Thursday, 26 July 2012

A Man of Letters

The Scotsman has an interesting article about Susan Rennie's new book on John Jamieson, compiler of the great Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language, first published in 1808, updated many times by Jamieson and others, and eventually superseded only in 1976 by the completed Scottish National Dictionary. The biographer rightly terms Jamieson's work "the equal of Dr. Johnson's English dictionary". Indeed, a majority of Johnson's assistants were Scots, and both can be regarded as part of a great tradition of Scottish lexicography.

It is hard to overstate the importance of the Etymological Dictionary, which famously provided inspiration for later writers of belles lettres such as Christopher Murray Grieve — better known as Hugh MacDiarmid — certain of whose poems can be directly connected with those pages of the magnum opus that happened to form his bedtime reading at the time.

Interestingly, Jamieson:

'warned of the "peculiar disadvantages" suffered by the tongue after the 1707 Act of Union, pointing out that as it was "no longer written in public deeds, or spoken in those assemblies which fix the standard of national language, its influence has gradually declined".'

This is of course of obvious relevance today, and one hopes that, through Susan Rennie's new biography, Jamieson's sentiments will percolate down to those who misguidedly begrudge the spending of a few bawbees on transactional Scots, not realising that it represents a foray into an entire domain from which the language has been deliberately excluded, with consequent damage to its usefulness and unity — perhaps even its future existence.

Thursday, 19 July 2012

An Indian Wink

The BBC has a very interesting list of Indian words in English, and they're surprising both for their number and their popularity, as this excerpt from Tom Stoppard's 1995 play Indian Ink demonstrates:
Flora: "While having tiffin on the veranda of my bungalow I spilled kedgeree on my dungarees and had to go to the gymkhana in my pyjamas looking like a coolie."

Nirad: "I was buying chutney in the bazaar when a thug who had escaped from the chokey ran amok and killed a box-wallah for his loot, creating a hullabaloo and landing himself in the mulligatawny."
The sun may have, rightly, set on the Raj, but English-speakers' love affair with India continues undimmed.

The Blether Legion

DCAL's long-awaited strategies for Irish and Ulster Scots have now gone out to consultation, with Carál Ní Chuilín having reversed the previous Minister's two-tribes insistence on crow-barring them into a single equal-aqual document.

So far, so good. Irish and Ulster scots are, after all, different speech varieties with different needs and, dare one say it, attracting different levels of public interest. Gaeilgeoirí will, however, be making the point that only through legislation can Irish secure real protection from politically motivated attacks and Irish-language organisations enjoy the certainty they need to plan ahead.

As far as Ulster Scots goes, it seems to be a case of — as Henry Ford once said — any colour as long as it's black. Only in this case, it's orange. Yes, Ulster-Scots language has been bundled with a strategy for "heritage and culture", which, if interpreted as the Ulster-Scots Agency has done hitherto, will almost certainly include Loyalist bands and a whole lot of other toxic stuff.

This of course suits everyone: the professional Ulster-Scots because — whisper it — they're not actually that cultural and can't think of any worthwhile language projects but quite like the idea of spending a wee bit siller on sectarianism; the Minister because it saves money and might at some stage far in the future buy a little tacit acceptance from Unionists when it comes to spending money on Irish; the civil servants, who are spared thinking about Scots too much or taking it too seriously before their biennial change of section; the professional peace-processors, who are pleased to see Loyalists co-opted by the state and helped to "modernise" their "culture"; and, last but not least, Nationalists and Republicans, who for the most part are interested only in Irish, don't particularly care if Scots dies in Ireland, and quite enjoy it when Unionists are given enough rope to hang themselves.