Saturday, 31 October 2009

Around Orkney

Now for something special. If you have ever wondered what a re-functionalised Scots used in high registers might sound like, a tantalising foretaste is provided by the BBC Scotland opt-out Around Orkney. It must be stressed here that the language used is neither traditional literary Scots based on the Central dialect nor the full-on Orkney tongue, which — unlike Ulster Scots — differs from it markedly. Rather it represents the furthest extent to which native speakers from a peripheral, egalitarian and cohesive society are willing to adapt their speech to formal written language. The non-standard elements that remain are panlectal Scots and can be heard every day not only in the Northern Isles but everywhere from Aberdeenshire to Donegal.

Thursday, 29 October 2009

Overplaying Both Hands

EBLUL reports this week on the European aspect of the continuing campaign for an Irish Language Act, with a letter sent by Bairbre de Brún and MEPs from six countries to the First and Deputy First Ministers. Given the subject matter, the roll-call of territories represented is unsurprising: Belgium, Catalonia, Corsica, Ireland, Latvia and Wales.

What, to outsiders, might seem more remarkable is the fact that there is no mention of the letter having been copied to the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure, the individual who would actually be responsible for introducing any Bill at Stormont. The missive’s authors, it would seem, do not believe the Minister in question amenable to persuasion.

If Sinn Féin arguably overplayed its hand in lending its support so vocally to a campaign summarily rejected by successive DUP Ministers, could it be that the DUP — specifically the current Culture Minister, Nelson McCausland — has done something similar? DCAL currently envisages greatly reduced spending on Irish. On several counts, the logic and rationale of its plans are problematic.

First, the budget for Irish has ostensibly been cut so that funding can be diverted towards an Ulster-Scots Academy, but given the very small sums involved, the question must be asked why DCAL did not simply make the argument to DFP for a larger budget.

Secondly, there is the issue of demand. There is simply much greater public expectation of spending on Irish than there is of spending on Ulster Scots, because there is so much more interest in the community at large.

Thirdly, there is the question of the extent to which concern for confessional parity of esteem has translated into literal equality becoming a shibboleth of language policy, whereby linguistic differences are overlooked and Irish and Ulster Scots are viewed as being the exclusive or overwhelming province of faith communities. As I once heard a weel-kent Irish-language activist say, a language is a series of grunts, and there is nothing “Protestant” or “Catholic” about any language. If Irish-speakers today are largely Catholic, it is because most speakers are elective learners. It is not true in the Republic of Ireland, where everyone, including Protestants, learns Irish; nor is it true of Scottish Gaelic in Scotland. The 1999 Northern Ireland Life and Times survey found that at least a quarter of those who speak Ulster Scots are Catholic.

Most importantly of all, there is the small matter of language status. While one can make an arguable case for Scots as a whole, which is currently a dialect largely because of its deliberate exclusion from public life, the same is hardly true of its Ulster offshoot, which is inextricably part of Scots for inalterable structural reasons. You will have seen Nelson McCausland’s justification for according language status to Ulster Scots in a recent posting. Much as I appreciate a theologian’s ability to argue about the number of angels that can fit on a pinhead, such verbal dexterity does not prove the existence of angels.

Going on the only official figures available — the 1996 GRO Scotland study and the 1999 Northern Ireland Life and Times survey, respectively — some 98% of UK Scots-speakers live in Scotland. DCAL can spend what it likes on promoting Scots in Ulster (the remit of the Ulster-Scots Agency, which according to my sources could not handle a massively increased budget). When it comes to standardisation and codification, however, it would seem reasonable to expect 98% of funding to come from the Scottish Government.

To many people, therefore, DCAL policy, as well as being anomalous at a UK level, seems unreasonable, arbitrary and chauvinistic. A cannier Unionist politician who wished to thwart the Irish language might simply have frozen spending on it. As matters stand, Mr. McCausland’s extreme budget reductions may have bolstered the case for rights-based legislation to protect the language, remove it from the political sphere, and limit drastically the discretionary element in its funding.

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

A Modest Proposal

A press release on the BBC website reports that the corporation’s executive has suggested the removal of its radio stations from the Freeview system in the evenings to make room for BBC Alba, which broadcasts between 5 p.m. and 11.30 p.m. each day.

As you may be aware, despite the considerable costs involved in setting up and funding the station, it has never been broadcast over the mainstream Freeview system, and until now there has been some doubt as to whether that would occur even after the final digital switch-over.

Might it be too much to hope for a similar dispensation to be made for TG4 in Northern Ireland? After all, the sea-change in the station’s availability promised in the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 has yet to occur, the principle of Freeview transmission was conceded in an OFCOM report of November 2007, and Northern Ireland will be among the very last regions to enjoy wider digital broadcasting possibilities after the analogue switch-off. The opt-out could be at a similar time in the schedules as in the case of BBC Alba, since it is generally in the evenings that TG4 broadcasts its new, home-grown, Irish-language output.

It would certainly be possible technically, and the BBC could make its own contribution by broadcasting its Irish programming immediately before or after on the same channel. Of course, if the BBC were to do as I suggest, it would be removing its own services — albeit hardly taken up through the medium in question — in favour of one based in the Irish Republic.

I wonder what it would decide.

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

An Identity of Bluster

The DCAL Minister Nelson McCausland has made an interesting post on the question of whether Ulster Scots can be termed a language, the gist being that, since the Moldovans have declared their dialect to be such, so can anyone.

The key phrase here is "while the country was and is independent, its 'language' is what its officials say it is". Moldova is not the same state as Romania, and so it has an absolute right to exercise "national preference" in favour of its citizens in a way that would not be acceptable within a single pan-Romanian state.

Northern Ireland and Scotland, on the other hand, are currently in the same state, and regardless of what the coming years may bring, will probably both remain in the European Union in some form. Overwhelming linguistic consensus agrees that Ulster Scots is a dialect of Scots, just as Moldovan is a dialect of Romanian. Indeed, the editor of the Concise Ulster Dictionary has gone as far as to say that Ulster Scots is a subdialect of Central Scots rather than a main dialect in its own right.

Advertising jobs and services as being relevant to speakers of "Ulster Scots" is indirectly discriminatory and therefore, in my view, illegal, since it discourages Scots-born Scots-speakers in the same way as it would if one advertised jobs and services for speakers of "Ulster English" or "Austrian German", which differ to a similar extent from neighbouring varieties.

The UK Government, and the EU, have accepted that they have a duty not to discriminate on ethnic grounds. No bureaucratic declaration that Ulster Scots is not Scots would withstand a challenge on the grounds of indirect discrimination; it would simply be found illegal.

The Minister's arguments are political rather than linguistic, display a relativism that in other contexts would be considered risible or dubious, and, in the final analysis, are grossly sophistical.