Thursday, 19 December 2013

The Price of Our Labour

The Economist is carrying a lengthy article on Irish in Northern Ireland.

Unfortunately, there is a basic flaw in it, which is the claim that the language has been doing better since devolution was restored in 2007. In many important respects, it is faring worse. Indeed, the fact that the magazine is fully cognisant of the accommodation endured by Coláiste Feirste — suboptimal to say the least — may suggest that its opinion is mere spin.

While the (American?) author may think that linguistic diversity in Northern Ireland is being given a huge Government boost, that is true only if one compares it with polities that do not actually have any regional languages with substantial demographics behind them.

The fact is that the DUP has been able to block any language Bill from passing as well as proposals that would have allowed bilingual signage. Indeed, through its control of the Department of Finance and Personnel, petitions of concern and its Executive veto, the party is well equipped to do the same with most future proposals to promote the language. The Northern Ireland Place-name Project has already closed, and at one stage a former DUP Culture Minister even planned to spend more on Ulster Scots (a dialect attracting only limited and unrepresentative interest even among Protestants) than Irish. The economic crisis in the south (coupled with a dourly unsympathetic Fine Gall-led Government) has meant that nearly all voluntary Irish-language groups in the North are threatened with closure as part of a cost-saving re-organisation, including Ultach Trust, which was originally set up with UK Government seed money as a direct response to the Troubles.

Recently the Executive failed to agree a response to the Committee of Experts studying the UK's fulfilment of its obligations under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, the suspicion being that, since the DUP eclipsed the UUP and signed up to power-sharing, some criteria are no longer being fulfilled.

True, the language has a vibrant culture on the ground. Much of that, however, is despite, not because of, the current dispensation.

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

A Slow-motion Car Crash

The Alliance Party's Trevor Lunn has asked two Questions on the subject of Ulster Scots. One of them, AQW 28585/11-15, deals with the controversial theme of the North/South Language Body's accounts, which have never been delivered on time owing to a "backlog" built up during the chaotic early days of the Ulster-Scots Agency — a time when it was chaired by the now disgraced Lord Laird and the gormless paedophile Stan Mallon was its administrative chief.

The other Question, AQW 28584/11-15, addresses an even more vexed issue, that of the three orthographic advisers to the Ministerial Advisory Group on the Ulster-Scots Academy (MAGUS). Two of those advisers, Michael Montgomery and Alison Henry, are reputable linguists. The third, Anne Smyth, is not. In all likelihood hers was a political appointment to represent the Ulster-Scots Language Society and thus the British-Israelite cabal centred around the self-promoting Cross of Saint Patrick LOL 688, the influential Orange lodge of former Heritage Council supremo Nelson McCausland. True, Mrs. Smyth is employed as a dialect archivist at the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum, but a dialect archivist need not be a theoretical linguist. The fact that a previous incumbent of the post, Brendan Adams, actually was a good theoretical linguist only renders Mrs. Smyth's deficiencies in that regard all the more stark.

Indeed, she is a surprising choice as spelling adviser on at least three counts: her lack of formal qualifications and the poor quality of all her published solo forays into matters linguistic; her vested interest, having co-produced the laughable Ulster-Scots Spelling and Pronunciation Guide (she is now being asked to adjudicate on consultation responses on just that subject); and her involvement with the odious British-Israel World Federation, which one would have thought would make anyone unfit for public office.

Although one of the orthographic advisers hails from as far afield as Tennessee, there is no one to represent the aspirations or acumen of the more than 95% of Scots-speakers who come from Scotland, and no one to represent the Catholic third of speakers in Ulster, people for whom the rationale of pretending Ulster Scots is a language so that the dialect can compete with, and stymie, Irish presumably holds few attractions.

The Blether Region confidently predicts that: a) the process of attempting to standardise Ulster Scots separately from Scots in Scotland will be an expensive one; b) anything produced will be rejected by the community, and conceivably by every academic linguist in the world with one exception; and c) the process will either have to be started afresh after a suitably Kissinger-esque interval or what is ostensibly a work of finalisation will be relegated to the status of a mere stage in a larger process.

That is a tragedy, since Northern Ireland, perhaps the territory where Scots sees most use for transactional purposes, might otherwise have provided an impetus to the sensible codification of the entire language.

