The Early Days of a Better Nation

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Here's the thing

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.


Not being Scottish I can't comment on what underlies your reaction, but - in a country where 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 - mandatory official bilingualism just seems completely batshit crazy. Did it get a majority in Edinburgh? How?

Captcha: 'yedgycde'. Rhymes with regicide.

Bizarrely they've done something similar with many of the signs in the Shetland Islands only in something purporting to be Old Norse. A dead language no one actually speaks. They've even written it using characters that resemble old anglo saxon with "thorns" etc. Thus Tingwall becomes Thingvollr etc. Of course at the other end of the spectrum many of the tourist board brown signs have been defaced to remove the thistles by some shetland lads with too much time and black paint.

I find it interesting to compare the situation in Scotland to the one in Norway - they get bilingual road signs in the north, Norwegian (bokmål) and Sami. Some Norwegian place names are obviously Sami in origin - others are the opposite. Some places there's open resentment and the signs will be full of bullet holes.

And in the Norwegian language itself there's the bokmål vs. nynorsk thing with got two different written standards for a single language. The struggle goes forever on and on.

Phil asks: [in the circumstances] mandatory official bilingualism just seems completely batshit crazy. Did it get a majority in Edinburgh? How?

Well, to be fair it's only mandatory in certain areas and it's being slowly introduced. As to how it got a majority in the Scottish Parliament, one answer is that 'encouraging Gaelic' is one of these motherhood and apple pie things.

Another answer is: you are familiar with Public Choice Theory, grasshopper?

By the way, folks, I strongly recommend following the links supplied by Nicholas and Roy ...

My girlfriend, who is blond and blue-eyed and grew up in the D.F. ("Mexico City") has some of the damnedest discussions with second and third generation Mexican-Americans (I surrender) who don't speak Spanish well, or at all, and probably speak it with a Norteño accent, anyway, whereas the GF speaks it like they do in the barrios of the D.F., which is sort of like a cockney Londoner.

I have a Taiwanese fellow student, who thinks that mainland Chinese writing is weird; in Taiwan they still do it the way it was in the day of the emperor.

Gaelic's all very well, but Scotland has another perfectly good native language, which is Scots. I've only been exposed to a little of it, via Dunbar's "Lament for the Makaris" and Boyd's "Sonet" and some of Burns's verse, and I can neither pronounce it reliably nor understand all of its vocabulary, but it has an honorable history of its own and enough differences to be accounted a distinct language, were it not for the sardonic linguistic principle that "A language is a dialect with an army." If the best small country in the world gains its independence, it can make just as good a claim to have its own language as Norway can, or Slovakia, even leaving Gaelic out of the equation.

After all, it's several centuries older than American, which is what I speak, though in an idiolect shaped by reading mostly British authors in my childhood.

Possibley relevant:

Here's an interesting blog "Learning Cantonese", by an American who fell in love with Hong Kong action movies and Cantonese food and language:
So she moved there. She writes about the politics and language issues quite a bit.

-Sebastien Bailard

William Stoddard: Scots. I've only been exposed to a little of it, via Dunbar's "Lament for the Makaris" and Boyd's "Sonet" and some of Burns's verse, and I can neither pronounce it reliably nor understand all of its vocabulary

Knowing Norwegian helps a lot in understanding Scots :-)

Do note that nynorsk was grounded in the nationalism of the 19th century but by now is slowly but surely being squeezed out - it's used by only 5% of the population, almost exclusively in the rural west country and it's under constant pressure. In 100-200 years it'll probably be gone. And the spoken dialects get normalized with every generation.

(I'm not innocent - I tend to find writing bokmål easier, and though my dialect is thick, it's not the same as my grandparents'.)

William, If you want to try some modern scots writing there's a pretty good sciffy novel called "But an' Ben a Go-Go" by Matthew Fitt. Even more recently there have been graphic novels produced with scots translations to coincide with Edinburgh's City of Literature campaign. There are only two so far, "Kidnappit" and "Unco Case o' Dr Jekyll An' Mr Hyde". Both adapted by Alan Grant, drawn by Cam Kennedy and translated into Scots by either Matthew Fitt or James P. Spence. There's a gaelic version of Jekyll and Hyde as well.

