Friday, 14 December 2012

Ulster Scots on the Map

The Blether Region's thanks go to Ian James Parsley for alerting it to more detailed sets of figures on competence in Scots at local level. Unfortunately, it seems difficult to link to the figures on the NISRA website, but the relevant document is entitled "Dataset 2347_2011" and gives percentages by local authority area.

As readers will be aware, the headline census figure for "some ability in Ulster-Scots" for Northern Ireland was just under 8.1%. Nine of the 26 local government districts in the territory reported above-average percentages on this question and therefore have some claim to be Scots-speaking areas.

They are as follows:

Ballymoney 29.43
Ballymena 22.15
Moyle 21.71
Larne 19.20
Coleraine 15.93
Ards 13.27
Antrim 09.57
Carrickfergus 09.39
Newtownabbey 09.13

The overall impression is that the heart of Scots-speaking Northern Ireland is north County Antrim and the north-east corner of County Derry around Coleraine (the establishment of a university in the town will presumably have rendered the latter area somewhat less Scots in recent decades, but it is still stronger than anywhere in Down).

Moyle, covering the former Glens of Antrim Gaeltacht and with a Catholic majority, has the third-highest total, suggesting that Robert Gregg's decision to mark it simply as "Gaeltacht" in his seminal 1963 map of Scots-speaking areas may be in need of revision. Indeed, for any combination of skills involving speaking ability, Moyle is in second place, after Ballymoney and before Ballymena. The Glens are a small area not only bordering Gregg's "Scotch-Irish" dialect zone but with traditionally strong ties to Scotland. While it is possible that the area's dialect has become more Scots as a result of decreased isolation since Gregg drew his maps, a more likely explanation is that there was a lengthy period of bilingualism before Gaelic finally died out in the 1960s. This all goes to confirm that, despite how it may be promoted at an official level in Northern Ireland, Scots on the ground is a genuinely cross-community phenomenon.

On a related point, although Gregg's decision to map the eastern edge of the Laggan Scots-speaking area as coterminous with the border between Donegal and Northern Ireland has been queried recently, the low percentages reported in the Derry and Strabane local authority areas (4.49% and 6.89% respectively) suggest that he was more accurate in that case. Limavady, at 7.84%, is slightly better but of course borders Coleraine.

As expected, the lowest figures for competence were reported in Fermanagh and Newry and Mourne (4.0% and 3.7% respectively), which include strongly Catholic areas where Scots-influenced Mid-Ulster English yields to South Ulster English.

A further inescapable conclusion is that the Down "Scotstacht", as John Kirk terms it, is on its last legs, with the Ards Borough Council area reporting a figure of only 13.27%. Remember: this figure covers all levels of ability, including knowledge of individual Scots words. The Down area was always smaller than its counterpart in Antrim and seems to have suffered a three-way squeeze from the salubrious areas of Down bordering Belfast Lough to the north, growth of the commuter belt around the capital, and displacement of people during the Troubles. This may also go some way towards explaining why the revival of the Ulster dialect spearheaded by staff or board members of the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum at Cultra has, in many respects, been able to take such an idiosyncratic and untraditional path.

Thursday, 13 December 2012

The Census and Scots

The 2011 Continuous Household Survey (CTS) also provides data with regard to knowledge of Scots, which it puts at 15%. For various reasons, the Blether Region counsels taking these figures with a pinch of salt:
  • Since Scots in Northern Ireland is widely perceived as a tool being used against Irish, Catholic respondents will have been tempted to deny ability (indeed, my own wife did so on that basis); they may even believe that there is no such thing as Scots. Some will also have been alienated by the way that in Northern Ireland the speech variety is generally sold as part of a cultural package — sometimes an explicitly sectarian one. The proportion of Catholics in the speech community is almost certainly higher than that suggested (just over a quarter).
  • There may, in some cases, have been a similar temptation to exaggerate ability on the Protestant side, though, for reasons explained below, this will have been less.
  • The questions all referred to "Ulster-Scots", meaning that a probable cohort of 5,000 Scots-born speakers will not have been included.
  • Given that the questions were designed to capture every level of ability, almost any speaker of Mid-Ulster English (or, indeed, other varieties) could with some justification have answered in the affirmative. In that regard, it is surprising that the result was not 95%. Perhaps some respondents were out for a wee dander to get their heads shired when that question was asked. But one shouldn't girn.
That said, there are certain facts that can be gleaned:
  • In contradistinction to Irish, people in the least-deprived areas are more likely to have a knowledge of Scots. This will mainly be because they will have larger vocabularies generally, including some recondite words shared by Scots and older or dialectal English, and because the middle-class will be better linguists. To a lesser extent, it may also reflect remaining disparities in wealth based on religion.
  • Again unlike Irish, older people are more likely to have a knowledge of Scots. This reflects its status as a recessive dialect not being promoted through the education system and with only limited intergenerational transmission. This is amply illustrated by the disparity between the headline figures in the CTS and the census.
  • Only 10% of people are interested in learning more about Scots, as opposed to 18% for Irish (drawing on what, in sectarian terms, is a slightly smaller pool of potential recruits). This is because more Unionists have internalised utilitarian arguments against support for minoritised speech varieties. Time and again, we have seen that many have an ambivalent or negative relationship with Scots (which almost disappeared from public life during the twentieth century). The census also showed that many more Protestants self-designate simply as "British".
  • Although 15% of people claim some knowledge of Scots, only 1% of people claim to be able to write it. To some extent, this is a predictable result of obscurantism in the spelling of the revived variety, but mainly it reflects the fact that nearly all Scots-speakers in Ulster have little or no knowledge of traditional Modern Scots literature of whatever provenance. Indeed, that any substantial number of people can support the bizarre contention that the Ulster dialect is a separate language supports that interpretation. The fact that 14% of people claim to be able to understand spoken Scots but only 4% of people claim to be able to read it may also be relevant evidence in that regard.
  • Given the fact that 4% is also the figure for those who claim to be able to speak Scots, that may well be a more reliable figure than the headline 15%. It is also far closer to the figure of 2% produced by in 1999 by the Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey. Indeed, when those who know only single words of Scots (very common in Mid-Ulster English) are removed, the figure is 3%, hardly differing from the NILTS total. The census (covering those aged over three as opposed to 16) also produced a lower figure for Scots, of 8%, again covering a wide range of ability. The census figure for speaking ability was 2%, almost exactly the same as that found by NILTS.
To sum up, the CTS and census reveal a mainly rural and elderly Scots speech community in Ulster that is not substantially larger than that suggested by NILTS 1999, with the democratic accommodation of Catholic and Scots-born speakers as vital as ever to its survival chances.

