Tuesday, 13 December 2011
Yesterday saw the last Culture AQOs of the year at the Northern Ireland Assembly, with questions on both Ulster Scots and Irish under discussion.
The former, which asked if there would be an Ulster-Scots equivalent to the Líofa campaign to promote acquisition of Irish, elicited a somewhat depressing answer from the Minister, Carál Ní Chuilín.
"I am in discussions with the Ulster-Scots Agency about bringing forward a Líofa-type event, although it will be about heritage and culture rather than language. Those discussions are ongoing. It is really important that whatever is forwarded for sponsorship by my Department has consensus and is a response to community need rather than just a response to something that was done for the Irish language, as it may not work for the Ulster-Scots community. I look forward to seeing those proposals early in the new year."
Of course, we all know that the lack of autonomy evident in Ulster-Scots aping of Irish-language initiatives has been problematic from a dialect-maintenance perspective. But does that really mean that the language element should be excised entirely? The campaign outlined by the Minister, which no doubt originated with the Agency board, might even do more damage, since it could descend into the meaningless political shibboleth of self-designation as an "Ulster-Scot".
The Minister also confirmed that there will be a further round of consultation on a revived Irish Language Bill, as well as separate strategies for Irish and Ulster Scots.
Her answer to Dominic Bradley's request for detail could be seen as rather patronising:
"In all seriousness, I am sure that the Member does not expect me to outline the full proposals during a two-minute question. The proposals for the Irish language Act deserve much more time than that. However, as I said to the Member in a previous Question Time, I am happy to meet him or any other Member on this issue. I believe that the Member is sincere about wanting a robust Irish language Act that is based on rights."
It should be obvious to all that Mr. Bradley is "sincere" about Irish for the simple reason he has learnt it — and was recently put out of the Chamber for the crime of using it to an unacceptable degree. Carál Ní Chuilín, on the other hand, is still in the process of making her speech as Gaelic as her name. Moreover, friends of the Blether Region recently heard a member of her party express understanding for Roy Beggs's cavalier treatment of Mr. Bradley.
While it is true that we don't know if a more robust attitude on the part of Sinn Féin to the discriminatory requirement for consecutive translation in the Chamber would have much effect, part of the reason that we don't know is that we have not yet seen it.
Monday, 5 December 2011
UTV reports on the ructions at Belfast City Hall over an Irish-language sign reading "Nollaig Shona Duit", or "Merry Christmas to You".
In this instance, it is probably difficult to divorce Unionists' extreme reaction from the previous week's heated row over the Lord Mayor's reluctance to present a Duke of Edinburgh award to a teenage Army cadet. The Blether Region would have had no problem with the cadet, but might well have balked at appearing to endorse the unproductive xenophobe in whose honour the award was named.
Be that as it may, statements by one councillor, the UUP's David Browne, merit comment:
"I look at the language in the same way as I look at Ulster Scots. It's a foreign language as such like French, German or whatever and if people want to learn how to speak it or want to practice [sic] it — they should pay for it."
In fact, the sign was donated by the Cultúrlann on the Falls Road and represents zero outlay for city ratepayers. Irish-language campaigners have been assiduous in addressing arguments against public use of Irish — something also seen, for example, in the now-shelved plans to have bilingual road signs only in areas where a majority of people support them. The result has of course been to make those who continue to oppose such initiatives look even more unreasonable.
The councillor's comments on Ulster Scots are interesting. Notwithstanding the fact that many people have a genuine interest in the dialect, as a political tool part of its attraction has been its potential to block progress for Irish. Now, it seems, Scots is a "foreign language" — and those many Unionists in County Antrim and elsewhere who speak it presumably foreigners.
UTV further reports that Councillor Browne also termed Irish "gobbledegook". According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word refers to "official, professional, or pretentious verbiage or jargon". Was this a wry comment on the public sector's relationship with Ireland's Celtic tongue? Probably not: it is much more likely that what he meant to say was "gibberish".
The Blether Region has complete understanding for Councillor Browne's wish to concentrate on the lingua franca before attempting Irish or Scots, but need he really enforce that on the rest of us?
Monday, 21 November 2011
In the light of the ongoing refusal on the part of the Northern Ireland Assembly to extend its existing simultaneous translation service to ordinary Members, the Blether Region has thought of a cunning plan. Documentation provided by the Assembly in response to a Freedom of Information request by Holywood Irish Society confirms that the major cost involved is staffing. The additional outlay to provide headsets for Members would be relatively small and non-recurrent. Any moderately wealthy individual could offer to cover it, either in person or through a bequest. Given that there is no possibility of the Assembly Business Committee deciding to extend the service unless it is forced to do so, there would of course be no chance of anyone having to go as far as to pay for it. But, by a process of elimination, it might shed some light on the real reasons behind the Business Committee's refusal.
The website of Holywood Irish Society carries a response to a recent Freedom of Information request directed at the Northern Ireland Assembly. Readers will recall that the refusal to extend an existing simultaneous translation facility from the Speaker and Clerk to ordinary Members has been a fraught issue at Stormont for many years. Last month one Member, Dominic Bradley, was even banned from being called to speak for a week after he took too long to provide the consecutive translation required by the Deputy Speaker.
The response and papers supplied by the Assembly make for interesting reading. As the Blether Region suspected, there is no actual rule that says a consecutive translation is required — instead, the Assembly justifies the requirement on the basis of "Rulings, Convention and Practice" as distilled in the "Northern Ireland Assembly Companion".
The bizarre state of affairs that the Assembly pays for simultaneous translation but does not make it available to Members rests on the fact that the interpretation facility was commissioned by the Speaker, while the decision on extending the benefits to Members depends on a decision of the Business Committee. Although Holyrood also requires consecutive translation, that is the case only when no interpreter has been arranged for the language in question (unlike the Assembly, there is no permanent translation service in the Scottish Parliament, since use of Gaelic is much less).
One can infer that the first Speaker of the Assembly, Lord Alderdice, hoped that the Business Committee would indeed approve the extension of the service to Members.
On 20 November 2000 (volume 7 page 201) he stated:
"For Members who wish to have a simultaneous translation, a report showing the costs and other details has been available for over 18 months. It is simply a matter of a proposal to be taken forward by the Business Committee. My ruling is clear: any statements made in a language other than English must be translated fully and accurately."
