Wednesday, 23 December 2015

A Scholar of Bigotry

Former Ulster Unionist leader Tom Elliott has complained about an Irish-language primary being moved out of portakabins and into a disused building formerly occupied by a controlled secondary school.

His territorially tinged reasoning has been roundly criticised by Chris Donnelly at Slugger O'Toole, who points out that he has failed even to consider that the sustainability criteria might be different for primary and post-primary schools.

The intervention will also hardly go down well with current UUP leader Mike Nesbitt, who recently called for Unionists to tone down their attacks on Irish culture.

More worryingly, Elliott's non-arguments have been taken up in an editorial by the ever more stridently Unionist Belfast Telegraph, which headlines its opinion piece with a plea to "hear the reasoning" behind the Education Minister's decision to merge one school and move another into its building.

The odd thing here is that the headline suggests the newspaper may not have bothered trying to find out before going to print.

Not to take into account that one school is a primary is, well, an "elementary" error.

Monday, 7 December 2015

The Irish Do Not Know What Nationalism Is

The Blether Region caught a few snippets of Ireland with Simon Reeve the other week, an experience that led to something of an epiphany. It is clear that the Irish do not know what nationalism is, with a fair chunk of the population believing that rejecting nationalism is rejecting a) political violence (a recessive tactic rather than an ideology) or b) an overweening Catholic Church (although, ironically enough, that ain't what it once was either). Nor was the feeling limited to zany liberal revisionists such as the man who said that Ireland must become "pan-global", since an equally zany person working for a conservative Catholic radio station also opined that rejecting Catholicism meant rejecting one's "identity".

The number of Catholics in the world, by the way, is estimated at 1.2 billion.

The real loser from this mush of confusion is Irish. Indeed, an acquaintance of the Blether Region hailing from the South but living in the North even stated that he supported the promotion of the language, although he did not like nationalism (which in his case was likely to mean violence). This, although promoting Irish is surely an example of — peaceful and constitutional — nationalism, and the person in question presumably did not think that his part of Ireland should be subsumed back into the United Kingdom.

For its part, the Blether Region is inclined to view nationalism as the foundation of representative government, the engine of democratic revolution in 1848 and after, and the basic bond that inclines us to accept the result of a lost election. It is a misconstruction to believe that this necessarily involves ethnic purity; Abraham Lincoln's policies against the supposed right of US states to maintain and expand the immoral system of slavery were also known as "nationalism" in their day. E pluribus unum and all that. Scotland, which, contrary to what many Irish Nationalists would like to believe, has two major and one minor surviving ethnicities, is an Old World example of a national identity built on citizenship. Indeed, it is for just that reason that Scotland is far more likely to become independent than, say, Wales.

Evidence of how the kind of voluptuous self-doubt described above is killing Irish is furnished by the Irish Times in an article entitled "Death knell tolling for Irish as community language", which predicts that, within 10 years, there may be no Irish-speaking communities left. The culprit, in the view of Professor Brian Ó Curnáin, is "an 'ignoriat', reflected in elements of academia, the media, State administration and politics, which ignores a 'series of detailed and high-quality research' showing evidence of the death of the language in the Gaeltacht." In journalism the basic form of such misinformation is articles by click-bait polemicists making one of two false claims: a) that Irish has survived thus far and will thus doubtless do so in future; or b) that it is already too late to save the language.

The message that friends of linguistic diversity, and, dare I say it, of nationalism, need to spread is that nothing, good or bad, is inevitable. In the case of Irish, the future lies in our hands.

Friday, 4 December 2015

Lost an Fund

There was an interesting article in the Guardian last month about whether the Glasgow dialect was being eroded owing to the influence of television and modern life.  As with all such popular expositions of detailed academic research, in this case that of Jane Stuart-Smith, it runs the risk of raising more questions than it answers.

However, one of the key points seems to be that the partial loss of rhoticity in Glaswegian is, far from a new development, a remarkably old — and therefore rather stable — feature of the dialect.  The main contributor is the emergence of a pharyngealised /r/, presumably owing to glottalisation of a preceding /t/, although another, even older feature is assimilation of /r/ in words such as "further". Such assimilation is also recorded in Ulster (Robinson's 1997 grammar lists the form thie for "three"). According to Stuart-Smith, there is even partial loss of rhoticity in a 1916 Wilhelm Doegen recording of a Scots POW

Of course, those familiar with Duncan Macrae reciting "The Wee Cock Sparra" ("tho he wasne his farra") might have been somewhat sceptical of the hypothesis about a sudden erosion of Glaswegian rhoticity in the first place. Why it has not led to a much more thoroughgoing loss is anyone's guess, but it may be to do with the fact that the phenomenon only happens in one of the (linked) registers available to residents of the city.

