Being political about language

This is a quiet week for politics. So although I usually rant about Scottish politics, today I’ll rant about something else. When you rant about Scottish politics you invariably get a lot of negativity, and often outright abuse, on social media. You expect that. Politics affects people’s daily lives. It affects their employment and earnings. Politics can make a huge difference to our civil liberties and our human rights. All these things are important and fundamental, so it’s understandable that when you express a political opinion that someone objects to or disagrees with, whether their disagreement is well founded or not, you’re going to get some push-back for it.

But what’s harder to understand is the vehemence and sheer venom of the attacks that you get on social media when you dare to write about Scottish language issues. Language is a topic that for some bizarre reason seems to be immune to reason and logic. You can cite academic texts, you can quote from papers or books written by renowned experts in the field of linguistics, and you’ll still get someone whose knowledge of linguistics begins and ends with a school qualification in English popping up to tell you that you’re wrong. You’ll get people who don’t speak Scots informing you that words which appear in Scots dictionaries and have been recorded and defined by academics are not in fact proper Scots. Because if this person who doesn’t speak Scots has never heard a Scots word or pronunciation or it hasn’t impinged on the consciousness of someone who doesn’t speak Scots and who isn’t interested in Scots, then the word in question can’t possibly be Scots.

It’s not just Scots that comes in for wilful ignorance. You’ll get people who know nothing about the history of Celtic languages telling you that Gaelic was never spoken in a particular area of Scotland where Gaelic placenames lie thick on the ground. And then when you point out these placenames to the person and ask where they came from, they’ll reply with the immense confidence of someone who knows too little to realise how little they know, and tell you they come from ScotRail. And then they’ll howl in outrage at how Gaelic is being imposed on them, because it’s an offence to their eyeballs to have to see a couple of Gaelic words on a railway station sign. And then, having sought out things to feel victimised by, they accuse everyone else of grievance hunting.

Some people, and let’s be honest here they’re most commonly (although not always) Unionists, object to Scottish languages. The reasons they usually give are because it’s a dead language, in the case of Gaelic, or because it’s not a language at all, in the case of Scots. They object because admitting that Scotland has languages and a culture of its own is tantamount to admitting that the drive for Scottish independence is not motivated by hatred of the English, and that will never do.

Gaelic isn’t a dead language. It has 57,000 speakers in Scotland plus a few thousand more outside of Scotland, amongst the Scottish diaspora. That means Gaelic has more speakers than most languages in the world. Gaelic has approximately the same number of speakers as Greenlandic, the official language of Greenland, and almost as many as Faroese, the official language of the Faroe Islands. It has more speakers than the Romansh language, which is the fourth official language of Switzerland and only a few thousand less than German in Belgium, where it is the third official language. Gaelic has more speakers than the Sorbian language, which has official status in eastern Germany. Gaelic has more than ten times as many speakers as the Aranese language which is the official language of the Val d’Aran in Catalonia. It has twice as many speakers as the Ladin language which along with German is one of the official languages of South Tyrol in the far north of Italy. Gaelic has more speakers than every Native American language of the United States with the exception of Navajo. It has more speakers than there are speakers of the 300 or so native languages of Australia combined. Gaelic has more speakers than any of the official languages of the Federated States of Micronesia, and almost four times as many as Palauan, the official language of the Republic of Palau. For a supposedly dead language, Gaelic is surprisingly vital.

A language which has as many as 60,000 fluent speakers is very far from dead. According to a respected catalogue of world languages, the Ethnologue, there are approximately 7,000 living languages in the world, over half of which are spoken by fewer than 10,000 people. That places Gaelic very firmly in the upper half of the list of the world’s most spoken languages. Many of the languages with a small number of speakers are at no risk of disappearing and are spoken in “linguistic hotspots” where there is a concentration of linguistic diversity in a fairly small region, and there are large numbers of languages spoken by relatively small numbers of people. The Pacific island republic of Vanuatu has 252,000 people who speak 113 languages between them, an average of 2,000 speakers per language. The African country of Cameroon has 22.5 million people and approximately 250 languages, many of which are spoken by just a couple of thousand people.

The truth is that people who claim that Gaelic shouldn’t be taught or used or encouraged because it is a “dead” language are in fact killing it. They’re creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. When someone says, “Gaelic shouldn’t be used or taught because it’s a dead language,” they’re really saying, “I want to kill Gaelic off.” Last I looked, philistinism wasn’t a guide to government policy. At least when that government isn’t a Tory one.

Only 6% of the 7,000 languages of the world have over 1 million speakers. According to the most recent census, Scots has 1.54 million speakers in Scotland – and there is a considerably larger number who understand Scots without claiming to speak it themselves. That places Scots firmly within the category of “most spoken” languages in the world. Scots has more speakers than Maltese and about as many as Estonian, both of which are official languages of the European Union. It has as many speakers as Macedonian, the official language of the Republic of Macedonia.

However the real objections to Scots aren’t about how many speakers it has. The objections are about whether Scots is a “real” language. The people who claim Scots isn’t a real language are most often people who understand Scots, but whose use of it is typically confined to a number of Scots features in their Scottish English – a variety of English which is itself defined and characterised by massive influence from Scots. So these people are starting out from a position of considerable knowledge of Scots, but because they don’t recognise it as such and identify it as Scottish English they don’t regard themselves as having any degree of bilingualism. And if they’re not bilingual but they can understand Scots then Scots can’t be a proper language. This is a problem of their own perception, not proof that Scots isn’t “really” a language. Speakers of Scottish English typically understand Scots fairly well, but that’s because they use a variety of English which is itself strongly influenced by Scots and because they’ve had a lifetime of exposure to Scots speakers. English speakers from other countries who lack this exposure to Scots typically find it very difficult to follow.

There is in fact quite often a fairly considerable degree of mutual intelligibility between closely related languages, even without a degree of passive knowledge acquired from exposure. Spanish speakers can understand a lot of written Catalan or Portuguese, even a fair amount of written Italian. Norwegians, Swedes and Danes all understand each other’s written languages without too much difficulty, the same applies with Slovak and Czech, or Bulgarian and Macedonian. Scots and English are closely related, so there’s going to be a degree of mutual intelligibility, especially in their written forms. That doesn’t mean Scots isn’t a language.

