Scotland speaks in tongues

Eric Hobsbawm cites Renan as saying that “Getting its history wrong is part of being a nation”.  Part of the movement to create a story for Scotland has been the emphasis on Gaelic, a language spoken in some parts and hardly at all in others, where the dominant language was Scots, though variants included Lallans, Doric and dialects incorporating Norse.  Some people use Gaelic at home, mainly in the Western Isles, but more use Scots or Polish, and other languages spoken in Scotland include Urdu, Punjabi, Chinese, French, British Sign Language, German and Spanish.  Most people I’ve discussed the issue with regard the attempt to create a fictive Gaelic heritage with a bemused tolerance – it pleases some people, and it doesn’t do much harm.  When it starts interfering in the interactions between citizens and government, it’s another matter.

Fife Council’s Gaelic Language Plan 2015-2018 is up for consultation.  It tells us that in an online survey of council employees, they were able to identify 14 people who understood some Gaelic.  No-one claimed to speak it well; two spoke it ‘fairly well’, and seven people could read it.  That is out of over 20,000 employees (the last figure I have was 20,400).  The plan also proposes to put the home web page – the one that people come to when they are looking for help – half in Gaelic. So Fife Council is proposing to put half its web page into a language that only seven staff it knows of can read.

The problem is not just that Gaelic is not spoken in practice, but that speaking it (or claiming to speak it) is a way of defining insiders and outsiders.   What does it communicate, when local government  presents itself  in a language that very few people in the area use?   To people with limited access to broadband, using mobile technology or just struggling to use the web, it’s an obstacle to making contact or getting information.  To people whose first language is not English, it elevates Gaelic to a status that we don’t give to other minority languages – a good way to tell people they’re third class.  To people with limited functional literacy – more than a fifth of the people in Scotland –  it’s another hurdle to negotiate.   And to people who aren’t bilingual in Gaelic, the message is  simply this:  “you are an outsider”.  It’s hard to think of an approach that’s more exclusive.

12 comments

  1. Gareth Morgan

    Have you considered that this policy is for the benefit of the public rather than the staff? WIth little chance of receiving a service in Gaelic (which may well be the native, local language for most of its speakers) from council staff then it seems eminently reasonable to meet that need using technology. If you demonstrated that the level of usage amongst the public was zero then your point would be stronger but it is possible that the criticism should be directed to the recruitment policies of the local authority.

    Gyda dymuniadau gorau o Gymru.

    • Paul Spicker

      Yes, Gareth, I did consider that. The problem is that Gaelic is not a ‘native, local language’ for people living in Fife, or indeed for most other Scottish local authorities. The census lists 24,974 people speaking Gaelic at home of whom 10,882 are in the Western Isles, 5,447 in Highland and 2,305 in Glasgow. The number for Fife is 156. In Fife, the Census returns report that 334,624 people in Fife are English speakers, and the languages that are most spoken after that are, in order, Scots (3,437), Polish (2,671) and British Sign Language (951). 10,719 people speak other languages. In Aberdeen, Dundee and Edinburgh, 9.2%, 6.3% and and 9.8% of people speak other languages and 0-0.2% speak Gaelic. If this was about the public, or about service to minorities, we’d start where they are – with translation into the languages people actually speak rather than one which activists think they really ought to learn.

  2. alasdairmaccaluim

    Your poorly informed and historically inaccurate piece goes to prove that “getting its history wrong is part of being a nation”. Additionally, the plan is very limited indeed in what it proposes to do for Gaelic.

    • Paul Spicker

      If I’m ‘poorly informed’ or ‘historically inaccurate’, please say why. I’m aware of the case that Gaelic was widespread in Scotland in the 12th Century – see this link. However, that doesn’t show that the language had the same role in later centuries, and I can’t see why that is relevant to arguments about reviving the language now. Even if Fife did use Gaelic in the 12th century, it makes no more sense to put Fife’s website into Gaelic now than it would to put English local government websites into Norman French.