A much more dramatic erosion, however, is mentioned only obliquely, as if it were understandably of lesser interest.
"You can hear how he uses lots of Scots vocabulary, but if you listen very carefully, you will also hear that he has almost no "r" sounds in some words like "father"."
Clicking the link reveals a recording of the story of the Prodigal Son, read fluently in traditional Scots (the word turns out to be "faither").  A note on the speaker states: "His mother tongue is Scottish, views his learning of English as an 'additional language'." The Blether Region is unsure which version is being read; it is not William Wye Smith. It may be a Bonaparte translation, or the speaker's own.

One wonders how many Glasgow people would be able to reproduce the Doegen recording today. Certainly not all.

Thursday, 19 November 2015

Ulster Scots, Hay

Having reason to research something in a dusty old file recently, the Blether Region came across a letter from the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development. Anyone receiving mail from the Department (and not just the recently discussed trilingual kind) will know from its letterheads that the "Ulster-Scots" version of its name nowadays is "Männystrie o Fairms an Kintra Fordèrin".

The letter in the file, however, was from the early years of this century, and boasted a quite different version, "Depairtment o Agricultur an Lannart Oncum".

Now, readers will have their own idea of what the best translation is, and the chances are that it will diverge from both the above. It is the case, however, that the more recent and more common version is inferior on three counts: the employment of diacritics not native to Scots and used in a manner wholly foreign to any widely used language; the reductive equation of "fairms" with "agriculture"; and the use of "Männystrie" for "Department" — not in fact a translation at all but obsolete "Old Stormont" terminology retained by certain age cohorts (more controversially, the same translators have been known to refer to "Northern Ireland" as "Ulstèr").

The older translation, which dates from a time when the Internet was not what it is today, can now hardly be found on the web, and turns up only a few hits even when entered in inverted commas.

Further proof, if such were necessary, that not everything improves over time.

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

On Demonisation — and Displacement

Yesterday's Belfast Telegraph has a prominent piece on Newry, Mourne and Down Council's Irish-language strategy, which will see up to £150,000 per annum go on Gaeilge. The DUP have branded it a "ludicrous indulgence" in the current financial climate. It's difficult to say whether the choice of the word "indulgence" was intended as a theological pun, but the Blether Region wouldn't put anything past them uns.

Unlike councils in Great Britain, those in Northern Ireland generally speaking raise their own funds, since many functions discharged at local level elsewhere — housing being a good example — are centralised here. Perhaps the DUP would have better grounds to complain were central government grants intended for quite different purposes being diverted to Irish, but there is no doubt in the current case that it is ratepayers' cash; and neither is there any doubt that, in an overwhelmingly Nationalist area, ratepayers will, by and large, support the move.

The DUP, of course, built its reputation in local government on low taxes in areas such as Castlereagh. Many people of a Conservative bent will instinctively support its view on the services that a council may properly provide. Closer consideration, however, reveals the truth: these services are being provided by some councils and not others because there is no Irish language Act in force to give central direction on the issue. The tight fiscal environment that, as the DUP would have it, should preclude such schemes, may also explain why it is councils rather than Stormont that are taking the initiative. Finally, although the new super-councils were always likely to result in a carve-up and a highlighting of communal rather than local identity, one should not forget the demographic march of time.

So what might the effect of the Bel-Tel's anti-Gaelic campaign be? Well, one of them will be to accelerate the trend that it seeks to decry. Unionists can do little to halt the language's progress in local government, but they will feel emboldened in their refusal to reject any language Bill put before the Assembly.

As for the newspaper itself, this may well be evidence of a change of direction under its new editor, Gail Walker, and a shift to a more avowedly Unionist stance. The newspaper market, like the market for Unionist politics, is a declining one, and Ms Walker's intention may be to gobble up the demographic that keeps the News Letter afloat. As such, it can be taken as a parallel to Unionism: despite long-term decline and a generally accepted need to reach out, consolidation based on taking a hard line is the quicker, and therefore the easier, option.

