Monday, 31 January 2011

Those Helplines — an Alternative View

While the Blether Region's take on Nelson McCausland's recent bizarre radio comments had the rather obvious focus of Irish, Ian James Parsley's more nuanced blog referred to a "U-turn" when it came to the Minister's views on Scots. It is of course beyond dispute that Parsley's linguistic utilitarianism — here seemingly echoed by the MLA most associated with Ulster-Scots activism — is a far better approximation of thinking among ordinary Unionists than the academy-touting McCausland we are used to. So was there a U-turn, or did a mask slip?

Perhaps the Minister is simply yet to internalise the linguistic diversity discourse, as one might infer, given the fact that he seemingly applies it only to one half of the equation — and that in a manner as likely to kill the dialect as save it. What is of course absolutely true is that the Irish-language helpline is not currently doing much for Irish. One surmises that it is there because, among the menu of measures that forms the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, a certain number of which the UK Government is obliged to implement, setting it up stood out as an easy and inexpensive option. Were another Minister to take on the Culture portfolio, one might imagine that alternative, more meaningful measures might be considered for the language. If, at that stage, the telephone helpline were not done away with, it would illustrate the limits of Nationalist thinking, just as Mr. McCausland, some would argue, so arrestingly illustrates those on the Unionist side.

That does not answer the question of why the Ulster-Scots helpline is there. By all accounts it is used even less than that for Irish. Perhaps it too exists in order to tick a box for the Charter. Or perhaps it is there simply because Irish has a helpline. One of the greatest problems facing Ulster-Scots language-planners is their seeming lack of autonomy. In blunt terms, if Irish has something, it seems that Ulster Scots must have it too — a cross-border agency, a helpline, even language status.

As for Mr. McCausland, speculating that his comments on the Charter were his "real" views is an idle pastime, although that might become less so were he to stay on as Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure after May and fail to implement his promised academy. Even if the real culprit were Sammy Wilson's fiscal rectitude, McCausland could hardly remain in office with honour.

It does seem odd, however, that when asked about helplines for users of both speech varieties, he chose to vent his ire on the only one with even moderate numbers of callers. On second thoughts, perhaps it wasn't so odd after all. Sometimes Nelson does do what people expect of him.

Friday, 28 January 2011

Here and there in Belfast English: a short elicitation from John Kirk

Readers of the Blether Region may be familiar with the following expressions in Belfast English:

1) This here book is good.
2) That there magazine is rubbish.

We may refer to 'this here' and 'that there' as deictically reinforced demonstratives.

The first point is whether the following sentences are acceptable and equivalent (do they mean the same thing?):

3) This book here is good.
4) This here book here is good.

5) That magazine there is rubbish.
6) That there magazine there is rubbish.

If (4) and (6) are acceptable, do the two occurrences of 'here' and 'there' have the same function? And what is that function? Which occurrence is the deictic reinforcer?

Now consider the following sets:

7a) Put this here book here.
7b) Put this book here here.
7c) Put this here here.

8a) Put that there magazine there.
8b) Put that magazine there there.
8c) Put that there there.

Which of the three versions in each set are acceptable?

If you find 7c and 8c unacceptable, would the following be acceptable:

7d) Put this here ... um ... here
8d) Put that there ... um ... there

i.e. between the seemingly identical items there is an audibly filled pause, rendered here as ... um ...

Any views? I have been asked for an opinion. I feel that all are possible except (4) and (6). The first 'here'/'there' is the deictic reinforcer; the second occurrence esopecially after 'put' is adverbial, functioning as the locative complement of the verb 'put'.

When the identical items are side by side, they are contrasted phonologically by a change in pitch, possibly after a short pause, but that only serves to contrast their separate functions.

Any thoughts?

John Kirk may be contacted at

Thursday, 27 January 2011

Rare Burns Letter Discovered

The Scotsman reports that a letter penned by Robert Burns and previously unknown to researchers has been discovered in the private archive of Floors Castle, Kelso, in the Scottish borders. Addressed to James Gregory, Professor of Medicine at Edinburgh University, and dated 13 May 1789, it contains an early draft of "On Seeing a Wounded Hare", including a verse that Burns later deleted.

