Tuesday, 16 August 2011


Ian Adamson has an interesting posting about where the putative Ulster-Scots Academy should be situated, with the former Lord Mayor and long-time advocate of Ulster Scots favouring Belmont Tower in his beloved Victoria ward of East Belfast. The site would of course be easily accessible for those living in Belfast, but also for residents of Scots-speaking parts of Down (it is only a minute or two away from the Upper Newtownards Road).

Belmont would also be a fitting district for a centre of literary and linguistic study, since it takes its name from the former Belmont House, now the site of Campbell College. Ultimately, of course, the name must be a reference to Belmont the home of Portia in Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice. Although definitely situated somewhere on the Italian mainland, its precise identity has been the subject of enduring debate.

Monday, 8 August 2011

Born on a Monday?

Earlier this year the Blether Region reported on the Royal White Order of King Solomon, a recently established secretive organisation whose supporters are expected to pay substantial sums for apparently paltry benefits. Members of the organisation, whose uniform has been compared in the Daily Star with that of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, are instructed to address each other as "Sir Knight".

"Sir Knight" is also the form of address for members of the Royal Black Preceptory, once memorably described to the Blether Region as an organisation for Orangemen who show signs of interest in religion. However, it might be wrong to read too much into that, since it is also the title used when addressing the Catholic Rotarians of the Knights of Columbus.

A more compelling comparison is with the Knights Templar, whose Latin title was Pauperes commilitones Christi Templique Solomonici, or Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon. The Templars, who played an important role in the Crusades, were later bloodily suppressed, but have resurfaced from time to time in popular culture, most recently in Dan Brown's 2003 novel The Da Vinci Code.

However, another, less savoury association is with fascism. In Scotland, one of the few countries where the Templars were not persecuted, there was Sìol nan Gàidheal (Seed of the Gael), a neo-fascist organisation expelled from the SNP in the early 1980s whose members, according to the BBC, "used to march around tooled-up and in Highland dress". The group also explicitly references the Templars.

And then there is Anders Behring Breivik, the Norwegian Christian fanatic who recently claimed 77 victims — mainly young people concerned with social justice. Breivik, who was so obsessed with the Templars that he even visited their former staging-post of Malta, chose the Knights' red-cross design for the cover of his 1,500-page manifesto, along with a Latin name — Pauperes commilitones Christi Templique Solomonici.

He also claimed that he was a member of a Knights Templar organisation founded by individuals who shared his racist aims and were ready to use violence to achieve them.

Wikipedia states:

"According to Breivik, the order was established as an "anti-Jihad crusader-organisation" that "fights" against "Islamic suppression" in London in April 2002 by nine men: two Englishmen, a Frenchman, a German, a Dutchman, a Greek, a Russian, a Norwegian, and a Serb. It has between fifteen and eighty "ordinated knights" besides an unknown number of "civilian members", and Breivik expects the order to take political and military control of Western Europe."

One website has reported that Breivik, who was apparently not anti-Semitic, may in fact have been interested in Nordic Israelism.

The Norwegian atrocities have meant that several right-wing commentators approvingly cited by Breivik have had to defend themselves. Is it going too far to compare the Royal White Order of King Solomon with the intellectual milieu that produced him?

The Belfast Telegraph has already reported that Anders Breivik and Johnny Adair shared a friend in the shape of Paul Ray, who blogs under the name Lionheart. Ray lives on Malta and runs an anti-Islam organisation known as the Ancient Order of the Templar Knights. Something of a pattern here.

Part of the problem with the Royal White Order is that its membership is secret. But what if there turned out to be personal connections with the Loyalist paramilitary group Tara, which espoused similar Doomsday and elitist views, and the British-Israel World Federation, which includes a strong current of white supremacism?

What if?

Thursday, 4 August 2011

Pooka Pranks

Among the apparently most objective methods of gauging the health of a language is ranking it in order of Wikipedia articles. In June 2009 a whopping 22% of all articles were in English, with 56% in other Indo-European languages (although the language family in question includes Hindi/Urdu and most other Indian languages, in practice the overwhelming majority of the articles are in European tongues). Indeed, the only non-European language in the top ten was Chinese, and that only by user count as opposed to the number of articles.

There are also versions of Wikipedia available in minority languages (Cheyenne, Manx and Maori), dialectalised varieties (Alemannic, Piedmontese and Low Saxon), and creoles (Haitian and Papiamento), as well as dead languages such as Latin (a living tongue only in Vatican City, where celibacy may render intergenerational transmission somewhat difficult), Old English, Gothic, and Old Church Slavonic (currently in use only as a liturgical language).

Irish has just under 30,000 articles (96 in the rankings), Scottish Gaelic just over 8,000 (111), and Scots just under 7,000 (117). Sensibly, there is no Ulster Scots; a proposal for a Wikipedia Valencià was rejected earlier this year on the basis that Valencian is a dialect of Catalan.

One of the more bizarre aspects to Wikipedia over recent years has been the massive number of articles (almost 120,000 of them) in Volapük, the first modern constructed auxiliary language. Indeed, by article, Volapük is more popular than Hindi, Thai, Greek or Tagalog.

Volapük was invented in 1879-80 by Johann Martin Schleyer, a Catholic priest from what is now Baden-Württemberg in south-west Germany. Very popular in its heyday, it was soon displaced by Zamenhof's Esperanto, which was much easier to learn and use. Indeed, at the third Volapük convention held in Paris in 1889, even the tongue's inventor had trouble speaking it, mainly owing to its bewildering array of agglutinative affixes.

When enthusiasts complained about this, and other quirks such as the tongue's complex, German-based case system and the disconcerting effect of excising the letter r from familiar roots, the system's great discoverer, or "Dat(r)uval", took offence and refused all proposals for reform.

While its successor has itself been subject to criticism, albeit considerably less damning — and arguably better systems such as Ido (an offshoot originally named Esperantido) and in particular Interlingua exist — Esperanto's reasonable functionality and critical mass of supporters have meant that it has not been displaced in the same manner. However, its imperfections, and the rival systems thereby engendered, have almost certainly placed a cap on its development. This is of course similar to the case of traditional Scots vs. "Ullans" or "New Ulster Scots"; any linguistic advantage likely to be gained through even sensitive separate development is dwarfed by the loss of utility.

As for Volapük, as a 2007 debate over closing the Wikipedia portal, which has only one contributor, shows, most of its articles are in fact "bot-generated", i.e. the product of machine translation from other Wikipedias. In the event, it was decided to keep it open, a victory for the wilfully obscure eccentric behind it but also for linguistic diversity in general. As such, we can be grateful.