The last line suggests that the requirement to provide consecutive translation rests essentially on the whim of the Speaker. Likewise, regarding the issue of reasonable adjustment to speaking time in order to allow Members to provide a consecutive translation, the Assembly response states:
"Within their time allocation Members must ensure that any comments that are not in English are fully translated. The Speaker and the Deputy Speakers operate within Standing Orders, rulings and conventions when chairing plenary business. This includes an element of discretion to ensure the smooth flow of business regardless of which language members choose to use."
Does a Speaker or Deputy Speaker therefore have the discretion to allow an Irish-speaking Member longer? What we know for sure is that those choosing to use Irish — overwhelmingly Catholics and Nationalists — have only 50% of the substantive speaking time of those who choose to use English, while use of Irish in the Assembly is probably even less than 50% of what it could be, given the discouraging effect of the requirement for consecutive translation. The question whether the Assembly has considered the potential for indirect discrimination against groups listed in section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 appears not to have been answered in the Assembly's response.
There are some grounds for hope here:
a new Speaker or an existing Deputy Speaker may have the discretion either to end the requirement for consecutive translation or extend the time available to those who choose to use Irish;
there are clear grounds to mount a challenge under section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 — the legislation that established the Assembly;
although the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages is not justiciable, it has already been argued (albeit unsuccessfully) that another limitation on the use of Irish (in courts) was incompatible with the Charter;
there are grounds for a challenge under the Human Rights Act 1998. In particular, simultaneous interpretation has been a fact for many years at Stormont, and the failure to extend the service to Members with its attendant indirect discrimination could be viewed as perverse (particularly given the relative cost factors concerned). Furthermore, it is clearly unsatisfactory that the realisation of a benefit (and perhaps a right) for individual Irish-speaking Members should rest on, and be construed as, a corporate decision by a largely English-speaking Business Committee to avail itself of a service;
demographic change may play a role. Northern Ireland will almost certainly have a Catholic majority in the medium term. Although Unionists have argued that a substantial number of Catholics would opt to remain in the UK if asked at a referendum, even if that is true, we do know that they have hitherto failed to vote for Unionist parties in any substantial numbers. The Blether Region is unaware under what arrangements the Business Committee functions, but it is likely that at some point Unionists will either lose their majority or, as part of a strategy to retain it, be forced to modify their positions on issues such as that discussed here.
Friday, 18 November 2011
The Grecian halls of Stormont were abuzz with talk of the new Programme for Government yesterday. Amid the myriad policies discussed — and the considerable relief evident that a programme of any kind has at last been negotiated — the Blether Region was struck by a misinterpretation of the document on the part of Peter Robinson.
The First Minister stated:
"Consistent with the Hillsborough agreement, the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure will bring forward a strategy for the Irish language and Ulster Scots. We look forward to seeing those proposals. I hope that both of those languages can be developed in a way that is apart from political rancour."
Slugger O'Toole's Mick Fealty commented positively on that, apparently taking Mr. Robinson's synopsis at face value. However, a single strategy for Irish and Ulster Scots was in fact the policy of the previous DUP Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure, Nelson McCausland — one that was roundly criticised in the Committee of Experts' report on the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. The current policy outlined in the draft Programme for Government is for two distinct strategies, one for Irish and one for "Ulster Scots language, heritage and culture". The Hillsborough agreement cited by Mr. Robinson makes no explicit reference to matters linguistic, although it does mention outstanding issues from the St. Andrews agreement (which, as we all know, mentions not an Irish-language strategy but an Act).
The two-strategy approach means that progress on Irish will no longer be held back by the hirplin prick-ma-denty of Ulster Scots, which is good news. However, the inclusion of "heritage and culture" may unfortunately mean that money will continue to be siphoned off from genuine Scots-language initiatives and spent on other projects; and on past form many of those will have a negative effect on the local dialect's ability to garner the Catholic and liberal Unionist support necessary to ensure its survival.
Tuesday, 15 November 2011
In the classic 1961 POW comedy Very Important Person, Scots soldier "Jock" Everett (Stanley Baxter) is contemptuously referred to as an "englisches Schwein" by a bullying Nazi prison guard. The unfortunate German could hardly have predicted the response: Jock angrily retorts that he is a "schottisches Schwein".
Almost exactly 50 years later, controversy has broken out about Northern Ireland Justice Minister David Ford's plans to remove Prison Service emblems. Sole TUV MLA Jim Allister has stated, no doubt correctly, that many Unionists would be "appalled", while First Minister Peter Robinson has even threatened to resign.
The Blether Region is slightly in favour of Mr. Ford's moves towards neutral political symbolism. Why only slightly? Because, as we have seen, its flip side is the Alliance Party's doctrinaire and paternalistic refusal — decades after Wales and Scotland bit the bullet — to countenance bilingual signage, either everywhere, in line with derivation, or, as a compromise, only in those areas where a substantial majority of people have shown themselves to be in favour.
Indeed, the Blether Region is perplexed at the ritualised nonsense surrounding Derry/Londonderry. Surely for cultural nationalists the choice should be between "Doire" and "Doire Cholm Cille".
In that spirit, here's to the inclusion of Irish-langugage signs in the prisons of A Soilse Banríon Ríocht Aontaithe na Breataine Móire agus Thuaisceart Éireann — a compromise that should (in an ideal world) please Unionists and Nationalists alike, even if it displeases Mr. Ford.
The Scotsman reports on a forthcoming updated edition of the Concise Scots Dictionary (a distilled version of the SND and DOST with the citation texts removed). What leaps out at one is the popular conflation of the terms "dialect" and "slang", something particularly noticeable in the appended comments.
And yet, as is clear from the article, it is the actual sociolinguistic status of Scots that has brought that situation about.
Friends of the Blether Region recently overheard a Loyalist musician comment on the Ulster-Scots Agency funding that his band had secured for musical tuition. As it happened, the tutors were themselves drawn from the band in question, and, if any formal tuition actually took place, it is safe to say that it would have happened anyway. Band members could not believe their good luck at their £1,600 windfall. Ascertaining how often tutors are members of the same band would of course make for an interesting Assembly Question.
Working out what such funding, musical or otherwise, has to do with Scots as a language variety is a matter that might not be so easily resolved.