I'm tempted to compare the Gaelic resurgence to the rebirth of modern Hebrew in Israel, though I think it has more in common with Yiddish, which is undergoing its own, limited rebirth. Yiddish was officially shunned in Israel for many years, but is now making a come back there and other places -namely New York and Vilnius. I think recently many Jews have realized that Yiddish is, or should be, a valuable part of our culture, after all Jews spoke it for a thousand years in Europe while Hebrew languished.

Being a Jew and of Scottish descent (Robertson on my father's side) I've had an interest in the languages of my ancestors. I taught myself to read Hebrew and Yiddish, and more recently a bit of Gaelic.

I've rambled a bit and forgotten what my point was.

It does seem that adding the Gaelic signage is aimed more at tourists (I was in Pitlochry two years ago and don't remember seeing that sign, and I don't recall that being a Gaelic speaking area). Particularly if there's no one in the area who can actually read them. I suppose it just shows that governments everywhere will find a way to spend in the least useful way.

William and Stewart - one of the greatest modern works in Scots is The New Testament in Scots, translated by William Laughton Lorimer. It completely changes one's idea of the capacities of the language, and one's imagining of the NT.

Aragonese is apparently the single most threatened language in Europe. In our bookshop we have a number of titles in the language. Nobody has ever taken one of them, though. Despite the fact that they are free.

It's brilliant. The prefix in "Pitlochry" means that it was a Pictish place, so that Gaelic was an incoming, Imperial, conqueror's tongue. Oh so bloody brilliant.

Roy, nynorsk is used bu closer to 15% than 5%.

Also, the roots of bokmål is also in a nationalism, albeit a different one than nynorsk.

There is no more reason to believe nynorsk will be gone in hundred years than bokmål.

Now, back to Scotland. I'm guilty of touristy love for Gaelic signs, I guess.

Nobody speaks Nynorsk, and very few people speak Bokmal. They speak their own dialects, which happen to conform to one orthography or the other. The divide hides a lot of much more low level regional differences.

And considering that there are at least five dialects of Norwegian (at least four of which I find pretty incomprehensible at first hearing, although I'm nowhere near fluent) and they don't appear to be converging, I see no reason why the written language should either. Especially since they're close enough to be mutually intelligible.

Although reading Nynorsk does terrible things to my brain and I would eagerly celebrate its passing.

I'm not a Scot and I don't read Gaelic, but one thing that strikes me about that picture is that the Gaelic translation is actually less ethnically diverse. The Pit- suffix is a remnant of the extinct Pictish suffix, generally found compounded with a Gaelic personal name. It's a remnant of the Gaelic takeover of Pictland (what kind of takeover it was remains unclear) in the ninth century.

Why does this matter? Because Scottish national identity is as much of a created thing as English identity is. We're both mongrel peoples without any common Urheimat and I think this should be celebrated. Obviously, there is the problem that Gaelic survived whereas Norn, Pictish and Cumbric didn't, so reflecting this diversity is hard, but it still feeds into a marginalisation and narrowing of Scottish identity which seems to me a tragedy.

Surely the more elements of Scottish identity that are recognised the better.

Just because the Gaels erased Pictland doesn't mean we should now allow Gaelic to fall into the twillight zone. It is still alive and as long as there are people live who speak Gaelic and are interested in the language it should be promoted and protected.

It Pictish culture and language were still alive I would be in favour of protecting that too. But it is not and little is know about it and more is the shame.

Actually comming from an area where Doric is spoken....not not Gaelic...not Lalanders but Doric!

apparantly the oldest form of spoken English left in the world it is completely ignored by the scottish parliement for that southern namby pampy bloody english with a edinburgh accent they call scots!

and don't start me on the nationalists who want gaelic taught in schools were it was NEVER spoken

never mind the fact that we used to have to watch Danger mouse in gaelic in order for our local TV station to get a grant when nobody in the NE of Scotland speaks the sodding language!!!!!

honestly though I'm having arather good day


"and don't start me on the nationalists who want gaelic taught in schools were it was NEVER spoken"

