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.