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

Minding Our Language

Over the past two weekends Blether Region has been watching Tim McGarry's latest Ulster-Scots documentary mini-series, Minding Our Language. Overall he made a pretty fair fist of it, although, as always with such things, one wishes one had been present in the editing suite to comment on one or two matters, the notion that Ulster Scots is legally a language because the non-justiciable European Charter says so (or doesn't say so, as the case may be) being a case in point.

And was the word wheesht really borrowed from Irish, or was it, like crack, already part of the language at the time of the Plantation? Indeed — again, as with crack — a more fundamental question is whether it is a Goidelic word at all. The fact that it appears in Wycliffe's Bible suggests a variant of "hush", a borrowing into, rather than from, Gaelic. Wycliffe was a Yorkshireman by birth, making a Northumbrian origin likely.

One contributor to the programme memorably described the perplexity of a native Scots-speaker when sent trilingual Single Farm Payment literature. The letter can be found here.

The Irish version is bureaucratic, dry, difficult — and correct. Alas, the same cannot be said for the "Ulster Scots". Those able to understand it with any facility must surely be limited to the wee small circle of USLS luminaries who contributed to the translation.
It recks gyely ’at ye dinnae jalouse ’at ye shud pit in fur tha MEA fur ilka fiel. Tha MEA wad be whut we hae wechtit as tha bouns o yer fiels ’at’s shuitin; ye may see is thar onie ither airts ’at’s no shuitin ’at we haenae jubed oan. Gin ye pit in fur thae airts ‘at’s no shuitin, an we fyn thaim whan we’re leukkin roon, yer hansel wull aply be hinnèrt an, lippenin til tha ootcum o oor spierin, yer ownin wull be laiched an ye micht cud be skaithed.
Indeed, there has traditionally been a good deal of "shuitin" in the countryside — mainly at crows.

Monday, 16 November 2015

Time for a Bilingual PSNI

Recent weeks have seen concern expressed that, in the absence of 50/50 recruitment, the PSNI is gradually, like its predecessor the RUC, becoming dangerously unrepresentative of the population (remembering that, in the target recruitment cohort, it is now Catholics rather than Protestants who predominate).

In the Blether Region's view, opposing 50/50 recruitment, as Justice Minister David Ford has done, is a mistake, and one that betrays a doctrinaire emphasis on what Northern Ireland should be rather than what it is or, more negatively, threatens to become. Put bluntly, 50/50 recruitment is important because it keeps people alive, both within and without the police. It keeps Northern Ireland stable and lets people get on with their daily lives and business.

Yet there is an alternative to recruitment quotas, and one that comes at zero cost to the tax-payer. Last month Police Scotland launched a consultation on the incremental adoption of bilingual branding. Some people will have their doubts at whether such a change could really be achieved without public expense, but a much more ambitious re-branding involving place-names was achieved by ScotRail a few years ago at a cost of thousands rather than tens of thousands.

If Scotland, as seems very likely, finds itself with a bilingually branded police force in a few years' time, Northern Ireland will be the only Celtic part of the UK to be English-only, since Wales and Cornwall (yes, Cornwall) have already taken the bilingual route.

A cost-free re-branding in Northern Ireland could help save lives. It would, as we have seen, make Norn Iron not only more like the south but more like Great Britain. And it might also prove a good way for the Alliance Party to redeem itself from its policy errors.

Monday, 19 October 2015

Scotland's Answer to "Top Gear"

The Scotsman has an article headed "Nicola Sturgeon calls for an end to online abuse". The norie that online abuse, which is always wrong, is the exclusive province of nationalists is of course nonsense, though nonsense that suits the Scotsman.

The Blether Region's interest was piqued, however, by the cause of the First Minister's comments. It seems that Wings Over Scotland, aka Stuart Campbell, had questioned the right of J. K. Rowling, a £1 million donor to the Better Together campaign, to support the Scottish rugby team.

The Blether Region is not very big on sports, even ones like rugby that let the wee pretendy nations of Scotland and Wales compete alongside real ones like Fiji and Samoa. Hell, rugby even lets the Irish pretend they're united rather than partitioned into perpetual dysfunction.