The Census and Irish

As readers will no doubt be aware, the detailed results of the 2011 census have now been published. Much of the focus has been on the headline figures for community breakdown. It is very likely that this is the last census where the Protestant community will be larger than its Catholic counterpart. However, it is unlikely that the growth of the latter will be large enough to achieve a united Ireland by the time of the next census in 2021. Indeed, as many have pointed out, even a small cohort of Catholics voting for the Union in any border poll might well be enough to postpone that day for quite some time, perhaps even until the pattern of religious voting has to some extent broken down, in which case, Unionists will still have everything to play for — but only if they listen to Basil McCrea more than to Jim Allister.

What is clear, though, is that at the moment there is a very good correlation between Catholic community background (45%) and voting for Nationalist parties (over 40%). Taking the number of Catholics voting for the Alliance Party into account, it becomes clear that the Catholic vote for the two main Unionist parties is virtually nil, with any different drummers cancelled out by similarly free-thinking individuals on the Protestant side. Depending on the exact rules in place at the time, it is therefore eminently possible that Northern Ireland will see a Nationalist First Minister at some point. If the Nationalists are sensible, they will change the rules to allow rotation of the post of First Minister in exchange for movement on a language Act. However, the naming of a playground in Newry after a hunger-striker (ironically, while complaining about a Union Flag over City Hall in Belfast) does not bode well on that front.

The DCAL website also has a series of statistical documents about Irish and Ulster Scots.

For Irish, there has been continued growth. Today 11% of the population have a knowledge of the language, against 10% at the time of the 2001 census. The census captures data only for those aged over three, however, meaning that there in fact are slightly less than the 200,000 people with a knowledge of the language that one might expect if the 11% figure applied equally to everyone. In layman's terms, 11% means every ninth person in Northern Ireland (according to the Continuous Household Survey, which includes only those aged over 16, the figure is closer to one in every eight).

One of the more surprising facts about Irish is that people in the most deprived areas are more likely to know it than those in the least deprived ones. There must be few other areas of education where that holds true, and it is surely evidence of the unique circumstances of Northern Ireland, with extreme political pressures at work, a grammar-school system that works better for Catholics than for Protestants still in place, and, on that Catholic side, much of the talent still at the bottom. Owing to the fact that large-scale revival in the North is a relatively new phenomenon (one need only think of Séamus Mac Seáin's D'Imigh Sin agus Tháinig Seo), age is also a factor: 16% of those aged 44 or under know Irish, but only 10% of those aged 45 or over. This means that, like the Catholic community itself, numbers and percentages of Irish-speakers are likely to continue to grow. In time, the percentage of speakers, though perhaps not the quality, may become comparable with Wales — only 1% of the Northern Ireland population "can carry on a complicated conversation in Irish, talking about any subject".

The real problem for Irish, though, is that the numbers of people strongly in favour and strongly against the language are more or less equal, making progress difficult if it is treated as an either/or democratic issue rather than a human rights one, as many would prefer. This stands in marked contrast to Scotland, where attitudes to Gaelic are much more favourable, despite its revival coming from a lower base. One need hardly be an expert to work out that the Northern Ireland figures are a result of, and testament to, deep structural sectarianism in the polity.

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

On Verisimilitude in Art

Ranulph Fiennes's novel The Sett is a sprawling, over-researched conspectus of the seedier side of the 1980s that, despite its flaws, packs some punch.

The book's basic premise is a simple legal rule: you can't libel the dead. Thus Paul Blackledge, a violent badger-baiter murdered by a love rival — a man, who, one might suppose, had no reputation to defend — is chosen as the key figure in a complicated globe-spanning web that through chance encounter has resulted in the brutal deaths of two innocent people and robbed a third not only of his wife and daughter but, through post-traumatic stress disorder, of his memory.

Part of the attraction of such speculative fiction dealing with recent history and actual, if deceased, people is the question of how much truth there is in the mixture. Being a former member of the SAS, Ranulph Fiennes — a reader might conclude — may be privy to information that is not in the public sphere. As some people have claimed regarding The Da Vinci Code, it may in fact be "all true". Having been written during the first half of the 1990s, the book belongs to the pre-Internet age, and if the author has not employed researchers, he may be one of those people who keep "runs" of The Times in the attic. A lengthy list of interviewees is appended to the tale, including, as a final flourish, Alex Goodman, the pseudonym of the hero.

It is perhaps the very ambition of the work that is its undoing, both because the result is incredible (taking in the ALF, the Yardies, the Broadwater Farm riot, the CIA, Pablo Escobar and an American spree-killer) and because its convolutions mean that is often a whirlwind of confusing detail. A host of minor characters are introduced by name, often with quite some biographical background, only to be killed off or disappear from the action. One sub-story, in which the hero is required to have a ferry sunk, is so skirted over as to render it an unbelievable aside. The first 10% or so of the book in particular, when the reader is still coming to terms with the basic narrative thrust, is extremely difficult to follow.

One of the problems with the past is that everyone has their own version, and Fiennes is no exception. His description of the Broadwater Farm riot differs fundamentally from the version at Wikipedia, for example. To some extent that will be merely a question of focus, but there are also instances of what one might broadly term "political incorrectness": people of mixed race are "half-caste"; there are Paddy "bar-proppers" speaking Stage Oirish; an underage prostitute remarks that rape is not so bad for people in her profession. On the other hand, many ethnic characters are portrayed as human, likeable, loyal and loving. Perhaps it would not be going too far to ascribe this odd mixture of tactlessness and affection to the "banter" of army life. We know who the tale's real baddies are because their interest in rape or abusing minors and because of their penchant for cruelty both animal and human (Ranulph Fiennes himself once famously removed the frost-bitten parts of his fingers with a hacksaw, so it's perhaps no surprise to read about them flying off in the book too).

