Scott Morrison, my Gaelic teacher - on how aspects of the Gaelic language work.
In other words, why Gaelic is so utterly beautiful and incredibly cool. Wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey. :D
Really? Doesn’t the fact this entire paragraph is in English give ample evidence that English speaking rebloggers also see time as moving? e.g. “never stands still” “state of flux” “always flowing”
A brain that didn’t see time as moving would be a dead brain….
Please stop exotifying my language and making out that Gaels somehow have weird-ass minds that have “completely different” conceptions of basic physics to other ‘normal’ human beings.
Language doesn’t determine thought, or else writing wouldn’t be so hard. If you are going to make extraordinary claims about the effects of specific tense grammars on the functions of the brain, then you need extraordinary evidence. e.g. as a first, give me some Gaelic phrases related to time that encapsulate how we think differently, then, you know, actually give me some good data that show how our psychology and neurobiology differs so extremely. Then perhaps a causal link.
Sorry for the rant. Gaelic is incredibly cool. But its incredibly cool because its a thriving language of a modern European community, not because its the forgotten patois of a curious folk living outside the normal space-time continuum.
As I said, a bunch of people do genuinely believe that bilingual people are more prone to be schizophrenic, and it’s not just laymen, but professors as well. Not only is this problematic because it equates an actual mental disorder with the ability to speak two languages - thereby trivialising and shaming two different groups of people - but also because it shows how the predominantly monoglot Western world fears bilingualism.
Debrah Titone, a professor of psychology said the following in 2004:
“other than Montreal, where else in the world will you find such a critical mass of bilingual schizophrenic patients?”
Implying that an officially bilingual place would be home to more schizophrenics than any other place.
And she’s not the only one, in 2006, Aneta Pavlenko published an article in which she used interviews with bilingual people to claim that polyglot people experience a so-called metaphorical schizophrenia.
And psychologists in universities around the world are screaming for bilingual people suffering from schizophrenia to submit themselves to studies in order to ‘prove’ that bilingualism causes schizophrenia.
In 1968 Diebold claimed that bilingualism caused split personalities and five years earlier, Vildomec called bilingual people ‘morally untrustworthy’.
In 1971, R. M. Hemphill wrote about bilingualism as something causing auditory hallucinations among patients living with schizophrenia.
In 1999, a bunch of Harvard psychologists co-authored an article in which they claimed that bilingual environments would cause a child with any type of disorder to become ‘more mentally retarded’.
In 2002, the British Home Secretary addressed British Asians with the following statement; using English, rather than the native language of a British Asian family would help them ‘overcome the schizophrenia which bedevils generational relationships’.
It’s 2012 and people are still perpetuating this shit, especially when it comes to polyglot minority families - to equate what is natural to them with a mental disorder is to belittle them even more, and to do people who actually do suffer from a mental disorder a huge disfavour.
a-curious-creature asked: Have you heard of Merlin Donald? We had a very interesting lecture and tutorial on his work today, focusing on memetic culture, and the general consensus was 'why hasn't anyone thought of this before?' I haven't made up my mind yet- another lecture next week, and we're relating back to Dreyfus, Gehlen, Herder etc., but the central idea that homo erectus must have had something to facilitate a co-operative society and form a basis for the development of language is intuitively convincing.
Yes I have! And for the benefit of those who haven’t I’ll rehash his ideas below.
Merlin Donald gave us an interesting picture of how the mind could have evolved, and showed how the interplay of culture and biology sculpted it over the last 500,000 or so years. I wouldn’t call it an empirical theory as such, but the ideas are well-worth examining.
He divides human cognitive evolution into four great epochs.
Originally, hominids could only think in ‘episodic’ terms. This is the sort of thinking we see in great apes, and dolphins, and octopus. Their behaviour consists of short-term responses to the environment, lived entirely in the present. Remember though that in Donald’s terminology thinking refers only to conscious thought. So these hominids would still have been driven by instinct to act in the long term (like swallows instinctively migrating), but would never consciously have sat down and thought: we need to leave some of those berries on that bush so it’ll be there next year.
