Thursday, 18 December 2014

Madness in Omagh

The Ulster Herald reports on the language policy of the new Fermanagh and Omagh District Council, which "will see the new supercouncil embrace both Irish and English on letterheads, signage and on vehicles such as bin lorries".

The Blether Region thinks that the new council got it right. Unionists on the shadow body had backed a trilingual arrangement including Ulster Scots, but there have never been any Scots-speaking communities in Fermanagh — and few enough in Tyrone — and in any case some of the versions of the local dialect used in Omagh before have been ludicrously offensive to native speakers. Their intervention seems, as so often with the leid on this side of the Sheuch, to have been a calculated water-muddying exercise.

That wasn't the only daftness, however. One section of the article caught the Blether Region's eye and can't be left without comment.
"During the meeting, Sinn Féin stated that the party's preferred position was using the Irish language only on signage [...] agreeing to the inclusion of English as a compromise."
While that may have been said mid-flyte, arguing that signs should be Irish-only is every bit as bad as arguing that the language should be excluded. English-speakers have human rights too, after all. Not only that, but doing so confirms every cliché about Irish being symbolic and used mainly as a territorial marker (in this case, marking ownership of the council), as well as making it far less likely that progress will be made by language activists in areas farther east in which those with Irish-speaking relatives form a distinct minority. Indeed, since most Nationalists are monoglot English-speakers, one sure result of an Irish-only policy would be to make many of them line up behind its Unionist opposite.

People who use the language in such a way are addicted to conflict and need to have a long, hard think.

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Human Rights or Conflict Management?

The High Court has dismissed an appeal against Belfast City Council's decision not to allow the erection of bilingual street signs despite an absolute majority of residents supporting the move.

This is disappointing for several reasons. First, it maintains a superfluous democratic test in something that is obviously a human-rights issue. Secondly, even when it does so, it is basically undemocratic. As the Belfast Telegraph put it:
"It is understood that out of 92 eligible residents 52 [57% of residents, or 98% of respondents] confirmed they wanted Irish signs, with only one opposed.
However, the remaining 39 did not respond to the survey."
The requirement for a weighted majority or minimum turnout, while having some currency when applied to the internal (constitutional) workings of organisations, is a rare bird indeed when it comes to elections. The only other instance that the Blether Region can recall was the 1979 referendum on Scottish devolution, which is now widely regarded as having thereby been rigged. Odd that such rules seem to be applied only against Nationalists. If they were instituted in England, one wonders how many elections for mayors or crime commissioners would be regarded as valid — or, for that matter, local councils.

The bizarre gerrymandering of requiring a weighted majority sneaks through because of the wishy-washy wording of section 11 of the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) (Northern Ireland) Order 1995, which requires that councils "have regard to any views on the matter expressed by the occupiers of premises in that street" — but without laying down how they should do it. As far as the Blether Region is aware, no Nationalist-majority council moves the goalposts by requiring a weighted majority or minimum turnout; by adopting a policy that two-thirds of respondents should be in favour, Belfast effectively does both. In any case, a weighted majority is clearly a measure not of demand but of antipathy. If demand were being measured, a much lower percentage would be regarded as admissible, perhaps 5% or 10%. Catering for minority languages, after all, is always about the minority.

The Blether Region hopes that Nationalist councils will now go ahead and reduce their own criteria below 50% in order to encourage the courts to make a binding determination on what is fair.

While the Unionist reaction to bilingual signage is of course predictable, the Blether Region has been taken aback by the sophistical contortions of the Alliance Party, which takes a confrontational and doctrinaire attitude to gay cakes (remember: the whole incident may have been staged) while failing the equality test abysmally with regard to Irish. On balance, the Blether Region is in favour of gay cakes too, but that support is tempered by the knowledge that an evangelical Christian baker asked to craft icing in support of gay marriage may feel that he is being asked not to tolerate something but to lend it his active support. It is clearly a borderline case. It seems that the Alliance Party is willing aggressively to promote equality issues shared with England while treating those of the Celtic fringe as a sectarian breach of the peace (and yes, believe it or not, they do actually call it "sectarian").