      • Akerbeltz

        Alasdair, here’s your chance for a Prof instead of the Dr in your name, sounds like professorships must really be real easy at the Robert Gordon University if that’s the level of academic rigour they expect 3:) …

      • Paul Spicker

        I’ve approved several comments now despite the dismissive tone, because they raise substantive points that deserve to be thought about. I’ll reply to these, but I don’t have to post any of your comments, and if they’re gratuitously insulting, or don’t actually engage with the arguments, I won’t in future.

        In the initial blog, I wrote about the proposal: “The plan also proposes to put the home web page – the one that people come to when they are looking for help – half in Gaelic. ” That’s the same point that I’m being taken to task for not knowing about here. On the ‘facepalm errors’ in the post from Akerbeltz:

        • Point 1 is responded to in my first response to Alasdair Maccaluim. Saying that Gaelic has been spoken “at some point in history” is irrelevant.
        • The figures in my response to Gareth come from the Census tabulations.
        • Point 3 is not a factual point. If you want to preserve wildcats, fine, but don’t do it at the expense of the people who are marginal, vulnerable or excluded.

        Neither of you has engaged with my main argument, which is not about history or heritage. Imposing Gaelic on a non-Gaelic speaking population is exclusionary and difficult to reconcile with a local government’s duty to be accessible to its citizens.

  3. Akerbeltz

    If you want your anti-Gaelic stance to be taken seriously, then to begin with, get your facts right. Facepalm error 1: Gaelic at some point in history was spoken everywhere in Scotland except the Northern Isles and the corner around Berwick, though it was thin on the ground in the Borders at the best of time. Scots only became the dominant language after the demise of Gaelic. Facepalm error 2: Only about half of the Gaelic speaking population live in the Western Isles and Highlands these days. Read the census. The other half lives mostly in the Central Belt. Facepalm error 3: It is worthy of protection over other languages (and for a language, same as for the golden eagle, that means active support, not just ‘we won’t persecute you any longer’) because it is an *indigenous* language, meaning it is spoken here by people who have been here a very long time and nowhere else in the world. If the Scottish wildcat becomes extinct, there will be no more, anywhere, because it only exists here. If Gaelic dies in Scotland, that’s it, because it does not exist elsewhere as an indigenous language, barring a tiny number of people in Nova Scotia.

    What a rookie anti-Gaelic rant…

  4. Donald

    I have to add paul Spicker that the colonisation and subsequent aggressive subjugation of Gaelic culture and language by the Scottish and British state has some bearing on this argument. The numbers that critics so often refer to are as a result of hundreds of years of direct and not so direct attacks on Gaelic culture. There is much physical evidence for this aggressive colonial thinking in the various legislation (Statutes of Iona, Education Act etc.), the millitray occupation (a string of large forts with Hanovernian names and many smaller barracks throughout the Highlands) and the fact that Gaelic was never included as an official language in the past. Chiefs sons were sent to be eductated in English speaking schools (amongst the British establishment another colonial technique seen all over, designed at placing the Anglo Saxon world as the official/superior one) under the threat of forfeiture of land.
    Do you have the same feelings towards other languages and cultures that were colonised and driven to near extinction? How about the native American/First People languages? What about the Maori and aboriginal languages? Should they all be denied official status and inroads into turning back centuries of deliberate attack and undermining too?

    The Gaelic culture was not a mere language or dialect closely related to the official English (that was being backed by the state) like the Scots dialects/language were. It was a long standing culture in its own right and as such offers a far more unique view of the world. It had its own very different classical music through pibroch for example. “Gaeldom was one of the great civilizations of Europe and encompassed Ireland and much of Scotland during the early medieval period. Although confined to the western isles and Highlands within Scotland by the later medieval period, this was a culture that enjoyed many cultural and intellectual accomplishments, having its own native professional classes (doctors, lawyers, literati, musicians, etc) and its own indigenous features.” http://virtualgael.wordpress.com/2014/01/20/the-highland-clearances-in-the-long-view-of-history/ (this is a good link to an article concerning the Gaelic world and colonialism more generally). What is more a sizeable amount of the Scottish population spoke Gaelic over a large area of the land before the culture came under the really sustained post1746 attack.