The second epoch is the one you’re talking about. The word Donald uses is ‘mimetic’, not memetic though. (I can understand the confusion, memes are all about culture too!) He says the worldview of Homo Erectus was qualitatively different to that of the hominids that went before. In a way, if we accept that real consciousness requires a self persisting over time and with an awareness of itself doing that, then this Mimetic stage is Donald’s origin of consciousness. Erectus led a social life but I think the distinction is that, while chimps instinctively hunt together, Donald imagined Erectus communicating with each other and handing traditions down the generations in order to uphold the society. He says that this wasn’t based on language, as you know, but on facial expressions, signing, mimicry etc. Information could be exchanged, but slowly, and this is why it ‘took’ Erectus 400,000 years to discover fire.
Donald talks up the symbolic capabilities of the mimetic stage. There’s this lovely quote where he says its “The Great Homind Escape From The Nervous System.” He literally does view Erectus as inventing culture, and it is during this period we see the first crude bone sculptures etc. The crucial point is that mimesis allows skills to be transferred, so they can be ‘inherited’ in a non-biological fashion, as learned behaviour rather than instincts. Again, I think he’s emphasising the conscious nature of mimetic communication because, well, its vastly inferior in its precision to the instinctive bee dances!
So, after mimesis, comes mythic thought. And here lies the origin of true language, he says. He claims from analysis of 20th century hunter-gatherer tribes that the first use of language was in crafting a group identity through storytelling and mythologizing – creating a mental model of man’s place in the universe. I think this is a dodgy assumption. Okay, hunter-gatherer tribes are highly-verbal and have an advanced oral culture, as did all pre-literate peoples. That doesn’t imply, however, that that was langauge’s original use. Why would you go from basic mimesis used in practical situations to using words to tell complex stories? I’d’ve thought the selective advantage went to the tribe who used language to educate their kids better in stone use, or to work together in hunting, or to plan their future movements. Most theories of language origins seems to focus on those kinds of factors – e.g. fostered in-group cohesion by allowing hunters to plan strategies together and thus bring home more food.
Donald’s fourth stage is theoretic thought, in the last 30,000 years or so, and this is the sort that he associates with the development of bows and arrows, ceramics etc. To me, this seems the more pragmantic kind of thinking – the ability to communicate intuitive ideas about physics etc. In a way, I can buy his idea of storytelling before technology – I mean storytelling is useful in that you can communicate directions, and it is obviously crucial to creating a group’s identity in history.
Merlin Donald’s ideas rest however on a non-biological model of the brain. For him, once the mimetic threshold was passed in Erectus, humans had the cognitive ability to do anything: it just took the slow development of society to wake it up. But brain size had been expanding up to 100,000 years ago. There were gross changes in neurobiology, to which any account of psychological evolution must be connected.
Language origins research was famously banned in the 19th century by the linguistic society of Paris on the charge of being nothing more than idle speculation. Mimesis seems intuitively sensible, but to my mind it doesn’t seem to have a lot to do with generative grammar models of language (and hence language origins). The crucial thing in generative grammar is the combinatorial nature of language and the arbitratiness of the sign. Facial expressions etc are neither combinatorial (they aren’t made up of discrete units that can only combined following specific rules) nor are they arbitrary (their meanings aren’t learned as an arbitraty relationship, they are instinctive, and indeed, seen in chimps and bonobos). Donald’s transition to mythic thinking emphasized ‘content’, rather than grammar. If we accept that grammar is what is selected for, then development of grammar is independent of what ‘content’ is up to. We are left with two options. Chomsky’s idea that grammar ability emerged from a general increase in overall cognitive function – (distinct from Donald’s ideas of higher cognitive functioning stemming from cooperation caused by language use). Or we take Pinker and Bloom’s language organ: whereby genetic mutations give rise to specific module of the mind that provides us with a language faculty. This has always struck me as a bit of a hopeful monster – language use is dependent on one random lucky mutation in one person. Think about it – if a mutation gave rise to language in one person, who’s he meant to talk to and accrue the benefits of language?! This is why Donald’s theories that emphasize social factors are worth listening to, and, are indeed, intuitively convincing.
Terrence Deacon’s ideas, however, allow us to rescue Donald’s emphasis on ‘content.’ For Deacon the crucial part of language is its symbolic capacity. He would differ from Donald though in that he sees symbolic learning as existing in great apes – in the episodic, as well as mimetic stages! He thinks symbolic learning is just a version of indexical learning. This is borne out by the way chimps have been taught to associate arbitrary signs and symbols with the real world. This looks scarily like behaviourism so we have to ask ourselves are the chimps associating the idea of the banana with the token, or are they associating the token with the tasty reward? For Deacon, what’s special about language is the way the symbols are referred indexically to each other, rather than out there in the world. This could maybe be incorporated into the idea of a mythic stage, of a language system developing independent of the world.