Ah that common complaint. As you would well know if you had made any effort to read up on the history of language distribution within Scotland (and the history of the nation in general) There is no part of Mainland Scotland that did not speak Gaelic at some point. The only place where it wasnt the majority language is the Lothians - here it was largely an elite language of the artistocracy and gentry and only for about 200 years or so during the middle ages. Coming from where Doric is spoken you should be more than familiar with Gaelic placenames given that the vast majority of historic Scottish placenames are of Gaelic origin and - this is beautifully ironic - the vast majority of these are to be found in the Lowlands and particularly along the north east Coast. Unless you hail from Orkney or Shetland then you cant claim to be from a place where Gaelic was never spoken. You live in a country which was founded by, named for (the meaning of Scotland is "Gael-land" as Scot=Gael for most of history) and defined by Gaelic speakers and not speakers of English - be it Southern English or any of the Northern forms of English like Doric/Lallans/Northumbrian or whatever.

"Gaelic's all very well, but Scotland has another perfectly good native language, which is Scots."

Hmm well lets look at the facts. Gaelic is the language of the original Scots - indeed the Scots were defined as such by the fact they spoke Gaelic for most of history. It was these Scots/Gaels (the two terms meant the samething until about the 15th century when the English speaking Scots suddenly decided they wouldnt be English anymore but would refer to themselves as Scots)Gaelic is the language that saw Scotland named as Scotland - the meaning of Scotland is the same as Gael-land. Gaelic was spoken across every part of Scotland but the Northern isles. Only in the Lothians was it spoken only by a minority (aristocracy, gentry, clergy) as opposed to being the popular language (as it was everywhere else in the Lowlands - Galloway, Aberdeenshire etc) in every other part of mainland Scotland and Western Isles.

Scots on the other hand is a form of English. If it is a dialect it is a dialect of English. If it is a language it is an English language. It is descended from Middle English. It was referred to by it's own speakers as English for most of its history and only ceased to be generally referred to as such a few centuries before the union with England. It's speakers historicaly referred to themselves ethnically as English. Indeed the English speaking heartland of Scotland - the Lothians - was referred to historically as "the land of the English in the Kingdom of the Scots" and is "Scottish" only by dint of it being conquered by the Scots/Gaels in the 11th century. It's population did not start thinking of themselves as any kind of "Scot" until after the wars of independence. Scots was only spoken across the Lowlands - having been preceeded everywhere but the Lothians by Gaelic.

This kind of thing, anonymous, is why nationalism is foreign to me.

"The political and cultural resurgence of Scottish identity was expressed in what is now called Scottish Standard English, and in a resurrected Scots."

Come on Ken.

Sorley MacLean? George Campbell Hay? Iain Crichton Smith and Derick Thomson from your own island?

That's why bi-lingual signs are a good idea. They make folk stop and think and hopefully prod them to remember Gaelic's place in the world - including its place in the 'cultural resurgence of Scottish identity'.

I'm kind of surprised that a writer from the Western Isles with an attachment to the language can overlook the role of Gaelic writers in this way.

It's actually got me pretty depressed. Nothing unusual there however. A lot of things do that.

Anyroad, an dochas gu bheil thu gu math.

PS Love the one-star reviews. Very funny.

Davie, I'm sorry to have given the impression that I overlook the Gaelic writers, especially the poets. The point I was making, not clearly enough, was that Scottish nationalism hasn't had anything like the same relationship to the Gaelic language that Irish nationalism had to Irish Gaelic and that Welsh nationalism has to Welsh. Even the names of the parties show that: Sinn Fein. Finna Gael. Plaid Cymru. Scottish National Party.

Oh, and 'making folks stop and think' is not such a good idea when the folks in question are driving.

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I have found Gaelic to be particularly useful in my life. Rather than being an annoyance, seeing "Fàilte gu Inbhir Pheofharain (Welcome to Dingwall) as a child when visiting the grandparents was a cause of curiosity, and as an adult, fluency in the language has been a useful means of retaining my sanity against a constant backdrop of cultural colonisation.

Fair enough, different people have different experiences.

There's a funny story from near Dingwall about when the authorities made up a Gaelic name for Beauly, and I think put it on signs, until locals pointed out that Beauly already has a well established Gaelic name, A' Mhanachainn.

Great piece on this by Malcolm Combe:

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