    There was also a certain amount of official psuedo scientific racisim going on where Irish and Scottish Celts were seen as a diseased and inferior liability. This has been covered by TM Devine ‘To the Ends of the Earth’ and a wiki contribution seen below using quotes from Scottish papers at the time.
    “With the development of pseudoscientific racist ideas from about 1850, the Clearances were at times supported by belief that the Celtic “race” was inferior to the Anglo Saxon “race”.[30] George Combe’s popular and influential The Constitution of Man, published in 1828, provided a framework which would be used by some to support theories of racial superiority. In 1850 Robert Knox published “The Races of Men” which asserted the inferiority of the Celt compared to the Anglo Saxon and Nordic races.

    The view that the economic failures of the Highlands were due to the shortcomings of the Celtic race was shared and expressed by the two most important Scottish newspapers, The Scotsman and the Glasgow Herald – and even the more northerly Inverness Courier.[30]

    In 1851 The Scotsman wrote that

    “Collective emigration is, therefore, the removal of a diseased and damaged part of our population. It is a relief to the rest of the population to be rid of this part.”[31]

    Similar views were held by senior public officials. Sir Charles Trevelyan was co-founder with Sir John McNeill of the Highland and Island Emigration Society. In a letter to McNeill in 1852 he wrote that

    “A national effort” would now be necessary in order to rid the land of “the surviving Irish and Scotch Celts”. The exodus would then allow for the settlement of a racially superior people of Teutonic stock. He welcomed “the prospects of flights of Germans settling here in increasing numbers – an orderly, moral, industrious and frugal people, less foreign to us than the Irish or Scotch Celt, a congenial element which will readily assimilate with our body politic.”[32]

    (The “flights of Germans” in the above quotation may relate to significant emigration from Germany in the years that followed the failure of the German March Revolution of 1848)”

    This is a post colonial situation where one colonised culture seeks to redress the balance of being deliberately undermined and denied any kind of official status. Gaelic culture lost its leaders through the usual colonial methods of forced education and forced adoption of British feudal or capitalist systems (that it was always forced may be debatable but so is the whether they had any real choice). Gaelic became a language of the peasants (mostly from the crofting counties where they had fought and won the right to stay and croft the land- elsewhere Gaelic died out as people were removed abroad or to the cities). The Highlands were emptied and replaced with massive hunting estates. The people were removed and their ancient culture looked down on.

    The thing is I might even agree with your point that Fife Council did Gaelic no favours by using Gaelic where it might cause confusion and irritate people. I also struggle to see why Gaelic is used in some circumstances where it might not be appreciated. However, I really don’t see the need for you to attack the notion of Gaelic as having had any relevance within Scotland over that of dialects/languages that didn’t suffer the same colonial degredations. Language used such as ‘fictive Gaelic heritage’ alongside a numbers game is typical of a lot of the mild xenophobia I have seen across the net against Gaelic. How can you so casually dismiss the importance of Gaelic to Scotland by using the numbers game without any acknowledgement of the history behind why the numbers are so low. Or does it come down to you being a believer in ‘progress’ and the British way as against the other cultures?
    On another point. Other people have mentioned how Gaelic is now spoken as much in the central belt as in its traditional heartlands. People across Scotland are sending their children to Gaelic schools and want to see there being more Gaelic in day to day life (which is why it is more complicated than just treating it like a language where you should go out to rather than a more general approach[basically only to aid people who can’t understand English]) . Gaelic has been denied official status and had legislation passed against it in the past. It has a long history of being excluded. Your points about the inclusion of Gaelic somehow being exclusive of others are laughable. In fact they are just more in a long history of English speaking/official exclusiveness. Now that we are at last getting token gestures towards equality we are made to feel bad about it and our culture again is to be belittled. As if Gaelic Scotland had never had any relevance to Scotland.

    This is not either or. I see this argument time and again. The inclusion of Gaelic is somehow anti all other immigrants. Or anti Scots. It is divisive nonsense. I support more use of Scots and aiding people who use other languages. I also am not of the opinion that immigrants should have to speak English.