Finally Deacon skewers Pinker and Bloom. The fact there is a universal grammar underlying all languages is an observable fact. Therefore, these linguistic universals must have a biological origin, namely a language organ. Deacon says instread that language and the brain co-evolved. Language is an evolving system, remember, so Deacon says that the languages or grammars best at getting themselves into human brains (the easiest to learn) were naturally better adapted and so proliferated. As the brain changed, selective pressure on grammar changed. Today, humans are fairly similar in neurological makeup, so languages are basically the same at a basic level. In this way, Deacon envisages that the means of communication best at getting themselves transmitted in brains spread among populations, and the brains best at transmitting these forms of communication, due to the advantage it conferred, had greater reproductive success. In this way, language evolved to be easy for the child’s brain to learn, and the child’s brain evolved to be good at learning language. Deacon’s work is good for Merlin Donald in that it focusses on language as a cultural artefact, ever-changing, and sculpting the brain, rather that being a fixed mental organ.
So, yeah, that was good to get off my chest. What do you study? Linguistics? Anthropology?
Anonymous asked: Can you put up a pronunciation guide with the corresponding numbers for us Scots transplants? Thanks!
I don’t know how to use the proper pronounciation notation, so I’ll just use crude English equivalents. Here are the first ten ordinal numbers. I have to go to work right now, but I’ll do a proper post tonight, and try and explain Gaidhlig pronounciations and stuff.
1. aon = oon (sort of a cross between ew and oo)
2. dha = cross between hard th and d, followed by a long ‘a’ as in ‘ahhhh!’
3. tri = tree (the ‘r’ is harder than in English, you need to roll it)
4. ceithir = kay-ith
5. coig = koh-ick (an ‘o’ as in coal, and the ‘ck’ is halfway between ‘ck’ and ‘g’.
6. sia = shee-ah
7. seachd = shehchd (the ‘chd’ is like the ‘ch’ in loch followed by a hard ‘g.’
8. ochd = as above, but with ‘o’ as in rock.
9. naoi = nuh-ee
10. deich = jay-chy (‘ch’ as in loch followed by a ‘y’ as in yacht)
The Welsh have a saying: “a nation without a language is a nation without a heart.” Because it encourages cooperation, language – that most social of skills – becomes part of our collective identity. Is it any surprise then to suppose that language is what forms national identities? I shall focus on the historical relationship between the language we speak and our identity as members of a national community. I will explore, through historical examples, the two roles played by language in forming national identities – in the case of China and France, the creation of a standard national language to unite disparate peoples into a homogenous national identity; and, in fissiparous entities like Yugoslavia, the use of a peripheral language to differentiate a ‘new’ national identity from the norm. An important caveat will also be discussed: national identity is neither determined by nor dependent on the language people happen to speak.
The Mandarin Chinese language, with 800 million speakers, dwarfs all rivals in terms of sheer numerical size but, what is most astonishing is its numerical concentration; nearly every speaker is found in China alone. The historical relationship between Mandarin and the ancient Chinese nation can be seen in what the language calls itself: guóyŭ – literally, national language.
First united in 221BC by Qin Shi Huang, and notwithstanding a civil war or two, China has remained so for over 2000 years. Yet the environmental historian Jared Diamond claims in Guns, Germs and Steel that the crude Mongoloid stereotype conceals a history of anatomic, geographic and linguistic diversity. He says civilization arose separately in both the northern Yellow River valley and the southern Yangzte River valley. The lush, wet south gave rise to a shorter darker people whilst the harsh northern climate selected for taller, paler bodies characterized by the epicanthic fold (or slanted eyes). How then were these two vast regions united?
The history of the creation of a national Chinese identity and the fusion of north and south is told in the linguistic maps. Mandarin and its Sino-Tibetan siblings are a multitudinous sea, dotted in the south with islands of Austroasiatic, Mia-Yao and Tai-Kadai. This suggests that Mandarin’s ancestor arose in the northern region where there is far less linguistic diversity. The history of the Zhou Dynasty (100-221BC) mirrors this assertion. The northerners, inventors of agriculture, inundated the southern rice-growing region. The resultant population explosion of the northern physical type pushed the southerners into south-east Asia. Those who remained experienced language shift to Sino-Tibetan and the sinification of China was complete; two peoples, once divided by appearance and geography, were now united by a common language.
