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.