Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Grotesquo's Ghost

The BBC reports that a rare manuscript by the poet, philosopher and anti-slavery campaigner James Beattie (1735-1803) has been discovered during cataloguing of Sir Walter Scott's library at Abbotsford in the Borders.
Beattie hailed from the Mearns (Kincardineshire), the same region that was later to produce Lewis Grassic Gibbon. The text of the 9,000-word poem the Grotesquiad had been thought lost.

Minister for Scots

The Scots Language Centre has reported on the appointment of Dr. Alasdair Allan MSP as Minister for Scots. Back in 1998, Allan made history by being awarded a PhD  for a thesis — New founs fae auld larachs: leid-plannin for Scots — written not only about the language, but in it. What's more, the new Minister — born in Selkirk, in the Southern Scots dialect region of Hugh MacDiarmid — is, like the great poet before him, also an enthusiastic supporter of Scottish Gaelic.

Allan represents Na h-Eileanan an Iar in the Scottish Parliament and previously worked as a Gaelic journalist. No surprise, then, that his portfolio also includes responsibility for that language.

It is clear that the new Scottish Government, no longer constrained by minority rule, means business with regard to the nation's autochthonous languages.

All this forms a marked contrast to the stasis currently affecting the Ulster dialect of Scots, while, until the recent departure of Nelson McCausland, the development of Irish seemed to have been put into reverse.

Regardless of what the future holds with regard to Scotland's indigenous languages, the Blether Region is willing to bet that, even with the same Minister in charge of both Scots and Gaelic, he will not introduce exactly the same policies for them, nor aim to keep their budgets equal, nor attempt to undo the progress made by one until the other catches up. In short, he will act pragmatically rather than ideologically — and achieve more for both in the process.

Another good-news story with regard to Gaelic is that BBC Alba, the TV station formerly limited to satellite and cable, is to go live on Freeview channel 8 in Scotland from 8 June. How long must we wait for TG4 to be made available on Freeview in Northern Ireland?

Thursday, 19 May 2011

In Praise of Ulster-Scots Poetry

It would be wrong to say that the Ulster-Scots Agency has not engaged in republishing the dialect's poetic tradition. Not only was it the ultimate funder of Frank Ferguson's huge anthology of Ulster-Scots Writing, it also produced under its own auspices a volume collecting the verse of the tragically short-lived Donegal poet Sarah Leech. Prior to its establishment, there also appeared the three-volume Folk Poets of Ulster series, co-edited by future board member Philip Robinson and published by current board member Ian Adamson.

Excellent as these volumes are, they do not amount to an exhaustive effort at republication — a great shame, since there are only around 70 volumes of such verse. The absence of such an effort poses a set of problems and challenges that those who care for Ulster Scots might do well to address.

First, owing to the continued marginality of Ulster Scots ten years after the inception of the agency, there are, even today, those who make the astonishing claim that the variety does not exist. Many others, because of diglossia, wrongly believe it to be Mid Ulster English spoken with an Ulster-Scots accent.

Secondly, the relative unavailability of the oeuvre in question renders it almost impossible to codify Ulster Scots on the basis of its traditional literature. The later prose tradition often first published in newspapers, whose exponents included W. G. Lyttle, has strong elements of eye dialect that were quite obviously never intended to supply a written standard. Yet such literature may be easier to access nowadays, and, judging by the work of many of those who have tried their hand at writing Ulster Scots, has ironically achieved greater influence.

Thirdly, a recovered Ulster-Scots poetic tradition would act as a catalyst for research, whether the aim of that research be corpus linguistics or literary appreciation. Making the Ulster-Scots poetic tradition freely available on the Internet would herald a new birth for the variety, with researchers from across the world taking an interest and producing academic articles and monographs. It would also make it much easier for home-grown writers to reference and build upon a tradition from which they have been cut off by history.

Rather than press on with daft plans for an Ulster-Scots Academy, whose only supporters, apart from politicians, are the activists who look forward to employment within it, the new DCAL Minister should establish a time-bound commission to recover and digitise the full corpus of Ulster-Scots texts. As such an exercise would sensibly constitute almost the entire work of the early years of any Ulster-Scots Academy, those who advocate an additional Ulster-Scots body would have no reasonable cause for complaint, and would remain free to pursue their plans after the next Assembly election in five years' time. When the work of the commission came to an end, the digitised works would pass into the control of the Ulster-Scots Agency, which would be given the statutory duty to ensure their dissemination — probably through maintaining a website with downloads and an electronic corpus, and perhaps also through the production of an annual popular or academic volume.