The Chinese state pioneered the use of language as a national unifier. The Qin Emperor who brought about unity in 221BC was prescient enough to standardise the script. In continuous use up until the 20th century, it had the advantage of being pictorial. Thus, the Mandarin script was used for all Sino-Tibetan languages – nothing needed ever be translated, fostering national cohesion. Hence, a national literature (the classics: Confucius, Lao Tzu) preceded and assisted the spread of the national language. During the Sui and Tang dynasties (AD581-906) the state consolidated literacy in the ruling classes by expecting all to sit civil service exams concerning national literature, written in the national script, and whose oral element was conducted in the national language – after all, Mandarin has come to mean bureaucrat. China’s elite adopted Mandarin and, as the exams were open to all, Mandarin became the language of aspiration. It became the language of the Chinese.
In Early Modern Europe, this process was repeated and the growth of national languages proceeded in tandem with the growth of the nation-state as a political entity. In France, according to Eric Hobsbawm’s Age of Revolution, the nation-state begot the national language. He tells us that prior to 1789 less than 13% of the population was fluent in French as we know it – the Parisian dialect (or langue d’oïl). In 1539 King Francois I had passed the Ordinance of Villers-Cottertês decreeing that all official business down to the parish level was to be conducted,
“en langage maternel francois et non autrement.”
The French state was constructed on the dream that there would be but one French language, which would eventually be spoken by every Frenchman as his mother tongue. As a consequence, the speakers of Provencal – the sweet words of the troubadours – lost over time the knowledge that theirs was the distinct literary langue d’oc; it became a mere patois, a broken peasant speech. A chasm was carved between the elegant French of the capital – the national French – and the grunting of the provinces. No Frenchman speaks with double-negatives but, when writing, he is obliged to graft a ne to his pas because, well, this is his national language. The state language is perfect, inalienable, and unchangeable; in 1694, the Académie Française produced the first ever French dictionary to promote this national standard. Tellingly, David Ogg dates the first appearance of the noun patriotisme to the 1777 Dictionary. The state-sponsored language is tied up with national identity because it created it – speaking in French defines a Frenchman. Stephen Pinker exposes the common conceit that only those of Gallic blood can ever truly master the language – so intimately is the language associated with their national identity that the French have come to believe that they possess a genetic propensity to speak it. As a result, the French are fiercely protective of their language; as recently as 1992, a line was added to Article 2 of the constitution which summed up in simple terms the centrality of language to French national identity:
“La langue de la Republique est le Francais.”
By elevating a particular dialect to the standard, the French state was able to coerce the population into speaking and writing it, creating a homogenous national identity. In the same way, after the Reconquista and political triumph of Castile, the Castilian dialect of ‘Iberian’ became the only contender for the national language of Spain. The grammarian Antonio de Nebruja was the first to understand that to create a national identity one had to create a Platonic form of the national language – a Queen’s English – from which any deviance would be considered debased and unpatriotic. In 1492 he presented Isabella with his Gramática de la Lengua Castellana: Europe’s first consciously national language which would be the foundation of Castile’s imperial future and Spanish (as opposed to Catalan or Castilian) national identity.
In the case of French and Spanish, what marks a language out as immutably national is the support of the state, echoing Yiddish linguist Max Weinreich’s quip that “a language is a dialect with an army and a navy.” This is reflected in the fact that Castilian has 500 million speakers, including every Spaniard, whereas Catalan barely manages 14 million. Moreover, the actual title of language is often dependent on it being a nation-state’s expression of national identity. Portuguese is more closely related to Standard ‘Castilian’ Spanish than Galician, supposedly a mere dialect. But thanks to long years of independence, Portuguese, the national language of Portugal, is considered a language in its own right.
Linguist John McWhorter claims that throughout history languages have been manufactured for nationalistic ends. He cites the example of tiny Moldova, tacked onto Romania’s eastern border, whose dialect is no different to standard Romanian than any other rural Romanian dialect. In the course of the last century, the Soviets, in an effort to stop the Moldovans identifying with their Romanians neighbours, cooked up a new Moldovan language. By publishing schoolbooks which exaggerated grammatical quirks, Russian linguists were able to indoctrinate Moldovans into believing in an independent national identity which persists to this day.
