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.