Scotland’s languages, Scotland’s people

At the People’s Gathering, in passing, someone said that all official documents in Scotland should be in “all three languages” – English, Scots, and Gaelic.

A sprakh is a dialekt mit en army un flot. – Max Weinreich

These days, it might be said that a language is a dialect with TV programmes and schools. I don’t know how you’d say that in Yiddish. Back when Scotland had an army and a navy, the language spoken through most of Scotland was referred to by its speakers as Inglis – it acquired the name of Scots only when Scotland had ceased to have either. (R.L.G. discusses the Scandinavian languages, which are similiar-but-politically-distinct.)

Lallans exists as a written language: spoken Scots has four main geographic “families”: Insular Scots of Orkney and Shetland; Northern Scots of Caithness, Easter Ross, Moray, Aberdeenshire and Angus; Central Scots of Central Lowlands and South west Scotland; and Southern Scots of the Scottish Borders and Dumfriesshire. (Plus, Scots-Yiddish and Scottish BSL.)

As for what are Scottish languages:

Scotland has a population of 5.22 million people of which 92,000, or just under 2%, have some knowledge of Gaelic. Scotland has been attracting inward migration since 2002: the 2001 Census showed a 2% non-white ethnic minority with the majority being of Pakistani origin, but by 2009 a national pupil survey showed 4.3% of school children mainly used a language other than English at home. 138 languages were recorded as having been spoken altogether, with Polish at the head of the list with 0.8% of the school population, followed by Panjabi, Urdu, Arabic, Cantonese, French and Gaelic respectively. Six hundred and twenty six pupils were registered as speaking mainly Gaelic at home, slightly less than one in 1,000. However, many more are receiving Gaelic medium education or are being taught Gaelic through the medium of Gaelic – 4,064 in 2011, equivalent to one in every 180 pupils.

The point of having official documents in multiple languages is not – should not be – as a nationalist flourish, but to ensure that everyone who needs to can read them.

I support having a Scottish education system that supports Gaelic for native speakers – however small that number is – but let’s recognise that having official documents in Lallans is a nationalist flourish, compared to the number of people who need to have official documents and verbal translations in Polish, Panjabi, Urdu, Arabic, and Chinese.

A lot of what the BNP fearmongerers talk up as the “threat” of immigration isn’t about immigration – it’s about unscrupulous employers making use of immigrants – legal and illegal – as cheap labour.

The handful of things the BNP protesters said at Meadowbank that were grounded in reality were about unemployment – which they blamed on immigrants – and low wages – which they blamed on immigrants. It was a very current illustration of how much easier it is to exploit people when they’re conned into thinking that the real problem is bloody foreigners.

But aside from where they cast blame, we do have high unemployment and we do have a culture of low wages (and employers blaming workers for not being “willing” to work for little or nothing).

That’s the problem. Not what language anyone speaks.

Being Scottish is a nationality, a choice, not a language or a religion or the colour of your skin.

Dan Hodges:

We know the British people want sensible, fair and balanced migration. But we know also they’re not into their country being turned into a fortress. Or seeing their fellow citizens, whatever their country of origin, being stigmatised. And they’re certainly not going to be told what to think by a travelling circus of second-rate Enoch Powell mini-mes.

Deep down I suspect the opponents of immigration know this. That’s why they’re the one’s who are now scared of having a serious and sensible discussion. Why they constantly feel the need to hide behind hyperbole and hysteria.

You want a debate about immigration? Me too. Bring it on.


Filed under Education, Racism, Scottish Culture

11 responses to “Scotland’s languages, Scotland’s people

  1. There seems to be an assumption in your post that supporting intergenerational transmission of autochthonous languages is somehow racist. However, in my view it is a completely different kettle of fish. The whole point is that *no one* is genetically predisposed to speak a certain language; that’s why most people in Scotland today, unlike their predecessors of only a few generations ago, are monoglot native speakers of Standard Scottish English. Like you, I am strongly in favour of translation services being made available to people where necessary to enable them to access services, but has there ever been a case of that service being denied to anyone because of the promotion of Scots or Gaelic?

    Can one not also argue for modest spending on Scots and Gaelic for reasons of cultural diversity, and does not Scotland, for better or worse, have prime responsibility in that regard? It would be perfectly possible for people to be clothed and housed in a uniform fashion — one need only think of the Cultural Revolution in China. No doubt reducing diversity like that would bring economic benefits through lower production costs, but would it actually improve the quality of people’s lives? Why is the tiny amount of funds that goes on maintaining linguistic diversity singled out for criticism? One might just as well criticise spending on maintaining cultural monuments such as castles or biodiversity — they’re iconic parts of Scotland too.

    Translating documents into Scots and Gaelic is about choice. Both of Scotland’s two greatest twentieth-century poets, Sorley MacLean and Hugh MacDiarmid, exercised that choice, since both could have written in English. Indeed, the same choice was also open to Burns, who could write perfect Standard English. Yes, it’s true that Scots is political, since its linguistic status is directly related to the Union. Gaelic, on the other hand, enjoys cross-party support; promoting it is certainly not a “nationalist flourish”. It’s about celebrating diversity, just as we celebrate other kinds of ethnic, religious or sexual diversity.

    I am a Scot living in Northern Ireland. My son is half-German and attends an Irish-speaking school. There are parents from England, Europe and Africa. None of them thinks it’s racist.

    • I don’t think it’s racist to support Gaelic.

      Supporting Scots – multiple dialects that have no agreed orthography – is a lot trickier.