The use of Scots as a literary standard went into decline after the Reformation when the political decision was made to make use of the English bible. The spoken language went into decline after the Treaty of Union when English became the sole de facto official language. The lack of cultivation of Scots as a written prose standard means that Scots often lacks the terminology and vocabulary typical of a modern written standard. All emerging standard languages have faced this problem, and writers tackle it by raiding older stages of the language for vocabulary, by borrowing, by loan-translations (the Scots neologism wab-steid for web-site is an example of a loan-translation) or by using existing words in new ways. Older spelling systems are systematised and regularised, and applied in a more logical and consistent manner.  This is the way any living language increases and develops its expressive capacity.

This is exactly how the written standards of all modern languages were developed. Modern written Catalan was self-consciously developed in the 19th century on the basis of the mediaeval language, and Catalan authors used exactly the processes I’ve listed here in order to establish the modern standard language. Catalan was far from alone – writers in Czech, Slovene, Norwegian, Basque, Latvian, Estonian, Lithuanian, and many other European languages, all achieved their modern literary forms in the exact same way.

Yet when modern writers do exactly the same with Scots, it’s decried as artificial. Scots is an invented and made up language, they scoff. For political motives they want Scots, uniquely, to be denied the same routes to standardisation that every other written standard language has taken, and then they claim that when Scots writers do what every other written standard has done that they’re artificially creating an invented and made up language. They claim the use of Scots as a written language is to politicise it, but what is really politicising the language is to deny it the same avenues to standardisation that every other standard written language has used.

You don’t have to speak Scots or Gaelic to be every bit as Scottish as someone who does. Scotland has always been a multilingual country, that’s what defines the linguistic history of Scotland. English speakers are every bit as Scottish as Scots speakers or Gaelic speakers – but some of them do have a fear that those who promote and foster Gaelic and Scots are somehow making a claim that English speakers are less Scottish, that they are somehow illegitimate. That’s not true. But what is true is that a Scotland which has lost Gaelic and Scots would be less Scottish than a Scotland in which the use of the languages is respected, encouraged, and fostered. No one has any interest in forcing unwilling English speakers to use Gaelic or Scots, far less insisting that they must use Gaelic or Scots in order to access public services.

More commonly the claim is made that Scots or Gaelic are being “imposed” on English speakers. That’s not true either. Seeing a Gaelic version of a place name is not “imposing” Gaelic on you. Imposing Gaelic would be insisting that you could only receive public services, that you could only interact with agencies of the state, through the medium of Gaelic. Yet that’s precisely what Gaelic and Scots deniers want to do to speakers of those languages, they want to impose English on them. When they object to the supposed imposition of Gaelic or Scots, they’re really expressing the fear that Gaelic and Scots speakers will treat them the way they want to treat Gaelic and Scots speakers.

None of what I’ve written here will make the slightest bit of difference to those who deny that Scots is a real language, or those who insist that Gaelic is being imposed upon them. What I hope it can do however is to give those of you who do value Scotland’s languages access to the truth, and to know that fact and research are on your side. The real politicisation of Scottish languages is claiming that Scots isn’t really a language and shouldn’t make use of the approaches to enrichment that other written languages use. The real politicisation of Scottish languages is claiming that Gaelic is a dead language and shouldn’t be taught. The real linguistic imposition comes from those who want English and only English to be the only publicly acknowledged and supported language in Scotland. They’re the ones who are politicising Scottish languages, not those who seek to use them as normal vibrant living tongues.

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0 thoughts on “Being political about language

  1. Y’know, I’d hazard that most folk are proud of cultural and linguistic diversity within their country. In fact the more diverse, the healthier your culture, or so you’d imagine.

    I’m incredibly envious of those who have a talent for the speaking of many languages. Not a talent I possess, but one I definitely admire and would encourage. How much history? How many stories and how much music and art would be lost? How do you put a price on the loss of such treasures?

    Doubters and deniers who seek bland, grey conformity? Not for me.

    • Thanks Paul, That should be widely read. Scotland has and has had many languages. Polish and Urdu now included [they do not rely on Scotland for survival but they do enrich us]. When I worked in Nepal and started to learn Nepali I found that in that language, just as in Gaelic, there is no single word for “yes” or “no” – you reply by putting the verb of a question into the positive or negative [Gaelic “tha” =- “is”, “chan’eil” = “is not”, Nepali “cha” = “is”, “chaina” = “is not”. It gets more complicated but it is useful to know that we share this – and more – I heard Nepali puirt-a- beul (mouth music for dancing) at a ceilidh in Kathmandu].

  2. Pingback: Being political about language | speymouth

  3. Simple question Paul. How close to ancient Hebrew is the modern version and howbrecrated is it?

    Good thinking piece, by the way. I mean, it made me think.

    • I don’t speak Hebrew, so have to rely on what I’ve read elsewhere. Modern Hebrew is of course based on Biblical Hebrew and shares much with it, but there are important differences in how it’s pronounced and of course also in vocabulary. Modern Hebrew contains words for modern concepts – like concrete, electricity, or television – which weren’t found in ancient times.

      The pronunciation of modern Hebrew is heavily influenced by Yiddish – the language of many of the original ZIonist settlers. So for example R in modern Hebrew is pronounced as uvular R, like in French, German, or Yiddish, and not the trilled R of the ancient Hebrew language.

      There are also some differences in grammar and syntax. Overall however, Biblical and Modern Hebrew are two stages of the same language, and not totally different tongues.

      This link is a bit technical, but might help

    • I can read Biblical Hebrew a bit, and while I don’t know as much about Modern Hebrew, I do know that it’s recognizably the same language, although it has some ‘Europeanisms’, constructions that would be a bit unusual in the Bible, but which have been ‘amplified’ in the modern language because they are similar to constructions in ModH’s initial speakers’ European mother tongues.

      The other main difference is that Modern Hebrew is written without niqqud (little dots and other marks representing vowels), and sometimes compensates by introducing extra letters to indicate long vowels. An example is the word אַדֹן (ʔadōn, ‘lord’) which is written אדון in Modern Hebrew, without niqqud and with an extra letter ו (usually equivalent to V or W) to represent the long o.

