Sunday, 28 November 2010

Darling Buds?

Last Monday saw another round of Assembly Questions to the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure in Parliament Buildings. There were no surprise changes to the expected reiteration of positions that we have become used to. The Blether Region's chief reaction echoes Declan O'Loan's comment that the non-appearance of a languages strategy is now no longer acceptable — or, to use different words, beyond a joke.

Nelson McCausland never fails to impress with his astonishingly divergent interpretation of what constitutes fair play, something summed up in comments such as the following:

"The development of a single strategy for both languages is designed to highlight both our shared heritage and the desire to strive towards parity between the languages."

So the Minister is brilliant at talking the talk but not at walking the walk. What next? Well, one point to consider is what happens after May. We have to remember that it is fundamentally not in the DUP's interest to spend money on an Ulster-Scots Academy, since it will play extremely badly with its culturally sceptical voters, perhaps even worse than with Nationalists, many of whom have internalised a minority-languages discourse and can see the point in extending support to the dialect, albeit only as such. So the DUP needs out, and Sinn Féin, which has been taking a good deal of stick from Irish-language activists, needs in.

One such activist told the Blether Region yesterday that, back in 1998, the UUP had chosen DCAL in order to prevent Sinn Féin having both Education and Culture. If one were to reverse that scenario and Sinn Féin took Culture this time round, one might expect the DUP to opt for Education, especially since many of the more middle-class types who have given it their vote since the signing of the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement are angry at Caitríona Ruane's policy on grammar schools.

The trouble with that is that the party could conceivably do even more damage to Irish than it has done at DCAL. After all, many aspects of language promotion are served through spill-over from the South or a direct line from Westminster, but not funding for Irish-medium education. If the DUP were in charge of Education, at a minimum one might expect it not to fund new Gaelscoileanna. More worrying would be what might happen if the funding for existing Gaelscoileanna were withdrawn. As the most insularly Protestant manifestation of Unionism that manages to get elected in any substantial fashion, the DUP is not aware, or chooses not to believe, that people on the other side have any genuine interest in Irish. And withdrawal of funding would put a particularly emotive form of pressure on Nationalist participation in the Executive.

The above seems more likely than what for Irish would be the dream scenario of Sinn Féin becoming the largest party in the Assembly and then using that status to negotiate the passage of a language Act as the price for changing the rules to let the DUP retain the post of First Minister.

As for Ulster Scots, well, a change in personnel at DCAL would no doubt spare the dialect the indignity of an Ulster-Scots Academy, but whether it would actually result in any great revival in its fortunes is moot.

Saturday, 27 November 2010

New BBC Ulster-Scots Website

The BBC has launched a new Ulster-Scots website. Recognising the limited resources available for broadcasting in Scots (or Irish, for that matter), a website seems a sensible way of maximising bang for one's buck — and it's an attractive affair.

While one could perhaps take issue with some of the material on it — the lip-service paid to the extravagant notion that there is an "Ulster-Scots language", the inexplicable interest in America, the children's stories about Saint Patrick (remember Cross of Saint Patrick LOL 688, anyone?) — much of it merely reflects the obsessions of local activists, and it would be churlish not to welcome what looks set to establish itself as first port of call for those with an interest in the dialect. The list of Ulster-Scots organisations looks particularly useful.

There is also a good deal of material for learners. Commenting with tongue firmly in cheek, one friend of the Blether Region wrote:

"I like the frequent mention of 'Ulster-Scots' words. I am familiar with most all of them from Fife and Angus. Good to know the 'Ulster-Scots' language is alive and well in those areas. I have a suspicion 'Ulster-Scots' is also widely used elsewhere in Scotland."

Friday, 26 November 2010


Last Tuesday saw a well-attended lunch in the Park Avenue Hotel under the auspices of the Ullans Academy. Blogger Alan in Belfast over at Slugger O'Toole had the following to say about the organisers:

"As far as I can tell, the Ullans Academy is very much on the liberal wing of the innumerable organisations that represent and promote Ulster Scots culture. It points to shared culture and history, from Scotland and throughout Ireland. It's not hung up on equality or parity, and it's about inclusion rather than exclusion."

The last sentence quoted surely makes oblique reference to the other wing of the contemporary Ulster-Scots movement, which promotes a black-and-white, zero-sum view of the world that finds its most influential advocate in the current Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure, Nelson McCausland — whose conspicuous absence Alan remarks upon.

It is clearly a nonsense to strive for equality between Irish and Ulster Scots, since the former is a language, even vis-à-vis Scottish Gaelic, and the latter is an only slightly differentiated dialect of a half-language — one that, except as a cant with no native speakers, lacks even the potential to be a language in its own right.

Indeed, it is a nonsense even to accord Ulster Scots parity of esteem with Irish.

That is not to say that there should not be parity of esteem, and equality of opportunity, between Protestants and Catholics. Of course there should be, but that is a separate issue. And it is separate also from the question of whether it is legitimate or desirable to regard Irish and Ulster Scots, each of which is a series of grunts, as the exclusive or majority property of two religious or political communities.

Let us be in no doubt: what Ulster Scots needs is not God or Caesar but the Brothers Grimm.