    Gaelic is a modern factor whether you like it or not. It is not mythical to state that Gaelic culture has held a very strong place within Scotland’s identity. Gaelic culture was even misappropriated and used as Scottish identity when actual Gaelic culture was most under attack. Gaelic has a massive and rich cultural repertoire that can be explored and enjoyed. I would ask you to please be more careful about how you make your points. The degredation and insinuation that using Gaelic is deliberately exclusive of English speakers is ill judged in my opinion. Can you imagine telling an Australian Aborigine that the use of his/her language in an official arena (alongside an English version [where in fact the vast majority was in English and not their language) was exclusive of the English speaking community??

    • Donald

      I just have to add the 3rd class remark is particularly telling. I am guessing it isn’t English that is 2nd class. Perhaps those in minorities would feel that the inclusion of a Scottish minority language was a positive thing and showed that the Council would have sympathy for their similar minority situation?? I wonder sir are you a member of a cultural minority?

      • Paul Spicker

        Yes, I am; and although it is not the main focus of my work, I have also conducted exploratory research with minority groups. Here are three comments from that research:

        “We feel more vulnerable. We feel like outsiders.”
        “Because I can’t speak very well, causes many problems. If we spoke better English this would help. But cannot afford college courses.”
        “It is difficult to communicate with foreigner, when they knock at my door, so I sometimes feel scare.”

        There are widespread problems in Scotland of marginality and exclusion – not all are linked to language, but some are. The idea that people from minority ethnic groups will find further obstacles to communication reassuring is fanciful.

  5. DR

    It really doesn’t occur to you that “despite the dismissive tone” is a deeply ironic thing to say, when what you have yourself done is dip your superficial oar into a complex and highly problematized discourse in a wholly unoriginal way (the latter indicating that you simply are not familiar with the fact there is a discourse, never mind what it involves). “Despite the dismissive tone” of your original post, people did try to educate you (though I note that’s now hidden). I know – from both personal experience and academic expertise – that this is a waste of effort with those who make this kind of statement about *any* language, so I shall not bother to list the many, many disciplines on which your post manages to touch without recognition, the multifarious cross-cultural examples and inter-disciplinary studies, the vast body of literature you imagine your naive opinion to outweigh. I’ll just note your ‘evidence’ is that people you know think this way: they, like you, are “bemused”. One of the things we, as researchers, can do when we encounter the priceless opportunity of our own bemusement, is research. Or blog. QED.

    As you provide a sentence summary of where you’re at though, let’s look: not at your knowledge of Gaelic, of course, but of modernity. “Imposing Gaelic on a non-Gaelic speaking population is exclusionary and difficult to reconcile with a local government’s duty to be accessible to its citizens.” Imposition of a language is a particular and rather well-defined socio-cultural process. It is not putting something on a website: exposure =/= imposition. As for the non-speaker aspect, one may as well say “imposing formal language on a non-formal-language population (by having it on a website alongside language accessible to them) is exclusionary”. You know, of course, that is the *opposite of* exclusionary – it expands the linguistic options available to site-users (*whether or not* they individually can or wish to use them). Further, it’s revealing that you prefer a very 50s definition of citizens. Are 21st century Fifers all Fifers, and always already Fifers? Does no-one move to Fife? Are Fife websites restricted to Fife devices? Are only Fifers interested in Fife? Does no-one commute from Fife to Edinburgh? Has no Fife gentleman ever married a lady from beyond the kingdom, or vice-versa? Must bilingualism be acquired in strict order of population prevalence (how would that *work*)? Must everyone who visits Fife – assuming, of course, that in your imagination, anyone *does* – become a ‘native’ with the total history that entails, thus erasing their every previous cultural experience?

    Clearly, the answer to all these questions is a simple no. And yet all are required by your assumption of site users’ possible relationship to Gaelic (or *any* language, or type of language). Fife Council’s citizens are *not* who you reflexively imagine them to be, and I can attest from personal experience that their website audience embraces all of Scotland and beyond. It’s not about Gaelic. It’s about uncritical thinking. Which, of course, you are free to practice, but only and always to the detriment of your own reputation.

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