At times the working-class characters are not well drawn. Their diction varies between colloquialism and stilted formality, the latter sometimes a result of barely assimilated factual prose being inserted into the dialogue. As a Northern Ireland resident, I found the character of Tosh, the former UVF killer, particularly implausible. The notion of a flame-haired Irish-speaking assassin who dispatches attackers with kung-fu kicks à la Mrs. Peel and whose favoured method of execution is "ANC", or "apparent natural causes", suggests a sophistication wholly lacking in that organisation, not just this week but any week. I almost suspected a last-minute change in her background from Republican to Loyalist, though she would have been unbelievable as an IRA woman too. Her speech sometimes lacks realism. Nota bene: in the vernacular, "after tellin'" has perfective force rather than suggesting volition. Similarly, a Glaswegian character uses the word "ken", which, owing to mass immigration from the Highlands and Ireland, is no longer a feature of the dialect. Of course, to a certain sort of English person — recently, Jemima Khan — any urban Scots-speaker is "Glaswegian".

Perhaps it was the description of Tosh, but the book reminded me of another exponent of this tantalising speculative genre, Eoin McNamee, and in particular the character of a fellow SAS man, the tragic Robert Nairac, who may or may not have been involved in the Miami Showband Massacre, and who on the night of his death was told by one drinker at the Three Steps Inn near Forkhill that he had the strangest Belfast accent he had ever heard.

Oddly, although I much preferred the sections dealing with Alex Goodman to those describing the flamboyant criminal masterminds ranged against him, it was some of the ostensibly factual, background information that I found the most interesting in the book. I don't know if or how much Fiennes departed from the truth in writing it — though Pablo Escobar seems to live more like a deranged Roman Emperor than anything else. Above all, the novel affords an opportunity to draw together the text and subtext of a decade and, in so doing, to make sense of our own collective memories.

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Tack and Diplomacy

According to a recent poll in the Belfast Telegraph, the proportion of Catholic to Protestant Alliance voters is now 4:3, a figure that was traditionally more like 1:2. Of course, one is often advised to take the results of such surveys with a pinch of salt, since there is a well-documented tendency for respondents to Northern Ireland opinion polls to understate support for Nationalist parties, particularly the former physical forcers of Sinn Féin. As the number of Catholics willing to vote for the DUP or UUP must be vanishingly small, the dissembling response in such circumstances has tended to favour the Alliance Party.

Even if one has one's doubts about whether Alliance is set to overtake the UUP in a province-wide election, however, it is clear that, after a near fatal squeeze during the initial years following the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, the party is on the up. There is no doubt either that Catholic support for Alliance is growing. For the first time, the end of the Troubles has brought about a Catholic vote for the Union, whose main depository, one suspects, is the yellow, liberal camp.

This raises an intriguing possibility. As Alliance gains more Catholic support, and Catholic representatives, will its grossly illiberal blanket rejection of Irish-language signage based on a pretended equivalence with sectarian symbols remain tenable? One hopes not.

An incident this week, however, does not augur well. Having sided with the Nationalist parties to reduce the number of days on which the Union Flag flies over Belfast City Hall and suffered a splenetic response from the East Belfast UVF, the Alliance Party has either bottled it or once again engaged in the kind of reflexive, analysis-free triangulation that marked its approach to the issue of Irish-language signs. For Alliance Councillor Máire Hendron has indicated her willingness to support an initiative from the Unionist parties to have the Union Flag fly over the Cenotaph 365 days a year, where it is both more visible than on the top of City Hall, and more accessible to passers-by. Regardless of the rights or wrongs of the situation, one feels bound to ask whether Belfast has been put through the last week only for the symbolic effect of flag-flying to be replicated on an alternative site a stone's throw away — one of great emotional sensitivity for Unionists and much more vulnerable to attack by vandals, drunk or sober.

Tack one way, then tack the other. Now, how about that on a sign?

Thursday, 29 November 2012

A Part of the Main

The Irish Times reports that most people in the South claim to be able to speak "some Irish", although only 4% of them say they speak it "very well" — proof, if any was necessary, that competence is closely allied to use, since a similar figure has been ascertained with regard to daily usage outside the education system. Some 58% of people would like to see Irish used more widely, but only 24% were in favour of its being revived as the main language of communication. Still, given the fact that policy on Irish has had such mixed results for for so long, with Irish identity — once closely linked to Catholicism and the Gaelic revival — now beginning to follow the Scottish model of stressing institutional independence, that figure may not be so low after all.

Meanwhile, the Newry Times spoke to Dominic Bradley about the SDLP's response to the consultation on the Irish language strategy.

"Ample opportunities exist within the history of the Irish language and its links to Scotland for old attitudes to be changed enough for the language to be perceived in a more positive light across the community — this work should be an important part of the strategy."

Given the veto arrangements of the Good Friday and St. Andrews Agreements, this is only common sense. It is also the right thing to do, since Unionists, many of whom have Goidelic names and Gaelic-speaking ancestors, have a right to get to know about their home and heritage too.

Monday, 19 November 2012

Waste ... and Garbage

Liam Clarke has an interesting article on the Assembly in the Belfast Telegraph with which many people will sympathise.

However, one point is blatantly false.

"There doesn't seem to be the talent pool in local politics to fill all 108 places at any price. Many debates are leaden affairs. Many members read monotonous speeches written by taxpayerfunded backroom teams. That wouldn"t be allowed in other parliaments. Here, anything goes, and every word is translated into Irish and Ulster-Scots."