      Modern Hebrew also mostly uses Western punctuation marks, whereas Biblical Hebrew has a complex system of cantillation marks which serve as a mixture between punctuation and musical notation for chanting.

  4. Really interesting post WGD. A bit like Macart I really envy people who can speak more than one language. It’s my regret that when given the opportunity to learn Gaelic, I didn’t take it, and would love to be able to pronounce the names of some of hills and Munroes I walk. I’m from Aberdeen and my uncle was a capable Doric speaker. I miss that dialect. I lived with my uncle and grandmother for most of my childhood and teenage years, and it speaks to me so much of home. Both the Aberdeen and Doric dialects have their own words and phrases that are incomprehensible to people outside the region, bot both, particularly the Doric are on the decline. I hope that the campaign to introduce Doric in schools and raise awareness might be effective, but for precisely the reasons you have outlined, I won’t hold my breath. Personally I’m going to find some Gaelic lessons!!

    • Come to the mead stall at the Aberdeen Country Market (Belmont Street, last Saturday of the month) and I’ll teach you some Gaelic phrases.

      Chì mi an sin thu.

    • therapy mum, please look for Aberdeen Gaelic Club on Facebook – there are community Gaelic classes which are well attended in Aberdeen and you would be made most welcome!

  5. You need only a smattering of other languages to begin to understand how they have developed from common sources and have exchanged and borrowed words from one another. This makes language fascinating. People who would deny the relevance of Gaelic and of Scots are denying history, and denying Scotland its place in the world, and that is a sad reflection on them if they want to consider themselves outward looking and internationalist.

  6. A fellow Scot (a Tory) with whom I worked, on being informed by a professor of linguistics that Scots was not slang, it was not mispronounced English but was, in fact a language in itself and older than the current version of written/spoken English said to me “Aye, but it’s not really”. There is no convincing some people.

  7. I was five when our parents moved to the Highlands; my baby brother was not yet three months old.

    I was born in Birmingham, and in school had to learn Gaelic just the same as every other pupil in my school. Gaelic lessons were mandatory in the 70s and 80s, up to the end of S2. I competed in the Mod, same as my classmates (I was runner up one year; the winner had one mark extra for his singing. We had the same score for our Gaelic, 93 or 94). I may be the only Gaelic-speaking Brummie living, I don’t know.

    These days I remember next to none of it. What I do remember is the bits and pieces of Scots that were in use intermingled with English when I was growing up, and the words particular to Edinburgh in the late 80s and early 90s. And, in our English lessons all through Secondary, we studied various Scots authors, poets and playwrights. Not to mention Doric: Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s ‘A Scots Quair’ was on the curriculum, too.

    In school we learned that Scots was a historical dialect; in the playground, Scots words and terms were part of the living language that we spoke, along with Gaelic words and phrases. It all intermingled into a language that was perhaps peculiar to that time and place.

    A few years later, Trainspotting was released in cinemas. For me, as a former resident of Edinburgh, it was amusing to spot landmarks and places I knew well. What was even more amusing was the mishearing by English speakers who knew no Scots of the word ‘donart’ or ‘donnart’, which has become the English insult ‘doughnut’.

    Every time I hear or read someone calling another ‘you doughnut’, I laugh to myself. It feels almost like an in-joke against the English (in a non-nasty way).

    Having lived in Germany for several years before moving to Florida, it seems that every region has its own peculiarities of speech, be it different greetings (‘Tag’, ‘Gruss Gott’, ‘Mahlzeit’) or pronunciations or transliterations of words.

    So far as I’m concerned, both Scots and Gaelic are alive and well. My 7 year old nephew in Scotland goes to a Gaelic primary school, and is learning English alongside Gaelic (his maternal grandparents are from Lewis). There are still people from ‘the Islands’ whose first language is Gaelic. As people have moved more freely from their place of birth (it’s now a less than three hour ferry journey from Stornoway to Ullapool, and 80 minutes on a bus to Inverness – or a ninety-minute flight), they can now go shopping on the mainland, on holidays further afield, whereas before people stayed close to where they were born. I knew people who’d never been further South than Inverness, growing up – no more. But they still speak Gaelic and/or Scots, along with English.

  8. “But what is true is that a Scotland which has lost Gaelic and Scots would be less Scottish than a Scotland in which the use of the languages is respected, encouraged, and fostered.”

    I’m all for informed, academic debate – and those with knowledge and expertise can debate – but I fear the above statement from the article is close to the underlying objective of much of the negativity and venom i.e. to achieve a lesser Scotland, to put us on the path to being (just) North Britain.

    • I’ve read and re-read your comment, and still can’t see your logic. A Scotland in which the use of Gaelic and Scots is respected, encouraged and fostered is the opposite of reducing Scotland to “North Britain”.

      • Paul, I think that Stewartb is actually agreeing with the statement. In other words, by denying these languages, these people are “trying to achieve a lesser Scotland”. Maybe he will come back on site and explain what he means to say.

        • Saor Alba, you have indeed interpreted my comment correctly. Thanks. Those that seek to deny our distinctiveness in language and culture are often those that would deny our nationhood, our sovereignty and right to self-determination.

  9. I am the Session Clerk of St. Columba Gaelic Church of Scotland, 300 St. Vincent St., Glasgow
    Every Sunday we have a Gaelic Service at 10am and an English Service at 11.30am.
    Our Locum Minister conducts both services moving easily between the two languages.

  10. I’m always struck by the fact that most people in Scotland and (especially) England simply don’t realise that many (most?) european countries have more than one language. Monolingualism is very much the exception.

    • Even those that are officially monolingual, like France or Germany, generally have several minority languages with varying levels of recognition.

        • My dad ended up in Hamburg at the tail end of WW2 and found a surprising degree of commonality between Plattdeutsch and Doric then, both in basic words and in pronounciation. (Unsurprising, given the extent of Scottish trade with the Hansa and the Low Countries all through the middle ages.) He was told by someone that they could follow what he was saying but not “those other ones” (the English)!

          Scots isn’t only related to English (let alone a “dialect”) but also its many cousins across the North Sea.

  11. I got into a prolonged Twitter argument on this subject with the usual self-haters the other evening. The comment above (by stewartb); which – for me – touches on the desire to ablate elements of culture to remove existing differences.

