|The Early Days of a Better Nation|
Thursday, March 06, 2008
I know now what annoys me about the proliferation of Gaelic-English bilingual signs in Scotland. I had to think about it, because I'm by no means opposed to bilingualism - or multilingualism, for that matter - generally. The council and the government print information in several languages. I welcome that, as I welcome the immigrants. Banks and shops advertise in Polish - good for them. I have an attachment to Gaelic, though I don't speak it. So why do I find these signs so irritating? What makes Gaelic in Scotland different from Irish in Ireland, or Welsh in Wales, or Bengali on Edinburgh council-tax information leaflets?
One difference is that nobody is left alive who needs Gaelic translations to make sense of - and very few who even, at a minimum, need them to be at home with reading - what the state demands of them or what businesses offer them. Another is that the language hasn't, like Irish or Welsh, become a symbol of a national cause. The political and cultural resurgence of Scottish identity was expressed in what is now called Scottish Standard English, and in a resurrected Scots. So in that sense bilingualism is artificial. It meets no need and answers no demand.
There's something very postmodern about this whole state-sponsored splatter of Gaelic on signage. It exists not because there is a flourishing Gaelic-speaking community, but because there isn't! If there were, there'd be no need for all the research so often required to rummage up a Gaelic name or nitpick a Gaelic spelling.
I suspect the people who are most charmed by the new bilingual signs are tourists and incomers, and those who are most irritated are people of Highland origin, and particularly those who live in the Highlands. For sure, there's a typical Scottish Tory hostility to it here and there, but that's just their landlord-class politics talking out of their arse. But the most cutting jeers I've heard on the matter have come from Highlanders, some of them native speakers of Gaelic.
So here's my guess, based on analysing how I feel about it myself. I would welcome argument or testimony to the contrary. But for what it's worth, my guess is this: we regret not speaking Gaelic, and we resent the presumption that we should. We have done our best with the hard hand we were dealt. Some of us have left for the Central Belt or the ends of the earth. Others have made a living in the desolate, depopulated landscape, working on the shooting estates or digging the thin and sodden fields in the old days; in tourism, commerce and industry today. And in almost all cases, to do this meant forgetting the language, leaving it to dwindle in the Sunday-morning sermon and the ceilidh and the old folks' private talk. We had to learn English, and we were proud that we spoke a more standard English than the Lowland Scots.
And after all that has left us illiterate and inarticulate in the language of our ancestors, but sharp and cutting in the lingua franca of the modern world, you come back and mock the teuchter again, with your signs for Raon Gnìomhachais (Industrial Estate) and Pàirc Gnothachais (Business Park) and Snaidhm-Rathaid (Interchange) and Port-adhair (Airport) - bright green sticking-plasters across what we had thought were faded scars.