It is an odd sort of concern for shared space that predicates itself on the exclusion of someone's language from public life — and one obviously cooked up at some remove from the mainstream, multi-layered Britishness that its supporters apparently so admire.

Thursday, 4 December 2014

Language, Sectarianism — and Dictionaries

Ian Malcolm has an interesting piece over at the Belfast Telegraph on the troubled Protestant relationship with Irish, tracing his co-religionists' alienation to infiltration of the language movement by Republicans in the years leading up to the Easter Rising and pointing out that some iconic Nationalist figures such as Daniel O'Connell were in favour of a wholesale switch to English.

The word "piece", interestingly enough, is thought by some scholars to be of Gaulish, i.e. Celtic, origin, cognate with Irish cuid and thus neatly demonstrating the difference between P- and Q-Celtic.

That could hardly be said of another word chosen by Malcolm himself:
"What really interests my students is what I call 'living Irish' - that's the language that's around us all in our everyday lives. My own favourite word is 'skitter', an epithet often applied to me when I was a wean.
It literally translates as 's****'. You'll also encounter it in the context 'I've a quare dose of the skitters', something one might endure after an ill-advised feed of curry and yoghurt."
The Concise Ulster Dictionary is very clear that skitter is of Scots and English dialectal origin. The Irish equivalent of the word, sciotar, makes no appearance in the magnum opus compiled by Father Dinneen during breaks from his detective work. There is the verb sciotaim, meaning clip or shorten, while a woman in a skimpy dress is termed a sciotóg. There is also the past participle sciotuighthe and sciotán, a word for a dart. But sciotar there is none. Irish influence seems to be limited to reinforcement. There is no need to invoke the substrate when the word is so well attested in more obvious places. Indeed, even if we had no other evidence to go on, the fact that, as Malcolm accepts, the word has something to do with excrement strongly suggests a Germanic origin. It is true that the word is included in Ó Dónaill's 1977 dictionary, but then so is that other Scots and English dialectal word craic.

That's not to say that there is no Irish influence on Ulster English. Indeed, there is rather a lot. Only yesterday evening the Blether Region watched a programme about the campaigning newspaper editor Jim McDowell in which the film's subject mentioned someone who, if its memory serves it correctly, "had a drop on him" — a clear lift from the Irish. Just as in France, however, few words of Celtic origin are heard in everyday speech — even if the French still count in twenties and talk about quatre-vingt-dix, while their Swiss and Belgian neighbours favour the dourly Latin nonante.

The skitter episode, on the other hand, makes the Blether Region want to say, "Would you ever use a dictionary, y'ould skitter, ye!"

Just to prove that it can annoy everyone equally, the Blether Region reports the following. Last week it attended a very informative lecture by Dr. Jacob King of Ainmean-Àite na h-Alba, who had an interesting tale to tell about the town of Kilwinning in Ayrshire.

In the olden days it was common to use hypocoristic forms of saints' names incorporating a possessive pronoun, an Irish example being Mo-Báeth. Although Gaelic has not been spoken in the area around Kilwinning for many hundreds of years, research revealed that the original version of the name had been preserved in the speech of some of the last Gaels on the Isle of Arran. Like Mo-Báeth, it involved a possessive pronoun, this time for the second person singular. Soon after bilingual signs were erected at the local train station welcoming people to "Cill D'Fhinnein", Ainmean-Àite na h-Alba was summarily called to account for the name that it had researched and asked to provide an explanation of the favoured etymology. Kilwinning is in a part of the west of Scotland where sectarianism lingers even if Gaelic doesn't, and more than one local had interpreted the Gaelic name as "Kill da Fenian"!

And with that the Blether Region is off to eat its piece, or as one might say in Irish, "Ith do chuid" ...