It is a queer and tragic come-tae-pass that hundreds of thousands of pounds that might have been spent on recovery were instead wasted on a dead-end strategy for an academy — but it is not too late to inject a note of sense into plans for the future.

Monday, 16 May 2011

Ministering to the Unconverted

It's official: there will be Sinn Féin Ministers at both the Department of Education and the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure, good news for the Irish language over the next five years.

While insiders had tipped the party's first choice to be Enterprise, Trade and Investment, that is now shown to have been disinformation. It may be the case that allowing the spread of false rumours enabled the party to take the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure, which has hitherto always gone to one of the Unionist parties to act as a counterbalance to Sinn Féin's control of Education. However, Culture was the eighth available Department, and the fact that it went to Sinn Féin may simply reflect the fact that no party wanted Health — and the DUP may have been keen to get rid of Culture and its maverick British-Israelite Minister's unpopular plans to close libraries while pressing ahead with a white-elephant Ulster-Scots Academy.

Be that as it may, the Irish language will at least be able to look forward to a reasonably secure period. However, that security will be short lived if an unduly combative approach is adopted. That Sinn Féin was able to retain Education is down to a quirk of the d'Hondt system; the party was entitled to nominate second, and it is a commonplace of the d'Hondt procedure that the largest party takes Finance and Personnel in order to gain control of the public purse-strings. The aim for a Sinn Féin Minister now, while protecting Irish in the short term, must be to persuade Unionists to agree to a language Act, putting the protection of the language and the rights of its speakers on a statutory basis while removing the language, as far as possible, from the political arena. Regardless of the rights and wrongs of Caitríona Ruane's public pillorying, putting such a hate figure in charge of the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure would have been the wrong move for Irish, since it would both decrease the chances of a language Act and increase the chances of a reactive return to Unionist control after the next Assembly election. Yet choosing the former prisoner Carál Ní Chuilín — who, according to Nuacht 24, despite her Irish name speaks only "beagán Gaeilge" — could well have the same effect before the new Minister has uttered a word or signed a document. One cannot help thinking that Barry McElduff, a committed Gaeilgeoir who chaired the DCAL committee in the last Assembly, would have made a better choice.

With regard to Scots, the Blether Region has come to believe in recent months that a Nationalist Minister would be more likely to introduce an Ulster-Scots Academy. Unionists would still get the blame, and a Nationalist going along with the former's pet project would hope to establish cross-community goodwill and, eventually, garner support for a language Act (both initiatives form part of the St. Andrews Agreement).

Of course, the current academy plans are flawed at their most fundamental level, since they would:
  • split the Scots language by pre-empting joint standardisation with Scotland;
  • split the Ulster-Scots dialect community by making no provision for any representation (or any legal vires) with regard to Scots in Donegal;
  • further alienate vital Catholic and Nationalist speakers by including "history" and "culture" in the academy's remit;
  • waste yet more money on the abovementioned "history" and "culture" that could be spent on language;
  • duplicate and undermine the work of the existing cross-border Ulster-Scots Agency; and
  • allow activists who are not good theoretical or practical linguists to enforce their writ riding on the coat-tails of genuine academics — possibly reducing those coat-tails to rags in the process.
Though one might expect some of these issues to be dealt with by a Nationalist Minister, the first and most basic issue of splitting Scots for frivolous political reasons remains.

For that reason, perhaps a combative Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure willing to scrap plans for an academy and redirect money towards Irish for short-term gain would be better after all. There is no guarantee that Unionists could ever be persuaded of the merits of a language Act, while the creation of an academy might well do permanent or even fatal damage to the local variety of Scots.

Thursday, 12 May 2011

After the Bun-fight — Who Gets the Sweeties?

The question of whether the Alliance Party will be able to build on David Ford's tenure at the Department of Justice by taking an Executive seat under the d'Hondt mechanism now appears to have been settled. Yet how many people have considered the corollary that the party will also be entitled to nominate to the cross-border bodies, one of them being An Foras Teanga?

The Alliance will now be able to send a representative either to the Ulster-Scots Agency, whose promotion of "the Ulster-Scots language" is, we suggest, in dire need of a little of its trademark confessional neutrality, or Foras na Gaeilge — having a party nominee on the latter's board would be a PR coup for the party, which will be keen to shake off the "yellow Unionist" tag.