Tuesday, 8 November 2011
John Dallat of the SDLP has asked an interesting question of the Assembly Commission, "how many times Ulster-Scots was spoken in Assembly plenary sessions over the last twelve months; and to detail the cost of translation for this period."
The Blether Region may be mistaken, but there seems to be have been very little use of Ulster Scots at all in the Assembly since the departure of the redoubtable Jim Shannon for the Mother of Parliaments in mid-2010. Like the simultaneous translation facility for Irish, that for the Ulster variety of Scots is available only to the Speaker and the Clerk. However, unlike Irish, Ulster Scots has probably never been used in the Assembly to an extent that would justify the service, even when both Mr. Shannon and Ian Adamson were Members. Moreover, long before Mr. Shannon's departure, he had abandoned maximally differentiated New Ulster Scots in favour of thin dialect arguably requiring no translation at all.
The service was originally introduced after Ian Paisley Jr., another MLA who has now opted for Westminster, asked then Speaker Lord Alderdice if it might not be discriminatory to have interpretation for Irish but not for Ulster Scots. As ordinary MLAs never got to hear the Irish translation anyway, the merit of Mr. Paisley's argument may have been somewhat moot. Be that as it may, the uncomfortable truth is that having someone on standby for Ulster-Scots simultaneous translation may actually cost more than providing the real existierender service for Irish, since Ulster-Scots translators are not salaried employees but feed consultants working for a generous daily rate.
MSPs in Scotland are required to give prior notice when they use Gaelic to enable the Parliament to arrange simultaneous translation. If there is no Gaelic, no translator is needed, and there is no cost. That stands in marked contrast to the practice of the Northern Ireland Assembly, which pays for full-time simultaneous translation for two varieties but does not let Members listen to the English version of either.
What would the best system for Stormont be? There is no doubt that knowledge of Irish is proportionately much more widespread than knowledge of Gaelic in Scotland, and it would therefore be sensible to retain simultaneous translation for it, which should of course be extended to ordinary Members.
The case of Ulster Scots is less clear. When Scots is used at Holyrood, simultaneous translation is considered unnecessary, and the original Scots text of the speech is incorporated into the Official Report. How to treat Scots is of course an inherently political question, and there is no reason not to have oral and written translation where there is sufficient political demand. Whether it is a sensible use of public resources to have someone on standby all the time is another matter, however, and one that the Assembly has perhaps waited too long to address.
Monday, 31 October 2011
Data supplied in answer to an Assembly Question last week appear to back up last month's suggestion by the Blether Region that Interlingua should be introduced to controlled secondaries as an alternative to more traditional modern foreign languages. The table supplied in answer to AQW 3578/11-15 shows a steep decline in the number of pupils studying a language to GCSE level since the Labour Government abolished the requirement that they do so back in 2004. Indeed, the figures from 2001 to 2009 show constant decline, from 17,472 to 11,574 total entries, respectively. However, at the same time, there has been a rise in the number of those achieving A* to C grades, from 68.4% to 80.4%. Moreover, the number of those going on to sit a modern foreign language at A Level has remained remarkably constant, with almost identical numbers sitting the exam in 2001 and 2009.
Needless to say, the collapse in the number of those studying languages to GCSE and the apparently improved grades of those who still do so may well be related phenomena. A large cohort of pupils who do not derive great benefit from conventional language teaching have been removed from the statistics, thus artificially boosting the percentages. Indeed, smaller, higher-ability classes at GCSE level may even have had an effect on the statistics for A Level passes, which have also improved.
Effectively, those not gifted linguistically have been disenfranchised twice: first by the requirement that they study a modern foreign language to GCSE level; and secondly by the expectation that they not have any kind of language instruction at all beyond Key Stage 3. In England, the signs are that the coalition Government will reintroduce the language requirement. However, that would amount to resiling from the current unsatisfactory policy in favour of its equally unsatisfactory and discredited predecessor.
Common sense suggests that academically and linguistically gifted pupils — those who already master the communicative element of language learning — should concentrate on accuracy in speech and writing while those not so gifted should concentrate on communication alone. And one need only consult a map of the distribution of Romance varieties to see that Interlingua can facilitate communication with native speakers of foreign languages like nothing else.
Northern Ireland is the largest region in these islands to have retained a grammar-school system. While that system may be failing in other ways, it does provide fertile ground for a reform of the type suggested.
Wednesday, 26 October 2011
The BBC reports that Coláiste Feirste has won an important battle in its struggle to force the Department of Education to fund transport to the school from areas outside Belfast with Irish-language primaries but no equivalent provision at post-primary level.
Granting a full judicial review, Mr. Justice Treacy argued that the Department had "failed to comply with a duty under the Education (Northern Ireland) Order 1998 to provide suitable transport to encourage Irish education.", adding that "I do not accept the respondent's contention that this duty is merely aspirational."
The "aspirational" argument is of course relevant to many topics involving minority languages, from the access to TG4 in Northern Ireland first promised in 1998 to the promotion of Scots in Scotland, once memorably termed "voluntarism masquerading as policy" by the academic Robert McColl Millar.
Monday, 24 October 2011
A written answer to an Assembly Question details every project to have received funding from the Ulster-Scots Agency over the past three years.
The Blether Region will leave it to readers what to make of it ...
Thursday, 20 October 2011
Questions to the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure took place on Tuesday. Staff and stakeholders of the Northern Ireland Irish-language groups threatened with closure under Foras na Gaeilge's proposed new funding arrangements have grounds for cautious optimism in the light of the extended consultation period agreed at the recent North/South Ministerial Council meeting in Armagh. Asked about her approach to the way in which the proposals are being implemented, Minister Ní Chuilín stated:
"The direct answer to the Member's question is that I was not happy with the consultation. To that end, at the North/South sectoral meeting, Jimmy Deenihan and I announced that there will be a new consultation in November that needs to be fully inclusive. The core-funded Irish language bodies, like any other group in the community, are arguing for services and facilities for the constituents and people that they represent. The way in which the details of those schemes were brought forward almost made it impossible for people to consult. To that end, we have agreed a 12-week consultation starting in November."
And it was good to see Dominic Bradley back in the House and speaking Irish too.