As readers may have guessed, the Blether Region is being sarcastic, and yet a very good case can be made that separate sporting teams, like separate promissory banknotes or stamps with cute wee thistles on them, are a distraction from constitutional change, muddying the waters about where power lies. One might even call them the opium of the people.

As for Wings Over Scotland, why someone who, like 55% of Scots, voted No in the referendum, should be banned from supporting Scotland at the rugby is not obvious (would you ban your granny?). Moreover, Wings Over Scotland itself has been guilty of far, far worse in its comments on Gaelic, whose promotion it rejects on the grounds that keeping it alive amounts to "blood-and-soil ethnic nationalism".

Although there are some cultural nationalists whose main or exclusive linguistic interest is Scots rather than Gaelic, Stuart Campbell's comments would seem to preclude that possibility. It seems that, for him, the most potent symbol of Scottish nationality is not language but the predictably macho one of what was once memorably described as "a game played by men with odd-shaped balls" — uncodified before the nineteenth century and named after an English public school.

Good thing the Blether Region no longer reads him.

Opposing Bilingual Signage is a Far-right Position

The Herald has an interesting article on Police Scotland, the newly created national police force, mulling over whether to brand itself bilingually.

The journalism has obviously benefited from some quality time spent with those working to promote Gaelic, since some of the more off-the-wall misconceptions — such as extreme cost and it all being an SNP plot — are notable by their absence. Indeed, as the article points out, current efforts for Gaelic began in a big way under a previous Labour/Liberal-Democrat Administration. Nor are all of those involved in promoting Gaelic Nationalists; many native speakers and academics support the Union (learners, one suspects, not so much), and some of them make unflattering comparisons of SNP policy with that of its predecessors.

Be that as it may, the Blether Region's eye was caught by the following.
"However, in some countries far right groups have reacted with anger when minority languages became associated with symbols of state power, including road signs and, especially, the police and military."
That is, of course, exactly the situation in Northern Ireland. Bilingual signage is either cost-neutral or very close to it. Moreover, as the name suggests, it is bilingual, i.e. retains English. Any claims that Protestants and Unionists would be disadvantaged by it are transparently spurious. Essentially they are arguments about symbolism and "purity" rather than rights. Dodgy ground, in other words.

And yet it remains the case that most representatives of Northern Ireland's self-styled non-sectarian party, the Alliance, either buy into that cranky and prejudiced view themselves or conclude that potential criminal damage to such signs should be pre-empted by the drastic and illiberal expedient of banning them.

One wonders what the reaction would be in England if supposedly moderate politicians took the same view about, say, a foreign-language sign pointing to a north London synagogue or a gurudwara in Slough. Probably, even if they shared the Alliance Party view, they would at least have the sense not to say so.

Thursday, 15 October 2015

Let's Eliminate RP

Some notes by a recent American visitor to England have been doing the rounds on the Internet. Generally positive, he nonetheless has certain reservations about aspects of British life, such as the inexplicable lack of mixer taps — a problem about which Mrs. Blether has also been known to put in her tuppence worth.

More to the point, he also expresses surprise that the British are "defined" by their accents. Perhaps that last one is so obvious that it passes many of us by unnoticed, but egalitarian America provides a good example that the dominant reality need not be so (indeed, among the same racial groups at least, America's accents often differ so little, and so overwhelmingly from place to place rather than from class to class, that, where they exist, they are popularly referred to as "dialects"). Closer to home, in Germany, by an historical quirk the question of whether one has a "mild" or "strong" accent often has more to do with whether one lives in the north or south of the country than with class per se. Meanwhile, people from Norway generally speak their regional dialect all of the time. Indeed, much to the surprise of those from outside Scandinavia, they continue to do so even when they go to Sweden or Denmark.

Perhaps the most extreme examples of speech defining class in the UK are found in Scotland, where, under the pressure of Anglicisation, previously homogeneous Scots dialects have split into the distinct varieties of Scottish Standard English and Scots-influenced working-class vernacular. However, England too is subject to the great divide. Although very few people actually speak RP, how closely their speech approximates to the variety is a very good indicator of class. RP itself ("Received Pronunciation") is so called because it does not hail from a particular region. Rather it grew out of the vernacular of various key cities of yesteryear (all of them, broadly speaking, in the southern part of England) and is perpetuated by a complex life-support system of private schools, Oxbridge, and, one might argue, broadcasting. Its status as a "standard" variety is controversial, since it may be spoken by only 1% to 3% of the UK population.