Fine Gall II

The South's governing Fine Gael / Labour coalition has been criticised for its failure to provide services in Irish by An Coimisinéir Teanga, Seán Ó Cuirreáin, who also signalled his intention to quit in protest. The Commissioner, who has held the post since 2004, questioned whether the Government was serious about the survival of the Gaeltacht, since three-quarters of statutory language schemes have been allowed to lapse since the coalition came to power, with a quarter out of date for three years or more. Mr. Ó Cuirreáin also expressed doubts about the standard of many of the schemes currently in force.

Speaking later on RTE, he said that under the new policy of no longer awarding points for an ability to speak Irish during the recruitment process, it would take "28 years to increase the number of administrative staff with Irish in the Department of Education from 1.5% to 3%."

The current low figure for Irish-speakers may suggest that linguistic skills have been allowed to atrophy after schooling, ironically because civil servants are not required to provide a service through the medium of Irish. In that respect, Fine Gael, whose leader is a fluent Irish-speaker, may typify the basic problem of the State: all learning and very little practical usage. The party has had a history of dismantling protections enjoyed by the language in the Civil Service since the 1970s and recently attempted to make it optional in schools.

Monday, 9 December 2013

Taking Ownership

The Northern Ireland media have been abuzz over the past week with the news that the US diplomat Richard Haass has suggested a new flag for the territory. Belfast Telegraph journalist Malachi O'Doherty has reacted sceptically, pointing out that the Irish flag, the RUC badge and the "Ulster banner" have already attempted to unite the two communities — only to fall victim to (Northern) Ireland's underlying instability and fractiousness.

Perhaps the key prerequisite to gaining the reflexive support of the two ethnicities is a basic absence of partiality. In employment, housing, and the conduct of elections, that has already largely been achieved. The cultural sphere is another matter, however. It has become commonplace over the last few years for politicians to speak of a "culture war" in Northern Ireland, whereby Unionist symbols (such as marches and flags) are usurped by Nationalist ones (such as bilingual signage).

While in the United States there may well be a reasonable number of small-state libertarians who would side with the Unionists on both marches and signage, one suspects that most European — including most British — liberals, considering each issue separately, would side with the Nationalists. After all, it would be surprising if many other cultures entertained the notion of something that is at once a "demonstration" and "traditional". Indeed, while BBC Northern Ireland may be loath to call Orange marches sectarian, there would be an outcry were BBC Scotland to claim the contrary. Bilingual signage, meanwhile, is de rigueur in Wales and becoming ever more visible in Scotland. By linking the two issues of marches and signage, however, Unionists have succeeded in muddying the waters, making the constitutional status of Northern Ireland part of what might otherwise have remained a question of (competing) human rights.

This all goes to the paradoxical heart of what has been called the "siege mentality". Were Northern Ireland to embrace bilingualism, and outlaw the Loyal Orders — or perhaps simply the sectarian marches that are their raison d'être — its existence as an entity would be assured, or at the very least greatly extended. At that point, it might be time to consider symbolically drawing a line under the past through the adoption of a new flag.

Unfortunately, however, that basic prerequisite of fairness remains to be fulfilled.

Friday, 29 November 2013

The Devolution of Broadcasting

A Sinn Féin Private Member's motion at Stormont has called for the devolution of broadcasting powers — and attracted the support of the current Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure, Carál Ní Chuilín, who specifically related it to the Irish Language and Ulster-Scots Broadcast Funds in her speech.

One of the more ironic aspects of devolution since the DUP entered Government in 2007 has been that, in many important ways, Irish has fared less well that it might otherwise have, mainly because of its increased exposure to that party's prejudices. Ulster Scots is a similar story, but for different reasons. Although the DUP has been quite willing to commit resources to the "fardel-leid", that willingness has not been equalled by a determination to ensure that any money be spent solely on sensible and non-sectarian language initiatives, in ways likely to prolong rather than curtail the existence of a distinctive Scots dialect in Northern Ireland.

Perhaps people should be careful what they wish for.

Nevertheless, it is true that devolving broadcasting could bring great financial and cultural benefits to Northern Ireland, which, like Scotland and Wales, has suffered the ignominy of watching licence-payers' money head south while being force-fed a whole slew of irrelevant news reports about education and health in England. Getting the best deal for Northern Ireland would depend on the DUP being amenable to doing a deal, including recognising in a new BBC Northern Ireland — or NIBC — charter the rightfulness of spending a certain percentage of licence-fee income on Irish. On the Sinn Féin side there would need to be an acceptance that the process is not simply about integration with RTE, grandstanding that would have no chance of success.

