National, Bella Caledonia, Robert Burns and even Facebook, as well as content from the new edition of the Concise Scots Dictionary, published this month.

The app already offers languages including Zulu, Yoruba, Mongolian and Chechen, as well as Arabic, Cantonese, Korean and German.”

Two stories – one mildly provocative and one a tech-story with a neat cultural angle. Whats the big deal?

Aside from the comments – which we’ll come to in a minute – it has caused apoplexy amongst the Unions leading proponent, Kevin Hague, who has created an entire platform of the Good and the Great to lend respectability to his more feral friends. For Kevin – the doyen of rational reasonable Unionism – the idea that someone should be pleased there’s a smartphone with a Scots keyboard isn’t just something to ignore, it’s something that makes him “weep for humanity”.

Why would that be?

His forum is resplendent with claims about how a progressive and open Britain has been a force for cultural diversity and democracy (as if that’s somehow globally unique). These Islands makes great play about research and Hague himself is always remind people how he is a businessman. But when push comes to shove when a tech company collaborates with a cultural research group to provide a service for which theres a clear demand its a calamity, it’s something to weep for.

Of the many internal contradictions of this bizarre project, one of the clearest is the trouble they have with reconciling their commitment to multiculturalism (a good thing) with internal diversity and cultural respect within ‘These Islands’ (a terrible indeed cataclysmic thing).

These Islands – ‘Uniting not Dividing’ (unless of course its a prescribed language in which case a wee bit of dividing might be needed).

But a clue to why this should be so terrible comes from one of our own commenters.

One brave commentator calling themselves ‘Moscow’ wrote: “Not a stand alone language Scots is basically misspelt English spoken in a local accent with a handful of dia lect words that are different depending on which part of Scotland you happen to be in. Promoting Scots as you perceive it is Exclusivist ,prejudiced, anger fuelled claptrap and Scots should be left alone to the real Scottish folk to use as they wish and not commandered by hateful and politically inspired nationalists. Scots belongs to the people not self appointed spokespersons such as yersel’.

Apart from the bad English what’s interesting about the comments is the bile is drawn by the idea of “hateful and politically inspired nationalists”. I’m not sure if the people at Swiftkey or the academics behind the project meets the criteria, but what’s clear is that just to express an identity is to threaten the Union and its magical uniqueness to the core.

The emerging reality is that the British Union is now so fragile that the very idea of people expressing themselves is a threat.

A great multicultural font of diversity must be enforced through a singular uniform unchanging language and culture, innit.

Griogair Labhruidh’s piece provoked worse.

Allan Sutherland wrote:

“Personally I’d find it much easier to say “Kingussie” with a mouth full of Bannocks than Ceann a’ Ghiùthsaich (Head of the pine forest; a reference to the ancient Caledonian pine forest which once covered much of the country) “. And a lot less angered at SNP cuddly fascism. To be serious this is one important reason why 55% of Scots voted against independence.”

While weird and wonderful this might be partly true. The astonishing frenzied reaction from conservative Scotland to the idea of cultural development or aspiration is palpable. The Scottish cringe is so deeply embedded – particularly in the over 60s that anything that denotes a shift in this area feels like a threat. If you already believe that the SNP are ‘fascists’ then it’s clearly a hop skip and a jump to think that language is the trojan horse by which some terrible un-named thing will happen. Many of these people will happily attend a twee golf-club Burns night or profess a ‘love of the highlands’ but still manage to retain a deep-seated hatred of their own culture.

This may be because they have been so anglicised over such a prolonged period of time, or it be that they simply associate ‘Britain’ with greatness and ‘Scotland’ with failure. That is after all what we have taught ourselves and been taught.

A Marie Muir leaves another comment which reflect some of this saying:

“Please stop making life so unpleasant and difficult for those of us who do not have a problem at all with those people who speak Gaelic here in Scotland, though we ourselves do not speak that language, and that is the majority of us Scots who live on Scotland. We all speak English. Many of us speak one or more other languages but, since we have never needed to speak Gaelic we don’t. No offence but road signs with lots of names on them can be confusing when one is driving on unfamiliar roads. The main language in Scotland is English, and, as far as I know, everybody speaks and understands English, which is also the most widely spoken language throughout the world.”

The idea of people “making life so unpleasant and difficult for those of us who do not have a problem at all” chimes with the 2014 message from the No voters who were just made uncomfortable by the whole exercise.

“I’m fine” –  “Please go away” is the message.

The idea of a way of life disintegrating, a set of conditions in which social, economic and cultural supremacy was unchallenged is clearly at stake for many people.

But the idea that “We all speak English” as a defence through uncomprehending privilege won’t really hold over time.

It’s enough to make you weep for humanity isn’t it?