The trouble with RP is its unparalleled prestige and, therefore, the fact that those who speak it — whose parents, let's not forget, had the spare income to school them privately — are wont to be favoured undeservedly. RP is associated with intelligence and high-level learning, which they may or may not have, and money and confidence, which they usually do. If we want a fairer society, there are steps that we can take to do away with it.
  1. Stop treating private schools as charities and start treating them as businesses for tax purposes.  
  2. Since the privately educated get better grades at school but then go on to do worse than state pupils with similar grades at university, factor that in when offering places. 
  3. Cap the proportion of privately educated pupils at any given university (don't stop them going; just stop artificially sending them all to the same place). 
  4. Federalise the BBC. If RP is the standard language of the south of England, why should the rest of the UK have to listen to it? 
  5. Redistribute wealth to the poor. 
  6. Abolish the House of Lords. 
  7. Abolish the Monarchy. 
  8. Encourage regional varieties, regional theatre, regional broadcasting, and above all regional democracy.
As an aside, the Blether Region sometimes watches University Challenge and on rare occasions manages to get as many as three answers correct. Be that as it may, has anyone ever found it odd that the collegiate universities of Oxford, Cambridge and London are allowed to enter multiple teams, while Liverpool and Sheffield aren't? And doesn't that tell us rather a lot about the stranglehold of RP-speakers over our national broadcaster?

Friday, 9 October 2015

Inis Mumhan?

The American academic Dr. Séamus Ó Direáin has been mapping the dialects of the Aran Islands for a quarter of a century. One of the interesting tidbits about the linguistic map of the archipelago is that the speech of one island, Inis Oírr, is closer to Munster than Conamara Irish.

Of course, that's no surprise, given its historically better connections with the south — boiling down to the fact that for much of human history, water, rather than being a barrier, has been a linking medium.

Nor is the phenomenon limited to the west. J. A. H. Murray, later to become founding editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, was able to quote his correspondent Robert Shipboy MacAdam in support of the "absolute identity" of the vernacular of eastern Ulster and Arran (the Scottish island) in his seminal work The Dialect of the Southern Counties of Scotland

Indeed, aficionados of Ulster Scots will be equally well acquainted with the like, to which the fact that Scots is spoken on both sides of the Sheuch testifies so eloquently.

Wednesday, 7 October 2015

Bridging the Divide

The newspapers have two stories about Irish-language signage this week. In the first, in the Newry Times, Caitríona Ruane decries vandalism against signs on the main Hilltown to Mayobridge Road.

Meanwhile, the Kerryman reports on a brouhaha regarding the correct Irish version of the place-name Farmers Bridge, which has been rendered as Droichead Farmer on the advice of

If the "Farmer" in the English version is a proper name, the translation is, of course, entirely correct, whereas if it is a generic "farmer" or "farmers", it is wrong. Many local residents will no doubt have taken it to be the latter regardless of the truth of the matter. It might, of course, help if English place-name signs had apostrophes, but the convention seems to be that they don't.

Those with long memories will remember that luminaries of the Ulster-Scots Language Society once got into a spot of cognate bother when they translated Belfast's Beersbridge Road as "Yillbrig Road", which must have come as something of a surprise to Mr. Beers.

Unfortunately, the Kerryman blots is copybook somewhat with the following.
"This has led to some puzzlement among local gaeilgeoirs who suggest that the true translation of the name should probably be 'Droichead an Feirmeoir' or something similar."
Well, similar, yes, and no doubt, to those who are semi-conversant in the language, acceptable. Just not to those grammarians who haven't read I dTreo Teanga Nua.

And with that the newspaper sums up Ireland's problem with Irish. Even in a Gaeltacht county, it seems that no one working for the newspaper had the nous to ask a native speaker about the correct form.

Wednesday, 9 September 2015

Marriages of Convenience

The Labour Party has unveiled plans to hold a referendum on same-sex marriage over the head of the Northern Ireland Assembly, which voted against its introduction in April.

The party has also confirmed that if direct rule has to return in the event of current talks failing, that too would provide an opportunity for change. Northern Ireland is now the only polity in the UK, the British Isles or the western European seaboard not to have instituted gay marriage.

