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.

Scots and Scotsness

Those with long memories will have noted that the Scottish Census figure for Scots-speakers published the other day (1.54 million) was remarkably similar to what Ian Máté came up with for GRO Scotland back in 1996. As such, it may suggest sociolectal stability rather than arrested language shift. What is needed now is a follow-up study to determine what self-designation (and, indeed, non-designation) as a Scots-speaker actually means to different age groups in different areas.

The Blether Region was also struck by the relative absence of reporting on the BBC website about Scots. Gaelic merited its own article in both English and Gaelic, while our Lowland tongue, well, didn't. The reason for this is obvious and goes to the heart of the supposed "independence" of the BBC. If Scots is a language, and a widely spoken one at that, the BBC should be providing at least one radio station and one television station exclusively in Scots. There will be very little appetite for that at Pacific Quay. Far better, from a BBC perspective, to farm out pan-UK (or "English", as one might also say) productions to Scotland and Wales, with a wee logo at the end to tell folk that the money (or more likely a proportion of it) went to the Celtic fringe.

A further issue is national identity. Over 62% of those living in Scotland feel that they are "Scottish only", and 18% "Scottish and British". The combined figure is similar to but higher than those produced for England and Wales, and much higher than that in Northern Ireland, where national identity can often be seen as a binary choice and which in many ways remains "a place apart". If the Yes campaign can mobilise as little as four-fifths of those "Scottish only" voters to draw the obvious conclusion about how they should vote next year, independence could be just around the corner.

As an aguisín, the Blether Region could not possibly pass up the opportunity to mention the Scotsman, which took perverse pleasure in pointing out that twice as many people in Scotland speak Polish as Gaelic, as if these things were in any way equivalent from a public-policy perspective. Thank you, Scotsman, for furnishing the Blether Region with a further reason, as if any were necessary, not to read your newspaper.

Thursday, 26 September 2013


The results of the language questions in the Scottish Census have finally been published, with the key headline — and unbelievably good news — being that there are only 1,000 fewer Gaelic-speakers than last time. By the time of the next Census, if there is one, there will almost certainly have been an increase. People can argue about the quality of the speakers (Gaelic-medium education is now expanding beyond the language's traditional heartlands, and there are now a fair few adult learners among the total), but it seems like a corner has been turned and that Gaelic has been saved (remember that the last Census recorded a fall of 11%).

Devolution has played a part in this, both by commission and omission (one of the first signs that Gaelic's fortunes were not to be wholly dismal was when Michael Forsyth, a Thatcherite Conservative Minister, managed to find some funds for it a generation ago in an attempt to assuage the forces of nationalism). It is the reality of Scots ruling Scotland, however, that has brought about this sea-change, with a language Act passed in 2005, and a TV station established  in 2008.

The news on Scots and national identity are also worthy of comment, but for the 17-year-old who learned Irish instead of Scottish Gaelic because he was so ashamed about wanting to do something in which few Scots had much interest, this is an emotional day.

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

The Sound of Bow Bells

BBC Scotland reports on the influence of Cockney — and particularly EastEnders — on the Glasgow accent. And it's even been picked up by the Guardian, with an odd focus on "social union" grafted on that makes Northern Ireland point-scoring look restrained.

It is in fact hardly surprising that Glaswegian appears to be taking this route, since for every person for whom Scots is a resolutely national affair, there is at least one other who prizes it mainly for its sociolectal value. Such individuals don't look up to MacDiarmid (or even "back to Dunbar") but to Billy Connolly (at least until he showed how out of touch he'd got with the "wee pretendy parliament" comments).

Scots of course has a host of examples of historic l-vocalisation in words such as aw, baw and faw, but to that category have been added many others in line with current "Estuary" speech. A good example is provided by Adele's recent and much-lauded James Bond theme song, in which "Skyfall" rhymes with "tumble", the final consonant of both words being replaced by a vowel — somewhat belying the evening-dress sophistication intended, one might add. Glasgow folk may be particularly prone to following south-east England in this regard, since they have a "dark" [l] — quite unlike the "slender" [l] that Hiberno-English has inherited from Gaelic, to name one example. Thus a present-day Glaswegian might pronounce "milk bottle" without any [l] sound whatsoever.

Another change is the replacement of [θ] and [ð] by [f] and [v], respectively (as in "yoof" culture), a phenomenon presumably reinforced by approximation on the part of the large number of immigrants in London (according to the latest Census, "white UK" residents are now in a minority there). Although the Blether Region, being something of a fuddy-duddy, deprecates such innovations, it is a serial recipient of texts in Glaswegian, including such space-saving spellings as "wot" (or "wit") and "wif".

For the benefit of lexicographers, it might be worth pointing out that "wif", despite its Cockney pedigree, is a distinctively Scottish form, since the final consonant is voiceless, indicating that it derives not from the English [wıð] but from the Scottish [wıθ], where the final consonant is a re-insertion. Similarly, "wit" clearly derives from Scots "whit".

As such, both forms are surely candidates for inclusion in future supplements to the SND.

A not-so-Cockney phenomenon is the alleged disappearance of the Glaswegian [r], where replacement by an alveolar tap after vowels is assumed to herald the disappearance of the sound in such environments altogether. However, the Blether Region believes that the alveolar tap derives not from aping England but rather arises organically from the replacement of medial [t] by a glottal stop before an originally trilled [r] — try saying watter with a glottal stop to experience it — with the practice then extended elsewhere. Other environments where the [r] is dropped or assimilated, such as in further, are both limited and obviously not of English origin (it's also attested in three).

It may be relevant to mention here that the loss of post-vocalic [r] is also a feature of some Dublin speech (where it presumably really is of English origin) but is recessive (rhoticity being a shibboleth of resurgent Irishness), showing that change needn't all be one-way. Indeed, the undoubted fact that some working-class Scots no longer distinguish between [x] and [k] is likely to raise the [r] to the same status in Scotland too.

So, life in the auld quean yet, then.

The Twelfth of Never

Every 12 July thousands of Presbyterians all over Northern Ireland and the border counties of the Republic march in memory of William of Orange, the man who presided over the introduction of the Penal Laws against their ancestors. Those laws included a ban on Presbyterians holding public office, a ban on Presbyterians studying at Trinity College Dublin (then the only university on the island), and the mandatory non-recognition of Presbyterian marriages, making the offspring of such unions illegitimate for inheritance purposes. Why do they march? Because they have forgiven old Willem comprehensively — on the rather dubious grounds that he must have been a nice man, as he also oppressed Catholics.

And, we now know, that's not the only bit of revisionism in the Manichaean Weltanschauung of the Orange. For Nuala McKeever has turned up a tasty titbit of gossip in the Bel-Tel.
"A while back on a tour of [Clifton Street Orange Hall] some interested people were shown a small museum on the top floor. Among the heavy oil portraits of be-sashed elders, they discovered minutes of an Orange Lodge meeting, that took place in that very building many years ago, written in Irish!"
Perhaps they recorded a meeting of Oidhreacht na hÉireann LOL 1303, the private British-Israelite lodge founded by William McGrath of TARA fame and Kincora infamy. Its meetings, known to have been a regular occurrence in the building, were attended by a select gang of credulous acolytes including McGrath's perennial sidekick Clifford Smyth. But LOL 1303 mis-spelt the Irish on its own banner. More likely the minutes are older still, from a period where it was not yet necessary to affect disregard for the traditional culture of one's native land to prove the pH of one's sectarian bile.

But don't go looking for those minutes any time soon. For Ms McKeever's article reveals that they have now been locked away from the prying eyes of any wishy-washy cultural post-modernists.

Wat leuk, as William of Orange might say.