Wednesday, 27 June 2012


The BBC reports on the language commitments in Highland Council's new "programme of priorities". Michael Hance of the Scots Language Centre makes the very reasonable point that, notwithstanding what that says, the dialect of Caithness is taxonomically Scots. The argument here is similar to that against terming Ulster Scots a "language": doing so sets marginally different Scots dialects against each other rather than against English, which is the real villain, politically and sociolinguistically.

In response, the Depute Leader of Highland Council, the Lib-Dem David Alston, still insists on referring to getting "bogged down in sterile debates" about the nature of languages and dialects.

Such posturing plainly goes against the framework of laws and declarations built up by successive UK and Scottish Governments and, in so doing, injects an unwelcome note of contemporary partisanship into the issue.

It is also sad that the speech of Caithness, already abused as a weapon against Scottish Gaelic, should now be similarly employed against Lowland Scots.

On the Names of Ireland

The current protest by Republican dissidents on Black Mountain has set the Blether Region thinking about names used for Ireland — not sobriquets such as Emerald Isle, mind, but actual names.

In case you've been away, the demonstration in question has taken the form of a huge tricolour and banner proclaiming "Ériu is our Queen". Many of those less versed in the history of the language and looking squint-eyed up at the hills will no doubt have taken it to be the anglicised Erin, but that is far from the case.

Ériu is the original Old Irish word from which the modern Éire (genitive Éireann, dative Éirinn) derives — the latter two forms having provided us with Erin. Ériu, which also survives as an element in the English word "Ireland", is a term morphologically comparable to Danu, which exhibits a similar consonantal stem in the well-known name Tuatha Dé Danann, the People of the Goddess Danu (tuath being cognate with German deutsch). The modern form of Danu is Dana, best known as the name of the former Eurovision star and social conservative Dana Rosemary Scallon.

In fact, both Danu and Éiru are goddesses, and Éire is not the only goddess associated with Ireland and still used as a name for the island: there are also Banbha and Fódhla, the latter used as a domain name in certain Government IT systems in the Republic.

If that's not complicated enough, there is also Fál, apparently a back formation from Lia Fáil, the Stone of Destiny (as some would have it, the Stone of Scone).

So, what, if anything, does the dissidents' choice say about them? Well, first one would have to point out why certain terms are unsuitable. Fódhla might be too little used and Banbha too redolent of paganism, while Éire is, particularly among Protestants, indistinguishable from the modern Irish Republic and its constitutional predecessors. In much of Irish poetry and song in English, the poetic name for Ireland is Erin, true also of works by the mainly Presbyterian and often Republican Ulster-Scots poets of the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries. It also figures in pre-partition Orange songs and slogans such as "Erin's Orange Lily". One argument against using it is its association with the less successful, more maudlin products of just such nineteenth-century culture.

The term is of course also not wholly native, being an English word derived from Irish rather than an Irish word per se. Ériu, on the other hand, while easy to associate with Éire, is not contemporary Gaelic but Old Irish. Demographically speaking, it would be best known among those born into an Irish ethnic tradition and who have subsequently made a conscious decision to explore that tradition. It is not nearly as down-to-earth — yet still oddly emotive — a term as "Erin", and consequently easier for working-class Loyalists to reject. It is recherché, the property of an élite — rather like the self-defining élite of the dissidents.

Nevertheless, for many Irish-speakers, the tug at the heartstrings will be very real.

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Satiable Curiosity

When the Blether Region was a schoolchild learning elementary German, great hilarity was occasioned by the word Fahrt, which means "journey" but sounds like an English term in no need of elucidation. Indeed, German-teachers sometimes find that the long vowel in Vater ("father") has the same effect, particularly with pupils from non-rhotic dialect backgrounds. Later on, I realised that laughing out loud at such minor coincidences is childish, superficial and essentially a case of revelling in one's own ignorance. Probably it seems as stupid to Germans as when foreigners whose languages don't distinguish between front and near-front vowels giggle at the English word "sheet".

Late last year, the BBC reported on the difficulties faced by the parish of Effin in County Limerick, which was for a time banned from Facebook, whose staff took its name to be an expletive.

Now the Beeb reports that the Perthshire hamlet of Dull has been "paired" with the Oregon town of Boring (geddit?). Yet Effin is the name of an Irish saint, while "Dull's name is thought to have come from the Gaelic word for meadow".

Indeed, to Gaelicists, such reactions may seem as risibly uninquisitive as Frank Mitchell's groan-inducing place-name clues on UTV weather, which do little to entertain but a great deal to underline the pressing need for education in and about Irish — and for Irish-language road signs.

