Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Die Mädchen

The Blether Region was very taken with a version of "Green Grow the Rashes" by the late and sorely missed Michael Marra being linked to for Burns Night the other day. It's a well-known piece the world over, and Pater Blether once claimed that its popularity among Anglophone Americans was the origin of the word "Gringo".

Whether that's true or no, what we can be sure of is that the piece was translated into German by J.A. Barth in 1839 as "Die Mädchen". The Blether Region wasn't entirely happy with that version, which takes a rather rigid approach to rhyme at the expense of accuracy. Thereupon it decided to get together with Mrs. Blether, as sometimes happens, and tweak it. Evidently "Grün wachsen Binsen, O" sounds rather ridiculous to modern German ears — although still better than "Grün sind die Auen, O".

The final version, subject to much negotiation, was this.

Grün sind die Wiesen

Chor. - Grün sind die Wiesen, O
Grün sind die Wiesen, O
Die schönsten Stunden, die ich hab'
Verbring' ich mit den Mädchen, O.

Ein Weilen kurz und voller Sorg'
Und kaum ein zartes Stündchen, O:
Was hätt' der Mann vom Leben selbst
Ja, gäb' es nicht die Mädchen, O?
Grün sind, usw.

Wie mancher jagt sein Leben lang
Nach Gold, das ist zum Scherzen, O!
Und auch sein gelber Sonnenschein
Lässt kalt das Eis am Herzen, O.
Grün sind, usw.

Schling' ich um Liebchens weiße Brust
Den Arm in süßen Stunden, O:
Sind alle Sorgen meilenweit
Von meiner Stirn verschwunden, O.
Grün sind, usw.

Dass kluge Köpfe Frauen schmäh'n,
Das halt' ich für ein Märchen, O:
Denn Salomon, der Weisheit Sohn,
Der liebte auch die Mädchen, O!
Grün sind, usw.

Die alte Weberin Natur
Wob sie aus feinstem Fädchen, O;
Mit Lehrlingshand schuf sie den Mann,
Und erst danach die Mädchen, O.
Grün sind, usw.

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Goidelic Upstarts

The level of ignorance exhibited with regard to linguistics never ceases to amaze the Blether Region. Some people, for example, remark on the prevalence of "English" words in Scots poetry, not realising that a host of lexemes of impeccable Lowland Scots pedigree share an origin with, and are identical to, everyday Standard English words. Indeed, given the two varieties' common origins and the existence of a latter-day linguistic continuum between them, some have even called for English in Scotland to be renamed "Scots" on that basis — regardless of the actual "Scotsness" of the forms employed. Appealingly Scandinavian though that strategy is, given that so many other countries across the world use English but without resorting to such sleight of hand, it may be doomed to failure.

In the field of Celtic linguistics, there are those who refer to the native language of Wales as "Gaelic", not realising that there are actually two groups of modern Celtic languages, only one of which — that of Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man — may actually be described that way.

The latest example comes in the form of identical Sinn Féin press releases published verbatim in the local press. So it is that both Cathal McLaughlin in the Ballymoney Times and Barra Ó Muirí in the Newry Times make the following involuntary blooper.
"Gaelic speakers in Scotland, Wales and in the rest of this island are already afforded the protection of language acts."
So much for their linguistic knowledge (or rather that of the Sinn Féin press office and local journalists). On a political level, of course, they are entirely right. Northern Ireland is clearly the odd one out with regard to promoting indigenous languages, and to argue that racism is too big to fight — as some people do who should know better — is hardly an argument in favour of lending it one's support.

Monday, 19 January 2015

The Views of a Beginner

Brian Walker has a post over at Slugger O'Toole on the proposed Irish language Bill that must count as one of the most distinctly ill-informed ever published there. Not only are the author's conclusions thoroughly skew-whiff, he appears not to have done some basic research.

