Monday, 28 February 2011

When Two Tribes Go to Words

Last year saw the publication of A Word of Ulster Scots, a 66-page reworking of Liam Logan's columns from the News Letter, funded by the Ulster-Scots Agency. The Blether Region could quote the ISBN number of the volume, but those reading this post might not benefit greatly from their increased knowledge, since up to now only members of the Agency board have received a copy. Yet this is no hungry poet's individually numbered work hand-cranked from a ramshackle old photostat machine. On the contrary, it is a crisp, attractive, mass-produced tome. Indeed, for five months now boxes brimful of books have been in storage at the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure awaiting distribution. Why, then, has it not managed to reach a wider audience?

Readers will remember Liam Logan as the presenter of BBC Radio Ulster's Kist o' Wurds programme. He is also a supporter of the Ullans Academy, a former health service administrator, a keen golfer, and, together with Irish-speaking Unionist Ian Malcolm, a counter-cultural ambassador to schools.

Liam Logan is also an SDLP politician.

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

A Mormon Besom

2011 marks the four-hundredth anniversary of the King James Bible, which, along with the works of Shakespeare, played an important role in the codification of early Modern English.

We sometimes encounter Bible pastiche as satire, but by far the longest and most influential example of the genre is Joseph Smith Jr.'s Book of Mormon (The Blether Region assumes here that most readers are not themselves latter-day saints and hopes that terming the work "pastiche" will not cause offence). Smith claimed he had translated the work from the "Reformed Egyptian" language of antique plates that he had discovered — they subsequently disappeared — and that the third testament to which they amounted was a literal historical record of a part of the Jewish people that had found their way to the New World. Critics have pointed out that no trace of the civilisation that they describe has ever been uncovered in America, and the book also mentions a host of animals either never present there or recently introduced by European settlers.

Be that as it may, Smith's literary achievement in the Book of Mormon is immense, so much so that Penguin Classics even publishes an edition. Consider the following from the First Book of Nephi, chapter 1, verses 140-1:

140 And it came to pass that Zoram did take courage at the words which I spake.
141 Now Zoram was the name of the servant; and he promised that he would go down into the wilderness unto our father.

Just as happens in the King James Version, there is a belletristic non sequitur (they obviously had different literary standards in the Bronze Age). First a character — with a convincingly Hebrew-sounding name — is mentioned as if we already know him, then we are told who he is, but he is referred to with the definite article.

The Blether Region previously posted on the word besom, which is used in the King James Version. It also appears in the Second Book of Nephi, chapter 10, verse 45:

45 I will also make it a possession for the bittern, and pools of water: and I will sweep it with the besom of destruction, saith the Lord of hosts.

This is word for word what appears in Isaiah, chapter 14, verse 23. No surprise there, readers will say; if Smith did not copy the verse directly, he had probably learnt it by heart as part of Bible study. More intriguingly, exactly as in the King James Version, in the Book of Mormon the word besom appears exactly once. Smith could have had access to Cruden's Concordance, but the Blether Region likes to think that he was a sufficiently good scholar of the King James Version to know himself.

Of course, if one takes Communism to be one of the world's great religions, as some have claimed, then Karl Marx's Das Kapital must have been a more influential "Bible" than the Book of Mormon. In 2011, however, with Communism discredited, it looks like Mormonism has the brighter future — a faith with 14 million adherents that looks set to gain many more.

Monday, 21 February 2011

Literature in Scots

Hot on the heels of the revelation that an undiscovered letter by Robert Burns had been found — complete with an early version of "On Seeing a Wounded Hare" — comes the news that the Arts and Humanities Research Council is to provide £1 million of funding to Glasgow University produce the definitive multi-volume academic edition of the poet's works.

Here's to more of the same, and not just for such obvious figures as Scott or Stevenson but also for those unjustly confined to the middle ranks of literary fame such as John Galt and James Hogg. The truth is that the more one knows of Scottish vernacular literature, the higher one's opinion of it becomes.

And it's not just Scotland. Last week the Blether Region featured Robert Huddleston, hundreds of whose unpublished works are held in the archive of the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum. If only 10% are any good, Huddleston is clearly a poet who deserves to be read, and, as a first step, it would surely be fitting for the museum to receive a grant to digitise his works and make them freely available on the Internet.

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Robert Huddleston

The Blether region has been enjoying the poetry of Robert Huddleston (1814-1887), the Bard of Moneyreagh, two volumes of whose poems have been made available by the Ulster Poetry Project. The following lyric is of limited linguistic interest, being in more or less standard English, but it is one of the best to appear in his first volume, A Collection of Poems and Songs on Rural Subjects (1844), and surely ripe for recording by traditional musicians. Other highlights include Doddery Willowaim, his own lengthy satirical take on Burns's Tam o' Shanter.


Loveliest maid — of Tullyquilly,
Fairest flower of virgin Spring;
Bend thine ear my bloomin' lily,
Hark a youthful poet sing.


Bonnie lass o' Tullyquilly,
Fairest lassie e'er I've seen;
Condescend to smile on Willie —
Willie smiles on "beauty's queen."