  12. I never did get taught the Gaelic language at school, and feel somewhat bitter about it – realising later in life others were getting taught the language (in the 70s & 80s), but I would probably have not remembered much by now anyway, even the scots I know & used to speak is rather vague. I still think it’s weird when people don’t know what a lum is, or a besom. Or baffies – is that a real word? We used it up my way but no one else seems to know it (slippers). I think scots words are far more descriptive than equivalent English words, they can be understood just by the feel of them.

    For me, that illustrates exactly what you say in the article – we don’t even realise we are speaking another language! I enjoyed this article, very well written as always, and as said by others, has made me think about it.

    Just last week someone in work asked me how to pronounce a Gaelic name, I told them I didn’t have a clue, to which they said they’d assumed I knew Gaelic (eh?), so I told them that Gaelic was banned when I was at school (not quite true, but it added to the dramatic effect), to which they scoffed! Gaelic WAS banned, not quite as recently as the 70s, but no one had heard of it being banned ever – I looked it up but have forgotten the dates, sorry. But it still stands that the overlords stopped Gaelic being taught for a long time, and everyone (I use this term loosely, it was a rather small sample of people) has conveniently forgotten.

    • While I was learning Gaelic at Uni in the 90s, I did some work experience at Gilcomston School in Aberdeen. I recall the teacher, Mrs Mac Neil, whom I reckon was at school in the 60s, described the use of the Maide-Crotadh (excuse spelling, I’ve only ever heard the word), a stick used to beat children using Gaelic at the end of each day. So, not really that long ago.

    • I never even got taught history let alone Gaelic. I knew more of the War of the Roses than the history of Glasgow.

    • Aye, not sure I was taught history,,, ah well, I am sure we got a primary school trip to Bannockburn,,, oh yes! and we put on a fantastic play of the Tay Bridge Disaster (I remember it as being quite the artistic feat, with dramatic music & all sorts). I remember my grandfather investigating local history when I was young, Strathardle history, and he was trying to read badly photocopied (in the days when copiers Smelled of Chemicals and was likely very toxic) pages written in scots with the f and s swap-around – first time I learned of that. All about drowning witches and the enemy clan suckling their fierce dogs on human milk (it was put more crudely than that but forget the exact wording). Yup, it was all happening back then. I still wonder where he got the pages, from which book? Anyway, that wasn’t from school. And, dammit, I have even forgotten who the enemy clan was.

      I think different parts of Scotland treated Gaelic differently, certainly in Perthshire, you were obviously of lower class if you spoke scots, and I suspect Gaelic was rather frowned upon. We were taught not to use the glottal stop, particularly prevalent round that way, because it was ‘lazy’ and uncouth. Later I realised it is just a particular way of pronunciation, but still can’t shake the idea that it is lazy.

      I am, however, grateful to have been taught English, it is useful for all sorts of communication tasks (e.g. In university with lots of different nationalities). And I like having rules for grammar etc. But I do despair that I have lost some of my own culture, and with it a remembrance of those that came before.

      At work, a few years back, I had a colleague from Shetland (who insisted on talking the way that was natural to her, good on her & many cheers) sat on one side of me & a Glaswegian on the other – I had to translate! A Norwegian colleague managed to decipher the words I couldn’t (I mean, ‘tubie’ for a vest??). Ah, those were the days. Felt far more relaxed about speaking my own scots with such variety.

      • You mention Strathardle. I’ve just been teaching Gaelic to the primary school in Kirkmichael. I also covered some cultural aspects of Scotland, such as Gaelic music and song, Celtic art, place-names, and the history of Scotland from 600BCE to 843 and the unification of Alba under Kenneth MacAlpin. Hopefully, there’s one bunch of 10-12 year olds who will at least have an inkling of Scotland beyond the English language.

        • Yay!! Well done you 🙂 . Kirkmichael is my home village. I will have to look up the unification of Alba, haven’t ever heard of it. Generation by generation things improve for bringing better education to those that may once have been isolated, certainly the advent of the Internet is a good thing, knowledge is a good thing.

    • And, as for teachers, well this would be in the 50s, my father was beaten repeatedly at primary school for not learning the daily bible piece set by the head mistress, and was sent to high school into the dunce class, on her recommendation – now, I am not saying he would have been an academic genius or anything, but the fact remains that she was staunch Tory and my grandfather was staunch SNP, and they hated each other. There are much worse tales from some of these small primary schools where zealots of all kinds once ruled absolute, so that there are now controls, standardisation and centralisation is a good thing!

  13. When I began to learn French at school (age 9) I boasted that I could speak English, French and the way my granny spoke! Granny had a very broad Scots tongue.

    Now, age 70, I live in Spain and I am struggling to learn another language. I tried to learn a bit of Gaelic many years ago and now regret that I didn’t persevere.

  14. In Lithuania language name is just dependent on time and place. You and your family could have lived in the same spot and over the last century you would have been told four different names for the language you spoke.
    Live near Klaipeda it would start as Prussian, Lithuanian, Samogitian, Latvian or even Litvenik. Today Lithuanian and Latvian are two languages basically because Latvia is Lutheran Protestant and Lithuania Catholic. So the line goes East to West with the border. But it just as easily go North to South, down the middle of both countries.

  15. I visit the Val d’Aran a lot and appreciate the mention.

    Kids there are taught in Aranese and Catalan at primary school; in Catalan and Castilian Spanish at secondary, and they all do French (just over the border) and English too.

    Every child, not just the clever ones, leaves school with five languages. I wish we could do something like that.

    France used to be very monolingual, but now they’re, sometimes informally, recognising Basque, Gascon, Provençal and Breton. There’s even a sign on the motorway to tell you you’re leaving the Langue d’Oc and entering the Langue d’Oïl. That sort of thing didn’t use to be allowed.

    We should cherish our languages, mutually intelligible or not. If they go, they go forever, Arran Gaelic for instance.

    We should be building our native languages up, and loving the regional diversities within them.