And although the Blether Region applauds the anti-sectarianism of the Ullans Academy, which place it head and shoulders above the opposition, there remain two stubborn niggles that cast doubt on its ability to deliver the goods with regard to Ulster Scots: "Ullans" and "Academy".

"Ullans" is a recently made-up term used for the Ulster variety of what, linguistically speaking, is objectively a dialect of Scots. The adoption of novel terminology that shows such little regard for language or history promotes the wholly specious and damaging notion that the variety in question is not a form of Scots. Indeed, from that point of view, the "Ulster Scots" favoured by Nelson McCausland — albeit without the hyphen — is a far better term.

"Academy" has its origins in the Fryske Akademy, a body with the exclusive authority to codify Frisian. If there is no intention to codify Ulster Scots, or Ullans, separately from Scots, why has such a name been chosen? The Academy's own website has the following to say:

"Ullans is a language very close linguistically to English spoken by 'Ulster Scots', Scottish settlers who left Scotland and brought their native language Scots (also known as Lallans) to Ulster, the north-eastern province of Ireland.

'Ullans' is short for 'Ulster laLLANS'. Advocates of the Scots-Irish dialect in Ulster coined the phrase in 1993 as part of the process of trying to make the Scots-Irish dialect into a recognised language."

When the Blether Region raised the status issue with a prominent member of the Academy, one not known for his Unionism, he sought to provide reassurance with the words "Scots is part of Ulster Scots". Yet that primarily political formulation was a reversal of the linguistic reality that Ulster Scots is part of Scots.

Until that simple truth is recognised in policy terms, the future for the dialect looks bleak.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

A "Barrel Load of Money"

Monday saw a Private Member's motion at Stormont on the tardy indigenous languages strategy.

If the transcript in the Official Report is anything to go by, the debate was characterised by raucous interruptions and mutual recrimination. The following points stand out, however:

The original Sinn Féin motion called only for an indigenous languages strategy; it was the SDLP amendment, which Sinn Féin accepted, that called for an Irish language Act. Was this an example of careful choreography intended to show that an Act is a mainstream concern shared by all Nationalists, or does it mean that Sinn Féin, stung by the disconnect between rhetoric and achievement, would now accept a mere strategy?

Former DCAL Minister Gregory Campbell stated:

"One thing is for sure, however: Irish language enthusiasts will not get the barrel load of money that they used to get while Ulster Scots was deprived. That will not happen."

— clear confirmation a) that the DUP's determination to promote Ulster Scots ahead of both capacity and public demand is working to the detriment of Irish and b) that Irish is — or, if nothing changes, could soon be — worse off than under direct rule.

Although it was to be expected that otherwise moderate Unionists would act as lobby fodder to oppose the motion, it is clear too that the Alliance Party, which reluctantly supported it, has a lot to learn. Despite Anna Lo's eminently sensible words about using sign language and the languages of immigrants as tools to ensure access to public services, there is clearly no direct equivalence with Irish or Scots when it comes to teaching immigrant languages to young people. Useful as Chinese may be to (Northern) Ireland PLC, the tongue of well over a billion people simply does not fit into a minority-languages discourse. Every immigrant who accepts that his or her descendants will remain in their new home for ever enters into a compact with the host country and accepts also that, at some stage or other, those descendants are likely to lose their ancestral language. Indeed, in the course of time, through intermarriage, they are likely to disappear as a separate ethnic group altogether, something that may already be happening with Afro-Caribbean Britons.

It is a confused party that uses the arguments of those who oppose an Irish language Act while voting in its favour.

Monday, 1 November 2010

The Last Lingua Franca?

Yesterday's Observer has an interesting interview with linguist Nicholas Ostler about the future of English. His view is that, while the variety is currently enjoying a wave of popularity as a lingua franca, its eventual decline can already confidently be predicted, not because, as in the past, it is usurped by the emergence of another "empire", but owing to the exponential development of machine translation.

Ostler's prediction may well bring solace to those who feel that other national languages in Europe are losing out and ceding domains to English. The Blether Region once spoke to a German scientist in Heidelberg who explained that he hadn't published a paper in German in ten years — and yet the language was once considered essential for many fields of academia. Whether Ostler's view of the future can engender any hope in supporters of languages spoken in states and territories where most people switched to English generations ago is another matter; the interview fails completely to address the power and attraction of popular culture. It is perhaps relevant, however, that Ostler is chairman of the Foundation for Endangered Languages.

In recent years, the Internet, Gaelspell, and an Gramadóir have all been useful for those learning or writing in Irish. And although there has yet to be any public-policy breakthrough for Scots, e-mail, message boards and the development of informal means of communication have definitely provided a boost, and there are some very good websites such as those of scots-online and the Scots Language Centre.

Ostler's comments about English as a lingua franca could also be applied to Irish in Ireland, a language learnt, in some cases very well, at school and university, but most of the time not passed on to the next generation.

"[…] since it's not being picked up as a mother tongue, it's not typically being spoken by people to their children. It's not getting effectively to first base, the most crucial first base for long-term survival of a language."

Food for thought.