The Herald reports that, for the first time, the bard of Am Mòd Nàiseanta is to be a poet from outwith Scotland. Lewis McKinnon hails from Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, which has retained a Gaelic-speaking minority against the odds, even preserving some dialectal features now extinct in Scotland itself. Despite the Scottish or Irish origins of most Nova Scotians, it is a sad fact that today considerably more French than Gaelic is spoken in the province — the reason being, to put it bluntly, that French-speakers are more willing to stick up for themselves than the Gaels.
The 2006 Canadian census reports 799 mother-tongue speakers of Gaelic in Nova Scotia, or 0.1% of the population, putting it in thirteenth place, behind such languages as Dutch, Greek and Korean.
Once again, however, a tender Gaelic plant has brought forth flowers, and with nurture will do so again.
On a more strategic note, a paragraph appended to the article reads as follows:
"The statutory development body Bord na Gàidhlig is to launch a campaign to promote Gaelic-medium education (GME) and learning next month to meet the aspiration in the National Gaelic Language Plan of doubling the number of children enrolling in P1 GME."
Good news, but we're not out of the woods yet.
Thursday, 13 October 2011
Staying on the subject of the SDLP's Dominic Bradley being banned from speaking in the Assembly for a week for asking a question in Irish without providing an English translation (the strange case of a representative being democratically elected by voters only to be silenced for non-compliance with a non-rule), the Blether Region has discovered that an official Assembly leaflet makes the same unsubstantiated claim about a supposed obligation to translate into English anything said in Irish.
"If called, a Member may speak in the language of his or her choice, but must provide a translation if speaking in a language other than English."
Given that there appears to be no Standing Order to that effect, the question arises of whether this constitutes disinformation. Incidentally, a Liberal-Democrat blog supports the Blether Region's reading of events — and going by its posting of the original Hansard transcript, Dominic Bradley himself imagines that a translation must be provided. There certainly appears to be a good deal of confusion on the question.
Another issue is that, according to the BBC's Mark Devenport, in three years' time or so the Speaker of the Assembly, William Hay, will be stepping down in favour of Sinn Féin's Francie Molloy, who at that time will become the main presence in the Chair — and the person responsible for taking action against recalcitrant Members. Will he continue with the policy of silencing democratically elected representatives who choose to exercise their legal right to speak in a language of their choice? And will he continue to ask Members to provide translations in the absence of any legal basis for the requirement? The Blether Region hopes not.
The News Letter reports that a motion from Nationalist members of Belfast City Council in favour of Irish-language Christmas banners has been rejected by 25 votes to 20. Although the initial Sinn Féin proposal only concerned Irish, after an SDLP amendment the plan would also have seen Ulster Scots included. Máirtín Ó Muilleoir's take on events is here.
Apart from the fact that, once again, Unionists have shown their antipathy towards Irish to be greater than their love of Ulster Scots, one is struck by the sheer range of instances where a public presence for the Irish language has now been rejected. The tale is also remarkable for the stance of the Alliance Party, which has sided with the Unionists and in the process underlined Northern Ireland's status as "a place apart". It is, after all, hard to imagine fellow liberals in Scotland, with their strong Highland representation (at least at Westminster) taking a similar hardline attitude towards Scottish Gaelic. Neither, of course, would such a denial of difference be imaginable in bilingual Wales.
The Blether Region has previously reported on the Alliance Party's rejection of DRD proposals for bilingual road signs. Afterwards a Holywood Irish-speaker had a meeting with a local Alliance Party politician on the issue that ended with his admitting that his party's reaction was wrong. However, this latest episode, dealing as it does with signs that are not transactional but intentionally symbolic, appears to be a further step away from feeling able to acknowledge and celebrate diversity.
The dilemma for Alliance, as it extends its support from its traditional base of public employees in mixed marriages around the Belfast commuter belt and picks up votes from the floundering UUP, is that its constitutional and cultural centre of gravity shifts in the process. Whether that change precedes or follows on from such increased support is open to speculation, but the end result may well be that the difference between Alliance and the post-St. Andrews DUP, like that between UUP and DUP before it, ends up being one of class rather than substance.
Tuesday, 11 October 2011
The Blether Region spotted Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure Carál Ní Chuilín at Sunday's annual Cearta agus Ceiliúradh festivities, which took place in St. George's Market in Belfast. The event was intended on the one hand as a demonstration in favour of bringing language legislation in Northern Ireland into line with that in force in Scotland, Wales and the Republic and on the other as a celebration of the strength of Irish at a community level.
Recently Foras na Gaeilge has come in for sustained criticism regarding its plans to end core funding and disqualify NI-only organisations from applying for project-specific funds, with the result that groups such as the cross-community language organisation Ultach Trust and the organisers of Cearta agus Ceiliúradh, Pobal, may soon be forced to shut up shop.
Tomorrow Irish-language organisations will be demonstrating outside the North/South Ministerial Council meeting in Armagh, at which Minister Ní Chuilín is expected to rubber-stamp Foras na Gaeilge's proposals. If she does, Sunday's celebrations may turn out to be the last such event organised by Pobal. Quite apart from the fact that the organisation may soon cease to exist, if the plans are allowed to proceed, the Irish language may have very little to celebrate in the North this time next year.
The Belfast Telegraph reports that the SDLP's Dominic Bradley has had Assembly speaking rights withdrawn for a week after he refused an order by Deputy Speaker Roy Beggs to sit down for having the temerity to ask a question in Irish. The Speaker himself, the UUP's William Hay, then "took up the issue and wrote directly to Mr Bradley, informing him he will not be called on to speak again for the rest of this week unless he apologises."
The newspaper incorrectly maintains that Members are required to translate into English anything said in Irish. In fact any translations are offered as a courtesy — with the result that those who exercise their right to use Irish have only half the time available to anglophone Members. Assembly Standing Order 78 states only that "Members may speak in the language of their choice."
The case highlights two issues: the fact that Unionist prejudice towards Irish has been carried over into what is the ostensibly neutral office of the Chair; and the deficient knowledge of Standing Orders exhibited not only by a newspaper but by the Speaker of the House and one of his Deputies. Even if one takes the generous view that Mr. Hay's sanction was as a result of Mr. Bradley's challenge rather than the crime of speaking Irish without offering a translation, the fact remains that it was Mr. Bradley rather than Mr. Beggs who correctly interpreted the Standing Orders of the Assembly.