  16. Frae fit I’ve been reading, it’s nae jest Scots languages which are being dismissed in this manner – I’ve seen people decrying the Welsh Government’s attempts tae target Cynraeg at schoolchildren, being criticised as a waste ae time and unfair oan non-Welsh spekers, and a small part ae the current political trouble in Northern Ireland wis tae dae wi’ the scrapping ae a fund which wis used tae teach Irish tae young people (which wis eventually reversed). There’s a saying – tae change a culture, change the language, and the suppression ae the non-British English languages can be seen as an attempt tae turn the non-English parts ae the UK intae English regions. Jest take a look at fit happened in the 18th century – furst the Treaty of the Union, which saw Scots English being cast aff in favour ae British English fer fear ae being seen as tae Irish, then the aftermath ae the Jacobite Rebellions, which saw the banning ae Gaelic fer hunnerds ae years

    The Anglo-Celtic Isles hiv a wide variety ae languages, at least 7 native languages which I can name (Cornish, English, Gaelic, Irish, Manx, Scots English, Welsh) and at least 1 extinct language (Cumbric). Though I’ve heard arguments that Welsh is actually 2 languages: Northern Welsh and Southern Welsh

    • For a text-book example of what you said about Welsh language education and the opposition to it from some quarters, I’d recommend you trawl back over some of the posts featured at about what has been going on at Llangennech near Llanelli.

      To put it briefly: a group of local Labour Party hacks have used lies, disinformation and outright intimidation to try to stop the changing of Llangennech primary school from ‘dual-stream; to Welsh…despite that change being suggested, approved and implemented by a County Council which was, at that time, ruled by a coalition of Labour and ‘independent’ councillors! As an example of how far these ‘campaigners’ have been prepared to go, some of them have retweeted and shared Facebook posts by the so-called EDL and ‘Britain First’. They even invited the unspeakable Mostyn Neil Hamilton and his controller/harpy down and had themselves photographed with them. The local Labour AM is up to his oxters in this – despite his denials to the contrary – and is dodging and weaving in good old corrupt ‘Welsh’ Labour fashion.

      The first step to destroying a nation is to destroy its identity; the first step to doing that is to eradicate its culture; the first step to that is to erase its language (or downgrading it to the extent that it is deemed unsuitable for “getting on in the modern world”). This has been our experience down here as much as it has in Scotland, and some of those most virulently in favour of such a process are those who try to pass themselves off as ‘progressives’. In reality ‘British progressives’ are barely distinguishable from those who conquered large parts of the planet with a gun in one hand and the King James Version in the other.

      “Though I’ve heard arguments that Welsh is actually 2 languages: Northern Welsh and Southern Welsh”

      It’s the same language with a number of dialects, nearly all of which are mutually intelligible. However, it suits some to claim otherwise: “divide et impera”, and all that, don’tcha know? 😉

      PS. I understood all of your post, granndkane. Lang may ye haud trew tae yir bonnie leid!

      (Yeah, I’m sure I cocked that up somewhere…)

  17. There is, of course, a great deal of snobbery around the use of Scots. For as long as any of us alive can remember, its use in schools has been discouraged in favour of English. Scots, over the years, has come to be associated with poor educational standards while English is associated with being ‘educated’; it is undeniably a class issue. This is a tragic state of affairs but is a result of the history of Scotland in the Union, when English, and English pronunciations began to be considered ‘correct’, and Scots, ‘vulgar’. This perception has become more and more deeply ingrained as time has passed. For those who would deny Scotland its very sense of itself, of its nationhood, for whom the Scottish cringe lives and breathes, I strongly suspect that this is at the root of their antagonism towards the Scots language.

    • That’s it exactly, Chris. The “alt-language” aversion is a psychological phenomenon worthy of study – it’s rooted in a person’s self-suppression of background identity, and the reaction is so extreme because the manifest existence and deployment of the “other” language, whether Scots, Gaelic or whatever, provides a salient reminder of the suppression and thus creates a direct confrontation which cannot be avoided except by outright denial.

      It’s also political in the sense that the Union has only continued to exist as long as it has – despite our English supposed “partner” observing the Treaty of Union more in the breach than in the letter – because of Scots’ traditional acquired behaviour to back-off and not make an issue of anything for the sake of peace and unity. Acquired deference by centuries of UK polity, “infantilisation” as Michael Portillo described it, though I would prefer “institutionalisation” myself.

      Language is but one manifestation of that deference, but antagonism rather than self-realisation is the classic initial reaction when someone is confronted too sharply by reality.

  18. I was born in England and came to Scotland at a fairly young age. My Scottish mother detested Scotland and constantly decried living here, so if any of us spoke using words like aye, she went her dinger and told us to “speak properly”…

    My daughter recently decried the fact that a friend was not using Scots to describe something.

    That fair cheered me up!

  19. I don’t know if any of you listened to The View on the Parliament channel earlier today. This is a Northern Irish programme which inevitably deals with the great divide between Unionists and Republicans.

    We had the ludicrous proposition from the DUP guy that Sinn Fein was in the business of politicising the Irish language because otherwise all languages in the North would be supported. Strangely, the guy supporting Irish was also a Unionist and an Orangeman. The real story was that it was the DUP who was politicking in the same way that we experience the SNP Bad phenomenon in Scotland. They just don’t want to give an inch.

  20. ScotGov should follow the Ireland model & introduce a bill which registers Irish Gaelic as one of two recognised official languages, the other being English with all reports, bills and official Parliamentary business being published in both languages. Speakers in the Dail can use either language with a translation service provided. Irish Gaelic is taught as a principal language in all schools.
    Seems eminently reasonable and would legitimise & encourage the Scots Gaelic
    Langauge and we wouldn’t need to wait for independence. As an added bonus it would get right up the noses of the Unionist parties.


    • Despite having a lot of time for the Scottish Government, my biggest criticism is their wariness of anything Gaelic. It may be a strategic decision to avoid being marginalised as Teuchters, but they display some of the myopia of the wider UK when it comes to the language.

  21. I am carrying out a personal project to understand the origin of a word in my area that seems to be only located here.

    This means I use old Scots dictionaries and also Scots, Irish and Welsh Gaelic. Very interesting as I now know the Picts spoke Welsh, in fact the whole of Britain, France and bits of Spain spoke Gaelic if you go back 2000 years. Only 200 years ago most of us spoke Gaelic.
    Gaelic is all over the place in our land. If you just do basic research you will find it.

    I agree with you Paul.