Whilst Moldovan was purposely used to sow divisions, many minorities have freely endorsed their language to differentiate themselves from the centre of power. In Yugoslavia, after the 1995 Dayton Agreement, Bosniak was born as a separate language to Serbo-Croat. Since Montenegro gained independence from Serbia, the inhabitants have, as if by magic, begun to speak Montenegrin. It would appear then that on the creation of new nation-states out of minority groups, the government takes two steps to assert its distinct national identity – seeking political recognition for its national language and losing badly in the group stages of the FIFA World Cup.
In this way, minorities have used language to express what the anthropologist James W Fernandez calls our peripheral wisdom:
“All problems of identity, both of citizens and of the national entities of which they are part, are problems of imposed coherence […] of homogeneity…”
Thus the existence of a widespread potentially-national language does not necessarily presuppose national unity. Hindi and Urdu are mutually intelligible; in fact, they are the same language, the language of the Sultanate of Delhi. But in 1947 the division of the subcontinent into two states caused a conscious division of the language in order to foster two distinct national identities. In Pakistan, Urdu takes its higher-order vocabulary from Koranic Arabic sources, as a reflection of its Muslim identity. In India, Hindi borrows from Vedic Sanskrit, emphasising its Hindu identity. The twin languages have been altered to express the states’ respective religious identities, thus building two separate national identities and cementing the barriers between them.
Nevertheless, although language as a unifying and differentiating force has the power to forge national identities, we must acknowledge that specific features of language do not directly cause national character. To return to French, McWhorter allows that no matter how sophisticated he thinks French culture, this is in no way a product of the language itself. The supposed refinement of the French language and its role in the mission civilisatrice arose only from its state-sponsored origin in Paris. The Frenchman can rightly take pride in the fact that the first major philosophical work to be published in a European vernacular was Descartes’ Discours de la Methode in 1637. But MacWhorter explains that the fact “je pense donc je suis” was first expressed in French does not stem from any particular superiority of the language as a vehicle of thought or a resultant penchant on the part of French speakers for philosophy. Indeed, Descartes wrote his tome in French for more prosaic reasons – to sell more copies!
This ‘linguistic determinism’ does, however, have some validity in explaining the historical relationship between language and national identity. Mandarin is an atomic language made up of monosyllables. As there are only so many sounds a human mouth can make, tone is used to convey meaning – this has an obvious effect on how a Chinese poet must operate. We can reasonably propose a link between national literature and the language it is written in, but some historians can easily go too far. In Mandarin the mountain is big translates to mountain big; Zhou Youguang claims that as a direct result of lacking a verb to be,
“The Chinese did not develop the idea of identity in logic or the concept of substance in philosophy. And without these concepts there could be no idea of causality and science.”
He argues that because the Chinese never say the mountain is big then they must have no concept of mountains possessing the quality of bigness. Thus, for the Chinese, induction from the material world is rendered impossible. This is absurd. The historical reasons for science not arising in China are myriad – centralized government, blinding respect for the classics – but Mandarin is not among them. A country’s literature must obviously reflect language but, in the case of whether a nation’s history favoured the development of scientific or philosophical national identity, vagaries of grammar and syntax are a moot point.
Moreover, language is not always necessarily the core factor in forming national identity. For instance, if a Welshman’s language is at the heart of his national identity then, linguistically, Scotland must suffer from a broken heart. In 1138 David I fought the English at the Battle of the Standard leading an army made up of “Normans, Germans, English, Northumbrians and Cumbrians, men of Teviotdale and Lothian, Galwegians and Scots.” Historians agree that these disparate peoples created a united national identity during the Wars of Independence. Yet at Stirling Bridge the spearmen most definitely did not shout “FREEDOM!” – Gaelic, Scots, French and Norse would have been heard; none of which were collinear to the realm. In fact, anthropologist Anthony Cohen says that Scottish identity did not arise from a unifying Scottish language but from the certainty that whoever the Scots were they were most definitely “not-English.” Thus, the Declaration of Arbroath, Scotland’s birth certificate, conceived national identity as ultimately that which was distinct from England.
