Tuesday, 26 July 2011

A Side Elevation

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

List Mania

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.

A Site for Sore Eyes

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

"Will they never learn?"

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?"

Those Unemployable Classicists

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."