      Spending money on translating official documents unnecessarily: that’s just wasteful. We need to have translations in Polish, Urdu, Panjabi, Arabic, Chinese, Braille, Scottish BSL, for Scots and legal residents who read these languages and not English. We do not need to have translations in Gaelic for people who are literate in Gaelic and not in English because there are no such people. Likewise we do not need to pick a dialect (or several) of Scots and translate documents into those dialects.

      I don’t see any reason to do so, except as a nationalistic flourish.

  2. That would be a perfectly logical view if it were possible genuinely and effectively to promote autochthonous languages without the bothersome business of actually providing services in them (in this case, translations). However, I’m afraid that with language it’s a case of “use it or lose it”. To me, what you’re saying is that Gaelic should be supported, only not in a way that actually results in its continued existence. As long as a minoritised idiom is not used monolingually to the exclusion of more widely understood languages, I can’t see what the problem is. Apart from anything else, it saves a lot of money and lives that might otherwise be lost to ethnic conflict, and it is widely accepted internationally that some states do accept the notion of a special responsibility in safeguarding minoritised idioms for future generations. Generally speaking those states tend to be richer and more liberal rather than more nationalist, and the very fact that there are two such speech varieties receiving support in Scotland should suggest that it is not some kind of chauvinist shtick.

    Modern Scots in fact has widely accepted pandialectal conventions such as the ui-digraph that work very well for all varieties with the possible exception of Insular Scots. Any weakening of that standard is directly related to lack of use, and transactional texts are one way of making it relevant again. The Scots dialects are in fact rather better catered for by traditional Modern Scots orthography than the traditional dialects of England are by Standard English.

    I might add that the need argument could be applied to equal marriage too — there is little legal difference — and I’m with you all the way on that one.

    • That would be a perfectly logical view if it were possible genuinely and effectively to promote autochthonous languages without the bothersome business of actually providing services in them

      At this point, with only six to seven hundred native Gaelic speakers, I think the useful services provided should be:
      (1) TV/radio programmes in Gaelic for children
      (2) Gaelic radio stations and web news sites for adults
      (3) Gaelic-language playgroups
      (4) education services to teach in Gaelic

      I just don’t see that translating official documents into Gaelic is the magic bullet.

      To me, what you’re saying is that Gaelic should be supported, only not in a way that actually results in its continued existence.

      How exactly is Gaelic’s continued existence dependent on having official government documents in Gaelic?

  3. That should have read “ui-digraph”, but the parenthesis seems to have caused it to disappear.

  4. Thank you. The full sentence is in the penultimate paragraph and should read “Modern Scots in fact has widely accepted pandialectal conventions such as the ui-digraph that work very well for all varieties with the possible exception of Insular Scots.” I’d orginally used arrow-type brackets that caused it the ui-part to disappear.

  5. “At this point, with only six to seven hundred native Gaelic speakers …”

    The 2001 census recorded 58,652 speakers of Scottish Gaelic. I don’t think the 2011 results are out yet. The learner community is still much smaller in Scotland than its equivalents in Wales or Ireland, so even allowing for a decline in the quality of Gaelic acquired outside the education system, a majority of those 58,652 people would probably have to be classed as native speakers. Perhaps you were quoting some sort of estimate for monoglot speakers.

    Although you’re quite right that all or nearly all Gaelic-speakers can also read English, it may well be the case that those who have been through the Gaelic-medium education system can read Gaelic documents more quickly or comfortably — one leads to the other.

    Translating documents into Gaelic has several other benefits, acting as “advertising” for the language by making it more visible, raising its sociolinguistic status, encouraging writing and reading skills and the development of new terminology, and promoting the establishment and maintenance of a Gaelic-speaking professional class and ultimately Gaelic-speaking workplaces. Not least, it shows that Gaelic is an accepted and cherished part of Scottish life. Far from being a “nationalist flourish”, in my experience Gaelic is very often viewed as a *regional* language, and Gaelic-speakers sometimes as the ethnic “other”. For every cultural nationalist intellectual supportive of Gaelic, there’s some smart alick ridiculing it as the gibberish of heedrum-hodrum teuchters. Under James VI, the last King of Scots, there was even legislation against it. Of course, there may be priorities when it comes to safeguarding minoritised languages, and the translation of *all* official documents wouldn’t be top of my list, either. Translations in isolation won’t turn the language’s fortunes around, but then neither would any one of the four services that you list. In fact many public organisations recognise cost considerations by translating only the most important documents and posting pdfs on their websites rather than printing leaflets. However, it would be a comparatively rare occurrence for translations to be paid for out of the same budget as television or playgroups, anyway. In my case, I do the odd translation into Irish Gaelic for my employer once or twice a year. The results are posted on the Internet as pdfs at very little cost to the state.

    • Perhaps you were quoting some sort of estimate for monoglot speakers.

      Nope. I was quoting the 2009 pupil survey which found 641 primary school students spoke Gaelic at home. That doesn’t, in all honesty, suggest there can be more than 2000 people in Scotland who live in a household in which Gaelic is spoken. Even if we double-up and round up, it strongly suggests that the vast majority of people who count themselves Gaelic speakers aren’t actually native speakers.

      I know of no one who claims that there are any monoglot speakers of Gaelic in Scotland.

    • You’ve raised a lot of interesting points there, by the way, and I have another post to write on “Cultural Rights” sometime soon in the Constitutional series. So I’m going to think these over and either respond to them or link to them from that post. Thanks for commenting.

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