Blossoms deck the blooming summer,
Nature laughs on every lea;
All around is mirth and humour —
Wanting thee there's none for me.
Bonnie lass o' Tullyquilly, &c.

Attracting gaze through fashion wheeling,
Luring wealth may frolic gay —
Such the hawk through blue air stealing,
Oft th' goldfinch makes its prey.
Bonnie lass o' Tullyquilly, &c.

View the swan with pride and pleasure,
Not a love but one he'll own;
Like the dove a faithful lover,
I but sigh for one alone,
Bonnie lass o' Tullyquilly, &c.

Was not mother Eve so pretty,
Blythe with Adam in a screen;
Could not you and I be happy,
In a cot tho' e'er so mean?
Bonnie lass o' Tullyquilly, &c.

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Taking Dictation

The BBC reports that £20,000 has been spent on an unpublished Ulster-Scots "dictionary" prepared by the defunct Ulster-Scots Academy Implementation Group, whose grandiose plans for the dialect came to nought after the civil servant supervising it reported that it had failed to reach agreement. The confirmation, which came in a written answer from the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure, Nelson McCausland, provides further evidence that the group, only some of whose members were academic linguists, spent generously on projects that pre-empted the work of an academy.

Intriguingly, the Minister added that "Discussion with the Ulster-Scots community is continuing with a view to publication as soon as possible." Is the Blether Region alone in suspecting more disagreement and delay? The Minister’s promised "languages" strategy has been held up, apparently interminably, with remarkably similar justification.

Perhaps he will be out of office before either the dictionary or the strategy appears.

The Ulster-Scots dictionary has long been controversial. As one response to a public consultation on the academy concept put it: "It is in my view regrettable that work on several projects has already started, without proper consultation, planning, assessment or even apparently much thought."

Another respondent expressed more fundamental concerns: "Why should there be a separate Scots dictionary for Ulster in the first place? Resources may be more efficiently allocated helping to improve the extant Scots dictionaries." After all, most people access the two historical dictionaries of Scots, DOST and the SND, via the Internet nowadays. It would be perfectly possible to exclude words not used in Ulster, and even to provide a separate website drawing on the SLD database for that purpose.

Although one can infer from the BBC report that £20,000 is considered a large sum for a dictionary, it is surely only in the context of co-operation with Scotland that such a modest price tag for a reputable reference work could even be contemplated.

On the other hand, if what one gets is unpublished activist Diktat not based on attested usage and rejected by ordinary users, perhaps £20,000 is a lot of money after all.

Thursday, 10 February 2011

Constitutional Means

The Irish Examiner has printed a letter from Pádraig Mac Fhearghusa, editor of Feasta and current President of Conradh na Gaeilge, and Éamonn Mac Niallais of Guth na Gaeltachta, on Enda Kenny's controversial plans to make Irish an optional subject for the leaving certificate.

There is no doubt that the language will suffer greatly if the proposed change is introduced. The greatest obstacle to the revival of Irish has not been the fact that children are being made to learn it but that successive Governments have failed to provide Irish-medium services, in which context the 1970s abolition of the Irish requirement for entry to the Civil Service that the letter-writers mention is of some relevance.

Even in those days, of course, Ireland was failing to meet its obligations to the first national language. That being so, the language requirement was quite rightly seen as a pointless — and hypocritical — impediment to open recruitment. Rather than making Irish more relevant to the Civil Service by providing increased services through the language, however, the response was to abolish the requirement.

Thirty-seven years later, the language has still not been made useful enough to ensure intergenerational transmission. And instead of taking steps to make it so, the probable future Taoiseach is set on repeating the mistake made when the Civil Service requirement was abolished.

In a Northern context, it could be argued that the segregated school system's denial to Unionist children of a chance to learn Irish is a mild form of child abuse, involving as it does the excision of a part of their identity and probably permanent damage to their ability to appreciate basic aspects of the world around them such as history, toponymy, personal names and native literature. Even in the South, however, there is no guaranteeing that students will not terminate their study of the language prematurely, many for frivolous reasons, and with many regretting their choice as adults. After all, a large body of research tells us that adolescents learn languages more easily and with more chance of the knowledge actually sticking.

The other parties oppose Kenny's plans. Back in 1995, the then Government raised eyebrows when it wrote into the Constitution the exact arrangements under which divorce would be tolerated. In practice, this meant that it would be very difficult for any subsequent Government to reduce the four to five years of legal separation that would be required before a divorce could be granted — an ignorant intrusion into people's private lives, perhaps, but most likely a long-lasting one.

Some readers may be aware that the Spanish Constitution stipulates a right to learn regional languages but a duty to learn Castilian — an instance of the same tactic being used against the Basque and Catalan Administrations, which might otherwise very easily make the "national" language optional.

But what if those in favour of Irish were to follow suit here? A right to learn English and a duty to learn Irish would be entirely in keeping with the languages' respective positions in Bunreacht na hÉireann, and while one could argue that those currently commencing university studies already have an adequate command of the language, obviating the need for universal provision, that is hardly true of schoolchildren.

