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.