Take, for example, this:
"The political cases for the Celtic languages in all four jurisdictions of these islands reached a dead end long ago."
From that the Blether Region infers that Mr. Walker is contending that the promotion of the languages in question has been hobbled by an unnecessary and self-limiting association with political Nationalism. That is a valid view. Yet in the case of Scotland, any association with Nationalism is pretty much non-existent, and Gaelic enjoys cross-party support (as, to a large extent, does Welsh in Wales, which has trousered many victories over the years). Indeed, the Blether Region often wishes that Scottish Gaelic were more "Nationalist", since it would probably be doing rather better.

Even Mr. Walker's arithmetic is out. The Celtic languages in the various "jurisdictions of these islands" would have to include Irish in the Republic, Irish in the North, Scottish Gaelic in Scotland, Welsh in Wales, Cornish in "England", and Manx Gaelic on the Isle of Man. That's six jurisdictions.

And it goes on.
"Is it not obvious that furthering the use of Irish in the courts and official documents can conflict with the Charter’s 'overriding purpose' which is cultural?"
No, Mr. Walker, it ain't. The purpose is of course cultural, but the motto is "use it or lose it", and that means creating rights in various domains in order to encourage folk to speak their language. In that regard, yours are the views of a beginner. It is also not immediately apparent how someone who had actually read the Charter's provisions could postulate such a contradiction.
"I note that in the Republic, while Irish was dropped as a qualification for wider public service decades ago, it remains a university qualification for admission. Despite this according to the 2011 census 94,000 people reported using Irish as a daily language outside of the education system, and 1.3 million reported using it at least occasionally in or out of school – slightly up on the census of 2006."
That is a perversion of the truth, as the following, from the website of the University of Limerick, demonstrates.
"Irish is not part of the minimum requirements. The language requirement is 'Irish or another language and English'. Therefore Irish may be used to satisfy the second language requirement instead of French/German/Spanish etc."
It is clear from the above that there is no special requirement to have Irish; rather, a qualification in Irish is quite rightly recognised on the same terms as one in modern foreign languages of the Germanic and Romance families — which, for English-speakers, are actually a sight less difficult to learn.
"In Scotland where Gaelic has competition as an indigenous language, only 58,000 people identify themselves as Gaelic speakers.  The Gaelic Language (Scotland) Act of 2005 established the Gaelic development body, Bòrd na Gàidhlig, (BnG),  to secure 'the status of the Gaelic language as an official language of Scotland commanding equal respect to the English language and to promote the use and understanding of Gaelic.'.
Who really believes these pieties will produce the desired results?"
Well, those who actually pay attention to such things know that the last Census found that the ongoing decline in the numbers of Gaelic-speakers in Scotland had pretty much been stemmed. Barring an outbreak of Ebola on North Uist, we can also be absolutely sure that the next Census, if there is one, will show an increase in speaker numbers because of younger people passing through the rapidly expanding Gaelic-medium education sector. That's not to say that all is rosy and that Gaelic is not still declining as a community language in many areas, but as far as speaker numbers go, which is Mr. Walker's chosen statistic, he is simply wrong.

And what would happen if there were no state promotion of minoritised languages in case it offended Unionists (which in Scotland it doesn't)? Well, some commentators have argued that in Northern Ireland some of those Unionists might eventually re-discover an interest in Irish — at which point they would presumably call for state promotion.
"Just about the worst way to encourage the use of Irish is to try to make it a compulsory choice in official documents."
The Blether Region's mind was thoroughly boggled at the oxymoronic concept of a "compulsory choice", which may say more about Mr. Walker's attitudes than it does about promoting Irish. Depending on the state of play, there may of course be better ways towards the desired end, but it is a fact that translated documents do help minority languages. How could they possibly not?

From Mr. Walker's piece, the Blether Region concludes that a) the author thinks it's acceptable to mouth off about Celtic languages without researching the subject properly because, ah well, it's all political anyway and b) he has not bothered to ask, and may not actually have, a suitably qualified (Nationalist?) friend to read over his dippy pronouncements before publication.


Thursday, 15 January 2015

In with the Old?

