Wings Over Scotland published a really stupid article today, and a really good article. Well, technically it was the same article, but both halves of the article were very interesting for different reasons. So, while I’ll only discuss the disagreements briefly, I’ve been percolating a post about Scottish Gaelic for a while, and this provides an excellent prompt.
From the outset, I disagree entirely with the Reverend’s opinion on Scottish Gaelic. We’ll put aside the bizarre equivalence of a language to some of the most appalling events in Scottish history – that’s the Unionists’ job. The Rev appears to judge a language by its usefulness as a communication method, which makes language into a sort of league table based on which is most commonly spoken. This appears very much in line with David Mitchell’s* thoughts (aside from the “spending public money” comment, which the Reverend addresses):
Now, neither the Reverend or Mr Mitchell are anti-Gaelic like, say, Ian Jack, Hugh Reilly or Alan Massie. I can’t see a raging Gaelophobe deigning to present a book they wrote translated into Gaelic. And I think the Reverend has more than proven his active and effective opposition to British imperial ventures. Nonetheless, I think it’s easy to see how some of the words and phrases used in the article (comparing a language to historical atrocities, promotion of Scottish Gaelic leads to “exclusion of outsiders,” “blood and soil nationalism,” “barrier to communication,” and make Scots “feel like uncultured aliens in their own lands”) might strike some in the Scottish Gaelic lobby as not being too far away from the histrionic Unionist polemics he so frequently – and rightly – skewers. That’s the insidiousness of cultural imperialism, and what it does to language.
It is indeed technically true that you would be better served learning Chinese or Spanish if your goal is to learn only the language that you deem will help you speak to the largest number of undefined future strangers. It is also technically true that the Highland Clearances and Witch Trials make up our cultural heritage as much as Scottish Gaelic has. The thing is, things being technically true only tell part of the story. As far as I’m aware – and I will cheerfully retract this if it is untrue – it is technically true that Stuart Campbell and Ian Smart are Homo sapiens: being technically true is only paramount if you’re an evil robot or, worse, a bureaucrat. Language is a tool of communication, yes, but equally importantly, language is a conduit of culture. Each language in the world has its own quirks, facets, and intricacies which mark them as unique, and can reveal an entirely different way of looking at the world.
Nonetheless, the Rev’s intent is clear from the rest of the post: basically it seems to be “I have no investment in Scottish Gaelic or vested interests whatsoever, in fact I think putting Gaelic names on road signs is stupid and useless – so I can say with no bias whatsoever that Jackson Carlaw is a great galloping galloot.” What follows is a defence of the promotion of Scottish Gaelic, stupid as he thinks it is, against the mendacious obfuscation of the Deputy Leader of the Scottish Conservatives. He correctly points out that not only the SNP, but New Labour and the Conservatives supported the Gaelic Language Act; he cites studies that show any costs incurred are more than made up (though even that’s just scratching the surface); he points out Mr Carlaw is in absolutely no position to call anything offensive. Skip the first four paragraphs, and you have a fantastic and valuable resource for anyone engaging with those who delight in this sort of nakedly anti-Scottish propaganda.
The Herald wasn’t that wrong: the independence debate has radicalised me something fierce. I started out mildly pro-Monarchy (come on, I was in the Scouts!), but after two years of royal browbeating and the queen’s illegal intervention, I now consider the SSP’s republicanism positively mild. Similarly, I started off rather centrist and didn’t want to rock the boat: now I’m definitely on the Loony Left Fringe of the SNP. And I started off being rather apathetic towards the promotion of Gaelic, thinking it a nice little cultural artefact – but the same research, reading and analysis which led to my denial of the monarchy and leftward lurch bred the fanaticism of the convert for a vital facet of our country’s culture.
One of the first people I began following in the independence debate was Paul Kavanagh, aka Wee Ginger Dug. The first I read of him was, fortuitously, his brilliant ten part history on Scottish Languages on Newsnet Scotland. And interestingly, he pre-empts the Rev’s post with thoughts more in line with my thinking from a post a few days ago:
The purpose of Gaelic signage is to give the language a public presence. Gaelic was once the dominant language of all of Scotland north and west of a line drawn roughly from Gretna to Musselburgh, and was even found in the far south east as well. Gaelic signs remind us all that the English language has never been the only language of Scotland, and make a public statement that the language enjoys respect and support. That’s why they’re there, to remind English speaking Scots that their lazy assumption of English language dominance can and should be challenged, and that’s why members of the Scottish political and cultural establishment object to them.
But more than that, Gaelic and Scots have been marginalised because of the actions of the state, so the state has a duty to ensure that the languages survive. That’s moral restitution, it’s the repayment of a debt. We owe it to our languages, we owe it to ourselves.