  22. I’m quite optimistic about the future vitality of Scots.

    We’re undergoing a national moment of clarity. People who’ve always spoken the language, but have been trained into considering it an inferior corruption of English, are realising their error.

    Once that false stigma has gone, it’s very hard to re-introduce. Scots words, idioms and phrases long-buried in the memory start to emerge into daily use again: They’re then picked up by others and spread further.

    The bitter, wilful philistinism of unionist fanatics can only help the process. “An ill cou can hae a guid cauf…”

  23. Ignorance is the root problem here, unsurprising when Scots are largely not educated in their own culture. Even a single one-hour lesson in our secondary schools on the history of languages in Scotland, dealing with the common myths or misunderstandings, could make a big difference.

    • Or indeed some lessons in Scottish history would be helpful. This was deliberately removed from the school curriculum mid way through the last century.

  24. Very interesting article, Dug.

    I thought I didn’t speak Scots until I did a spell of voluntary work in Berlin with a friend. I speak very little German so most conversations were in English. German co-workers said ‘We understand what you say when you speak to us, but we don’t understand what you say when you speak to your friend’.

  25. Most of us have a ‘telephone voice’.
    The version of Scots English which you speak. is about ‘signalling’ who you are, your background, your political affiliations, and your status on the Establishment hierarchy.
    Especially in politics and climbing the greasy career ladder, the quite frankly ridiculous ‘put on’ posh Scots accent borders on the risible.
    Stanley Baxter and Rikki Fulton regularly lampooned Kelvinside and Morningside accents. Always Comedy Gold.
    Davidson, Carlaw Fraser, and the LisTory Dim But Nice Boys all speak in the same tortured version of Oxford English, the Received Pronunciation gurgle, with just a hint of a rolled ‘r’ now and again, and the quaint infusion of Scots like ‘wee’ instead of ‘small’ to emphasise that they are ‘Upper Class’ Unionists with money,but still have Proud Scot roots.
    It is an audio badge of status, the speaker immediately identified as being from a privileged, entitled, fee paying school, comes from a long lineage of ‘professional’ Brits, God Fearing, sons and daughters of the Manse, automatic leaders, top tier of the Social Triangle.
    It is designed to imply that they are inherently clever, and when they speak they speak with authority, and wisdom.
    I have plied my wares all over the UK over the decades, and listened to the BBC ‘Regional News’ in many a hotel bedroom. The cultivated posh vowels and RP accent which is a basic requirement for BBC Scotland presenters and broadcasters, is replicated in all ‘Regions’ of the UK.
    BBC Northern Ireland, the North East, The North West, The Midlands, the South West, have lasses presenting the ‘News Where You Are’ who sound exactly like Jackie Bird or Sally Magnusson, with the gentle local ‘burr’ in the background, with just a hint of Brummie, Scouse, or Geordie allowed to seep through every now and again.
    They detest Gaelic, Lowland Scots, Doric, or Parliamo Glesca.
    If you speak ‘common’, you are a member of the Great Unwashed, the Lumpen Proletariat, the Hoi Polloi, the uneducated mob, who is to be ruled over, subjugated, put in your social and political place, which is under the Iron Heel of the posh folk.
    Anything remotely Scottish threatens this 300 year old status quo.
    And they will do anything, say anything, threaten anything which endangers their long standing position of power and privilege.
    Gaelic signposts, a Scots horse winning the National ridden by a jockey sporting a Saltire top, and the Independence movement, are portents that their dominance by class and collaboration with the English Establishment will soon be at an end.
    Every time that I hear Ruth Davidson pronounce the indefinite article ‘a’ , not as in ‘bar’, but as in ‘hay’, in an attempt to come across as a Churchillian serious WM parliamentarian, I smile. Her jolly hockey sticks accent and vocabulary says it all for me.
    Terrific piece, Paul.
    The attack on Gaelic, like the ban on bagpipes, and the wearing of tartan, is an attempt to smother Scotland’s culture and language.
    It hasn’t worked of course. We shall never get back in the box.
    The higher they build their barriers, the taller we become.

  26. Towards the end of my career I was seconded to Italy on a major project for Kuwait Oil. The project language was English, most of the engineering was done by Indians. I was praised for my clear and forthright English unlike the Piping engineer from Essex and the Process engineer from Suid Afrika whose English was difficult, Now home I use old Scots words as a matter of choice. Some defy simple translation into English. For example “a wee glaikit nyaff” or “a galus chiel”.

    I do think the antagonism towards our other languages is a demand to suppress Scottishness and insist on North Britishness. It’s a Unionist thing. Sad.

  27. Paul, I always enjoy your writings on language. Please pardon the rather unpolished rant that follows below. If I had time it would be more coherent, but the feelings run high whenever someone raises this topic.

    As someone suggests above, the language issue has indeed been something of a blind spot for the SNP. I remember Winnie Ewing lambasting the Estonians for demanding a fairly low level of competence in Estonian as a condition for granting citizenship to the country’s Russian population upon the recovery of independence in the early 90s. She attempted to score points for the SNP in the eyes of the London establishment by saying something like “imagine if we demanded proficiency in Gaelic as a condition of Scottish citizenship, but we’re so liberal and civic in our nationalism…blah, blah, blah”. It was appalling, a classic example of how deep the Scottish cringe goes, when even someone as pro-Independence as Winnie Ewing can think like that. Also, the inability to see that the Estonians were trying to forestall the calamity that had already hit Scotland’s languages, and that she as an unquestioning English-speaker couldn’t even see. She should have offered them solidarity, not used them in her attempt to be a ‘good girl’ in the eyes of her metropolitan reference group.

    I remember growing up in a west of Scotland community where many of the kids came to school speaking a mixture of English and Scots, some more or less pure Scots, and how they were dismissed as ‘riff-raff’ who couldn’t speak ‘proper English’. As a child i had no words to articulate this, but looking back I can clearly see the damage done. i also resent being separated from my own community by the attitudes of my home, the conventional attitudes of the need to “speak properly in our house” (from my English mother and my thoroughly indoctrinated brother) when I innocently tried to speak like the boys at school.

    Language arouses such passions in Scotland because it part of our oppression, part of how we have internalised the cultural colonialism of English. Even someone linguistically aware like myself finds it incredibly difficult to use Scots speech. For people with no linguistic education, it’s simply a no-brainer that English is everything.

