Monday, 18 April 2011

White is the Colour

John Coulter of the Daily Star reports on "The Royal White Order of King Solomon", a newly founded evangelical fraternal organisation.

The Star informs us that "Solomon was the wisest of all the Old Testament Israelite kings, and the Biblical book named after him, The Song of Solomon, is compulsive reading for any Christian".

Could the Star really be unaware of the book's erotic content, or is it subtly problematising a Christian obsession with sex at the expense of more pressing social concerns? Whatever the truth, the Blether Region shares Coulter's bewilderment at the organisation's ceremonial robes.

"But the all-white dress code of this modern bunch makes them look like another sinister organisation, the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan — probably the world's oldest racist group.

Women are also allowed to join this ultra secret White Order, but they must adhere to a strict dress code, too — formal or evening gown, choker and elbow-length gloves! Sounds like a right kinky club has been formed!"

One woman, Angela Chillingham (a pseudonym?) has been promoting the organisation on the Internet. Chillingham Castle is in Northumberland, an afternoon's drive away from the headquarters of the British-Israel World Federation at Bishop Auckland.

The order's aims cover a host of right-wing shibboleths, some widespread, some specific to Northern Ireland, one of which is a "Return to National Greatness". Given the fact that Britain is, despite everything, still among the richest countries in the world and therefore already quite great enough by any reputable benchmark, one is unsure how to take this. Other goals include "Strict Immigration & Asylum Policies, Withdrawal from the EU & UN, The Security of the Protestant People of Ulster, Conservatism, Femininity & Womanhood, Creation Science, Obedience to the Rule of Law, Return of the Death Penalty, [and] The Security of the State of Israel" (although one suspects not its demographic security).

Quite apart from the Ku Klux Klan, another comparison that one might make based on the group's website is with the Scientologists. While active members pay £100 per annum, "friends" are divided into four levels, with the highest, "premier class" expected to stump up £1,000. Each class receives its own monthly "bulletin". But what information could it possibly contain to justify such a hefty subscription?

One Internet commentator, calling himself "Lew", has said that "I think they probably plan to give each other jobs. Yuck …" also stating "I might be wrong, but to me it's got Nelson McCausland written all over it."

In view of the Royal White Order's exhortation to voters that they back the TUV and UKIP, the Blether Region believes it unlikely that a sitting DUP Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure would be a member; that would be a sackable offence, after all. However, the affair underlines the inadequacy of the current Register of Members' Interests at Stormont, in the latest version of which the Minister once again lists his membership of the Linenhall Library but not of LOL 688, whose newsletter has bragged of its brethren's domination of the Ulster-Scots world.

All elected representatives need to understand that avoiding the appearance of nepotism is nowadays as important as avoiding its reality.

However, the really disturbing aspect is that, even without Nelson McCausland, there is almost certainly a link to the Ulster-Scots movement.

Thursday, 14 April 2011

Fair Play to Them — but what is it?

The Guardian reports on the sad fate of an indigenous Mexican language whose two remaining speakers do not get on, a reminder that many speech varieties are worse off than the Celtic languages, without the same user numbers, interest or resources.

Be that as it may, what the Blether Region found more interesting was the readers' comments section, a glance at which confirms that hard-line "utilitarian" views on language maintenance are by no means confined to Northern Ireland. What is different, however, is that, among educated Britons at least, such views serve to put one in a distinct minority. Nor are they — as is largely the case in Northern Ireland — the preserve of a discrete faith community.

In Scotland, whose nationalism is based mainly on institutions rather than language, there are also many individuals who do not "get" the value of Gaelic or Scots. And yet Scottish Gaelic — and, nowadays, Scots — is promoted nonetheless, with the enthusiastic backing of the Scottish Government, including in the public sphere.

What is the lesson for Northern Ireland? Well, one could simply back Irish according to demand. Since there is much more interest in Irish in Northern Ireland than there is in Scottish Gaelic in Scotland — evidenced, for example, in the number of learners — that would likely result in rather better provision. Or one could take into account the opposition of Unionists, do a quick sum, and halve the provision. Either way of thinking would probably lead to better treatment of Irish than is currently the case.

However, the problem with the second approach is that it lends credence to the zero-sum argument that promotion of Irish somehow disadvantages Unionists. If one accepts that, it is a small step to rejecting Irish provision entirely on the same argument — as in fact happened a few years ago when an attempt was made to introduce dual-language signs at Queen's University. Indeed, some people have even claimed that there should be no bilingual signage until the number of Irish-speakers has reached more than 50% of the Northern Ireland population (one could argue with the logic of that, since the starting point of monolingual English-language signage might well suggest monolingual Irish-language provision at that stage).

Bilingualism is, of course, always about the linguistic minority. Much has been made recently of the extent to which changes to the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement might help to alter the sectarian dynamic of Northern Ireland politics. At the moment vetoes exist in the Executive and, through "petitions of concern", in the Assembly. But why allow sectarianism to extend its sphere of influence into questions that have nothing to do with it? Why allow reform of the policy on grammar-school admissions, whose chief beneficiaries will be working-class Protestants, to be blocked as if it were an attempt to introduce official flag days for the tricolour? Should such extravagant claims not be subjected to a test?