While such unions offer few if any legal advantages over civil partnerships, the fact that they are now available so widely in Europe and the United States means that Northern Ireland can hardly continue as the odd one out for ever. As such, the Labour plan is a fudge. Granted, including a referendum muddies the waters with regard to the act of overruling the Assembly, which of course looks better politically. It also neatly gets around daft rules on cross-community voting, which have no logical application to the question in hand. However, it also makes a human-rights issue subject to a popular test. If all such issues were dealt with in that way, it would clearly be the end of universal human rights.

Language campaigners will watch with interest what happens with the Labour plan (presumably nothing, given the state of the party). If Labour is so keen to rewrite the rules to bring Northern Ireland into line with the modern world on gay marriage, what about other human-rights issues, some of them connected with language? In Scotland, for example, it is a statutory requirement that a member of the Land Court be a Gaelic-speaker in order to facilitate crofters. In Northern Ireland, on the other hand, the Administration of Justice (Language) Act (Ireland) 1737 forbids the use of any language other than English before courts of law. Northern Ireland also commonly requires weighted super-majorities among residents before bilingual street signs can be legally erected. Meanwhile in Scotland, signage at train stations and on trunk roads is bilingual.

One could go on.

Ivory Towers

Many readers will already have heard the alarming news that the University of Ulster is to end the teaching of modern languages, including Irish — as well as, perhaps even more bizarrely, doing away with single-honours maths.

Some may take the view that if a "university" decides to scratch such courses and continues to think itself worthy of the name, that's its affair. However, UU was always a university, not an upgraded polytechnic, and Irish is not like other languages. For a start, it isn't foreign, and the course is of great importance to the successful implementation of public policy on linguistic diversity, cross-community relations and perhaps peace itself.

Damningly, the proposed cuts come at a time when the university is planning to spend hundreds of millions on a new Belfast campus only a few miles away from its current one at Jordanstown, and when its vice-chancellor is trousering £250,000 a year.

A petition at has already attracted hundreds of signatures.

Friday, 21 August 2015

Plural Prejudice

It is a commonplace to those familiar with Northern Ireland that words elsewhere considered inoffensive can here take on unexpected and nasty overtones, a prime example being "community". In 2012, for example, when former punk supremo Terry Hooley was assaulted on the Comber Greenway, his attackers informed him that he was a "disgrace" to his "community".

A counter-example is "sectarian", which, in Unionist usage at least, is employed to describe anything connected with communal conflict, including avowedly secular Irish nationalism and, one friend in the Alliance Party actually argued, the singing of Amhrán na bhFiann before GAA games (though oddly enough it appears to be "sectarian" only in the North).

Now the Blether Region has discovered another misused word, "pluralism". The occasion is the publication of historic UK Cabinet papers under the 30-year rule. NIO advisers, we are told, warned Margaret Thatcher that allowing for bilingualism would mean "The conventional pluralism of Northern Ireland public policy will be shattered and we shall end up with two rabidly British and rabidly Irish communities."

Although the Northern Ireland conflict is usually thought to be post-colonial, the Blether Region has often thought that the temporal qualifier might comfortably be disposed of when it comes to the various prohibitions and hindrances faced by Irish, which is banned from the roads, banned from the courts, and requires undemocratic super-majorities to be used on street signs (though one could argue that applying democratic tests to human rights is in any case, well, undemocratic).

The most bizarre aspect here is the fact that those who cheerlead for such anti-Irish discrimination appear genuinely to believe that they are doing the right thing, and that their stance actually contributes to calming tensions and, thus, to the creation of a normal society.

So, monocultural pluralism it is, then.

Norn Iron: the Home of Blood ... and Dunder

A post or two ago the Blether Region had occasion to go into some of the racier uses of Scots vocabulary not covered by the DSL. It appears that they are not limited to Auld Scotia, since an office colleague given to constantly verbalising the feverish sexual concerns of the over-40s has now introduced it to "dundering" (the word, not the act). None of the meanings given for "DUNNER, v.1, n. Also dinner, -ir; dunder" in the DSL would appear to cover what the Blether Region's university lecturers used to refer to as "sexual congress", but it does seem to be semantically similar to some uses of the English verb "bang".

The source for the previously unattested usage, incidentally, is not an Ulster-Scot but a duniwassal from Tyrone, demonstrating the diffusion of Scots vocabulary throughout Ulster and the wider north of Ireland.