Early modern attempts to form a national linguistic identity for this not-England failed for the precise reason that, unlike Welsh, neither Gaelic nor Scots has historically been spoken all over Scotland. Mirroring the religious aspects of Hindi and Urdu, Gaelic and Scots, according to Celtic historian Victor Durkacz, came to represent respectively a Highland Catholic and a Lowland Protestant identity. Neither encompassed Scotland the nation; thus, civic national identity, as exemplified by the SNP, though not-English in design is thoroughly English-speaking in character. Because Scotland’s not-Englishness was asserted through the medium of English, the poet Edwin Muir claimed "Scotland can only create a national literature by writing in English.” Neither Scots nor Gaelic was a feasible means to form a modern Scottish national identity that bridged the Highland line. Even Hugh MacDiarmid, ardent proponent of Lallans as a synthetic national Scots, wrote:
“Scotland small? Our multiform, our infinite Scotland small?”
French, Spanish and Chinese national identity was built from a Platonic form of the language. In the same way, in 1921, the Irish Free State quickly set about standardizing Gaelic, transforming it into a national language of education. But in Scotland, Standard English united the “multiform” languages of Scotland into a united not-English national identity. Scotland proves the historical picture is not always as simple as that of French or Mandarin. The Scotsman can know that his language, whether it is Gaelic, Scots or English, is independent of his national identity.
It is clear then that language, but not the properties of a language, forms national identity. The historical cases I have outlined above show that language has two major roles to play in the formation of national identities. Principally, in the case of French or Mandarin, the nation-state picks a language, standardizes, simplifies and preaches it, educating a new national identity into the nation. Conversely, minority groups on the periphery of a nation, such as the Bosnians, use their own language to express a distinct national identity arrayed against the centre of power. In conclusion, we can say language plays two roles in the formation of national identities but, as Scotland’s history shows, does not necessarily have to play any major political role.
Gàidhlig is, to put it bluntly, a dying language. In the last century, the number of speakers declined from nearly a quarter of a million in 1901 to 58,552 in 2001 – half clinging onto the west coast and the rest scattered throughout Scotland’s cities. While linguist David Crystal posits a round figure of 100,000 as the critical speaker-base required to guarantee a language’s survival through the 21st century, he recognizes that Gàidhlig, though moribund, may not be doomed because, for the first time in recent history, it has the full backing of the state in the spheres of government, media and education. But how best can the state support Gaels to speak and pass on the ancient language of Scotland to the next generation?
Today, thanks to the European Charter for Minority Languages, the state is obliged to tend to and support Gàidhlig: the 2005 Gaelic Language Act gave it back its rightful place in public life. Though the tabloids were quick to dismiss Gàidhlig signs in the parliament as mere tokenism, official recognition provides the means and confidence to fight for the language’s survival. It is heartening to note that there are Gàidhlig-speaking MSPs enough to debate in the language. Nonetheless, although Bòrd na Gàidhlig has raised the language’s profile by persuading public bodies to draft Gàidhlig language plans, we must bear in mind that it is dangerous and self-defeating to try and re-vitalize Gàidhlig with nothing more than rarely-read translated leaflets. Wisely, the state pours the most cash into Gàidhlig media and education, both at the vanguard of combating language shift to English.
The poet Sorley MacLean warned against over-romanticizing Gàidhlig’s past – the media should look to the future. It is undoubtedly a matter of pride that Gàidhlig has the oldest living literature in Europe but, we should celebrate even more the record 71 entries for this year’s FilmG competition of contemporary Gàidhlig film. New media such as the internet allows Gàidhlig-learners to come together on forums and websites, helping each other and assisting the preservation of the language. Yet follies such as mygaelic.com, a Gàidhlig ‘facebook,’ which, according to the understandably indignant Taxpayer’s Alliance, attracted only 1,574 users at a cost of £250,000, illustrates the perennial problem of throwing money at the language to get only bad feeling in return. Indeed we who believe the media is the gateway to guaranteeing Gàidhlig in the next generation would do well to heed comedian Norman MacLean’s scathing analysis of modern-day Gàidhlig television. In a recent column for Am Pàipear, he wrote that BBC ALBA,
“…emulate slavishly English language television. Ready Steady Cook and Come Dancing can all be appreciated by the 60,000 bilingual viewers in the English language. We don’t need inferior versions of this cheap sgudal.”