To provide genuine grounds for amusement, any coincidence would have to be much greater, of course, and perhaps even hold up over a complete sentence.

Which brings us to the term for "12 months" in Estonian ...

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Linguistic Attitudes

The Belfast Telegraph has an interesting article based on the results of a survey of language attitudes — presumably carried out at the same time as its headline "border poll".

The results of the latter question were, of course, controversial, since they seemed to indicate very low levels of support for Irish unity. As no doubt the more cynical would argue in that context too, the language survey may have encouraged some respondents to give the answer that they judge questioners want to hear, with a healthy 35% supporting translation of official languages into Irish and Ulster Scots as well as English, as opposed to 11% for English and Irish only and 7% for English and Ulster Scots only (Irish only seems not to have been offered but might well have attracted one or two percent). In practice, of course, the bilingual preferences constitute a vote for trilingualism just as much as the official figure, and together they give a total of 53% in favour of linguistic diversity. Take out the 21% of "don't knows", and the proportion in favour rises to just over two-thirds.

One option suggested with regard to Irish unity not on offer in the linguistic diversity survey was "in 20 years". Of course, polls are staged by pollsters rather than language planners, but the latter group might well have felt a delay had some merit: for Irish, in that it may not be an absolute priority at present; and for Ulster Scots for quite different reasons.

It is safe to assume that Ulster-Scots translations are never understood more easily than the English originals, even by native speakers. Often they woefully fail to convey the meaning of the English texts, with which they have a parasitic relationship, since the reader has to consult them to glean the original communicative intention. There is no standard to speak of, but a series of incompatible idiolects, many marked by deliberate obscurantism, sometimes inspired by political considerations and sometimes by naïveté. There is no set political terminology for Ulster Scots akin to that contained in Foclóir Parlaiminte, and no guarantee that any two translators will coin the same term or even draw on material from the same period. In addition, the unfamiliar spelling preferences will often mask errors of translation or common-or-garden linguistic errors.

Another huge concern is the lack of co-operation with Scotland, where most of the speakers and most of the linguistic talent are to be found. To set up the requisite bodies will take time, and the political circumstances that have placed the tiny Ulster dialect centre-stage have yet to be replicated in the much larger language community athort the Sheuch.

So, Scots translations, yes please. Just not now.

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

A Civic Vacuum

The Blether Region finds itself curiously detached from the current debate on Scottish independence — and not because of geography.

Rather it is because there has been so little acknowledgment of what makes Scotland unique — the remaining elements of its distinctive culture, and in particular its battered but still just-about-with-us languages. Of course, the Green Party and Margo McDonald have also recently voiced misgivings about the independence campaign, although in their case, one must unfortunately conclude, because of their wish, unbolstered by any but the most modest of democratic mandates, to pre-empt important decisions that the post-independence Scottish people will have to take about the head of state and economic policy.

Yet the cultural issue is surely the elephant in the room — albeit an invisible one. Indeed, one commentator, who confidently predicts that Scotland will be "functionally independent in 10 years" (i.e. either officially independent or enjoying a "devo-max" settlement), has even suggested that cultural nationalism is a non-existent element in current political debates — speciously, and apparently without seeing any need for justification, equating it with ethnic chauvinism. Yet it is possible to accept the obvious truth that Scots are not one whit better than their counterparts and relations in other parts of the world while recognising the value of cultural diversity, and Scots' specific role in maintaining it. Just as it would be silly to expect people in London, Paris or Capetown to save the osprey, it is silly to expect anyone but us to save Scottish Gaelic or — as a distinct, autonomous idiom spoken across geographical and class divides — Lowland Scots.

That Scotland has — or, until very recently, had — cultural wealth equal to its resources of oil and wind is, one hopes, obvious. Yet with depressing frequency any mention of cultural nationalism is loudly and reflexively decried as bigotry. A classic example of such weird self-hatred came last week, when the Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS), the main teaching union, overwhelmingly passed a resolution criticising the very reasonable stipulation that pupils study and answer a question on a Scottish text as part of the English syllabus.

Indeed, the Blether Region would have gone further and stipulated a vernacular text.

Leaving creoles to one side, there is nowhere in the English-speaking world where the residual regional variety differs more from the standard. The EIS thinks it can teach English without teaching Scots. Well, if that be so, let's reduce the hours spent on English and deal with Scots separately.

Like many debates on Scotland, it is surely obvious that if something isn't catered for inside the system, it will sooner or later be catered for outside it.