Thursday, 13 August 2015

Manchurian Candidates

One of the annoying (because so ill-informed) things occasionally spouted by self-styled "utilitarian" bashers of Irish is that we should instead all be learning Mandarin — which, they contend, is the Holy Grail of future economic advancement, both personal and regional.

The Blether Region loves languages, no matter where they come from, and there is no doubt that anyone learning Mandarin, or another Chinese dialect such as Cantonese (better represented locally) would be culturally enriched by the experience, no matter how far they progress with it, something the utilitarians rarely mention.

But do the Mandarin-backers really appreciate how difficult it would be to learn a tonal language with a pictographic writing system? Of course not: they only speak English themselves. There is a place for teaching Mandarin, but common sense suggests that the best way to do it would be to recruit seasoned linguists for scratch courses at university or, alternatively, send European children to Mandarin-language schools alongside Chinese counterparts from the get-go.

Of course, one could also hothouse speakers of Mandarin at private schools, something that would no doubt stand pupils in good stead later on. Many such schools, however, are focused on getting pupils into Oxford and Cambridge, and presumably a Chinese language qualification would not attract any more points than French or Spanish.

Evidence for the extreme difficulty of learning Mandarin, and even of recruiting pupils to do so, is provided from Scotland. The Herald rather illiterately reports that:
"The Scottish Government's clear focus on Chinese - where teaching funded by Chinese Government - continues to fail to translate in to large numbers of learners.
Figures fell this year, to just 89." 
Yes, 89 pupils in a country with a population of over 5 million.

The Blether Region has no particular grouse with the Scottish Government, which, after all, is promoting Mandarin as part of a wider language package that also supports Gaelic (rather than as a half-hearted rhetorical alternative to it).

It does, however, show just how ill-suited the conventional state school environment is to learning Chinese.

Sunday, 19 July 2015

Before They Take it Down

60 Minutes Australia has produced a shocking documentary about the paedophile scandal linking Kincora in Belfast with Dolphin Square in London. Politicians implicated in the sexual abuse of children include some who now sit in the House of Lords, as well as former Home Secretary and EU Commissioner Leon Brittan, who was the subject of numerous below-the-radar allegations before his death earlier this year.

Most shocking of all, the programme:
  • alleges that former Kincora resident Richard Kerr was abused by the Liberal MP Cyril Smith and Sir Peter Telford Hayman, deputy head of MI6;
  • links the Westminster ring with the suspected abduction and murder of the son of the chauffeur to the Australian High Commissioner in London; and
  • claims to have uncovered abuse carried out as recently as the 1990s.
As Richard Kerr himself says, those abusers who remain alive can now expect a "knock on the door", while another campaigner says "All those who were ever linked to William McGrath must be regarded as highly suspect."

Friday, 17 July 2015

BBC Alba in Danger

The Blether Region notes that the new majority Conservative Government is considering whether funding for Gaelic-language broadcasting should be reduced — apparently on the somewhat spurious criterion of "cost per hour" compared with English-language equivalents, which needless to say takes no account of the public good or even whether the language lives or dies.

It would be particularly sad if that happened, since it was of course a Conservative Scottish Secretary, Michael Forsyth, who oversaw the expansion of Gaelic broadcasting in the 1990s that eventually led to the creation of BBC Alba.

Gaelic in Scotland is not a nationalist shibboleth or even a party-political issue (though from London it might seem that way), and while there are many people like the Blether Region who share an interest in both language and independence, there are others who do not.

Recently the Blether Region discovered a neat little program called get_iplayer, which allows the full contents to the BBC's mediatheque to be selectively downloaded in mp4 format (those living abroad will need a proxy server). BBC Alba has many dozens of good programmes available through that route. Indeed, without it the Scottish offering would be poor indeed.

Of course, as BBC Alba is funded partly by the licence fee and partly by the Government, any shortfall in funds is likely to be made up by the latter, if not by Westminster, then by the Scottish Government. What a cut would entail, therefore, is a hidden reduction in the block grant.

If broadcasting were devolved, on the other hand, we could expect not a decrease in the budget for Gaelic but an increase — as well as, for the first time, a publicly funded station dedicated to the preservation and celebration of Lowland Scots.