Back in November 2009, the Blether Region reported on a similar incident, also involving Mr. Bradley. It seems that there has been no progress since. The expense of retaining simultaneous interpreters for the sole benefit of the Chair and Clerk continues, with no account being taken of the translation needs of ordinary Members. Meanwhile, those who speak Irish in the Chamber are summarily gagged in contempt of the legal protections offered by Standing Orders.
The truth is that unwritten conventions simply muddy the waters, breeding ignorance and reinforcing prejudice. Surely it is now time to withdraw this "courtesy" entirely.
Thursday, 6 October 2011
Although the subject of this blog is language in Northern Ireland rather than Scotland, the Blether Region feels compelled to comment on a story in today's Scotsman that quite outrageously singles out the proposed conversion of a derelict public building in Edinburgh to a Gaelic-medium school for an arbitrary dose of fiscal rectitude (what Northern Ireland's Divine Comedy, in a more romantic vein, once referred to as the "certainty of chance"). This despite the rather obvious fact that "costs soared as a result of vandalism and roof and water damage to the empty building" rather than because of the verb coming first in the sentence.
While historically Gaelic (or Middle Irish, to be precise) was at one time the language of almost everywhere in Scotland, the slowness of the language's decline and the historical enmity between Highland and Lowland have meant that Gaelic-speakers are very often viewed as an ethnic minority — and, in a Lowland context, an immigrant one at that. All of which renders the Scotsman's decision to set up an online poll on whether Holyrood should "stump up the cash for the city's new Gaelic school" a somewhat doubtful enterprise.
By coincidence, the Guardian reported this week that the partner of Liberal-Democrat MP Chris Huhne is to sue the Daily Mail for "inciting users of its website to be abusive" to her.
Is the Blether Region alone in thinking that the Scotsman is similarly intent on whipping up a tide of righteous indignation, this time against an entire community? Lawyers for Chris Huhne's partner have argued that all 58 of the readers' comments appended to the Daily Mail article in question were "abusive in character". Comments on the Scotsman article (after moderation) included "Meheedrum muhoodrum ... Nae garlic speakers in Leith!" and "Taxpayers money shouldnt be used to create separation and division". With dreary predictability, there was also an attempt to link the project to the question of state support for Catholic schools.
Indeed, sometimes Scotland can be a delightful place — but only when compared with Northern Ireland, and even then the charm Vorsprung can vary quite considerably in its degree.
A question scheduled for written answer on 18 October asks the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure "to provide details of the proposed re-classification of £105,000 from resources to the capital budget in the October Monitoring Round for the Ministerial Advisory Group on the development of an Ulster-Scots Academy Strategy."
An interesting parallel occurs to the Blether Region. To quote the veteran Labour politician and ardent opponent of Scottish self-government Tam Dalyell:
"In 1976, when Harold Wilson demitted and Jim Callaghan became prime minister and wanted [the hitherto Eurosceptic] Barbara [Castle] out of his cabinet, it was decided as a sort of consolation prize that she should be the leader of the first Labour delegation to the elected European Parliament," Mr Dalyell said.
"Not within months, but within weeks, she was wanting more powers for the parliament. Why? Because she was bloody well there."
For the redoubtable Mr. Dalyell, this warning from history finds an eery echo in present-day desires for the Scottish Parliament to enjoy an enhanced range of competences (despite the fact that they reflect the overwhelming popular will rather than merely that of those who happen to find themselves elected). Be that as it may, having previously referred to the Ministerial Advisory Group as a "remedial" measure, the Blether Region is struck by this embryonic similarity with the property empire of the Ulster-Scots Agency — to whose failures it was in part conceived as an antidote.
Friday, 30 September 2011
The modern development of international auxiliary languages, which began with Volapük back in 1879, has gone through various stages, with the fashion for constructed languages moving away from highly inflected case-heavy varieties towards simpler ones such as Esperanto (1887), and then to more naturalistic creations such as Giuseppe Peano's Latino Sine Flexione (1903) and Edgar de Wahl's Occidental (1922). Arguably the end-point in the process was reached in 1951 with the publication by the International Auxiliary Language Association of Interlingua, which might almost have been termed "Common Romance". Of course, Interlingua is best suited to the needs of Western Europe and its former colonies. Speakers of Asian languages, or even Finno-Ugric ones, may still find Esperanto easier.
That said, Interlingua has certain advantages that Esperanto cannot offer. One is that many people can read it without any prior study — anyone who is a native speaker of a modern Romance language, and any English-speaker who has a modest smattering of such a language, or of Latin. One of the original uses for which Interlingua was promoted was as a language of abstracts at medical conferences (doctors, with their firm grounding in Latinate technical terms, already having a large enough Romance vocabulary to understand it).
But what use could Interlingua ever be to us? Well, one possible context is bilingual tourism websites. Such sites cannot be translated into the language of every possible visitor to these shores, but if they were in English (for northern Europeans) and Interlingua (for those to the south), they would be likely to find a wide readership.
Another possible use is in schools. Earlier this year the Blether Region discussed the inability of most school-leavers, after many hundreds of hours of language tuition, to hold a natural and unscripted conversation in any language in which they were not already native when they began (with the possible exception of Irish, which has considerable social support and accessible opportunities for immersion).
For controlled schools in Northern Ireland, a region which has retained its grammar schools and, regardless of what happens with the 11-plus, looks set to do so in future, a sensible step would be to teach compulsory Interlingua in secondaries (along with one or two relatively easy elective languages such as Spanish and Dutch), with the grammars concentrating on German, Latin, Greek, Chinese and, if we are to be brutally honest, French. This would enable those at the grammars, if they wished, to go on to study those subjects at a tertiary level, while those learning Interlingua would be able to order a beer on holiday. If the latter group went on to do A-levels, they would not be excluded from reading other Romance languages at university either. All that would be necessary for that would be for third-level institutions to introduce a conversion course; on a less positive note, QUB has already adapted to schools' wishes by dumping German, after the schools failed to produce enough candidates. Of course, those proficient in Interlingua would also be in an enviable position if they wanted to do a crash GCSE in a Latinate tongue in their final year at school.
You may find the above a utopian and obscure suggestion, but at least it keeps the learning of languages compulsory. It is also likely to produce far better results.