Similarly, it is time to recognise that bilingualism disadvantages no one, something that any truly impartial arbiter — perhaps one of those educated Britons — would accept reflexively.

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Dayset or Daydaw?

Ian Adamson has given his view of Nelson McCausland's nominations to the Ministerial Advisory Group for the Ulster-Scots Academy.

The main thrust of his argument is that the Minister "has excluded native speakers". The Blether Region of course tries to advocate an academic approach to Ulster Scots, which is why it promotes its actual, structural status as a dialect of Scots over any apperceptional one. With that in mind, while native speakers may help garner social support, they bring with them no particular advantage when it comes to codifying language. A single native speaker brings a single, subjective view, usually without the requisite reading or analysis. An academic, on the other hand, is aware of the need to base decisions on evidence, be that diachronic (the literary tradition) or synchronic (the wishes of those who use the dialect). Including academics thus ensures that the views of many more native users, living and dead, are taken into account.

It is also uncharitable to say that there are no native speakers on board. Anyone, like Ivan Herbison, who grew up in a Scots-speaking area and was acquent with the traditional literature would have an equivalent — if not superior — level of knowledge. Ulster Scots is not Irish.

Ivan Herbison has of course been a pioneering and learned voice in the study of the variety. And there are others among the ministerial nominations, such as Carol Baraniuk and John Erskine, who are more than qualified to serve.

In fact, were it not for the notion of an academy being so obviously and fundamentally flawed, the Blether Region might be quite pleased. An academy will, after all, weaken Ulster Scots — probably to the point of death — by deliberately and artificially splitting it from its parent dialects. It will also duplicate functions of the Ulster-Scots Agency while at the same time needlessly politicising the dialect by infusing it with the agency's trademark blend of "history, heritage and culture" (none of which, at the risk of stating the obvious, is linguistic).

The Minister's nominations are in fact not all that unreasonable and, more than anything else, support the Blether Region's view that the DCAL portfolio may well change hands after the election. The priority here is not to satisfy Mr. McCausland's various theological and political constituencies but to create a problem for any Nationalist Minister who might be tempted not to press ahead with what is an expensive white elephant.

Ironically, a Nationalist Minister has much more chance of establishing an academy. Unionists doing so would have to face the ire of the most implacable opponents of spending on Ulster Scots: ordinary Unionist voters. A Nationalist would have no such difficulty, since everyone knows that Unionist politicians are the ones agitating in favour. Another attraction is the political linkage between Ulster Scots and Irish that was born in the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement and took on much more clearly defined form at St. Andrews, the reasoning being that a fillip for the former in the shape of an academy will bolster the chances of a language Act for the latter. A fiscally responsible Nationalist Minister would therefore experience something of a dilemma.

The Blether Region suggests tabling a motion in the Assembly and abstaining. If Unionists want an academy, let them put their necks on the line and vote for it — publicly.

Saturday, 2 April 2011

A Grumphie's Gub

Irish-speakers across Northern Ireland have been wrestling with the question of whether to fill out their census form in English or to stick to their principles and do so in Irish, thus risking a hefty fine.

Some readers will no doubt have assumed that there is no such dilemma. After all, Irish and Ulster-Scots versions of the form are available on request. However, those are merely "shadow" forms, ostensibly intended to aid comprehension (on the same basis as Polish, Punjabi and Urdu forms). Indeed, the Blether Region even heard of one Irish-speaker being offered an interpreter to help her fill out the English questionnaire.

Irish-speakers are of course bilingual and perfectly capable of filling out the form provided. But they believe it to be their human right to do it in Irish. As completing the census questionnaire is for the most part a matter of ticking boxes and inserting numbers, with the forms read by computer, and as the form has already been translated, they have something of a point.

Speakers of Scottish Gaelic and Welsh are spared the soul-searching, since their right to fill out versions of their census form in their respective Celtic language is officially recognised, regardless of their assumed degree of proficiency in English. It is, after all, an axiom of practical linguistics that, when it comes to speaking a language, it is often a matter of "use it or lose it".

Nor is that the only double standard, since the Scots and the Welsh have bilingual signs on the roads, at train stations, and on ferries, simultaneous translation in their elected assemblies, and publicly funded radio and television stations. They also have legislation to protect their languages, with public bodies required to produce plans on how they intend to promote them.

One wag in last month's edition of An tUltach offered the following opinion on the matter.

"tuigeann madraí na sráide gur mó an seans atá ag práta i mbéal muice ná Acht na Gaeilge tacaíocht an Aire Chultúir, Nelson McCausland, a fháil."

Or as we might say in Scots:

"the dugs in the street unnerstaunds that a tattie haes mair chance in a grumphie's gub nor the Cultur Meenister, Nelson McCausland, haes o haudin haund tae an Erse Leid Act."

Nelson McCausland may or may not be on the way out, but the question of how to resolve the considerable disjuncture in the treatment of indigenous Celtic languages between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom remains.