Friday, 21 January 2011

"Twenty people use the Irish language"

Listeners to this morning's Nolan Show on BBC Radio Ulster (at around 9.30 a.m.) heard some astonishing claims from the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure, Nelson McCausland. The last caller to the show, UUP Councillor David Browne, asked Mr. McCausland about spending on Irish and Ulster Scots, querying the cost of the telephone helplines made available for their speakers. The shocking answer was as follows:

"That is a requirement that was imposed on Northern Ireland and on other devolved Assemblies, Wales and Scotland, by the United Kingdom Government when they signed up to the European Charter for [Regional or] Minority Languages. That was a commitment — a requirement that we have to fulfil and we have to report on. There are certain things we have to do. The cost of that is around a few thousand pounds a year, and in terms of the sort of thing we are talking about here, £50 million, it really is a minuscule amount. What I have to say: I would concur with his comment that these things are — it is ridiculous that we are required to do these things, because 20 people use the Irish language. We are told that there is a huge, burgeoning community, and I think about 20 people use it half a dozen [times] a year. That has been the situation for a number of years."

Is there really no limit to what the Minister may justify as his sincerely held belief — even belief backed up by evidence?

According to the 2001 census, 167,487 people in Northern Ireland had some knowledge of Irish, including 75,125 in the highest skills category, "Speaks, reads, writes and understands".

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

What's in a Name?

The Blether Region is intrigued by a blog entry made last month by Councillor Dr. Ian Adamson OBE:

"Nelson McCausland, our Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure in the Stormont Assembly, does not share our views on Ulster-Scots, which is fair enough, and issues the occasional directive to the Ulster-Scots Agency about the use of the term Ullans, to keep them in order."

Ulster-Scots aficionados will recall that the cross-border legislation setting up the Ulster-Scots Agency refers to "Ullans", which is defined as a "variety of the Scots language", i.e. a dialect of Scots. The UK's declaration on the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, on the other hand, reads as follows:

"b) The United Kingdom declares, in accordance with Article 2, paragraph 1 of the Charter that it recognises that Scots and Ulster Scots meet the Charter's definition of a regional or minority language for the purposes of Part II of the Charter."

The above has been taken by the more radical Ulster-Scots activists as meaning that Ulster Scots is now to be treated as a language separate from Scots (although, as "regional or minority language" is in the singular, that is far from certain).

What is certain, however, is that, if Ulster Scots is indeed being defined as a language in the Charter declaration, it is clearly not the same language as Ullans. After all, if both the names (Ullans and Ulster Scots) and the definitions (dialect and language) vary, one is obviously dealing with two separate things.

One wonders how one is to interpret Dr. Adamson's comments. One possibility is that the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure is attempting to direct the agency not to use the term "Ullans" on the basis that it has been superseded by "Ulster Scots". But on what basis? Quite apart from the fact that "Ullans" and "Ulster Scots" are, by the Minister's own interpretation of the Charter declaration, incompatible, the Charter is non-justiciable and the declaration regarding it national in character, while the framework for the agency is legislative, cross-border and has the status of an international treaty, incapable of amendment without parallel legislation passing through the Houses of the Oireachtas in Dublin.

It is clear that the only strictly legal terms that the agency may use are "Ullans" and — the Blether Region's preference — "Scots".

Twinned with Nashville

In what is, one hopes, to be the Blether Region's last comment on the Alliance Party for a time, we present two quotations, the first of which is one of the final posts from the late Horseman.

"Alliance is a party of a particular group – middle-class and suburban, both Protestant and Catholic, in the Greater Belfast area. Its failure to appeal either to working class people in Belfast or elsewhere, or to rural and small-town people, is an indication of its own limitations. As a party of the Belfast middle-class – probably primarily those employed in the public sector – it cannot truly understand the needs or wants of those who are not well-employed, pensionable, educated and urbane. In a large country such a self-limiting party may carve out a niche, but in a small region like Northern Ireland – and restricted to an even smaller part of that region by its own lack of appeal – the party will have to struggle to remain relevant."