Indeed, as the DUP has failed to make any nomination to Foras na Gaeilge in the past, the Alliance might conceivably pick up an extra board position there even if it nominates first to the Ulster-Scots Agency.

One does hope, though, that the UUP's Ian Adamson, who narrowly lost his seat on Belfast City Council, will be able to continue his work with the agency. A moderate and well-liked man with a passion for languages, Dr. Adamson was, along with Ivan Herbison, among the very first of the present crop of thinkers to suggest that Scots in Ulster — in his words "a purer form of Lallans than that spoken in Scotland itself" — deserved wider appreciation and protection.

If he goes, he will be missed.

Attic Attitudes

The Scotsman has reported on the speech varieties chosen by the new intake of MSPs to swear allegiance to the monarch, displaying a degree of bewilderment at their departure from "the more conventional English".

With disengagement often comes ignorance, and it comes as no surprise that the newspaper appears to believe that Doric is a language separate from Scots, despite any phonological differences from the main Central variety being regular.

In academic circles, "Doric" is of course better known as "Northern Scots", while aficionados will be aware that the eighteenth-century poet and anthologist Allan Ramsay used the term to refer to the Scots of Edinburgh.

Admittedly, Northern Scots has a better claim to linguistic independence than the Southern or Ulster dialects — and less of a claim than the Insular Scots of Orkney and Shetland.

"Language", as thoughtful observers will by now have deduced, is nowadays a term applied to any minimally distinctive or geographically separate dialect. Shorn of any taxonomic significance, its debased currency is doled out as a form of casual courtesy to the marginalised or uppity, a practice in which Northern Ireland officialdom has attained a dubious pre-eminence.

Time the Scotsman was gently shepherded in the direction of linguistic common sense.

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

All Change

With only a few days to go before the Stormont election, the DUP has stated explicitly in the Belfast Telegraph "that the Education ministry would be its second choice — after Finance".

The revelation will raise the pressure on Sinn Féin to take the Department as its first choice when the d'Hondt system is next run. Irish-speakers, already disillusioned by the failure to secure a language Act and the havoc wreaked at DCAL by Nelson McCausland, will not take kindly to the party passing up the opportunity to defend what may be a much more important portfolio for the language.

Jim Allister, on his part, believes that Sinn Féin will indeed take Education again, calling the confirmation that his old party will once again opt for Finance "a shameful indictment of the DUP". Barring the unlikely event of Sinn Féin becoming the biggest party, we shall know soon enough.

Less high-profile but equally important, the d'Hondt system will also be run for nominations to the cross-border bodies, including An Foras Teanga, the umbrella body for Foras na Gaeilge and the Ulster-Scots Agency. The "mandatory coalition" of the two speech varieties has meant that candidates are assigned to one or other side only after their nomination, with the result that there has never been any Northern representation for the Catholic or Nationalist third of Ulster's Scots-speakers on the board of the Ulster-Scots Agency. Unionist representation on boards of Foras na Gaeilge has been patchy and in some cases non-existent.

While it might be excessively optimistic to expect Sinn Féin to nominate to the Ulster-Scots Agency, the SDLP has a very distinguished Scots-speaker in the shape of Liam Logan, the former presenter of BBC Radio Ulster's Kist o' Wurds and the party's current MLA candidate in North Down. Though the Blether Region wishes Mr. Logan well in the coming election, it cannot help but think that he would make an excellent and effective nominee to the Ulster-Scots Agency if unsuccessful.

James Boswell — Scots Dictionary Pioneer

Hot on the heels of the rare Burns manuscript whose existence was made public to coincide with the poet's birthday this year, Scotland on Sunday has revealed that James Boswell's draft of a prototype Scots dictionary has been identified in the Bodleian Library in Oxford. The specimen had fallen into its hands along with the papers of the great lexicographer John Jamieson, whose Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language (1808), through various editions and updates, remained the standard work for well over 100 years until the advent of the Scottish National Dictionary (begun in 1931 but completed only in 1976).

Boswell is of course best known as the biographer of Samuel Johnson, many of whose researchers were also Scots, leading to the negotiation of such classic definitions as that for oats. Intriguingly, the article relates that Johnson encouraged Boswell to produce "a dictionary of words peculiar to Scotland", thus copper-fastening the auld leid's status as a dialect of English. A comprehensive dictionary of Lowland language today would exclude much of what is distinctive and colourful about Modern Scots, which is either recessive or dead. As so often in this context, after the initial elation of discovery, the overwhelming sentiment is of "whit micht hae been".