The media-savvy young Gael of today is never going to be satisfied with a diet of ‘teuchtar’ tv which merely mimics what is available in English. Six hours of repeats a night will not save the language. It is clear the media has done much to widen the scope and vocabulary of the language – much-lauded current affairs program Eòrpa was the first Western media outlet to report from the ruins of Chernobyl. The problem is, with a channel to fill, BBC Alba has sacrificed quality over quantity. For urban Gaels, the media may often be their only contact with their mother-tongue. BBC Alba, which could have rescued the language from obscurity, kills it by trivializing it.
The state’s efforts to raise the profile of the language may well be undone by the gimmickry that is BBC Alba – people turn it off and it turns them off. Its parochialism led a recent commentator on Scotsman.com to mock Gàidhlig as barely “a Neanderthal patois.” What the language needs to survive is not low-cost attempts to be ‘cool’ but for its speakers to take it seriously. In the modern world, education has changed the perception of Gàidhlig – from the 1872 Education Act which banned its use in the classroom, to the 2500+ pupils now enrolled in Gàidhlig Medium Education. A study by Edinburgh University revealed bilingual pupils do better than their monoglot peers in Mathematics, Science and even English. Gàidhlig has become respectable – never again will the language’s future be in jeopardy because of institutionalized derision.
Yet GME has created a new Highland Line between the urban Gaels and those left behind in the islands. In Glasgow and Inverness, GME is available to S6 but, in the Western Isles it ceases abruptly at 12. Gàidhlig is relegated to an optional school subject, on par with French. In the islands, children are more likely to speak Gàidhlig comfortably and casually; the disregard for their native tongue at secondary level compliments BBC Alba’s banality, fostering the belief that Gàidhlig can never be a serious language of learning. How can young Gaels ever develop intellectually in their language if they are restricted to studying only literature? Imagine the paucity of English-speech if it were denied science, politics or philosophy!
The academic Derrick Thompson, proving Gàidhlig was perfectly capable of expressing modern scientific ideas, wrote in the introduction to his translation of an undergraduate biology textbook:
“I have always been strongly of the opinion that Gàidhlig is very good at embracing new concepts and that it was the sad history of the last 300 years that prevented us from doing this, steering us so often towards old-fashioned views and styles.”
If Gàidhlig has no intellectual relevance to the modern world then it will always be dismissed as a ‘waste of time.’ The future of Gàidhlig is in the hands of the island communities who speak it naturally; the state’s biggest mistake is to neglect to support GME there. The linguists Daniel Nettle and Suzanne Romaine note that Gàidhlig has seized no urban area where it is predominant – even Stornoway is “in no sense a Gaelic town.” To rectify this, the activist Finlay MacLeod suggested the setting up of a Gàidhlig-only village near Inverness, to create a “social space” for GME pupils to use their language outside of school. Although Arthur Cormack of Bòrd na Gàidhlig criticized him for promoting Gaelic ‘ghettoes,’ MacLeod was right to argue that, even with state-support in media and education, Gàidhlig cannot survive without a concentrated speaker base.
MacLeod, however, misses the point. There is still a Gàidhealtachd extant – the Western Isles, where Gàidhlig is a living community language – and state-aid should be focussed there. To correct the two-tier GME system, a Gàidhlig-secondary school should be set up in Lewis and, more radically, Gàidhlig should be the universal language of study in every Hebridean primary. To attract young Gaels back to the heartlands, the State should emulate the Irish Gaeltachts and subsidize house prices (pushed up by middle-class incomers) for families wishing to raise Gàidhlig-speaking children. If the state is truly dedicated to saving Gàidhlig, it must protect the last Gàidhealtachd and invest heavily in the local economy by supporting the renewables industry.
In conclusion, it is ultimately preferable to have 25,000 people out there chattering Gàidhlig to each other every day, than an alienated 100,000 who went through GME and whose only contact with Gàidhlig post-school is the BBC ALBA morass. While the state has created a solid and stable position for Gàidhlig in government, media and education, if the language is to survive, the Gaels themselves must speak it to the next generation. A Hebridean priest, after watching young Gaels at a school ceilidh, said: “It is all well and good singing and dancing in Gàidhlig but, if we want to keep what’s ours alive, we’ve got to be speaking it, thinking it, dreaming it.” Only in the Western Isles, that last bastion of living Gàidhlig, can this happen and the language truly be saved for the 21st century.