Another big winner of any plans to devolve broadcasting is likely to be Scotland. Devolution is an unequal process, but thus far the direction of travel has been overwhelmingly in one direction. Late developers in Cardiff Bay have been able to benefit retrospectively from powers won by the Scots, while the mooted devolution of corporation tax to Northern Ireland has also provoked a few envious glances from Holyrood. Unionist observers sometimes forget the extent to which Scots identity, like that of Northern Ireland Protestants, rests on politics and institutions — and the extent to which being more devolved than anyone else has become part of the Scots self-image. It would be quite impossible to devolve broadcasting to Northern Ireland without doing the same in Scotland. Indeed, if the "yes" camp failed to achieve a majority but got more than 40% of the vote in next September's referendum, broadcasting would have to be discussed anyway.

Perhaps a "yes" vote or a near miss is the way forward for the Scots: judging by the Petition of Concern raised by Unionists, any consensus on devolving broadcasting to Stormont may be some way off.

As an aside, the Blether Region couldn't help noticing in the transcript of the debate that both Karen McKevitt of the SDLP and Anna Lo of the Alliance Party referred to "the Ulster-Scots dialect". Long may such realism continue.

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

The Independence White Paper

Scotland's Future, the long-awaited White Paper on Scottish independence, was issued at 10 o'clock yesterday morning, with its political significance matched by its size and scope, covering every imaginable topic, both constitutional and political, and even including 650 frequently asked questions to assuage the timorous. While the Blether Region counts itself among those gung-ho Scots for whom exclusion from NATO and an inability to watch Strictly Come Dancing would make independence more rather than less attractive, its chief interest lay in what the weighty tome contained on the subject of Scotland's languages.

On Gaelic it has the following to say on page 314:
"We plan to create a secure future for Gaelic in Scotland by increasing the numbers learning, speaking and using Gaelic, through Gaelic education in all sectors and all stages such as early years, primary and secondary education. We will continue our support for the work of Bòrd na Gàidhlig in promoting the use of Gaelic in Scottish public, cultural and community life. In addition, we will maintain our support for MG ALBA, which has brought significant benefits for Gaelic."
There is more detail on Gaelic and Scots in the FAQs:
232. What will independence mean for Gaelic?
Gaelic has been a continuing element in Scottish heritage, identity and history for many centuries. Gaelic has official recognition and it is an increasingly visible part of Scottish public life reaching into education, the arts, media and broadcasting. In an independent Scotland, Gaelic will have a central place in Scottish public life.
233. What would the priorities be for Gaelic in an independent Scotland?
Our aim as a government would be to continue to reverse the decline of Gaelic in Scotland. The most recent Census has demonstrated that initiatives in support of Gaelic have significantly slowed down the decline of the language. Policy and resources would continue to be directed to the priority of increasing the numbers speaking, learning and using the language.
234. Will Gaelic be recognised as an official language in an independent Scotland?
In Scotland, Gaelic has a significant level of official support from the Scottish Government. Official recognition for Gaelic is also provided by the 2005 Gaelic Act. In an independent Scotland this official recognition would be confirmed and maintained.
235. Will there be more support for the Scots Language in an independent Scotland?
The 2011 Census, for the first time, provided information on the numbers of Scots speakers. This information, in an independent Scotland, will assist in developing policy and promoting the use and status of the Scots language and supporting communities that speak Scots.
471. What would happen to Gaelic broadcasting in an independent Scotland?
The Scottish Government is committed to the continuation of the BBC Alba channel and Radio nan Gàidheal, under the auspices of the Scottish Broadcasting Service.
589. What will our national languages be?
We propose no change on independence to the status of Scotland's languages such as English, Gaelic, Scots and British Sign Language.
The Constitutional Convention appointed after independence could consider the position of Scotland's languages within the permanent written constitution.
The aim to "continue to reverse the decline of Gaelic in Scotland" is of course misleading, since, as the document itself acknowledges in the next sentence, overall that decline has only yet been slowed.