The fact is that there is no simultaneous translation into either speech variety. Neither is there written translation in the Official Report, which Mr. Clarke evidently seldom consults; as far as the Blether Region is aware, the only parliamentary assembly in Britain or Ireland where that happens is Wales. The Speaker has a translation facility from Irish and Ulster Scots into English so that he or she can be sure that no Standing Order is being broken. Despite the fact that the facility could be extended to ordinary Members at comparatively modest cost, the Assembly Commission has consistently refused to allow it for political reasons.

The only material translated into Irish or Scots is the occasional paragraph in a speech, usually during Second Stage debates, when MLAs do indeed often "read monotonous speeches". However, it would be impossible to prevent them from spending their money on such translations, and in any case the Blether Region strongly suspects that many are provided by supporters free of charge. Other MLAs will ad-lib in Irish or use their own notes.

Mr. Clarke has unthinkingly regurgitated dinner-party prejucide against minoritised tongues and — as the BBC recently found to its cost — not bothered to go and check the facts.

Friday, 9 November 2012

Make Your Voice Heard

Three Government consultations on language in Northern Ireland are currently seeking submissions: the Ulster-Scots Language and Culture Strategy (deadline 27 November); the Irish Language Strategy (also 27 November); and the proposed development and research strategy of the Ministerial Advisory Group on Ulster Scots (7 December).

With the Ulster-Scots Strategies, the important points to make are that:
  • DCAL's own statistics show that Ulster Scots is a genuine cross-community phenomenon, so it should not be sold as part of a cultural package aimed squarely at members of a single tradition;
  • the membership of the boards of MAGUS and the Ulster-Scots Agency has never reflected the bi-ethnic make-up of the speech community in Northern Ireland;
  • the difference in the roles of the two bodies mentioned above is not at all clear;
  • there is absolute academic consensus that Ulster Scots is a variety of Scots, clearly implying common development and a common written standard; and
  • nearly all Scots-language academics and nearly all contemporary writers of traditional Scots are in Scotland, and it will be impossible to make progress on language development without accessing that resource.
With the Irish-language strategy, the important points to make are that:
  • as Irish and Ulster Scots are very different tongues, at different stages of development, and with a different relationship to English, it is to be welcomed that plans for their development are no longer linked;
  • bilingualism is always about safeguarding the rights of the minority, and it is precisely the absence of consensus on the issue that makes an Irish Language Act necessary;
  • by not passing legislation to protect the language, Northern Ireland risks distancing itself not only from the Irish Republic but from Scotland and Wales; and
  • it is both in the interests of Irish and morally right that efforts be made to interest Unionists in the language.

Thursday, 8 November 2012

The Weight of Symbolism

Ian James Parsley has an interesting blog post about Irish-language road signs.

"Most obviously, returning to traffic signs, entering the Republic of Ireland, we move to kilometres but we also add the Irish (Gaelic) language. Again, this is not for any practical purpose – almost the entire population now speaks English in preference to Irish Gaelic, and thus Irish Gaelic is generally omitted from roadworks signs or temporary notices (as well as private advertisements, even in the Irish-speaking Gaeltacht area). Irish Gaelic is not added for any real practical purpose; it is, rather, a display of identity – again, a connection with Ireland’s Gaelic past (hence my use of the term “Irish Gaelic”) which provides for a unique sense of history and identity. This is not just a matter for traffic signs of course – match programmes for GAA games, for example, generally contain the names of the two teams on the cover in Irish Gaelic, with everything else in English, making the same essential symbolic point of identity. To others, it all seems daft – but then, to others, so do royal pageants, strange titles and distances in miles."

Many people who, with considerable personal investment of time and effort, have learnt Irish, or who struggle for the human right to have their children educated through the medium of the language, might take issue with the use of the word "preference" here. Equally, one suspects that not a few who found they had no particular aptitude for Irish taught as a foreign language at secondary school, given the hypothetical possibility of clickling their fingers to become fluent in it, would jump at the chance. That they have not learnt Irish is in many cases attributable to their personal talents, enthusiasm and level of education, but above all to the way in which they encountered the language — shorn of vitality and drowned in an English sea.

A relevant issue in that regard is the notion of "practical purpose", another term for which might be "communicative relevance". One could argue that it is precisely the presence of Irish on street signs and elsewhere in the public domain that gives it one. Learning a secret language to talk to people in bar-room snugs — that really would exhibit a lack of practical purpose. Gaeilgeoirí do that too, but that doesn't mean they wouldn't prefer to have their democratic and human rights as Irish-speakers realised in the form of services from the state (whichever state) to which they pay their taxes.

As often occurs in such cases, the Blether Region has found that someone else has already made the argument much more eloquently:

"The presence of Gaelic in the corporate identity and signs of a public authority greatly enhances the visibility of the language, increases its status and makes an important statement about how Gaelic is valued and how it is given recognition. Developing the use of Gaelic through signage can also enrich the vocabulary of Gaelic users, raise public awareness of the language and contribute to its development."

Readers might wonder who said that. Perhaps Republican Sinn Féin? Éirígí? The Thirty-two County Sovereignty Committee?

Actually it was the Scottish Parliament Corporate Body, in a recent consultation on its draft Gaelic Plan.

It would be odd if a bilingual archipelago stretching from Cork to Caithness were to emerge while Northern Ireland alone was defined by battleship-grey utilitarianism, a place apart from Ireland, of course, but also, increasingly, from Britain.

Yet that is just where we're headed.

Thursday, 25 October 2012

London's Digital Message

The BBC reports that the Switchover Help Scheme ran out of HD set-top boxes for Northern Ireland "in the summer", with the result that many pensioners and disabled people wishing to receive RTÉ and TG4, which require HD equipment regardless of what television one has, are faced with the prospect of blank screens for some time to come. Indeed, the scheme's statements seem to sound a note of caution about whether it will manage to help them at all. A spokeswoman for the organisation said that it was "aiming to serve nearly everyone who has already applied by the end of the year".

Earlier this month the Blether Region blogged about how the minority languages included on the Switchover Help Scheme's website continued to be selected solely with regard to England, despite the fact that all English regions had already completed the switchover, with the Help Scheme still active only in the Tyne-Tees area.