    More power to your elbow in your attempts to shed light on a very dark corner of Scotland’s oppression.

  28. Another failure of the medieval English to wipe out our civilisations in any way possible they should just admit it’s a language instead of this cringe being born in Irvine but raised in yorkshire I saw there xenophobia to anything different I never saw how my late father thought England was superior to Scotland it was a dump thacther killed Yorkshire dead in places like barnsley and Sheffield you can see her scars still remain to this day and yet they bad mouthing scotland yet do nothing to stop the torys wrecking lives because it’s not there problem that how horrible the Yorkshire lot can be no wonder some move up here away from crap like that

  29. All I can say is pure, dead brilliant. Interesting and informative as usual, your article has certainly made me think.

  30. My job at the moment involves teaching English as a foreign language, so this is a real question I face every day of my working life: are words I know to be “Scots” allowed in TEFL teaching? If Scots isn’t a language, but is actually just English, then there should be no problem at all with my teaching words like dreich, drookit, outwith, glakit etc. They’re very much a part of my language which, according to many, is English.

    Now I don’t think it’s OK to teach them in a TEFL class at all, other than as part of a lesson on Scotland, where we’re specifically looking at Scots words and they’re clearly introduced as such. This is simply because, outside Scotland they’re *not* recognised as English words. But English speakers can’t have it both ways: they’re either English or they’re another language which shouldn’t be confused with, and taught as, English.

    One very big problem with the idea that “we just speak English” and the denial of Scots as a language is that there are probably other Scots words I commonly use and have no idea at all they even *are* Scots words.

  31. The Scandinavian languages are, as you say, very alike but the Danes still call their official language Danish and the others recognise their languages in the same way without anyone telling them that they don’t have a distinct or ‘real’ language. They call their official language Danish because it’s the language spoken by Danes. Simple – and why not ? The difference between the Scandinavians and Scotland is that the Scandinavians don’t have an overbearing neighbour telling them that everything they have is derived from that neighbour and that any claims to identity are an affectation, so Scots is therefore just a dialect of English. The Scandinavian perspective is totally different, liberating and positive.

  32. Paul I love your clear passion for things other than Independance but I’m sorry to say I am pretty neutral regarding language issues.
    Any way here is some “Mantime Monday” with Papa Troll. Way, way back at school I had an unhealthy obsession with my French teacher but zero interest in the French language. Any way before i knew it I had an “A” French Higher and won the school French prize. Luckily at 17 reality hit and I had a proper girlfiend(still now the wonderful Madame Troll) and I never thought about French or my teacher again.
    I speak English with a Scottish accent and some Scots words like most folk.I know that after independance there will be things like like Gaelic speakers, Scottish Conservatives and Scotish cricket in our brave new Scotland
    but I personally cannot get excited about them. Anyway It was a good read as ever. Cheesrs!

  33. I read so often that they didn’t get Gaelic at school but learning a language doesn’t stop once you leave school it just begins. The Moray language Centre is developing Guidelines for those on their own with no Gaelic classes close by who wish to learn Gaelic be they in Canada The USA, Australia, New Zealand, Scotland, England, Wales, Ireland in Europe, indeed anywhere in the world and they will be ready in June 2017.

    These Guidelines can be used for lots of minority languages throughout the world.

    We also do courses for the Gaelic of the family and the home.

  34. I studied social and physical geography and had a chance to read W. Nicolalsen’s book on Scottish place names. At the very least a fundamental understanding of either Gaelic, Scots or Anglicised Scots is surely necessary to have regard to topography etc. For eg, people are always surprised that the North Inch in Perth floods, or that Kirkinch is prone to flooding. Mind you that’s not quite as concerning as those who like to visit the “Vale” of Strathmore. or the Law “Hill” in Dundee or the Sidlaw(s) “Hills”.

  35. Adults learn Gaelic far quicker than children.

    Indeed adults are the key to revitalising a language like Gaelic and not children.

  36. I remember back in the 80s sitting in on a lecture at Stirling university in which the notion of ‘linguistic imperialism’ was first brought to my attention. The jist of the concept being that total conquest of a people is rarely achieved until they can only express themselves, their dreams and their culture in the language of their rulers. In addition imposition of an alien legal framework, education system, civil service & indeed even an alien religion, all couched in the language of the conquerors can, over time, make rebellion that bit more ‘unthinkable’.
    I am increasingly of the opinion that both the words we speak and the language we speak them in can be seen as ‘political acts’ & to that extent I would consider a loss of any of the languages spoken in our part of the world (or indeed elsewhere) as a drift towards an unwelcome uniformity of thought.

    • Beveridge and Turnbull had a great book about that in the late 80s/early 90s. The problem with the victors language in the context of the UK is that old Scots is much more similar to German than modern English so in a perverse way the Anglification of the Scots language and culture since 1707 has helped to destroy the language and culture of the original Germanic settlers who occupied both parts of England and Scotland. Even more bizarrely,modern DNA testing has proved that Tacitus was correct when he described the ancient Scots as being physically similar to the Germanic tribes since they were actually of a Germanic stock fro previous times.

      • DNA testing is very uncertain and cannot tell you what people spoke. There was no “Germanic” culture in Scotland (or England) before post-Roman times-it would have left a record in placenames of the Roman period surely. Also Scots is not the direct descendant of Lothian Anglian dialect according to experts on the language but owes more to medieval Danelaw English settlers brought by the Normans to especially the new burghs in 12/13th centuries-look up Scots language in Wikipedia-which explains huge Scandinavian influence on Scots. Before that some linguists like Watson believed English had sunk back to very small areas like parts of Berwickshire.

  37. Speaking of language, why capitalise the word ‘Unionists’? Doesn’t even merit that level of acknowledgement or import.

    • Must say one other thing. I find the increasing decimation of Scots by the bombastic incursion of supposedly trendy Americanisms to be quite depressing, to be honest. Young children here speak as if they are American, not even realising they are soaking up this grammar-and-syntax-and-correct-spelling-free linguistics drivel from their constant exposure to vapid and vacuous American popular culture, and think that using some stupid new Americanism they read on the net or saw in a film makes them cool (itself an Americanism) or hip or sick or awesome, dude.