But one can't fault the policy. Reading between the lines, "a central place in Scottish public life" for Gaelic suggests the mainstreaming of bilingual signage, with Scotland's public face increasingly like that of the Irish Republic, and Northern Ireland becoming even more of "a place apart" than at present. When one takes into account BBC Alba and the recent emphasis on immersion education, both of which will certainly continue, and an expected increase in learners outwith Gaelic-medium schooling, the similarities with Ireland become quite striking. Even if the Scots plan no galvanising constitutional fiction about the "first national language", it is presumably no coincidence that the Education Minister is to be responsible for Gaelic. So it is likely that the language will be better off in an independent Scotland, although doubters will of course make the valid criticism that many of the expected benefits could — and, in fact, already are — being delivered under devolution. Indeed, growth from a low base is likely to attend either scenario, the key difference perhaps being the psychological effect of nationhood in softening Scotland's not inconsiderable strain of linguistic utilitarianism — since, as any child knows, nations have languages.

One can infer too that the fortunes of Scots would also enjoy an upturn under any SNP-led independent Administration. Although no specific promises are made, the logic of including a question on Scots in the Census unmistakably points in that direction. In this case, the reticence exhibited by the White Paper's authors may be the result of the ridicule that might attach itself to any concrete proposals. With sensitive development, much of it decidedly academic and unsexy, that will, over time, become less of a concern. At the moment, however, Scots is political in a way that Gaelic isn't, and there is no doubt that the more nationalist the Government, the better Scots will do.

Bring it on.

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Ivory Towers

Culture Minister Carál Ní Chuilín has confirmed in an answer to an Assembly Question (AQO 4843/11-15) that the Department is developing proposals for an Irish Language Academy. Among the tasks to come within its remit will be: making Irish more accessible to all; establishing a uniform spoken curriculum that provides consistency in content, teaching strategies, resources and assessment; providing support to the parents of Irish-medium children; and providing training, resources and quality assurance for Irish language classes.

Reading between the lines, that sounds as if aspects of Irish promotion currently dealt with by other organisations, both statutory and voluntary, will be amalgamated into the new body. The curriculum work, for example, is undertaken by the CCEA. Similarly, the phrase "more accessible to all" may mean "more accessible to non-Nationalists", which would suggest taking on part of Ultach Trust's remit.

Ultach Trust is one of a clutch of Northern organisations that may well go to the wall when new all-island funding arrangements come into force. It may be the case that the Minister has decided to provide a large-scale Irish-language organisation of her own to save some of the jobs and expertise that might otherwise be lost, and deflect some of the political criticism that would surely follow.

Regardless of the truth of that, those who follow Ulster Scots will be intrigued by the fact that the Minister appears to be contemplating for Irish what some Ulster-Scots activists have long wished for their speech variety — an "academy". More usually it is those Ulster-Scots campaigners who reflexively demand what Irish gets. Of course, the reason that they wanted an academy for Ulster Scots was probably to raise their status enough for them to impose their orthographic practices on an unsuspecting public, which would hardly apply in the case of Irish. They will be particularly annoyed, however, that Irish has got an academy before Ulster Scots, which only has a "ministerial advisory group".

It is an intriguing turn of events.

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

A Peculiar People

The BBC has revealed that the Ulster-Scots Agency spent £400,000 without DFP approval in 2009-10, including £126,000 in rent and service charges for its landmark offices, which include an unused tourist information bureau and sweetheart accommodation for voluntary-sector Ulster-Scots organisations staffed by more than their fair share of British-Israelites. It also spent £176,000 on its "chauvinistic and naive" newspaper The Ulster-Scot.

Bizarrely, the BBC article states that "The accounts of the north-south language body are traditionally late so the most recent figures are for 2010."

Not the first time that people misbehaving in Northern Ireland have been able to appeal to tradition, and probably not the last, either.

Friday, 1 November 2013

Tongues in Our Heads

The Guardian has an interesting article on the value of learning indigenous languages. It is part of the standard rhetoric of many people espousing utilitarian views of linguistic diversity that our children should learn Chinese instead of Welsh, but, as the article points out, there is nothing to prevent one learning both, and bilingual children get better results in English too.

The Blether Region was also struck by the generally sympathetic tenor of the appended comments. Generally when one reads articles on autochthonous languages in the online editions of Scottish or Northern Ireland newspapers, there is a mixture of positive and negative opinion, one of the key differences of course being that in Northern Ireland the split mirrors other differences to do with denomination and one's views on the constitution.

