Saturday, 30 October 2010

A Culture of Calumny

The Blether Region has been debating with the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure, Nelson McCausland, over at the latter's blog page. The spark came when Mr. McCausland criticised as unbalanced a podium discussion on Conflict in the Middle East held under the auspices of the Belfast Festival at Queen's, an event that he had not himself attended (the Blether Region was actually present and can confirm that it wasn't half as unbalanced as Mr. McCausland suggested). Nelson-watchers will recall that this comes on top of many highly detailed public complaints from the Minister about the policies and practices of arts organisations — complaints that, rightly or wrongly, could easily be interpreted as attempts to bully the cultural community into absolute adherence to the personal agenda of the man who is, after all, controller of their purse-strings.

Alarmingly, in his blog posting, the Minister repeats a transparently baseless accusation made by the right-wing journalist Melanie Phillips against one of the participants in the discussion, Professor Beverly Milton-Edwards, who, she said, has "a history of promoting the interests of Islamist terrorists". Phillips once memorably labelled Independent Jewish Voices "Jews for Genocide", i.e. of fellow Jews, but her ugly record of distasteful hyperbole seems not to have perturbed the Minister.

Although sympathetic to the plight of the Palestinians, Professor Milton-Edwards made it abundantly clear during the event at the Crescent Arts Centre, Belfast that she is not a supporter of Hamas, criticising it both for its "abhorrent" violence against civilians and for its anti-semitism. Indeed, Mr. McCausland makes no attempt to explain why an outspoken Western feminist should lend her support to Islamic fundamentalism, instead drawing readers' attention to the rather circumstantial fact that Professor Milton-Edwards had apparently not succeeded in having the claims removed from Melanie Phillips's blog — assuming, of course, that the Professor had actually read them.

The Jewish Chronicle has since reported that the family of Professor Milton-Edwards has been threatened.

Yet still the Minister has not removed from his blog the wholly false allegation that he blithely repeated against her.

Unfortunately, the Blether Region's last substantive contribution to the debate on the Minister's blog seems not to have appeared, although Mr. McCausland did publish a now meaningless correction to it. No doubt the post, which mentioned the threats against Professor Milton-Edwards and the Minister's connections with the white-supremacism-tinged British-Israel World Federation, got lost in the ether. One suspects that many Jews, including vocal supporters of Israel, might have qualms about canvassing the support of someone with such dubious associations.

Friday, 22 October 2010

Language Borders and Barriers

Wednesday's News Letter carries a piece headlined "You can speak Irish and support union". The article itself is not about language, but it is interesting that the sub-editor has seen fit to extract the issue from a longer sentence: "You can speak Irish, play gaelic football, be a Catholic and support the Union." Might it be that speaking Irish is considered the most artificially political of the three, perhaps even Republican? If so, that says a good deal about people's prejudices, as well as the fact that they don't know their neighbours. One (ostensibly liberal) Unionist pundit, Newton Emerson, even went as far as to make the bizarre claim in a BBC documentary broadcast on 17 March 2010 that no one in Northern Ireland habitually spoke the language. Not many Catholic friends there, then.

Of course one can speak Irish and support the Union, and there are Protestant and Unionist Irish-speakers to prove it. What neither the article nor the headline addresses (why would they?) is the question of whether, based on the sole criterion of the best deal for Irish, a voter would place his or her cross for the union. The Blether Region believes not. That said, given the way that things have panned out since 2007, it is equally possible that, offered the choice of self-government in the form of power-sharing devolution, that hypothetical voter might still opt for direct rule.

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Nelson, Monica, Ted and Alice

The Belfast Telegraph reports that DCAL Minister Nelson McCausland has rejected a call from the Human Rights Commission for an Irish Language Act.

Justifying his decision, Mr. McCausland once again stated that, in his view, promotion of Irish should be tied to promotion of Ulster Scots.

"I believe that the lack of consensus on the issue of legislation for the Irish language would be detrimental to the protection and promotion of the language in the context of a shared future, and I believe that the best way forward for both minority languages in Northern Ireland is through the strategy for regional or minority languages."

There are several difficulties with the above.

The first is that it is dependent on the notion that Irish is somehow for Catholics and Nationalists only, while the local dialect of Scots is only for Protestants and Unionists. There need be no such neat divides, and allowing oneself to be circumscribed by stereotypes may mean that one does serious damage to the speech varieties that one wishes to protect, something particularly true of Ulster Scots, which has large numbers of Catholic and Nationalist users but whose promotion has been entrusted to a Protestant feel-good organisation with a board dominated by elected Unionist politicians.

A further issue is the two speech varieties' degree of development. It is clearly much lower in the case of Ulster Scots. Nor is there as much demand for the dialect as there is for Irish. On either count, promotion of Irish could virtually cease. Of course, Irish-language activists point out that Irish is being treated differently from Scottish Gaelic in Scotland and Welsh in Wales. But that comparison is intended to encourage levelling up, not down.

Then there is the question of whether current plans for Ulster Scots are likely to bear fruit. In the Blether Region's view, the answer is likely to be a resounding "no". A cynic might even point out that Mr. McCausland's pursuit of linguistic independence for Ulster Scots in defiance of academic consensus is a course ill-advised enough to guarantee that it, and by extension Irish, will fail to grow.

One is tempted to interpret the Minister's concern about "lack of consensus" as meaning that Unionists hold a veto over what degree of public recognition and support should be accorded to Irish.

In response, a spokeswoman for the Human Rights Commission said, "It is precisely when there is no consensus that minorities need legal recognition, respect and protection of their rights."