English is by no means the ultimate language despite all the borrowing it does: there are many things there is no word for even after centuries. Schadenfreude is most famous, the German term for deriving enjoyment from another’s misfortunes. English has no word for the simple action of going outside to check if anyone is coming in; in Inuit, they have the single word – iktsuarpok. A parent who relentlessly pushes their child towards academic excellence may not have any single word in English, but in Japanese, such a mother is a Kyoikumama. The deep, almost spiritual power of art to move you? The Spanish call it duende. There’s even a great Scots word that has no immediate English equivalent: you know when you’re introducing someone to a friend, then you suddenly forget their name, and pause dumbfounded? That’s a tartle.**
So to Gaelic. Much as many mock Gaelic’s dearth of translations for “English” words like television, there are some terms that elude a direct English equivalent. Sgimilearachd: the act of rudely interrupting someone while they’re eating. Allabhuadhach: someone who is victorious, but in disgrace. Claidean: an absurd hammering at anything. Nigead: those little sobs or sighs you make before or after weeping. Atamaich: to fondle an unreasonable person.
But it goes deeper than that. Different languages can formulate not just different methods of communicating, but altering the very way you perceive the world. In many languages, inanimate objects are referred to with gender prefixes, whereas English has “it.” Other languages can be far more specific in fewer syllables. Syntax and grammar, emphasis and focus, the very order of nouns and verbs, can alter a meaning in profound ways. In Gaelic, there is no “Yes” or “No” – a predicament shared by Yes Scotland and Better Together, who settled on Bu Chòir and Cha Bu Chòir respectively. So how do Gaelic speakers answer questions?***
Gaelic shares a considerable amount of vocabulary and grammar with other Indo-European languages, such as the Germanic or Latinate language families, but differs significantly in a number of respects. Some of these are as follows:
- The usual word order in Gaelic is Verb, Subject, Object, unlike the typical English word order of Subject, Verb, Object. (Gaelic word order is occasionally altered to Subject, Verb, Object, for purposes of emphasis or identity.)
- Gaelic has no indefinite particle “a” or “an” as in “a house”, which would simply be “taigh”. “The house” would be “an taigh.” “The house is small” is “tha an taigh beag.” (However, “caite a’bheil an taigh beag?” would be understood as “where is the toilet?” – a useful phrase in any language, although not one of ritual character.)
- Gaelic lacks the equivalent of the verb “to have,” using a construction such as, “tha taigh agam” – literally “[a] house is at me”, rather than “I have a house.” This form is consistent for most things one “has”; a house, a cat, a spouse; an illness, however, is “on” the individual. Other things, such as hunger or thirst, are also “on” or “in” the person (or thing.) One says, “tha an padagh orm” – “the thirst is on me”, rather than “I am thirsty.” [See Appendix A for the different forms of the prepositions aig (at), air (on), le (with, by), ann (in), and do (to).]
- Gaelic has no exact equivalent to “yes” or “no”; instead, most questions are answered by repeating the verb in the appropriate manner. “A bheil thu a’dol anise?” (“are you going now?”) would be answered with “tha” (literally “am”) or “chan eil” (“am not”).
- In common with other modern Celtic languages, Gaelic words often have initial mutations, called lenitions, which depend on the preceding word or on their syntax. The two most common of these are caused by the possessives mo (my), do (your) or a (his), and the vocative case. As an example of lenition, Talamh-Màthair, (Earth Mother) becomes Thalamh-Màthair when addressed; the initial T is then silent, shifting the pronunciation from TA-lahv to HA-lahv. If one were simply addressing “Màthair”, the word would mutate as “a Mhàthair”, and the pronunciation would change from MAH-hair to VAH-hair. (A full survey of lenitions would be too extensive to attempt here.)
- In common with many other Indo-European languages, although not English, Gaelic nouns have gender, and there is no neutral gender or “it” in the language. The gender of inanimate objects must be learned by experience, as there seems to be no particular order, and unlike the Latinate languages, the gender is not indicated by the orthography.
- Most Gaelic adjectives, like those of many European languages (although again, not English) follow the noun they modify. Thus, “an cù dubh” literally, “the dog black.”
- There are two forms of the verb “to be”, the more common being “tha”, and the other “is”, which is used for persons or other animate things, as in “is mise Rowen”, “I am Rowen”, or “is an athro a tha ann”, “it is the teacher that is in him”, i.e. “he is a teacher.”- A Focus on Scots Gaelic
Bu Chòir, as the answer to the question “Should Scotland be an independent country?” is, effectively, “should.” Not an impersonal statement that could be read as fact, but a statement of will, of intent. We can, we could, we should.