Indeed, although it's sometimes said with regard to Irish that "real Brits quite like it", it's clear that real English people like it even more.

Slegs vir Blankes

The News Letter reports that a DUP member of Down District Council is to boycott its new bilingual notepaper. Like a hardy US survivalist, William Walker has stocked up on the current English-only design and promised, when that runs out, to print his own rather than use the new version, which has the temerity to feature Irish alongside the English.

Not so long ago the Blether Region was at Glasgow Museum of Transport in its swish new home by the River Clyde. One display discussed the railways in apartheid South Africa. Although, notionally speaking, facilities such as waiting rooms were provided for both whites and blacks, in practice it was very often a case of whites only. Where that extended to bridges over the tracks, blacks simply had to chance it, since using a route intended for whites would risk beating or arrest. The upshot of this was that many people were needlessly killed or maimed when trains ploughed into them.

Mr. Walker seems to have something of an apartheid attitude himself, although in his case it is he who seems intent on breenging over the tracks. Indeed, the phrase "cutting off one's nose to spite one's face" springs to mind.

The Afrikaans for "white", incidentally, is blank — which, by a strange caprice of fate, is also an English word perfectly describing both his notepaper and his mind.

Fine Gall

Those taking an historical interest in the promotion of Irish since independence will know that one of the key reasons why its position remains so insecure is that although the State has been quite willing to have people learn the language, it has also been reluctant in the extreme to provide them with plausible reasons to speak it. It has failed to provide services, and even broadcasting provision for what is constitutionally the first national language was remarkably slow in materialising.

There has also been a rowing back on what the State expects of its own. Until the Fine Gael-Labour Government of the 1970s, civil servants were expected to have Irish. After that date, Irish-speaking candidates for posts or promotion received a 6% bonus vis-à-vis their competitors.

Now another Fine Gael-Labour coalition has done away with that too, instead settling on a rule that 6% of civil servants be able to speak Irish. One need hardly be an actuary to notice that there is an element of voodoo statistics in the decision, since a 6% boost to an individual candidate's interview or exam score is clearly not the same as decreeing that 6% of civil servants be able to speak Irish. Nor is this the first time that the present Government has backslid on the language: not so long ago Fine Gael even attempted to make it a voluntary subject for leaving certificate students. In the end it had to withdraw those plans after a public outcry.

It has for many years been the case that it would be difficult or impossible for someone who feels that the Irish language is fairly or very important to vote for a Northern Unionist party.

Now the same thing seems to be happening in the South.

Monday, 21 October 2013

The Fáinne War

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the verb impose as "to lay on, as something to be borne, endured, or submitted to; to inflict (something) on or upon; to levy or enforce authoritatively or arbitrarily".

The word was used at the UUP conference by former leader Tom Elliot in reference to the recent ruling of the Northern Ireland Assembly Commission that Ministers did not have the right to provide bilingual responses to Questions unless they were specifically requested by the MLA tabling them. The only Minister to whom this applied, as far as the Blether Region knows, was Caitríona Ruane (or, as a Unionist colleague once put it, the woman who "Ruane'd" our education system). Commissioning translations of questions is certainly a debatable use of resources, but at the same time it probably reflects the peculiar constraints that Northern Ireland puts on Irish — a slippery, organic language that, like a recalcitrant ball of clay or blob of jelly, is no sooner cornered at one seam than it leaks out at another. But does providing bilingual translations really constitute "imposing" anything on anyone? If one orders Chicken McNuggets at McDonald's, is a McFlurry simultaneously being imposed upon one because it is also on the menu? Indeed, that would certainly go a long way to explaining the current obesity epidemic, but the Blether Region haes its douts. Surely if people were being palmed off with something less than kosher, they would not be given the choice of whether to accept it, i.e. Ms Ruane's answers would have been Irish-only.

The ruling certainly provoked quite some debate — or quite some point-scoring, as is wont to be the case in Northern Ireland — as the comments appended to a recent Bel-Tel article on the subject by Liam Clarke confirm. The same was true of his Facebook feed, with one woman actually remarking that teaching Dublin's children Irish was a luxury, as so many of them grew up unable to pronounce "th".

