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.