When you go to live or visit in Kenya, people very gently and enthusiastically inform you that “we don’t say hello, we say Jambo!” It’s such an exciting word that you can’t wait to copy it: it’s more like an exclaimation. The next thing you hear after Jambo is “habari,” or “habari-yako,” to which the answer will be “Mzuri sana.” Kenyans encourage people to learn this quickly, and even add to the small, repetitive conversation (“unatoka wapi,” “twende,” “asante sana,” etc). It’s a comfort zone for greeting people, the same way as people say “good morning, it’s a lovely day today,” someone else will say back “good morning, yes it’s a lovely day,” they talk about the weather or enquire how we feel, to which the answer should always, politely, be… “fine.” It’s a brush with the culture: you are in Kenya, there is no doubt about it, this is the language they speak… even back when it was a British colony, and everyone spoke perfect English.
But Scottish Gaelic, according to many of its critics, doesn’t count – not really. “It isn’t indigenous to Scotland, it came over from Ireland, so if anything we should be speaking Pictish,” or some variation thereof, blissfully ignoring that this argument only makes English even less legitimate as non-indigenous. “It’s a waste of money” – except, as the Rev pointed out, it pays for itself and then some. “It was only ever spoken in the Highlands & Islands, certainly not most of the country.” I’ve heard this with my own birth town, Greenock. The revisionist etymology is that the name derives from “Green Oak,” a folk etymology that flourished from the 1700s onward: apparently, nobody spoke Gaelic in Greenock until the influx of Irish in the 18th century. Yet there had been human habitation in the Greenock area for centuries beforehand, to the point where the Brittonic Graenag (“gravelly/sandy place”) is a strong contender, as what is now Greenock was in the heartlands of the ancient Kingdom of Strathclyde.
Gaelic is unusual even among other Indo-European languages, and represents one of the last branches of a tree all but lost with the passage of time – exacerbated by larger languages of one type or another. There is nothing natural about the death of a language, for a language has no life of its own save that of its own speakers: those raised and steeped in the language. It’s more than an indulgence for a minority – it’s a vital link to other humans across space and time. People are willing to die to preserve these precious connections to those lives that came before.
This is Khaled al-Asaad, director of antiquities and museums in Palmyra, Syria. He spent his life studying, curating, and restoring artifacts of the ancient Roman city. He named his daughter after Zenobia, ancient Palmyra’s most famous daughter, who led a rival to the Roman Empire at the arguable height of Rome’s power. When forces dedicated to the eradication of history and culture came to Palmyra with accusations of idolatry and apostasy, he transferred the portable antiquities to safety. He remained behind to protect the site from its would-be destroyers. He was tortured, bombarded with demands to reveal the locations of artefacts. He refused to betray Palmyra. His silence led to his murder.
Nobody has to die to protect Scottish Gaelic from eradication, and thank all that is good for that. But unlike ancient Palmyra, Scottish Gaelic is still alive, with native speakers of a thousand generations of native speakers still living. It doesn’t have to become an artefact, bones that can only be restored, or reconstructed – never brought back. It doesn’t have to join Pictish, Cumbric, Brittonic or Norn: it can persist. We can keep that part of us alive.
Road signs may seem small. Some may even find them irritating. But that’s what change is all about. Changing from imperial to metric was an inconvenience to begin with, but we got over it. Switching from Farenheit to Celsius was a bother at first, but we managed. And the presence of Gaelic road signs is naturally going to be a bit rough to begin with – but we’re the frontiersmen. We’re building a new Scotland, one that seeks to redress centuries of marginalisation and ridicule and neglect. Nobody said it would be an easy ride, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
We can do this. Should we?
*I love Mr Mitchell dearly as a comedian and think he speaks great sense on a good number of subjects, but if he actually did say ” You may be happily in cahoots with the morris-dancing English and the Eisteddfod-organising Welsh, but my country, the Britain of London where I now live, of Swansea, my mother’s home town where I spent a lot of time as a child, and of Galloway, where my paternal grandparents lived, is something you want to destroy” to Nicola Sturgeon as he wanted to, at least we’d lose ambiguity about his British nationalism and the sense of entitlement that sometimes manifests. It’s a bit like men who respond to discussions about feminism with “but what about us poor men?”
**This is not to imply that languages are nothing more than great big grab-bags of words: languages reflect cultures in their different priorities. Hence why some cultures will have more words for some things and not for others, while others see no need to use a single word for some abstract concepts at all. It’s all about what’s important to their culture, and how their language serves them. Many thanks to Sandy Nicholson in the comments for pointing this out.
***An earlier version of this post rather clumsily used a quote regarding Irish, since both Irish and Scottish Gaelic have a similar convention regarding the affirmative. Unfortunately, it gives the impression the two languages are interchangeable at best, and “just the same language” at worst, which was absolutely not my intention. I’ve done some more work, and found a more suitable quotation. Thanks to Sandy Nicholson and Anna in the comments.
… I really, really should have thought that title through, shouldn’t I?