Now, the prevalence of an interdental plosive /T/ in place of the expected /θ/ in Dublin English is directly attributable to language shift, whereby an originally Irish-speaking population substituted the closest approximation to the English fricative that they had in their existing Gaelic inventory of sounds.

As such, arguing that Irish should not be taught because working-class Dubs can't pronounce the fricative is like arguing that we can't revive Irish because we haven't finished killing it yet.

Friday, 18 October 2013

Hiding in Full View

The BBC has an interesting article on Gaelic place-names in Lochaber, which now form the subject of a new booklet issued by Scottish Natural Heritage. It is of course only right that Gaelic be properly recognised as a natural resource, just as the natural landscape is acknowledged as "heritage". Indeed, for somewhere like Northern Ireland, which, fracking aside, has few other natural resources, it may be the greatest one.

Many of the names in the booklet had to be researched by Ainmean-Àite na h-Alba, as Gaelic is recessive in the area (in the 2001 Census, fewer than 20% of people there could speak the language). The result is the fixing and recording of a rich store of oral tradition of which the place-names themselves form only part.

But what of those Gaelic names hiding in full view, as it were? In the Irish Republic, bilingual signage means that the Irish version of a name, or alternative to it, is immediately known, although of course not everyone will have enough Irish to understand it. On the other hand, in Scotland, and particularly Northern Ireland, most Celtic place-names exist only in ill-fitting English garb and, where known at all, can be subject to poetic mistranslation ("Dear Green Place", anyone?). Moreover, there are many in both places who would prefer the present situation to obtain permanently, with the vast majority shut out from any more intimate connection with their birthplace and a very few passing round their knowledge in book form as if it were something vaguely embarrassing.

Which, for some people, I suppose it is.

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Clearing Skies

David Ross in the Herald has an interesting article on Gaelic in the run-up to this week's Mòd in Paisley — generally reaching the same conclusion as the Blether Region that the language is no longer facing imminent oblivion and that each of the big four Scottish parties deserves some credit for the turnaround in its fortunes.

He also makes some salient points about Irish in Ireland:
"But Gaelic has long enjoyed cross-party support in Scotland and, indeed, across denominations. It was something Mary Robinson recognised during her visit in 1997, shortly before she stepped down as Irish president. She had come to Iona to mark the 1400th anniversary of the death of St Columba.

She said Ireland could learn from Scotland that, whereas Gaelic had never become the preserve of one religion or one political movement in Scotland, its linguistic first cousin to the west had long been identified with Catholicism and nationalism."
It is of course a cause of enduring sadness that Irish — and, indeed, Ulster Scots — is associated with one community and not the other, something that people from twa-leedit Scotland simply cannot understand. Blame for that state of affairs, which stresses the past while skirting over historical realities, lies on both sides of the house. By the same token, for both sides, learning Irish has the effect of encouraging moderation, pacifying troubled souls and, by extension, societies.

A pity that more people don't get to experience that peace first hand.

Monday, 7 October 2013


The Blether Region very much enjoyed last night's BBC2 NI programme on Lord Castlereagh, even if the subtly Englified tones of John Bew did grate a little. The handsome hour-long documentary afforded a rare opportunity to examine in detail the life story of a politician who, Dr. Bew convincingly argued, was an unjustly neglected local boy made good. The production values were high, with on-location filming not only in Northern Ireland, but the Republic, England and various parts of mainland Europe. It could have been, and one hopes will be, shown on BBC4.

In fact, the Blether Region could see little reason for complaint.

That is, until it saw who had pit up the siller for the programme — the Ulster-Scots Broadcast Fund. Although the documentary informed us that Castlereagh had an accent, it remains a fact that he was a politician, not a dialect poet. What it all had to do with Ulster Scots is anyone's guess, but various predilections might be suspected: the definition of "Ulster-Scot" as an ethnic-cum-religious category long after it has ceased to be one; the seeking after right-wing friends who support "Ulster" and whose reactionary behaviour, in a welcome side-effect, makes it look good; and an obsession with history as the means to project today's Manichaean political struggles back into the past.

And the end result is to do nothing for Scots while subsidising the BBC and thus enabling it to send even more of the NI licence fee to London.