Anyone with the least knowledge of Northern Ireland should have known that there would be great demand for HD receivers, since for many people watching RTÉ programmes from across the border is an established part of their day-to-day lives. Indeed, one can see this in the form of their roof-top aerials. Now people who have had to wait since 1998 for a promise included in the Good Friday Agreement to be fulfilled will have to wait even longer.

"One size fits all" is a fine notion in theory. The practice tends to be somewhat different.

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

The Digital Switchover

With just hours to go until the digital switchover, many people in Northern Ireland will be looking forward to being able to receive RTÉ and TG4, some of them, no doubt, for the first time.

An OFCOM factsheet includes a map showing those areas where reception of the NI Mux or Saorview is likely. While in the analogue age the strength of the RTÉ signal was capped so as not to interfere with Northern Ireland broadcasts, digital technology means that it can now be made a good deal stronger. Saorview overspill is in fact likely to reach 56% of the Northern Ireland population, which means that many people will now be able to receive channels such as TV3 and RTÉjr. The NI Mux, which will carry RTÉ 1, RTÉ 2 and TG4, will be available to an estimated 78% of the population. They will, however, need an HD TV or set-top box to view it, since, although the channels will be broadcast in standard definition, the late adopters down South will be using state-of-the-art space-saving HD encoding. This will, it is to be hoped, avoid the controversies surrounding BBC Alba in Scotland, which was able to gain a place on Freeview only after the BBC radio agreed to drop its radio channels during broadcast hours (bizarrely, some curmudgeons complained about losing the radio channels in the evening, most of which were already available on AM, FM, DAB, Internet and satellite).

One sad aspect of the map is that, while the NI Mux and Saorview overspill will together reach 94% of the Northern Ireland population, with many people able to receive both (albeit with two roof-top aerials), some areas will receive neither, including large parts of South Down and, ironically, the Glens of Antrim and the Sperrins, two areas where Irish survived until the twentieth century.

Friday, 19 October 2012

This Vale of Tears

The Blether Region was very taken by a billboard advertisement for Strathvale pork — whose name, according to an industry website, may constitute something of a confidence trick:

"[...] Lidl has its Strathvale brand, which is clearly intended to sound Scottish but is, yes you've guessed it, "Product of EU"."

Those who know Gaelic or are interested in place-names may have had their doubts anyway: since srath is the Goidelic word for "valley", "Strathvale" would have to mean something like "vale vale". Yet it is far from alone in being what the Germans pithily refer to as doppelt gemoppelt (in the South of Ireland the brand is apparently named "Inisvale").

There is a cluster of businesses whose names include the element "Strathvale" around Forfar in Angus. Similary tautologous is Strathdale in Victoria, Australia — yet that too is apparently named after a real area between St. Johnstone and Atholl.

While the worst instances seem to originate from overseas, there is no doubt that such linguistically barbarous names, whether arrived at through folk etymology or hybridisation, also occur in Scotland and Ireland.

County Cavan has the River Owenroe (Abhainn Rua, or 'Red River'), Cork the River Owenabue (Abhainn Bhuí, or 'Yellow River'), and Fermanagh the Owenbrean River (Abhainn Bhréan, or 'Stinking River').

And perhaps the most egregious example of all occurs within the Gaelic-speaking world itself: Rubha Robhanais, which combines the Gaelic word rubha, meaning 'headland' — twice over — with the Norse word nes (also meaning 'headland'). English-speakers will know it better as the Butt of Lewis.

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

"Big Enough for Seven Kings"

The BBC reports that former Liberal-Democrat leader Menzies Campbell has been cogitating on "Home Rule" for Scotland in the event of a "No" vote in the forthcoming independence referendum. Though it's not really the place to comment on Sir Ming's plans here, the Blether Region must confess to a note of scepticism about what is proposed. The powers, for example, would apparently include income tax but not VAT. Yet for students of politics it is a commonplace that the rising levels of inequality in the United Kingdom since 1979 that scar so much of Scotland have in no small part been due to a massive switch in taxation from income to goods, the standard rate of VAT having risen from 8% in 1979 to 20% in 2012 while the top rate of income tax fell from 83% to 45%. Reducing inequality would be correspondingly more difficult if VAT were not devolved.

Be that as it may, one sentence from Mr. Campbell is striking. In discussing the extension of devolution, or, indeed, federalism, to England, he says:

"We expect that Scotland will contribute to the terms of that debate, at least by example, but it is for people in England to determine how they wish their own national and regional identities expressed within the constitutional structures of our United Kingdom."

Note that the reference, in the plural, is to the "national and regional identities" of England, usually considered a monolithic constituent nation of the United Kingdom. To some extent that is no doubt due to the fact that Cornwall, an area where a p-Celtic language was spoken until the eighteenth century, has never enjoyed the same sort of institutional recognition as Scotland, (Northern) Ireland, or, to a much lesser extent, Wales.

Some cultural Nationalists in Cornwall today use one of several competing standards of that language, and there is some support for devolution or even independence (generally speaking one can double the reported levels, since only around 50% of people living in Cornwall, an established haunt of retirees and surfers, are actually Cornish). Nevertheless, the Duchy's small size must make independence unlikely.

Ming's comments could also, however, be more controversial — and, in future, perhaps, much more important. The difference between a region and a nation, like the difference between a language and a dialect is, while not as utterly fluid as some would like to think, not hard and fast either. A few years ago the people of north-east England rejected plans for an elected assembly. The received wisdom on that is that any talk of devolution to English regions (which could, for a while at least, help perpetuate the Union with Scotland) was dead in the water at that point. Yet the Scots themselves failed to exhibit overwhelming support for an elected assembly in 1979 — a decision that many later regretted. Moreover, the north-east of England has a distinctive dialect in the form of Northumbrian, one that could easily be codified independently if the demand (or political will) were there.

Current moves towards ever looser Union between Scotland and England (or, indeed, the independence of the former) have rightly made political headlines. However, they may have far-reaching linguistic repercussions for English "regions" such as Cornwall and Northumbria too.