The second comes from Belfast Media this week:

"The word inclusion means nothing if it means including only those things that pass the Alliance Party's 'what would North Down say?' test. True inclusion means tolerating, if not embracing, those things that are alien to a person’s own culture and experience."

In addition to recognising others' rights, linguistic and cultural, that means not caving in to the seductive simplicity of benevolent despotism and instead adhering to some basic principles of local democracy, such as the right of local councils to decide on their own welcome signs. One might have thought that, of all parties, one with only sub-regional appeal would have realised that, but apparently not.

To paraphrase Bertolt Brecht, one almost wishes that the Alliance Party would dissolve the people and elect another. Unfortunately, the Alliance Party seems to think that too, ignoring the running sore of the blatant double standard vis-à-vis Scotland and Wales in favour of the comforting mantras of "dreary steeples" exceptionalism.

To speak of "fiscal responsibility" when the signs in question will cost at most a few million pounds spread across 26 local authorities is extravagant rhetoric indeed. It is also a peculiarly ironic phrase to use, given that, until the recent decision to implement a modest levy on plastic bags, the only layer of Government raising even a part of its own revenue in Northern Ireland was local government. And those elected to district councils have no d'Hondt system to ensure quasi-permanent access to power when they fail.

It is time to give local authorities the freedom to acknowledge the cultural concerns of their communities. If they waste money on signs, if they wilfully and continually plant them where they end up being destroyed, if they abuse them in a manner that is political rather than cultural, let people vote them out — locally, for their local peccadilloes. There are, after all, two Nationalist and two Unionist parties, and it could be that the end result of the exercise will be that everyone adopts the Alliance Party policy, democratically. One imagines that it would be news, and a quite justified cause for anger, if spending on such signs ever reached a penny in the pound of rates revenue.

Among the sample road signs included in the Department for Regional Development's consultation document was one for Belfast. With the Gaelic etymon suppressed, one is left with a bland injunction to drive carefully, and the bizarre information that the city is twinned with Nashville, Tennessee. So it is that, as citizens, we can be trusted with the information that the wage-slaves of the provincial capital lap up syrupy kitsch made by white folks a few thousand miles away across the Atlantic — but not that their home was founded at the mouth of a tributary of the Lagan, the poor little Farset, which meanders unseen across the city, encased in a tunnel under High Street but still there.

Saturday, 15 January 2011

Digging for Victory?

What is the Alliance playing at with its resistance to bilingual signage? After the vehement reaction from liberal Irish-language enthusiasts, one might have thought that its representatives would have stopped digging, yet the party shows no sign of moderating its opposition.

Some political commentators have suggested that the consultation recently launched by Conor Murphy is a ploy to distract attention from manifest failures over water; others that he is seeking to steal a trick on his fellow Nationalists in the SDLP in the forthcoming Assembly elections.

Of course, if one thinks about it, it becomes obvious that the consultation process on Irish and Scots signage must have been in gestation long before the Christmas water stoppages. The latter theory is more plausible, but ignores the fact that the Nationalist parties' reactions to Anna Lo's comments on the issue have been virtually identical. No surprise there, as the SDLP also introduced a language Bill in the Assembly.

If anything, it seems that it is the Alliance that is in election mode, planning to capitalise on the trickle of softish Unionists from the UUP in the hope that some at least of their voters will follow. That is short-sighted, since the party's doctrinaire opposition to any visible acknowledgement of existing diversity is just as likely to scare people off. Gaeilgeoirí are a notoriously dedicated bunch — known, for example, for deliberately choosing partners from among their own ranks in order to raise their children through the medium of the language. Needless to say, there was no way that someone who rated the Irish language as very or extremely important could have voted for the anti-Gaelic DUP or UUP. Sadly, the Alliance's foray into linguistic Gleichschaltung seems to narrowed their choices yet further.