The Serial Misquoting of Samuel Thomson

Among his many other achievements, George Bernard Shaw, a great Irish writer and something of a wag, popularised the quaint suggestion that the humble word fish should be re-spelt as the fantastical ghoti: "gh" as in tough, "o" as in women (speakers of Scottish Standard English for whom woman and women are homophones may have trouble with that one), and "ti" as in nation.

The point, of course, was to draw attention to the fact that English orthography is an appalling mishmash of influences, with many rules specific to one part of the vocabulary or one part of a word, and — despite significant developments in pronunciation — not a great deal of change to the basics since the medieval period.

Though Shaw's intention was satire, from a logical point of view there is of course no reason why fish should not be spelt ghoti — which, in a roundabout way, brings us to Samuel Thomson.

Modern Scots, like Modern Irish, is a polycentrically codified language, where one spelling does for more than one pronunciation, depending on dialect. For most of the Modern Scots period, the vowel variously realised /ɑ:/, /ɔ:/ and /a(:)/ was spelt "au" initially and medially and "aw" finally. Then, as far as the Blether Region can make out, in the twentieth century, and probably after WWII, some writers of those dialects (Northern and Insular) where the sound was pronounced /a(:)/ began to suggest that it be spelt "aa" — very likely under the influence of Standard English sound-to-letter correspondences, which had led them to believe that "au" or "aw" could not be interpreted as /a(:)/.

This was not a good idea, since the reform, inspired by the mistaken belief that "au" and "aw" were not pan-dialectal forms suitable for use in a scheme of polycentric codification, actually weakened the existing polycentrism of Scots. In practice, Insular and Northern writers were much more likely to use the new digraph, while most others stuck with the "au" and "aw" familiar from the traditional literature.

Although the Northern and Insular pronunciation was also present in another peripheral dialect, Ulster Scots, at the time that was not an issue, since, as it happened, almost no one was actually writing in it. Then, in the 1990s, Ulster Scots was revived, and revived by people who were not only ignorant but had an agenda. They believed, or, more likely, affected to believe, that Ulster Scots was not Scots. Thus they adopted the "aa" digraph too, although, what with them not being linguists, their actual employment of it was somewhat inconsistent.

Readers should be in no doubt, however, that "aa" is not a part of traditional Ulster-Scots orthography, and is not used by any "rhyming weaver".

Not if one believes the BBC, however, for the corporation's website carries a grossly misleading version of Samuel Thomson's poem "To a Hedgehog", which includes the words "caad",  "faan" and "aa". What Thomson actually wrote was "ca'd",  "fa'n" and "a'".

In all likelihood, the work was dictated from a printed volume of his poetry and transcribed by someone influenced by contemporary revived Ulster Scots. Other websites have copied and pasted it from the BBC, including Electric Scotland, which discusses Jennifer Orr's edition of Thomson's correspondence.

Frank Ferguson's mammoth anthology of Ulster-Scots writing, while a fine volume, is not the best-edited book. Although it does not make the mistake with "ca'd", etc., it prints "supercilious" in place of "superstitious". So where is one to go if one wishes to quote Thomson's poem correctly?

Well, for many writers one can turn to the Ulster-Scots Poetry Project, which carries facsimile scans of the Ulster-Scots poets, but that's hardly an answer to the problem of other folk cutting and pasting faulty transcriptions in a game of digital Chinese whispers. What needs to be done, of course, is for some Ulster-Scots fund or other to produce properly proofed diplomatic versions of those scans, which, apart from their value to literary studies, would enable corpus linguists to study such matters as — dare one say it — traditional spelling.

In truth, linguists have already been waiting many years for those diplomatic versions. Let's hope they don't have to wait too much longer.

Monday, 30 September 2013

Speaking Scots unto Nations

The Bel-Tel has revealed that the newly redesigned Irish passport will feature verses by the Ulster poet James Orr (1770-1816), who was forced into exile in America after the failure of the 1798 uprising and able to return only after the declaration of an amnesty.

Presumably Orr's physical-force Republicanism was thought an effective antidote to the expected complaints about the inclusion of matter relating to Northern Ireland — or perhaps the Irish Government simply wanted to quote from a piece by the best of the weaver poets.

Whatever the truth, those familiar with Scots will be hard pressed to pin its writing down to Ulster.

Written in Winter

Tune — "Humours of Glen"

The green warl's awa, but the white ane can charm them
Wha skait on the burn, or wi' settin' dogs rin:
The hind's dinlin' han's, numb't we snaw-baws, to warm them,
He claps on his hard sides, whase doublets are thin.