Friday, 16 September 2011
Next Thursday the Stormont Committee for Culture, Arts and Leisure will hear a last-ditch plea by Irish-language organisations that they retain the core funding currently accorded them by Foras na Gaeilge. The Language Body's rationalisation plans have previously been criticised for not taking account of the different legislative context in the North. Indeed, by ending the funding given to — and thereby effectively closing — groups such as Ultach Trust, which tackles misunderstanding by promoting Irish on a cross-community basis, and Pobal, which campaigns for legislative protections to be brought into line with those elsewhere, thus removing the language from the political sphere, there is a very real danger that convergence in the way envisaged will never occur.
There is still a chance for the policy to be changed, however, and we can only hope that Committee Members use what influence they have to do so.
Monday, 5 September 2011
The Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure, Carál Ní Chuilín, has launched a campaign to create 1,000 more Irish-speakers by 2015.
Adopting a more on-the-ground approach to promoting the language seems like a sensible expedient given the impasse on bringing legislative protections into line with those afforded Celtic languages in Great Britain (not to mention the Irish language in the Republic). One high-profile figure won over to the new campaign — in what seems like a canny move for both sides — is PSNI Deputy Chief Constable Judith Gillespie.
Of course, such a softening of boundaries may shake the odd preconception — and spook those who depend on an absence of normality for their bread and butter. The new initiative has brought a predictable response from the TUV's Jim Allister, who seems to realise neither that bilingualism is a policy grounded in tolerance (and therefore always about the minority) nor that learning and promoting Irish, far from being a complex and labour-intensive means of riling Unionists, may actually reflect a core belief of the language's supporters. On this occasion Mr. Allister's language is particularly bellicose, and after 15 years of relative peace one must doubt its appropriateness.
In November 2009 the TUV was forced to apologise for branding Irish a "leprechaun language".
Tuesday, 16 August 2011
Ian Adamson has an interesting posting about where the putative Ulster-Scots Academy should be situated, with the former Lord Mayor and long-time advocate of Ulster Scots favouring Belmont Tower in his beloved Victoria ward of East Belfast. The site would of course be easily accessible for those living in Belfast, but also for residents of Scots-speaking parts of Down (it is only a minute or two away from the Upper Newtownards Road).
Belmont would also be a fitting district for a centre of literary and linguistic study, since it takes its name from the former Belmont House, now the site of Campbell College. Ultimately, of course, the name must be a reference to Belmont the home of Portia in Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice. Although definitely situated somewhere on the Italian mainland, its precise identity has been the subject of enduring debate.
Monday, 8 August 2011
Earlier this year the Blether Region reported on the Royal White Order of King Solomon, a recently established secretive organisation whose supporters are expected to pay substantial sums for apparently paltry benefits. Members of the organisation, whose uniform has been compared in the Daily Star with that of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, are instructed to address each other as "Sir Knight".
"Sir Knight" is also the form of address for members of the Royal Black Preceptory, once memorably described to the Blether Region as an organisation for Orangemen who show signs of interest in religion. However, it might be wrong to read too much into that, since it is also the title used when addressing the Catholic Rotarians of the Knights of Columbus.
A more compelling comparison is with the Knights Templar, whose Latin title was Pauperes commilitones Christi Templique Solomonici, or Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon. The Templars, who played an important role in the Crusades, were later bloodily suppressed, but have resurfaced from time to time in popular culture, most recently in Dan Brown's 2003 novel The Da Vinci Code.
However, another, less savoury association is with fascism. In Scotland, one of the few countries where the Templars were not persecuted, there was Sìol nan Gàidheal (Seed of the Gael), a neo-fascist organisation expelled from the SNP in the early 1980s whose members, according to the BBC, "used to march around tooled-up and in Highland dress". The group also explicitly references the Templars.
And then there is Anders Behring Breivik, the Norwegian Christian fanatic who recently claimed 77 victims — mainly young people concerned with social justice. Breivik, who was so obsessed with the Templars that he even visited their former staging-post of Malta, chose the Knights' red-cross design for the cover of his 1,500-page manifesto, along with a Latin name — Pauperes commilitones Christi Templique Solomonici.
He also claimed that he was a member of a Knights Templar organisation founded by individuals who shared his racist aims and were ready to use violence to achieve them.
"According to Breivik, the order was established as an "anti-Jihad crusader-organisation" that "fights" against "Islamic suppression" in London in April 2002 by nine men: two Englishmen, a Frenchman, a German, a Dutchman, a Greek, a Russian, a Norwegian, and a Serb. It has between fifteen and eighty "ordinated knights" besides an unknown number of "civilian members", and Breivik expects the order to take political and military control of Western Europe."
One website has reported that Breivik, who was apparently not anti-Semitic, may in fact have been interested in Nordic Israelism.
The Norwegian atrocities have meant that several right-wing commentators approvingly cited by Breivik have had to defend themselves. Is it going too far to compare the Royal White Order of King Solomon with the intellectual milieu that produced him?
The Belfast Telegraph has already reported that Anders Breivik and Johnny Adair shared a friend in the shape of Paul Ray, who blogs under the name Lionheart. Ray lives on Malta and runs an anti-Islam organisation known as the Ancient Order of the Templar Knights. Something of a pattern here.
Part of the problem with the Royal White Order is that its membership is secret. But what if there turned out to be personal connections with the Loyalist paramilitary group Tara, which espoused similar Doomsday and elitist views, and the British-Israel World Federation, which includes a strong current of white supremacism?
Thursday, 4 August 2011
Among the apparently most objective methods of gauging the health of a language is ranking it in order of Wikipedia articles. In June 2009 a whopping 22% of all articles were in English, with 56% in other Indo-European languages (although the language family in question includes Hindi/Urdu and most other Indian languages, in practice the overwhelming majority of the articles are in European tongues). Indeed, the only non-European language in the top ten was Chinese, and that only by user count as opposed to the number of articles.
There are also versions of Wikipedia available in minority languages (Cheyenne, Manx and Maori), dialectalised varieties (Alemannic, Piedmontese and Low Saxon), and creoles (Haitian and Papiamento), as well as dead languages such as Latin (a living tongue only in Vatican City, where celibacy may render intergenerational transmission somewhat difficult), Old English, Gothic, and Old Church Slavonic (currently in use only as a liturgical language).