DCAL Minister Carál Ní Chuilín has confirmed that her Department will be publishing an Irish Language Bill at the beginning of February as part of a public consultation.

The German naturalist Alexander von Humboldt once wrily remarked that the people with the most dangerous view of the world were those who had never actually viewed it, and the legislative proposals have already attracted the ire of the usual suspects — far in advance of their actually having been made available to the public.

On last night's Newsline, the blinkers were very much in metaphorical evidence, with disgraced former Minister Nelson McCausland gaily denouncing the unread (and partly unwritten) legislation. In the view of Concubhar Mac Liatháin, McCausland's pronouncements on the subject have referenced the "ancient language of the 1980s".

Indeed, things have moved on quite considerably since then, and with a quarter of the population now voting Sinn Féin, one would have to have a very good reason not to grant them the inherently reasonable wish to have the same linguistic rights as Gaels in Scotland (indeed, SDLP voters are hardly likely to be against it either). In the genteelly perverse world of Ulster Unionism, however, the very fact that Shinners are so numerous is a sound reason not to play ball, since Nationalist voters embody the demographic and therefore political precariousness of Northern Ireland. Hardly the time for "Ulster" to go all Southern, they say.

Of course, Mr. McCausland's retro view of the world was not helped by Máirtín Ó Muilleoir, who referred to those who had struggled for the right to use the language in prison — omitting to mention that they were not in prison for speaking Irish and were partly using it as a device to prevent warders understanding them.

There is no doubt that McCausland, for all his claims to the contrary, understands perfectly well that calls to promote Irish are based on genuine sentiment, however. Why else would he suggest that Ms Ní Chuilín was endeavouring to please her party's "base"?

That said, the timing of bringing forward such a Bill, with a Westminster election on the cards, is interesting too. Could it be that Sinn Féin intends to follow the Blether Region's advice and let Westminster, perhaps in the form of a Labour/SNP coalition, fulfil the pledges of a previous Administration?

Or do they just want to make the Unionists look bad at election time and hoover up the votes of Gaeilgeoirí one last time?

We'll soon see.

Friday, 9 January 2015

Plus ça change …

Among the traditional rites of every New Year is the annual release of Cabinet papers subject to the 30-year rule.

In Northern Ireland this has a particular importance, since the years in question cover the Troubles — and only about half of them have been released thus far.

This time around it was the turn of 1985-86, and it's astonishing both how much and how little has changed in the interim.
"In January 1986, the Irish government presented its views on 'The Irish Language in Northern Ireland'.
The four-page typescript argued that 'the Irish language is central to the identity and tradition of Irish nationalists'.
The paper called for 'speedy action' in four specific areas: place names; the use of Irish in official business; an Irish language question in the 1991 Northern Ireland census and support for Irish language publications and events."
According to the BBC interpretation, "The then Secretary of State Tom King had accepted the right of local residents to decide on bilingual street names." Yet the Irish Government had in fact been asking for street names to be decided by a majority of residents. As we have seen, the actual wording of the resulting change means that Unionist-controlled councils are free to require super-majorities — and to count those who fail to respond as having voted against, an interesting form of democracy of which Londonderry Corporation would no doubt have been proud.

Needless to say, there is no obligation on Government bodies to hire Irish-speakers to deal with the public, and before the courts the use of all languages other than English is explicitly banned.

A question on Irish is, however, now included in the Census, and there is support for publications and events, albeit in an unsatisfactorily arbitrary and impermanent manner.

Most tellingly, Irish officials pointed out a home truth to NIO staff:
"As long as we refuse to move, Sinn Féin would have a valuable stick with which to beat us and, perhaps more importantly, the SDLP."
The definition of madness is sometimes said to be doing the same thing again and again despite knowing that it doesn't work. In Northern Ireland language politics, the particular form taken by that madness is to complain that Irish is being abused by Republicans and then summarily refuse reasonable demands on that basis, thus making it, and often its speakers and their relatives, all the more Republican.

Even in this New Year, there seems little sign of that vicious circle being broken.