Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Making the Grade

The DUP's Peter Weir has asked an interesting pair of questions on candidates for GCSE and A-level language examinations. Though his exact intentions remain a mystery, it is likely that they were connected with communal politics, as for some reason Irish merited its own AQW.

The overall picture, for someone who feels that the learning of languages is important, is a depressing one. Entries for Irish GCSE fell from 2,482 in 2006-07 to 1,787 in 2010-11, while over the same period those for other languages fell from 15,130 to 11,267. This of course reflects the fact that languages are no longer compulsory at GCSE.

The picture is not as drastic at A level, however, since at that grade studying a language was always elective. Entries for other languages fell only slightly over the same period, from 1,294 to 1,199, while for Irish they actually rose, from 254 to 319. In fact, at A level, only French and Spanish get more entries. Although the statistics do not cover opera-lovers attending night classes, in 2007-08 and 2009-10 no pupils sat an A level in Italian, a major European language with a distinguished literature.

As the 3,000-odd children in Northern Ireland attending Irish-medium education dwarf the figures for A level, it is likely that Irish is the leading non-ethnic language in which fluency is actually achieved — few pupils studying only to GCSE will go on to achieve fluency in a language, while gold fáinní are commonly awarded to pupils at IM primaries.

Any satisfaction brought by that knowledge is of course tempered by the fact that the overall number of fluent linguists in Northern Ireland is so small.

Wednesday, 16 January 2013

Irvine Welsh and the Roman à Clef

The Blether Region hopes it isn't being too controversial if it says that Irvine Welsh's dialect tour de force Trainspotting works better as a film than as a book. The plotting of the cinema version is tighter and better paced, and while its cutting of pure poverty with the chalk of glamour is less challenging, it makes for more interesting art — as well as being, of course, much closer to the reality of being poor in Edinburgh.

One sub-story in Trainspotting never made it into the film — indeed, it may come to those who watch it before picking up the book as something of a surprise: a lengthy excursion into Standard English in which a character revenges himself on a dying enemy by drugging his small child and making him up to make it look like he has killed him in a sex crime. The Blether Region found the episode laboured and in poor taste.

Welsh's subsequent tryptych of novellas, Ecstasy, subtitled "three tales of chemical romance", goes yet further in the same vein, including Freddy Royle, a character who is both a paedophile and a necrophiliac.

It was at this point that the Blether Region ceased to read anything by Welsh. Apart from the tedious, no-holds-barred re-spelling of dialect that in the final analysis doesn't differ that much from Standard English, the concentration on another drug suggested an early surrender to formula, while the fantastical toilet detail of the sexual perversion is almost embarrassingly juvenile.

And yet recently the Blether Region found itself thinking of Ecstasy again, and wanting to re-read it.

For Freddy Royle is not merely a pervert. He is also a television entertainer who has raised millions for hospital charities.

In short, he is almost certainly based on Jimmy Savile.

Back in 1996, when Ecstasy came out, the Blether Region had no inkling that such an extreme character, exhibiting such wide-ranging perversion, might possibly be based on a real person, let alone a household name. And while it found it strange when Jimmy Savile claimed in an interview that he had remained unmarried simply because no woman would tolerate his cigar habit, until last year's revelations it thought no more of it.

Although there may have been some libertine aristocrat or other in an earlier age who was a more prolific deviant, Savile may well have been the greatest sexual abuser of modern times. One cannot achieve such a dubious distinction without people being aware; the known victims alone number in their hundreds. Nor can one do so without one's activities enjoying, if not outright protection, at least a degree of tolerance.

Someone, after all, must have told Welsh.

Wednesday, 9 January 2013

Mapping the Other

Further to mapping Northern Ireland's Scots-speaking areas based on 2011 Census data, the Blether Region was interested to compare the result with a similar council-based map for religion (Protestant or Catholic) on the Endgame in Ulster blog. The maps confirm a strong correlation between language and religion (though it should be stressed that this is at the level of community rather than individual). Apart from the general observation that the local authority areas in which there are more Protestants than Catholics are more numerous than those with above-average percentages for knowledge of Scots, two main differences emerge:
  • As previously noted, Moyle is majority Catholic and Nationalist but one of the strongest Scots-speaking areas.
  • The influence of the Ulster English can be seen in a Scots-free Protestant-majority area along the Lagan Valley and into northern County Armagh (an area later unfortunately dubbed "murder triangle"), where English Planters were assigned a pocket of O'Neill land. Over time, that seems to have combined with the influence of English as a mercantile and administrative language to eliminate Scots from the Belfast commuter belt, in County Down bringing the tongue to the brink of extinction.

Understanding Branded

Returning in a taxi from Great Victoria Street bus station at the weekend, the Blether Region was intrigued to spot a snippet of Dutch on a gable-end "welcoming" people to Sandy Row. It turns out that the text is a translation of a well-known quote attributed to Prince William of Orange, "Let ambition fire thy mind".

Unfortunately, as often happens with non-linguists, the designers of the mural seem to have grossly underestimated the difficulty involved in translating from one language to another, with the result that, rather than paying £30 for a professional job, they appear to have invested the sum of their hopes in the dubious facility of Google Translate.

The "Dutch" on the mural is "Laat ambitie brand uw verstand", which, leaving to one side an additional error in word order and the use of the polite form for "thy", one might back-translate as "Let ambition conflagration your understanding".

Those few Dutch natives to have come face to face with the (admittedly attractive) wall have been damning in their criticism.

Miek on the Road, for example, says "Haha.... volgens mij hebben ze gewoon de Google vertaalmachine gebruikt!", while Paul Beentjes says "Eigenlijk niet te bevatten wat dit betekent."

Me neither.

An Erosion of Biscuitness

Amid the ongoing ructions anent flag-flying, it's easy to forget that differences between Northern Ireland's two communities find their most frequent expression not in such abstract symbols but in personal linguistic choices within English, the two most cited examples perhaps being Derry/Londonderry (albeit exaggerated) and the various names for the polity itself. While "Northern Ireland" is considered fairly neutral, and "the province" may be most popular among politicians from Great Britain, Nationalists often speak of "the north of Ireland" (note the lower case), Republicans of "the Six Counties", sometimes cheekily (or, indeed, humourlessly) adding the adjective "occupied", and many Unionists simply of "Ulster" or "the country". Such differences put broadcasters in something of a bind. Where no accepted "neutral" term exists, as with Derry/Londonderry, strict rules must be applied. For that reason, the BBC stipulates that the first mention of the Maiden City in each report is "Londonderry" and all subsequent mentions "Derry".

Indeed, these dichotomies extend even to the culinary field, since what in Great Britain are called "Empire biscuits" are in Northern Ireland known as "German biscuits". It transpires that the latter is an older term for the popular comestibles, which have their ultimate origin in the Teutonic Spitzbuben. At some point during the First World War they were re-christened in a move reminiscent of, but more enduring than, the "freedom fries" beloved of American neo-cons.

Though the exact reasons why supermarkets have a different name for the product in Northern Ireland are matters of conjecture, it is a fairly safe bet to assume that it's because it was felt that the biscuits might, metaphorically speaking, stick in the craws of many Nationalists otherwise.

The moral of the story is simple. Stop protesting outside City Hall and get stuck into Tesco (in a democratic and peaceful manner, of course).