In other words, in the context of d'Hondt, Irish needs a language Act to protect it from a DUP Culture Minister.

By a strange twist of fate, on his own blog, the Minister has today attacked Monica McWilliams, although with no mention of his concurrent dealings with the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission — the body that Professor McWilliams heads.

Friday, 15 October 2010

A Northern Star?

DCAL Minister Nelson McCausland has a fascinating blog contribution on the history of the Northern Ireland flag. The Blether Region was particularly interested in the following paragraphs.

"In a letter to the Northern Whig (27 July 1953) Captain H Malcolm McKee said, 'I think it was the Duke (of Abercorn) who suggested the six-pointed star to replace the white inescutcheon (small shield inside a larger one) for Northern Ireland.' The 3rd Duke of Abercorn James A E Hamilton was the first Governor of Northern Ireland, an office he held from 1922 to 1945, and he was a member of an old Ulster-Scots family. He resigned on 6 September 1945 and died on 12 September 1953.

In fact the six-pointed star is an emblem of great antiquity and here in Ulster it has been associated with the O'Neills for many centuries. The signet used by Owen Roe O'Neill (1590-1649) showed as its chief device a right hand but above this there were three six-pointed stars.

[A History of Irish Flags p 62]

The six-pointed star is also to be found on the Dunvegan Cup which is displayed in Dunvegan Castle, home of the Macleods on the Isle of Skye. The cup is a beaker of bog oak with mountings of silver and precious stones and the star is the chief item of the decorations. According to tradition it belonged to Niall Glun Dubh (d 919), King of Ulster, from whom the O'Neills derived their name. The mountings and decorations were added in 1493 and eventually the cup was given by one of the O'Neills as a gift to Rory Mor, 11th chief of the Macleods, around 1600."

Mr. McCausland was named as a British Israelite by the Guardian on 26 May 2010 and has previously addressed the British-Israel World Federation. It is clear from the above that he has a particular interest in the antiquity of the hexagram or Star of David as a symbol of Ulster.

Incidentally, it was also interesting to read Mr. McCausland's reference to Northern Ireland as a "state" — a turn of phrase that once induced a public fit of apoplexy in former Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble.

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

More Conflations

In 1996 the Coen brothers made a very wonderful film called Fargo, which happens to be set in their home state of Minnesota, an area of the United States historically settled by Swedes. The DVD version contains the usual making-of documentary, in part of which the film-makers discuss the movie's "dialect" content. Anyone who has seen it will know that it contains little or no dialect; what some of its characters do exhibit is a slight accent and a distinctive intonation or lilt. The degree to which this differs from a mainstream American accent, its uniqueness and distribution are evidenced by a recent comment by an American impressionist, who described the former vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin as being "so Minnesota". Mrs. Palin is from Alaska.

Why the Coen brothers might have conflated accent and dialect is, of course, easily explained: in the United States there is simply much less of the latter.

This brings us to some conflations closer to home, some of which have positively beset public discourse about Ulster Scots.

"Translator" and "Interpreter"

Commentators often rail against the notion of Scots translators by pointing out that everyone can understand the dialect perfectly well. With linguistic accommodation, this may very well be true on a face-to-face (i.e. spoken) basis. That does not alter the fact that considerable linguistic skill is necessary to use Scots (or, indeed, many of England's traditional dialects) productively in written form, including if one is asking someone to produce a translation. The fact that many "Ulster-Scots" translations are so bad merely proves the point.

"Translator" and "Transcriber"

Some readers will remember the furore surrounding the appointment of an Ulster-Scots "translator" to the Northern Ireland Assembly in 1999. In fact, there was no translation involved; the successful candidate was to be called on to transcribe any Scots spoken in the Assembly for the Official Report — on top of the full workload of an English transcriber, and for no additional pecuniary benefit.

"Language" in General and Particular

That some Ulster-Scots activists have actively exploited the differing meanings of language with and without the article should by now be obvious. Of course Ulster Scots is language, but it is not and has no potential to be a language.

"Language" vis-à-vis English and "language" vis-à-vis Scots

Almost universally, commentators fail to distinguish between the notion of Ulster Scots as a language separate from English and that of its being a language separate from Scots, at times acting as if the former were as ridiculous as the latter. True, in the present day the claim that Scots is not currently subordinate to an overall English system may be doubtful. One can at least debate it, however, and even if the answer is "no", it is a "no" subject to considerable qualification. On the other hand, the norie that Ulster Scots is not Scots is, where not an example of ignorance, sophistry or downright lies, a faith-based position and, as such, not amenable to reasoned debate.

Feeling Whammy

Yesterday's Guardian carries an article on a translation firm's recruitment of Geordie translators.

Despite an initial unfortunate conflation of accent and dialect, this is an interesting piece, informing us, for example, that a dialect glossary had to be issued to doctors in South Yorkshire in 2004 and updated this year to assist them in understanding relevant terms.

One must wonder, though, whether this exercise is not simply a canny way of garnering publicity for Today Translations. The company MD states that "We see a need for providing interpreters for English as it is really spoken in different parts of the country." In other words, we cannot be sure that there will be a real job at the end of it or a stand-by list of individuals who may never be called upon to use their skills.

An associate of the Blether Region once spoke to a member of the Northumbrian Language Society, who told him that Scots was a dialect of Northumbrian, which, historically speaking, it is — albeit usually rather more differentiated than its parent.

The settlement of Northern Britain by Angles rather than Saxons, the Danelaw, and — for literary Scots at least — the northern scribal school have all cast a long shadow. How to preserve that shadow without, as currently threatened in Northern Ireland, ushering in a new darkness is a question as pressing today as ever.