Mind Your Language

Language is power, and powerlessness. The best fightback is to use it with glee, celebrate and play with it.

I am in the Anatomy Room as writers dissect their mother tongues (Welsh and Scots), sometimes in English. The current Makar, Kathleen Jamie is joined by the previous Bardd Cenedlaethol Cymru, Ifor ap Glyn. The readings are enhanced by the live signing for the deaf. In an atmosphere where minority languages are under relentless public assault, it’s sort of intoxicating to have such positivity for language in and of itself. This is not a political space; it is a space for lovers of poetry and lovers of language itself. It inspired me to think of how to respond to the low-level entrenched war on Gaelic and Scots with a leaf out of Maria Fusco’s book:

“I am for adjectives like beezer, dreich, quare, and nouns like clart, drouth, gleed, mizzle, oxters, scoot-hole, smoor, and verbs like boke, fissle, greet, hunker, swither, and adverbs like furnenst. I am for non-standard English language as a legitimate and enriching form of critical and creative writing which does not take modalities of criticality as given, rather it tends to, and experiments with non-division between practice and theory, criticism and creativity.”

Consultation to the Scottish Languages Bill is open to the Thursday 17th November 2022. It aims: ‘to establish a new strategic approach to Gaelic medium education (GME); to explore the creation of a Gàidhealtachd; to review the structure and functions of Bòrd na Gàidhlig (BnG); to take action on the Scots language’. This last point might sound like more of a threat than a promise, but here’s hoping.

So, in the next ten days between now and then we’ll be revelling in the minority, the peripheral, the transgressive, as well as dipping in and out of more serious proposals for transforming our treatment of and interaction with language in Scotland.

We live in very strange times in which Scots is both resurgent and under assault. Back in 2016 (in his essay ‘Not nationality but language’ now available in our anthology here) Scott Hames argued against language being weaponised.

He wrote:

“….it’s becoming harder to recall that it’s entirely possible to write a Unionist poem in Scots, and that English is by any sane standard a Scottish language too, not some Sassenach imposition from outside. (In case it needs saying, Polish and Urdu and Irish are also Scottish languages in this sense.) Douglas Dunn’s gently polemical verse-treatise ‘English, A Scottish Essay’ has more to say to us than ever before (‘English I’m not. As language, though, you’re mine’), but struggles to gain a hearing when Scots and English are treated as a proxies for constitutional skirmishing. This is more than a shame. There are hugely interesting and inventive things happening in contemporary Scots writing – from Bill Herbert to Jenni Fagan to Matthew Fitt to Harry Giles – but in a ‘literary’ space which feels increasingly remote, and at times out of kilter, with the waving of linguistic flags on social media and in public life. Whatever it is, Scots is more than a badge of affiliation to be kissed or spat on.”

He argued against ‘language essentialism’ and for (I think) messiness and acknowledgment of the fact that ‘language shame’ – and resistance to it – has as much to do with class than nationality. If you think of Scousers’ relationship to the idea of England, its national anthem and Wembley as its Holy Grail, you’d have to agree.

Ironically by far the most ‘language essentialism’ and weaponisation you see is from the (mostly) Unionist monoglots. Quite rightly most of the campaigners and ordinary folk revelling in using and exploring language are casting-off the typecast role as ‘victim’ and just playing. Yes, they/we are demanding rights, resources, forums and the power of restoration, but this is coming, increasingly, from a position of glee. Yes, they/we have to defend ourselves against mockery and abuse – but that is often done from a position of bewildered contempt. What is wrong with these people that feel SO threatened by other people speaking and writing? It’s a good question.

Anyway, these people are more to be pitied than scorned, and the online skirmishes should not be allowed to detract – or distract from the poetry of Victoria McNulty, or Billy Letford, or the amazing playing of Griogair Labhruidh, or the work of Karine Polwart, or Kenneth Macfarlane, or James Robertson, or Sheena Blackhall (to name a random handful) … or just from the hundreds of thousands of people enjoying language without shame.

Linguistic diversity and multilingualism are forces against the hegemony not just of a singular language but of a singular worldview. Monoculture is crushing and debilitating and contributes to memory loss and cultural abandonment as much as any species extinction. As Ifor ap Glyn reminded us, via Gwyn Alf Williams: ‘If we want Wales, we will have to make Wales’.

This is true for Scotland too, and we will make it with words and song and poetry and sound and ignore those in a bitter churn of a narrower world.



Comments (18)

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  1. 221108 says:

    ‘(In case it needs saying, Polish and Urdu and Irish are also Scottish languages in this sense.)’

    I like that.

    And my views on the Scottish government’s Scottish Languages Bill is currently being polished and will soon be winging its way to the Scottish government’s ‘Citizen Space’ consultation hub. It’s disappointing that the consultation paper is only available in English, Gaelic, and Scots.

  2. SleepingDog says:

    What happened to the Kilted Otter Initiative?
    “A Scottish digital game design initiative has today (Friday 6 August [2022]) been launched with the aim of making Gaelic more accessible to national and international audiences.
    “The Kilted Otter Initiative is an extended research-based game jam which will see an array of new educational, cultural and collaborative digital games experiences created, exploring Gaelic and Scottish heritage.”
    I understand they got 6 entries in 2021, but I don’t know what happened this year. It was supposed to be a part of the Mòd.

    Bearing in mind that the Scottish games industry probably has a lot more influence globally than its movie industry. Anybody know any games featuring the Scottish/Highland Clearances?