Monday, 8 October 2012

The Tungs o Men an Angels

The BBC reported last week on the death, at 92, of Bobby Hogg, the last speaker of Cromarty Scots. The distinctive Black Isle variety of which he was the last fluent exponent was never particularly large in population or geogrqaphical extent: looking at a scan of the map included in J. A. H. Murray's Dialect of the Southern Counties of Scotland (1873), one needs to zoom in to see it at all. Murray's map colours Cromarty Scots, like the rest of Black Isle, as a form of the Mid-Northern Scots spoken across the Moray Firth, but more recent research has tended to view it as North-Northern, though with many distinctive features. Scots often drops an initial h in the case of unstressed pronouns, but Cromarty was the only Scots dialect to exhibit h-dropping more generally, apparently influenced by the speech of English soldiers garrisoned in the area.

Debates on Scots sometimes turn on whether it is more fitting to speak of "dialectalisation" or "language death" (another, more emotive word for the former is "language suicide"). While it is always difficult to predict the future, if the decline of Scots continues, traditional dialects are much more likely to go the way of Glaswegian (style-drifting and continued dilution) than the Cromarty dialect (extinction when the dialect is still a relatively clearly demarcated system). For that reason, too, the event is likely to be decried and celebrated in years to come.

Like Ned Maddrell (1877-1974), the last native speaker of Manx Gaelic, but for the happenstance of his tongue, Mr. Hogg led a modest and unremarkable life. Like Ned Maddrell, his fame will far outlast him.

Sunday, 7 October 2012

The Man from the Stran

At a dinner engagement on Friday the Blether Region spent part of the evening in conversation with a governor of Stranmillis University College — and a very erudite man he was too. Nevertheless, one of the stories he told was plainly ridiculous. Indeed, it was so difficult to credit that repeating it here could hardly be considered defamatory.

As is well known, Northern Ireland is simply too small to sustain certain institutions and specialisms of its own, be it paediatric heart surgery or a veterinary faculty. Teacher training in the North has traditionally been dominated by Stranmillis University College and its Catholic counterpart, St. Mary's on the Falls Road. When there was pressure for the two colleges to merge with QUB, the governor claimed, the former Minister of Education Caitríona Ruane deliberately recognised as many gaelscoileanna as possible in order to provide St. Mary's with more students and allow the Catholic college to retain its independence.

Quite apart from the fact that this fantasy exhibits something of a "Stranmillis bubble", it is well known that Ms Ruane's recognition of Irish-language schools with small rolls was a result of belief rather than expediency. A friend of the Blether Region in the Department of Education — who did not himself support the policy or view it as sensible — described her as regarding it as her "legacy". At no point did he mention anything about Stranmillis.

It is, of course, a widespread and erroneous item of faith among Unionists that people do not support Irish because they believe in it. Many Protestants are certain that they do it to get at them. At worst, however, Nationalist politicians support Irish out of "peer pressure" or because speakers and activists are an important consituency of voters.

The tale also exemplifies the unique hatred that Caitríona Ruane inspired as Minister. Indeed, on occasion that hatred has been distastefully overlaid with sexism, including the sort of sexism that women display towards other women. Another civil servant who worked in the Department even repeated tittle tattle to the Blether Region about the Minister's personal hygiene.

The name Stranmillis has its origin in the Irish Sruthán Milis or "Sweet Stream", since in times past it was the point beyond which tides ceased to have any effect on the quality of drinking-water in the River Lagan.

Nowadays, too, if one wants to guarantee clarity, one has to get upstream a little.

Why Wasn't Irish There?

Still seething (relatively) with righteous indignation following the latest correspondence from the Switchover Help Scheme, the Blether Region has been researching what languages are actually spoken in the United Kingdom. Its main gripe with the Help Scheme so far has been that the calculation to determine what languages should be available for download from the organisation's website has not been updated on a rolling basis in line with the actual timetable for switchover.

So it is that, because a lot of people speak certain languages in England, overwhelmingly the most populous part of the United Kingdom, those are the languages available for download from the Help Scheme website, despite the fact that everywhere in England has already completed the digital switchover.

One month after the digital switchover in a given region, the Help Scheme refuses all requests for help. The only English region where the switchover took place less than one month ago is Tyne-Tees.

The upshot of this is that, although 13 languages are available for download from the website, Irish and (Ulster) Scots are not among them — while certain other languages likely to have only a few hundred speakers in Northern Ireland remain.

This set the Blether Region thinking. According the Wikipedia page linked to above, Tamil, Gujurati and Kashmiri — at numbers ten, 11 and 12 on the list of most popular UK languages — have fewer speakers than Irish. Indeed, Tamil and Kashmiri aren't on the Help Scheme's list. But Gujurati is, despite having only 140,000 speakers. And two of the languages on the list are Hindi and Urdu, which, like Scots and Ulster Scots, are pretty much the same tongue spelt differently (albeit with traditional orthographies rather than invented ones).

Yet, according to the 2001 Census of Northern Ireland, 167,000 people have some facility in Irish. That figure is certain to rise this time around. And there are also certain to be many tens of thousands of Irish-speakers living in Great Britain.

It seems that Irish-speakers are being penalised not because there aren't enough of them but for the fact that they also speak English.

Of course, one could argue — and the Help Scheme probably would — that it is about communication rather than supporting minority languages. But the United Kingdom Government implicitly distanced itself from that jaded utilitarian philosophy when it signed the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages back in 1999. "Wait a minute!" the Help Scheme might say. "The stipulations for Irish were territorially defined and applied only to Northern Ireland". Indeed, and that is just what the Blether Region is asking for — something territorial that (like the Help Scheme itself nowadays) applies only to Northern Ireland.

Ethnic minority people living in the UK have a right to information in their own language if they would otherwise be unable to access a service. By disregarding the regional disparities in the UK, the Help Scheme is not only condemning autochthonous languages to further decline but welching on its duties to immigrant communities. Where, for example, are Portuguese, Lithuanian and Romanian on the download list, all languages with substantial numbers of speakers in Northern Ireland?