How dark the hail show'r mak's yon vale, aince sae pleasin'!
How laigh stoops the bush that's owre-burden't wi' drift!
The icicles dreep at the half-thow't house-easin',
When blunt the sun beams frae the verge o' the lift.

The hedge-hauntin' blackbird, on ae fit whyles restin',
Wad fain heat the tither in storn-rufflet wing;
The silly sweel't sheep, ay the stifflin' storm breastin',
Are glad o' green piles at the side o' the spring.

What coof fir'd that shot? were you no far to blame, man,
To pierce the poor Hare that was starvin' before:
Gif she wham ye court were like ane I'll no name, man,
Her fine han' wad spurn ye, distin't sae wi' gore.

This night wi' the lass that I hope will be kin' soon,
Wi' Sylvia, wha charms me, a wee while I'll stap:
Her e'e is as clear as the ice the moon shines on,
As gentle her smile as the snaw-flakes that drap.

Perhaps she's now plannin', to pit a restriction
Upon my profusion on niest new-years night,
To help some poor fam'lie on beds o' affliction,
Without food or fuel, attendants or light.

Perhaps, singin' noo the dirge I tak' pride in,
She thinks on the last morn, wi' pity an' dread —
How the spait crush't the cots — how Tam brak his leg slidin',
An' herds in the muir fand the poor pedlar dead.

'Tis guidness mak's beauty. The face ne'r was lo'esome,
That weepsna whare woe is, and smilesna wi' glee. —
If sympathy's strange to the saft female bosom,
Its want's no made up by a bright cheek, or e'e.

Friday, 27 September 2013

Language Wrongs

Mark Devenport (or "wee Mark Devenpoort" as the Blether Region once heard the late David Ervine refer to him) has an interesting article about the new "supercouncils" over on the BBC website. Tensions between the two largest parties in the Stormont Executive may yet mean that the new councils never get off the ground, but for the time being let's assume that they do.

Mark Devenport's focus is on a clause in the Local Government Bill stipulating that votes on a yet to be revealed subset of controversial issues should be defined in secondary legislation as requiring weighted majorities. His take on it is clear from the subheading in the article — "Flags" — but there is of course another issue that has proven equally controversial, and, indeed, is often equated with that of flags: language. If votes on the promotion of Irish were included in the proposed schedule of disputed areas through secondary legislation, progress could be blocked entirely, even in comparative Republican heartlands.

It is surely one of the most bizarre aspects of Northern Ireland that linguistic rights can routinely be subject to democratic or communal veto. The origin of that veto lies in the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement itself, which mandates certain levels of cross-community support for Stormont votes on which a "petition of concern" has been submitted. Another part of the agreement — laid down in law in section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 — outlaws discrimination against individuals on the grounds of religion or political belief, among other factors. The trouble with language is that there is only so much the individual can do.  Real language shift, perhaps even effective language maintenance, requires the support of the state.

Supporters of Irish in Northern Ireland already see the pernicious influence of communal politics on attempts to promote Irish in local government in the form of section 11 of the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) (Northern Ireland) Order 1995, which requires public consultation on street signs in a language other than English. Bilingual signage everywhere else in the world — indeed, state-backed bilingualism in general — is about respect for the minority language. When someone wishes to have a bilingual English-Irish street name in Northern Ireland, however, Irish can be blocked, even where a majority of residents support bilingualism, as long as the blocking minority is large enough — a perversely unsatisfactory situation. The blocking minority need merely allege that the presence of Irish on a street name makes their own neighbourhood into a "cold house" for them: instead of pointing out that such prejudice is irrational, the state indulges the irrationality.

This of course stands in stark contrast to what happens with Government Departments at Stormont. The DUP negotiated an Executive veto on controversial issues at the time of the Saint Andrews Agreement, and may soon use it to block the passage of an Irish language Bill. Yet the backsliding on commitments to Irish inside Departments that change hands each time the d'Hondt process is run is subject to no particular veto. Indeed, the fact that such backsliding has been allowed to progress so far may be one reason that the Northern Ireland Executive was unable to agree on its input into the UK's report on the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages.

If Stormont is ever again suspended, these issues will have to be discussed.