Irish has just under 30,000 articles (96 in the rankings), Scottish Gaelic just over 8,000 (111), and Scots just under 7,000 (117). Sensibly, there is no Ulster Scots; a proposal for a Wikipedia Valencià was rejected earlier this year on the basis that Valencian is a dialect of Catalan.
One of the more bizarre aspects to Wikipedia over recent years has been the massive number of articles (almost 120,000 of them) in Volapük, the first modern constructed auxiliary language. Indeed, by article, Volapük is more popular than Hindi, Thai, Greek or Tagalog.
Volapük was invented in 1879-80 by Johann Martin Schleyer, a Catholic priest from what is now Baden-Württemberg in south-west Germany. Very popular in its heyday, it was soon displaced by Zamenhof's Esperanto, which was much easier to learn and use. Indeed, at the third Volapük convention held in Paris in 1889, even the tongue's inventor had trouble speaking it, mainly owing to its bewildering array of agglutinative affixes.
When enthusiasts complained about this, and other quirks such as the tongue's complex, German-based case system and the disconcerting effect of excising the letter r
While its successor has itself been subject to criticism, albeit considerably less damning — and arguably better systems such as Ido (an offshoot originally named Esperantido) and in particular Interlingua exist — Esperanto's reasonable functionality and critical mass of supporters have meant that it has not been displaced in the same manner. However, its imperfections, and the rival systems thereby engendered, have almost certainly placed a cap on its development. This is of course similar to the case of traditional Scots vs. "Ullans" or "New Ulster Scots"; any linguistic advantage likely to be gained through even sensitive separate development is dwarfed by the loss of utility.
As for Volapük, as a 2007 debate over closing the Wikipedia portal, which has only one contributor, shows, most of its articles are in fact "bot-generated", i.e. the product of machine translation from other Wikipedias. In the event, it was decided to keep it open, a victory for the wilfully obscure eccentric behind it but also for linguistic diversity in general. As such, we can be grateful.
Tuesday, 26 July 2011
Slugger O'Toole has an interesting discussion about Lee Reynolds, who is to be co-opted to Belfast City Council to replace former DUP councillor Ian Crozier (pictured), recently appointed as chief executive of the Ulster-Scots Agency.
Although in recent years he has been more strongly associated with backroom politics, of the two men Mr. Reynolds has by far the more established interest in Scots, and not only because he hails from the Coleraine area and is a son of the well-known rhymer Charlie.
Mr. Crozier, on the other hand, comes not from the north coast but from north Belfast.
Gaelscéal had the following to say about the new appointee:
"Cé go bhfuil 'staidéar, caomhnú, forbairt agus úsáid Albainis Uladh mar theanga bheo' luaite go sonrach i sainchúram an eagrais, áfach, is mó a dhíríonn obair na Gníomhaireachta ar chultúr ginearálta na hAlbainise — damhsa, ceol agus stair go príomha — seachas ar an chanúint féin. Tá an bhéim sin le feiceáil sa cheapachán is déanaí seo a chuireann duine nach bhfuil líofacht Albainise aige i mbun obair na heagraíochta."
"Although the "study, conservation, development and use of Ulster-Scots as a living language" is specifically mentioned in the organisation's remit, however, the Agency's work focuses more on the general culture of Scots — dance, music and history for the most part — instead of on the dialect itself. That emphasis can be seen in this latest appointment, which places a person who is not fluent in Scots in charge of the organisation's work."
In fact the quote "study, conservation, development and use of Ulster-Scots as a living language" comes not from the organisation's legal remit but from its mission statement; the reference to Ulster Scots as "a living language" explicitly contradicts the legislation under which the agency was established, which refers to "Ullans" as a "variety of the Scots language", i.e. a dialect of Scots. Thus, regardless of the status of Scots as a whole, it is always incorrect as a matter of law to refer to "Ullans" as a language in its own right. One might have thought that any CEO worth his salt would bring that simple fact to the board's attention.
For that reason, it is disappointing to see Mr. Crozier cite the status of Ulster Scots under Part II of the European Charter in defence of the rather silly practice of terming it a language. The Ulster-Scots Agency is a cross-border body set up under Irish as well as British law, and the UK Government has no power unilaterally to amend that parallel legislation, which has the status of an international treaty (the European Charter, for all its moral importance, is a non-justiciable list of aspirations).
About time the Ulster-Scots Agency was asked to respect the will of Tithe an Oireachtais.
Thursday, 21 July 2011
Again on the BBC website, the Blether Region spotted this list of 50 Americanisms. There's no better guarantee of raising the ire of true-blood Britons — particularly the right-wing variety — than drawing attention to the aberrant linguistic habits of their cousins in the New World, and the article has already attracted over 1,000 comments.
At its best the "Americanisms" discourse can be a source of exquisite satire, as in the repeated use of the word "acreage" in Rev. Glenworthy's creaking monotone towards the end of The Loved One — underlining the number-crunching, hypocritical venality of "spiritual" mid-60s California. More often than not, however, it is the complainants who seem ripe for satire.
Looking through the list, it's difficult not to come to the conclusion that most of the examples are entirely innocuous modernisms rather than linguistic usages that separate those on the two sides of the Atlantic. Others, such as to "wait on", while perhaps not current in London, will be well known to residents of Northern Ireland, aptly illustrating a tendency towards the parochial among those at the centre of things. Indeed, one contributor even takes umbrage at the term "Scotch-Irish", apparently believing, as Queen Victoria did of "lesbianism", that it describes a physical impossibility.
Perhaps it's time the Ulster-Scots Agency sent a delegation to England.
The BBC has an interesting article dealing with the cost of language errors on websites, which, it is claimed, take a heavy toll in lost sales.
The Blether Region itself can testify to the effect of such worries, having bought cut-price software for educational use from the website http://www.software4students.co.uk/.
Not surprisingly, since the site's offers sound almost too good to be true, many potential customers think that it might be a scam, with one complaining that the website is "littered with grammatical errors and spelling mistakes".
In fact, it's not a scam, although you do have to become a parent to qualify — itself a weighty and irreversible financial decision.