Thursday, 9 July 2015


Back in the mists of time when the Blether Region was learning Irish, it was intrigued by the word long, meaning 'ship' — or rather by its etymology. Long is apparently a loan from the Latin navis longa. Now, as anyone who knows a bit of Latin is aware, the "ship" part here is in fact navis, ultimately the origin of the word "nave" in church architecture (German Schiff). It seems that the ancient Celts, encountering a word meaning something like "longboat", started using long as their word for 'ship'.

That isn't the only occasion where something similar has happened with a Latin loan. The English word "street" (German Strasse) comes from the Latin via strata, meaning 'paved road'.

Adjectives of course often become nouns in English, and vice-versa. One need only consider the political terms "red", "green" or "true blue" — or, in Northern Ireland, discuss what links "the Orange" and "the Black" (leaping through an Arch Purple, if I recall correctly).

That sort of change, however, is conscious, since we all know that those nouns are also adjectives. Long and "street", on the other hand, are interesting etymologies, and thus interesting stories for linguists to tell.

Monday, 6 July 2015

"Giein it teugs"

Today's Herald has an interesting article on Scots by Katie Gallogly-Swan, in which the author displays keen awareness of the political context in which the leid was doomed to its present status — which, of course, may or may not be its future one.

As a democratic project, she also champions giving the imprimatur of languageness to modern, urban, sociolectal Scots, a variety increasingly separate from the "written 'standard' Scots which diverges so drastically from that spoken in the schemes and streets of the nation — academic and inaccessible, even for linguists like myself."

But to what extent is it standardised, and to what extent does the mere act of standardisation account for its divergence from contemporary urban speech?

Surprising as it may sound, literary Scots is less standardised now than it was in the nineteenth century, with the decline of that standard in many ways a by-product of multiple failed attempts to re-standardise the tongue, which has confused writers and encouraged them to regard the result as an apposite arena for creative self-realisation (in the medium rather than the message).

It is also the case that where literary Scots — the traditional kind — appears to differ from speech, it is a result of pan-dialectal spelling practices that epitomise rather than belie the democratic ideals advocated by Ms Gallogly-Swan. Were that Scots to be written according to the sound-to-letter correspondences of Standard English, which is presumably what she is advocating, it would clearly be much less of a language, since it would have multiple spellings for each word, reducing the whole to a collection of dialects enjoying, if that is the word, a series of bilateral relationships with the Hochsprache.

Literary Scots may of course also be incomprehensible to contemporary urban speakers because so much of its vocabulary has been lost. Very often, however, those are not so much the recherché offerings of the elite as country words. Can we really claim that it does not matter if Scots loses half its vocabulary and (partially) replaces it with (what in this case really is) slang?

Two questions must therefore be asked: is urban Scots a language (distinct from English)?; and is it Scots (the same language as the traditional variety)? In the Blether Region's view, the answer to neither question is a clear-cut yes.

That's not to say, however, that Ms Gallogy-Swan's big idea — a crowd-sourced Scots dictionary — is altogether a bad one. While the notion that it could replace an academically rigorous work such as the SND is an inherently laughable one, it could well prove a valuable source of material for it.

When the Blether Region was at school in 1980s Glasgow, the playground was abuzz with earthy slang (yes!) expressions not well covered by the SND, terms like "dauber" for 'penis' (Ms Gallogly-Swan might prefer the spelling "dobber"), "brouner" ("brooner") for a 'male homosexual', and "giein it teugs" ("chugs") for 'masturbation', not to mention "pish flaps" (have that one on me). Not nice expressions, perhaps, but real nonetheless.

And as far as the Blether Region can make out, though the individual words may surface in quotations in the SND, the senses don't.

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

Ulster Scots: a Great Source of Oaths

The Blether Region has been researching an ongoing Twitter spat between Nicola Sturgeon and Cathy Newman, who incorrectly claimed that the Scots First Minister's opting to make an affirmation rather than swear allegiance to the monarch was a mark of republican sentiment (it is in fact a mark of secularism; there is no "republican" option in the Scottish Parliament). While doing so, it happened across this article in the News Letter, which carries the Ulster-Scots version of the oath sworn by Strangford MP Jim Shannon, who was of course previously among the most prodigious users of the dialect in the Northern Ireland Assembly.
"A sweer bi AAMICHTIE GOD that A wull aye houl a richt leal an faithfu hairt tae HIR MAJESTIE QUEEN ELSBETH, an Hir Line o Heirskip, anent tha Laa. Micht GOD be ma halp an stay."