  3. Stan Reeves says:

    The linguistic diversity nae sayers are just so bitter, humourless and miserable. Where’s the harm in playing with language, and having a culture enriched forbye. I remember the delight of moving from a wee Lanarkshire town to Edinburgh and discovering the Edinburgh working classes using words derived from Roma/Hindi as an everyday thing. Barri, Deekin, Gadgie, Radge, Scran, Chore, were all words I had never heard despite living only 50 miles away. At the root of the spluttering rage of the linguistic tyrants is class hatred, and self loathing.
    We maun look an laugh at aw that!!!

    1. Hi Stan – yeah I remember hearing that gadgie and radge were from Roma / Gypsy lingo. Not sure about deekin though.

      1. Duncan McLean says:

        Yup, deekin comes from that langauge stream as well, Mike. The DSL derives it as follows: ‘Romany dik, to look, see. Cf. slang dekko, n. and v., look, peep, from Hindu dekho, look here, look out, imper, of dekhna, to see.’ Lovely stuff.

    2. 221109 says:

      Why, then, does the Scottish government’s bill exclude Romani from its canon of ‘Scottish languages’? There are between 4,000 and 5,000 people of Roma heritage living in Scotland, many of whom descend from migrants who arrived here 500 years ago. Do they and their language not count as ‘Scottish’? If I was Roma, or a Scot encultured by any medium other than English, Galeic, or Scots, I’d be p*ss*d at the bill.

      1. Alec Lomax says:

        What’s the Romani word for whataboutery ?

        1. 221110 says:

          What about Gaelic and Scots?

  4. Iain Ross says:

    Ah yes looking at that map that reminds me of a comment made about the dual road signs. In short, most are all Gaelic with no English, they just happen to have ‘good’ Gaelic and ‘bad’ Gaelic on them.

  5. David+B says:

    Interesting map. Also lots of Pictish, Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Old Welsh derived place names in Scotland. Long live linguistic diversity

    1. 221109 says:

      Aye! Long live linguistic diversity indeed! A bill that recognises and promotes contemporary Scotland’s linguistic diversity rather than just the linguistic shibboleths of an atavistic ethnic nationalism would be welcome.

      And I wonder what those places were called before the Gaels arrived and spread their linguistic hegemony over the indigenous populations.

      1. Alec Lomax says:

        Ah the auld canard that the Scots were Irish. I nevere knew that the Hebrides and Argyll were part of Ireland.

        1. 221110 says:

          The Scots were never Irish, and it’s anachronistic to say they were. But they did extend their hegemony over part of these islands, which colonisation gave birth to ‘Scotland’.

        2. William Davison says:

          All the reading I have done in the past asserted that the Scots ( the Scotti being the Roman name for the inhabitants of Ireland) migrated from Co Antrim in the 5th Century to Argyll and the southern Hebrides, gradually spreading out, with their language eventually displacing Pictish and Norse, except in the extreme east of Caithness and Orkney and Shetland. There was a contemporaneous movement to the Rhinns of Galloway, followed a few centuries later by a much larger migration to the south-west, which would explain the numerous Gaelic personal and place-names there. While Scotland was never politically part of Ireland, Gaelic speaking Scotland was part of a common cultural area with Ireland, particularly with Ulster, as the dialects were so similar. Up until the 19th century when people were writing about Scottish Gaelic it was referred to as “Irish,” “The Irish language,” or occasionally as “Erse.” Early medieval charters in what in now Scotland refer to “Scottis et Anglicus et Walensibus et Francis et Flamingis,” i.e. Scots and English and Welsh and French and Flemings, referring to the different cultural and linguistic groups. The Scots (Gaelic speakers) were dominant for a while, they were the monarchs, but their influence waned as later Monarchs were essentially Norman French in origin (Bruces, Stuarts) and English (Scots) replaced Gaelic as the language of monarchy and government. But if there is recent research to prove that Gaelic did not come from Ireland, then I’m willing to be enlightened.

          1. 221110 says:

            The dominant historical narrative is currently (I believe) that the lesser of the two main British isles in the Early Christian period (A.D. 400-1177) was populated by at least 120 chiefdoms, none of which was ‘Irish’ in the modern political sense. One of these chiefdoms was Dál Riata, which occupied a corner of what much later became County Antrim. Around A.D. 400, people from Dál Riata began to settle along the coast of the larger of the two main islands, in what later became ‘Argyll’. Migrants from other chiefdoms on the lesser of the two main islands were also establishing footholds along the coast farther south, as far as modern-day Wales and Cornwall. The migrants from Dál Riata, however, are especially noteworthy in the origin mythology of Scottish ethnic nationalism because they were known to the Romano-British as ‘Scotti’ and they would eventually colonise much of what’s now known as ‘Scotland’ with their name and language, just as the ‘Anglii’ from the Anglia Peninsula in Germania colonised much of what’s now known as ‘England’ with their name and language.

      2. BSA says:

        ‘Atavistic ethnic nationalism’ and the ‘linguistic hegemony of the Gaels’. Where do you find these things in the current language debate in Scotland ?

        1. 221110 says:

          I find them in the parliamentary bill that restricts the extension of ‘Scottish languages’ to English, Gaelic, and Scots, to the exclusion of other Scottish language communities.

  6. Alistair Kewish says:

    I was not aware that * hunker* was a dialect verb. But I do now. Some Scots has been hovering in our household for decades.
    Drookit is , I think, one of my favourites. I see , nor experience no sense of shame in promoting other tongues. Those who would supress languages and dialects are beyond the pale. My grandfather was the last speaker of Manx of his generation ( born 1879 ) but since his death in 1970 a real revival of the Manx language has risen up, in just the way it deserves.

    Across in Wales, within living memory, actually speaking Welsh was prohibited – this disgraceful attempt at suppressing a language was not something I found out about until very recently.

    It smacked of ‘ thou shalt not’. I was horrified by such stupidity. I still am.

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