Nowhere, because London says so.

Momma Knows Best

The Blether Region has been corresponding with the Switchover Help Scheme, its immediate motivation being the somewhat cheeky one of allowing as many people as possible to read and comment on the translation discussed in the last three posts — which, as readers may have gathered, provides ample scope for the like.

As it stands, the Ulster-Scots translation (and presumably also the Irish) is provided only on request — and they don't tell anyone that they have them, either. When the Blether Region first wrote to the organisation, the Help Scheme was not even aware that it had already commissioned and paid for Ulster-Scots material, and even offered to source something new. Then, a week later, it found that it had one after all and sent it on.

The reason for the confusion is that only the "main" languages in the United Kingdom can be downloaded from the Help Scheme website. This means that no Celtic language is represented among the 13 languages listed (although for some reason their automated acknowledgment e-mails are bilingual in English and Welsh). As a Census question on Scots (which, according to GRO Scotland, has 1.5 million speakers) was added only in 2011, there is no Scots version of the information on the website either.

This is clearly an unsatisfactory situation. The most unsatisfactory aspect of all is that the Switchover Help Scheme — outsourced, as is only logical, to Carillion Energy Services Limited — is blissfully unaware in its metropolitan bubble that it might be doing something wrong. On 5 October it wrote:

"The languages on the help scheme web page are the most commonly spoken languages in the United Kingdom. However as you are aware we do have documentation available in the top ten languages in a particular TV broadcast area.


As I am sure you will appreciate it would be unpractical to list every language or dialect spoken in the United Kingdom therefore we deal with this on an individual basis."
In response, the Blether Region wrote:
"The fact remains that Northern Ireland is the only region still to switch. There are basic issues of proportionality and utility here that seem to have been obscured by an excessively literal approach. You will no doubt have access to statistics on how many queries you are still getting from other regions, as well as statistics on how often some of the languages are still being downloaded. I wouldn't have thought that there would be large concentrations of Turkish- or Arabic-speakers, for example, outside London, where eligible people have not been able to apply for help since 18 May 2012.

If I were you, I would remove the bottom language [...] and replace it with translations that you have commissioned and paid for but about whose existence you told no one. At the very least, I urge you to say that Ulster Scots (and, no doubt, Irish) is available on request. There is space on the Northern Ireland page to do that."
The Help Scheme responded on 7 October:
"I would like to let you know that a great deal of research was put into and a considerable amount of care taken with the information available to customers in Northern Ireland.

At this time, we will not be adding an Ulster Scots options guide to our website. As you found out (sic!), however, this can be given to customers should they request it.

If you are not happy with any of this, we have a complaints process, which I would happily set in motion, if you would like to discuss this matter further.

I would like to add that perhaps you may like to look into the amount of Turkish or Arabic speaking people outside London. There are very large Turkish and Arabic speaking communities in many other areas of the UK."
There you go, then: try to make a reasonable point, and they brand you a racist — a bit rich when it's the Help Scheme itself that could do with a spot of diversity training. 

Of course, there may be a subtext to all this, since broadcasting is among the powers that will be fought over in any "devo max" settlement if Scotland fails to vote in favour of independence in 2014 (in practice, of course, it would be much more likely to be "devo a wee tait mair", and would probably not include broadcasting or corporation tax). Allowing a dedicated website for Northern Ireland, where the top ten list of languages would look very different from that of England, and where there are issues concerning reception of TG4 specific to Irish-speakers, might encourage the blighters.

And that, it seems, Mother London is not prepared to do.

Sunday, 30 September 2012

A Waant o Fushion: Part Three

Continuing the criticism of the "Ulster-Scots" version of material concerning the Help Scheme for the digital switchover (available on request from

Waant o fushion

In traditional literature this expression covers a broad range of disabilities and health problems, including mental health problems, as well as perceived failings of morality or "manliness". Its meaning here is unclear and its use potentially offensive.

Waant or hobble adae wi lear

Potentially offensive.


The vowel in wark is applicable only to the noun. The correct form for the verb is wirkin.

Whut the' cry ye

Surely the formal Scots term would simply be name.

Wud ye ivver tak tent

In Ulster wud ye ivver is generally used in an imperative sense (either in anger or light-heartedly) and never as a generalised formal equivalent of "please".

Yin enn's erran

It looks here like ance eerant has been conflated with end's errand. This is unsurprising in a dialect where there is no taught written form to ensure that people are aware of what it is. However, one would expect the experts doing a translation to know.


The obvious points to make here are that a) not one of them is used in this way in traditional Ulster-Scots literature and b) their employment in the text is in many cases inconsistent, e.g. lettèr but lamiter, despite the fact that both words would have an environmentally conditioned interdental realisation of t.

With ï, on the one hand we have bïg, bïts, fïll, fït, ïll, kïngrick, pïck, quïck, thïng and tïcket, and on the other birl, blinn, gin, inpit, pit, til, and yin. The latter are not recognisable from a Standard English perspective, and it appears that ï is being employed only to differentiate the first group from it, despite the fact that the same vowel occurs in all the above words.

There is also the ubiquitous dïgital, which in broad Scots would have the same vowel as in leeshins, leevin and ableeged (obleeged).

Although a centralised realisation of /ɪ/ also occurs in Ulster before voiceless sounds or clusters containing them, the ï seems not to represent that, since it is also used where the centralised /ɪ/ does not occur or not used where it does.

Eye dialect

Boax, cums, naem, phóane, poakit, recoardèr and soart, but month rather than *munth.

There is also respelling of unstressed forms to produce words such as fur, ir, cud and shud.


Fyn should be fin(d).

Run-together words


Spelling inconsistency

Auld, braws, faut, haud, maun, thrawin, and whaur, but aa, caa, faa, laas, and taak.

Heid but deef.

Pey but gye and wye.

Waantin and waatch, but flatch, hantit, and hantle.

Wittins but swutches, wull (also will), wurd, wutless, but wïllfu. The vowel after w (and wh) in all those words is the same. Wittins is not recognisable from a Standard English perspective, so i remains. In the others it is changed to u to differentiate the word from Standard English.