And it's not only spelling mistakes that can affect one's opinion of websites. Some time ago the author of this blog decided to order a bespoke mug bearing a picture taken from an uploaded jpeg file. One of the websites surveyed had a very tempting offer, but unfortunately also sported the slogan "If it ain't from Yorkshire, it's shite". While the Blether Region is an avowed fan of the undoubted queen of English counties, even possessing a book entitled White Rose Garland — and, indeed, has been known to use the odd phrase of similar pithiness in conversation — the lack of seriousness that the slogan implied caused us to take our custom elsewhere.
An area of particular trickiness is, of course, translation. Perhaps the most famous example of its importance was in 1914, when German Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg, using the diplomatic lingua franca of the day, referred to the 1839 Treaty of London that guaranteed Belgian neutrality as a chiffon de papier, a phrase translated into English as 'scrap of paper'. The resulting fury led to a British declaration of war and the deaths of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of young men. However, that particular translation couldn't have been all that bad, since Google Translate offers the same phrasing today, and some of the alternative meanings of chiffon are probably worse.
Never let anything get in the way of a nice story.
Monday, 4 July 2011
The BBC reports that the new chief executive of the Ulster-Scots Agency is to be Ian Crozier, a DUP member of Belfast City Council since 2001. Mr. Crozier, who has called for the abolition of the Parades Commission, is on record as saying that "he can understand why hard-line loyalist protesters picketed Cemetery Sunday at Carnmoney graveyard".
As another observer of the third-rate telenovela that is the agency put it to the Blether Region recently, "Will they never learn?"
Last Tuesday saw an illuminating encounter between incoming Sinn Féin Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure, Carál Ní Chuilín, and the TUV's Jim Allister during ministerial Questions.
The occasion arose when the UUP's Sandra Overend asked the Minister whether she would continue with Nelson McCausland's tactic of pursuing a joint regional languages strategy for Irish and Ulster Scots. Regular readers will know that the result of Mr. McCausland's attempt to introduce real existierende parity between the two speech varieties has been a three-legged race in which progress has (at most) been only as fast as the slower of the two partners. No strategy is yet in place for either.
Ms Overend posed an interesting follow-up question:
"I thank the Minister for her answer. Does she agree that the St Andrews Agreement called for a regional minority language strategy and not solely an Irish language strategy?"
The ministerial response elicited was equally interesting:
"I am clear as to what the St Andrews Agreement means. It is also provided for in the agreement that I can take the strategies separately, and that is what I intend to do."
In fact the text of the agreement reads as follows:
"The Government will introduce an Irish Language Act reflecting on the experience of Wales and Ireland and work with the incoming Executive to enhance and protect the development of the Irish language.
The Government firmly believes in the need to enhance and develop the Ulster Scots language, heritage and culture and will support the incoming Executive in taking this forward."
From that one can deduce that it is Westminster rather than Stormont that has promised to introduce an Irish language Act. Indeed, the mention of Wales and Ireland rather than Scotland suggests some fairly strong, rights-based legal protections — probably more than might be expected to get past the Executive veto and cross-community voting of the Northern Ireland Assembly. The situation regarding the language strategies is not quite so clear, since interpretation depends on inference, but it seems reasonable to suggest that a package of measures amounting to a strategy is mandated in each case. Since the Irish language strategy appears intended to dovetail with Westminster legislation, and since the case of Ulster Scots covers not only language but "heritage and culture", it would also seem far more sensible in administrative terms to tackle them separately.
At this point Mr. Allister asked a question:
"No later than this morning, during the corporation tax debate, the Minister's colleague Mr Flanagan regaled the House with the benefits of the English language as an attraction for inward investment. Why, therefore, does the Minister want to waste valuable resources on promoting a language that will disadvantage young people in seeking employment in these hard economic times, instead of better equipping them to be more proficient in English?"
Obviously the TUV Member for North Antrim has some reading to do about the benefits of bilingualism. What is perhaps more telling is that, although he does not name the "language that will disadvantage young people in seeking employment", the Minister automatically, and rightly, assumes that he is referring to Irish rather than Ulster Scots. Since successfully learning a language is a sign of a trained mind, it is difficult to think of a single example — Latin, Hebrew, Swahili, even Volapük — that might make it more difficult for someone to find a job. Unless, that is, one assumes that such people will be discriminated against because of non-linguistic factors and, rather than tackling such discrimination, accepts it as "just the way it is".
Small wonder that the Minister answered:
"I suspect that economic development and well-being are not really what the Member is hinting at. I hope that that has answered whatever sort of question he had."
Thursday, 23 June 2011
Last summer the Blether Region was in Armagh City enjoying the sights of Ireland's attractively bijou ecclesiastical capital. In the shadow of its understated grandeur, it was clear that all was not well politically, with fly posters promoting the interests of Republican dissidents and, on a telegraph pole just behind the Anglican cathedral, the letters ONH in the colours of the tricolour.
Now, as most of you will know, ONH stands for Óglaigh na hÉireann or 'Warriors of Ireland' — the official title of the Republic's army and a name that various paramilitary groups have arrogated to themselves over the years. Nowadays the tag is somewhat generously attached to one of the many dissident splinter groups.
Earlier this year there was a flurry of reports about just that group, more than a few of which misspelt said Óglaigh na hÉireann. Of course, Irish-speakers are well used to having their names misspelt in the press, most commonly when pesky accents are dropped or changed into apostrophes as they are in equivalent English versions, or when letters representing mutations at the beginning of proper names are incorrectly capitalised. But that doesn't mean that such thoroughgoing thoughtlessness should not be challenged, and in one major UK newspaper (admittedly with something of a reputation for spelling errors) Óglaigh na hÉireann was given an extra letter. Over and over again.
So it was that the Blether Region sent two e-mails complaining about the incorrect Irish, openly and from a public e-mail address. Eventually the spelling was rectified, but the newspaper didn't see fit to respond to the original e-mails. Although one can speculate as to the reason why, one explanation, probably the most plausible, is that it assumed the Blether Region was a supporter of anti-Agreement Republicans.
That is hardly the case. In fact, this blog shares the view of 99% of the Northern Ireland population that such dissidents should decommission and disappear.
But why should an ostensibly liberal newspaper assume a link between Irish and terror where none exists?
Postscript, 4 July 2011:
It seems as if the Blether Region may have exhibited premature optimism regarding the newspaper's ability to take advice as well as answer e-mails, since the risible "Oghlaigh naEireann" of the linked article demonstrates, if anything, regression.
But I suppose it was the Grauniad ...