Although the differences between them are much less important than in previous decades, the conventional narrative has it that there are two sorts of Nationalists in Northern Ireland. Part of the Alliance's argument against English-Irish signage is that it will reflexively be associated with one sort. Unfortunately, the party seems to have missed the reason why. Sinn Féin means 'Ourselves', i.e. that group of people who, if they don't get what they want, will go off and do their own thing anyway. At a time when Northern Ireland has more Gaelic-speakers than three-times-larger Scotland, when there are more children in Irish-medium education than ever before, and when those who acknowledge an Irish ethnic tradition are a majority in every age cohort under 30, if the state cannot even allow a transparently Irish name to appear in its original spelling on a road sign, no wonder the language is associated with that unilateral, DIY ethos.

Regrettably, it seems that the Alliance has decided to re-position itself as a secular Unionist party. Arguing that a piecemeal approach to English-Irish road signs will lead to ghettoisation is perfectly valid. But failing to back it up by arguing for universal bilingual signage means that it is not an argument, but a subterfuge.

Thursday, 13 January 2011

Bilingual Traffic Signs Consultation

Submissions may be made on the Department of Regional Development's consultation on bilingual traffic signs until 11 March.

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

An Original Development

The BBC reports that the Department for Regional Development is considering a framework for the introduction of bilingual traffic signs combining either English and Irish or English and Ulster Scots.

Despite the fact that the proposals envisage no additional costs being borne by the Department, they have attracted criticism from the various Unionist parties, with the TUV's Jim Allister lambasting their concomitant erosion of "Northern Ireland's Britishness", something that would presumably apply regardless of the regime under which they were erected and any exceptions to it.

Meanwhile, the Alliance Party's Anna Lo criticised the plans for not allowing for trilingual signs combining English, Irish and Ulster Scots, an omission that she said would lead to "clear tribal demarcations" (although it may well have been frowned upon for safety reasons).

And UUP leader Tom Elliott criticised the possible consultation costs.

One can only assume that the issues raised by Mr. Elliott and Ms. Lo could be adequately dealt with by not having any consultation and simply erecting Irish signs everywhere. After all, a very large proportion — perhaps most — of Northern Ireland's place-names are of Irish origin, and it is difficult to think of a single English transliteration of a Gaelic name that accords it much dignity (the photo above being a good example). Of course, that would hardly deal with Mr. Allister's point, but one can never please everyone.

On a more serious note, it is clear that the Minister for Regional Development, Conor Murphy, is bending over backwards in order to please Unionists. Were he being bloody-minded about matters, he would have insisted on bilingual — or, indeed, monolingual — Irish signage everywhere, have made no provision for Ulster Scots and have made the taxpayer pick up the tab. As it is, he plans none of those things — and has been attacked by Anna Lo. You're damned if you do, and damned if you don't.

Those reading this blog from outside Northern Ireland may not be aware that there is a surefire way of spotting a Catholic church here: it is invariably the one without a board outside it proclaiming its denomination, since in many parts of the province any such board would, sooner or later, be defaced by bigots. Members of the Alliance Party would no doubt condemn that; yet when it comes to bilingual signage, one of the strongest physical embodiments of a shared future, they line up not with the minority but with the paint-bombers who are out to get them.

"Reasonable" stances are too often, the world over, the product of triangulation rather than philosophical commitment and, as such, the victims of the societies that produce them. In this case, the Blether Region is forced to come to the conclusion that "some of those liberals urnae much liberals".

The Old Testament in Scots

Kenneth Fraser, long-time author of the Lallans column in the monthly Scots Independent, is appealing for help in bringing to publication an almost complete Scots translation of the Old Testament by his late friend, the Rev. James Marshall.

Rev. Marshall left a typescript that he had intended as a first draft, but was unable to complete a planned revision before his death. At present his magnum opus is unpublished and difficult for the public to access, having been deposited in St. Andrews University Library.

If you can help, Mr. Fraser can be contacted at