The vowel in taxt is the same as in feck and recks, but text is the same as Standard English, so it is respelt taxt to differentiate it.

Bakkin and leukkin, but beck.

The letters e and ai take the place of the usual a in the words beck and faix to differentiate them from Standard English, despite the fact that the vowel is the same as in bakkin, which is spelt with kk to differentiate the word from the recognisably Standard English backin(g).

Throch but throu.

A Waant o Fushion: Part Two

Continuing the criticism of the "Ulster-Scots" version of material concerning the Help Scheme for the digital switchover (available on request from


Can this really mean 'e-mail'? As the initial vowel of electronic (unlike that of electric) is stressed, it is implausible to suggest that it would be dropped in the same manner.

Norlin Airlan Männystrie o Resydentèr Oncum

As "Kintrie-pairt poust an resydentèr tent trust" above. For many years now Northern Ireland has had Departments rather than Ministries. The correct English title is "Department for Social Development" rather than "of".


This is here being used in the sense of German auswählen, but it is more properly used in the sense of German aussortieren, the exact opposite.


In traditional Scots the digraph ui is used for a vowel known as "vowel 7" in the scheme developed by the late Prof. Jack Aitken, which is realised in various ways depending on dialect. In many but by no means all cases, vowel 7 corresponds to oo in Standard English. However, that vowel does not occur in this word, and one must conclude that the translator understands the ui digraph to be a spelling variant of English oo.

Satellite roon

This is not a plausible translation of "satellite dish". If one absolutely needed a native word, one could use ashet, though in my view even that would be ridiculous.


I acknowledge that some writers use this as a generalised equivalent of English write, but many others understand it to mean 'scratch' or 'scribble'.

Seekness o tha harns

Literally this means 'sickness of the brains'. Its use here is potentially offensive.


I know that television presenters sometimes talk about what is "on the other side" (in fact usually BBC presenters referring to ITV, which was for a long time the only independent TV broadcaster). I do not believe that the word could be used as a generalised equivalent of channel. One would have expected chainel.


This word would suggest to me someone talking snappily (i.e. either quickly or harshly) rather than clearly, which is presumably the intended meaning.


I can find no definition in the dictionary that makes sense in this context. The word can refer to a span or stride, and it is possible that the translator has understood it as a generalised term for "step" or for whatever reason decided to relexify it as such. It is unlikely to be immediately comprehensible to a native speaker.


Usually this means 'ask' in the sense of 'enquire'. I acknowledge that there are a few instances in the Dictionary of the Scots Language recording its use to mean 'request', but that usage is nevertheless rejected by most writers.

Tentin or indwallin hame

This is not a plausible translation of "care or residential home". An indwaller can be a resident, but tae indwall is to inhabit or occupy.


Outside Insular Scots, the respelling of the definite article in this manner was virtually unknown before the 1990s.

This wittins

It is not clear whether this has been used in error for "thir wittins" or reflects the influence of the Irish language, which does not have separate words for "this" and "these".

Tyne yer wittins

One assumes that the translator's intention here is to extend the meaning of the verb tyne on the basis of really rather rare usages. Almost all native speakers would take the phrase to mean "lose your information" rather than "destroy" it.

A Waant o Fushion: Part One

The Blether Region recently came into possession of the "Ulster-Scots" version of some publicity material concerning the Help Scheme for the digital switchover (apparently sourced from Eclipse Translations of Alnwick, Northumbria and available on request from

The following should be regarded as constructive criticism.


One assumes that this is here being used to mean 'features'. Native speakers would be more likely to interpret it as 'fine things'.


Clag or cleg can be rather an earthy word (both in its field of application and metaphorically). In my view it is not suitable for use in the sense of a label stuck to something.


This is presumably Claught Kïngrick, which is not an adequate translation of "United Kingdom". The verb cleek, of which claucht or cleikit and claught are generally the respective Scots and Northern English simple past forms, has various meanings based on the notion of 'hook', many of them negative (e.g. 'grasp', 'deceive' and 'ensnare in marriage', all of which could suggest antipathy towards Unionists), and none used in traditional literature to refer to a political union. The meaning 'confederal', i.e. referring to a connection short of union, might be slightly more plausible.

Daen time

I assume that this refers to having a criminal record. However, one can have a criminal record without having "done time", i.e. gone to prison. It in any case seems too colloquial for a formal text.

Doon's Syndrome, Guidmans, Side 4, Smairt Taak, Swutchowre Hize Ploy

These have been translated despite being proper names; would it really be possible to make out a cheque or send a letter to "Swutchowre Hize Ploy"? Even if one has no knowledge of Ulster Scots, such naivety should alert one to possible issues with the quality of the translation.

Eildit an lamiter crettèrs

Potentially offensive.

Fair faa ye

This is a blessing and is not a general equivalent of English welcome. The traditional word is walcome.


The word factor properly refers to an agent acting on behalf of a laird or appointed by a court. Its meaning here is considerably extended.


Using this word to refer to a TV screen is rather bold.


Flicker is not a Scots word but a slang English one and too colloquial to be used for "remote control" in a formal text.

Gie it a birl

This expression ('give it a shot') is too colloquial to be used in a formal text.

Gin ye hae gat tha jile

This is too colloquial to be used for "been to prison" in a formal text.

Hamelt analogue sïgnal

One assumes that hamelt is here being used to mean 'existing' or 'conventional'. It more properly means 'domestic' or 'native'.


Properly this means 'to ratify' or 'to confirm formally something already done' (literally, 'to say the same word'). I am not sure that it could be used to mean 'confirm' or 'approve' in any more general sense.

Kintrie-pairt poust an resydentèr tent trust

This is not a plausible translation of "local health and social care trust". Kintrie-pairt is a new conflation, albeit a reasonably transparent one. Poust means 'energy' or 'drive' rather than 'health', for which the usual Scots word is halth. A resydentèr is a 'resident', and its use to mean 'social' seems difficult to justify.