The Blether Region believes that such a constitutional amendment in favour of Irish would also be likely to attract the support of the people.

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Putting the Dog Out in Irish

Yesterday saw a brace of language-related articles.

BBC Northern Ireland reports on the response to an Assembly question about money spent on the Department for Regional Development's Irish-language classes, informing us that the Minister had "sparked controversy" by introducing them. Yet the sum of money in question turns out to have been a measly £2,284. Once again, it seems, the cost of exposing — and reporting on — language spending threatens to be greater than the extent of the spending itself.

It has become drearily apparent that the dudgeon worked up over "wasting public money" in this context is out of all proportion to the financial implications — although it is entirely in line with febrile Unionist attitudes to Irish. For the purposes of comparison, way back in 2006 the Guardian had the following to say about the spending priorities of a certain poll-tax-funded corporation:

"The BBC today unveiled the first eight idents at a cost of £150,000 each, and given that BBC1 aims to produce as many as 15 over the life of the new range of promotional clips, the total cost could rise to as much as £2.25m."

The "idents", to which the article refers are the self-promotional snippets that we see between programmes (they currently do a nice one with hippos). Perhaps the BBC is being impartial when it chooses to humour rather than challenge Unionist play-acting in this context. On the other hand, the phrase "pot calling kettle black" might also spring to mind — were it not for the fact that the kettle itself seems remarkably shiny in this case.

Also on broadcasting, the Belfast Telegraph covers the £1 million going on the Ulster-Scots broadcasting fund — an odd focus, given the £20 million for Irish mentioned later in the article, albeit to 2015 rather than this year. As the Blether Region has warned before, spending money on "Ulster Scots" but then diluting it by additionally covering heritage and culture may not be the best use of public funds when it comes to promoting minority languages, although it has considerable history in the form of the Ulster-Scots Agency.

Moreover, in this case it could have the unintended effect of skewing broadcasting output towards one community in a way that language alone does only for those who cling to the black-and-white notion that Scots is only for Protestants and Irish only for Catholics.

On a related topic, last year the Blether Region attended a cross-community event in Downpatrick at which one of the speakers was an Northern Anglican clergyman who had translated the Book of Common Prayer into Irish. Asked by a member of the audience whether Irish was widely spoken in his Southern parish, he replied, "Sure, them boys couldn't put the dog out in Irish," after a pause adding, "And if they did, they wouldn't get it back in."

Friday, 4 February 2011

Mammie Weer All Crazee Noo

Applications have been invited from potential chairs and members of a Ministerial Advisory Group on the Ulster-Scots Academy.

The package available — £400 a day for the chair and £100 for each board member — is an extremely generous one and means that the Department has budgeted at least £800 per full day worked by the group (secretariat not included). Doubtless the Department's largesse would suit many a semi-retired Ulster-Scots activist.

In the past, academic linguists too have been tempted to sit on similar "implementation" or "steering" groups. Their reasons will have been personal and complex, but among them may well have been a desire to moderate the excesses of the more overtly political actors.

The academy concept is, of course, a curate's egg. Alongside the incredibly damaging notion that the tiny and only moderately differentiated Ulster dialect is not, and could survive without, Scots, there are exciting plans for surveys, libraries, recovery and dissemination — areas in which the Ulster-Scots Agency, some would argue, might have shown greater interest. Engaging with the ministerial plans, such academics may reckon, could ensure both that those initiatives are realised and that the dialect is standardised on the basis of its traditional poetry. After all, surely the aim of any newly codified orthography would be to equip the modern descendants and inheritors of Ulster-Scots culture with the tools to access their authentic history and literature. And it goes without saying that, were that to happen, it would be obvious to everyone — not only to cryptologists — that Ulster Scots is Scots, perhaps even a sub-dialect of the main Central Scots variety.

Past academic interventions have seemingly succeeded in banishing a-umlaut from modern attempts at transcribing Ulster Scots. True, they replaced it with i-umlaut, but that could hardly be expected to find broad appeal among ordinary users, so that the ultimate result will be that a simple "i" rather than a simple "a" is used.

What remains, unfortunately, is eye dialect. Up until the late nineteenth century, Scots everywhere was written with what was once memorably characterised as a "spray of apostrophes". In the main that was because the Presbyterians who wrote Scots had high levels of ability in English owing to their reading of the Bible, and Scots was thus associated with literacy. After the advent of mass education in spoken book English, however, Scots — left outside the classroom — became associated with the opposite, and attempts at fixing the language, mainly in kailyard dialogue and newspaper columns, were marked by deliberate, unjustified respellings such as wuz for wis and sez for says. Indeed, with some exponents of Glaswegian sociolectal writing, the device has led to poetry (it would be unsustainable in descriptive prose) that is almost reminiscent of the song titles of 70s rockers Slade.

It would be a shame if such eye dialect were to remain while the other eccentricities of the revived Ulster Scots fell by the wayside.