      It’s a colonising deadbrain mongrel word salad, and these children don’t even realise their tongues are unconsciously being sculpted by it, which is the sad thing. Faux grammatically ruined American half-gangsta-rap sub-literacy is becoming the linguistics lingua franca of the world now, and will be responsible for the death of a great many slanguages, sadly.

      Just my spinterpretation.

  38. Wonderful article which prompted numerous recollections, viz

    Child coming home to colleague with info that his class had been asked to think of Scots words, in tears and saying “Dad, ah dinnae ken ony Scots words”.

    English public school undergrad refusing to accept that Scots and Gaelic are not the same languages.

    Conference speaker expressing pleasure that Sir Walter’s novels available in English.

    Feisty young woman in tourist office in Viella(Val D’Aran) denying all understanding of French, Spanish, Catalan or English.

    Saying ” aye, aye fit like ?” Each morning to the English teacher in the Reykavik tourist office and getting cheery reply ” nae sae bad” etc – she had done her year abroad in Aberdeen.

    Reading once that the first complain to Race Relations Board in Wales was from a tourist complaining about everyone speaking Welsh in a hotel bar in Bala.(Can’t vouch for authenticity of that one.)

  39. I have never understood why people who are anti-Gaelic use any Gaelic cultural and heritage products such as tartan, the Kilt, The Bagpipes, Whisky, go to Highland Games or have anything to do with the enormous levels of taxation generated for the Government from the Gaelic Cultural and heritage products. Seems strange why anyone anti-Gaelic would ever go near anything connected to Gaelic. How weird can you get.

  40. Hi
    I have just recently found Gaelic. I mean I had never actualy heard anyone speak it live, until I recently went to the language show in Glasgow.

    Wow its real, alive and funny as well. I speak Scots English, well sort off.. I’m an Orcadian who uses English, Norwegion and Dutch daily. This was something of an eye opener. Gaelic is a wee treasure we should keep it alive as best we all can.

  41. Yes, language was a key element in their process of indoctrinating me into believing the notion of the superiority of the sociopath next door. But it failed. My mother made it clear that I was no less and no more important than anyone else and my mother never lied to me. Not for me the cringe.

    I am not greatly into language myself, perceiving it more as a tool than a cultural issue but I am very aware of how others use language domination to pump themselves up, to support their demented delusions of superiority. A pity that they are such fools.

    I am happy to be guided by the Dug, others here and others again who wish to promote the Scottish languages and to burst the bubbles of the imperialists.

    It warms the cockles of me ‘art to see their discomfort bordering on panic as the sands shift beneath their feet.

    Am hoping to be able to hear the Dug talking in London on Wednesday.

  42. Language – interesting – political & cultural.
    Back in 1988 I spent some time living & working in New Zealand. Any Maori folk I met spoke English, with a Kiwi accent but English just the same. Returning just shy of 30 years later Many I met (although not all) tended to speak a form of ‘Pidgin English to us Pakeha ‘when not speaking Maori.
    I must admit that confused the heck out of me for a long time. I think I now begin to see why. Were making a ‘political’ statement? I’m not too sure , perhaps some were, but I tend to think they were making a broader cultural statement which is probably more important.

  43. Two stories from the distant past spring to mind.

    First one concerns a radio panel show many decades ago, a snooty female panelist demanded of a Highland panelist – “If Gaelic is so great, what is the Gaelic for Spaghetti Bolognese?” – to which the Highlander immediately came back with -“I haff no itea matam, but if you provide the Inklish for it, I will attempt a translation.”

    Second one concerns a visiting linguist giving a lecture in Glasgow. He went on at great length explaining how Scots was not a language but merely a dialect of English. This was listened to in polite silence by the audience. However he then went on to make the point that while some languages sometimes use a double negative to make an affirmative, like ‘Nyet, nyet’ in Russian, there was no language which could do the opposite of using two affirmatives to make a negative.
    Whereupon a loud voice was heard from the back of the audience saying – “Aye, right!”.

    Both these tales may well be apocryphal, but that hardly changes the points made.

    A workmate once stated that Gaelic uses a lot of borrowed English. I asked ‘Like what?’. He replied ‘Helicopter’. Eventually he twigged (sic) why I was bent over laughing.

  44. I would love to try and learn Gaelic again, but when I first attempted, I was completely baffled by the spelling, which doesn’t seem to relate to the pronunciation.
    Good to see road signs in both Gaelic and English, so I can work out how the name might sound!

  45. As a recent migrant to Scotland, I’ve been considering taking a couple of language courses, one in Scots and one in Gaelic. In much the same way that if I had emigrated to Germany, I would have felt duty bound to learn German. Call it new ‘immigrant’ zeal if you like, but I think understanding a country’s languages is the only way to fully appreciate that country, and as a historian, I know it’s the only way to fully comprehend the anthropology and history of any nation.

    I am reminded of an Open University module I did some years ago. Which followed the Irish Nationalist movement, and the consequences of it. The reinstatement of their ‘ancient’ language and the marking out of their cultural objects and sites, became a huge rallying call for their self-determination. It also aided in marking out the distinct Irish culture from the imposed British one. The language you speak and how you speak it isn’t just about communication between groups of people. It is part of the unique culture that makes a country, a country.

  46. I was a Scottish Literature student at Glasgow Uni in the early 80s. One of the first things we were asked to do was read through something and highlight which words or phrases we thought were Scottish. There were things like “chappin at the door” “giving the dog a clap” and “going to my bed”. None of which I recognised as being Scottish, that was just the way I spoke and as far as I was aware I spoke English. I ken better noo!

  47. In Costa Rica we had, and still have,the same problem with creole and indigenous languages. The politics around languages in this country were “Spanish is the only language of the nation” stuff. Any non-spanish language was discouraged, and repressed. Schools used to hardly hit children who used their first languages instead of spanish, claiming that they were only to ignorant people and so.
    Years later, even though the violence against languages diluted, most of the people still don’t accept diversity. Some indigenous people are now embarrassed if they speak their language, languages are dying, and that’s too sad. I hope that Scots and Gaelic stay strong.

  48. Brawlliant Paul, ye ken well the power of language to control the context, so please refrain from using ‘philistinism’ to represent an outsider lacking in culture..

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