September 28, 2016

Another day, another stooshie on Scottish Twitter. This time it’s Paul Kavanagh sharing some really lovely maps of Lowland areas with Gaelic placenames that he’s made.

Cue some really rather unenlightened comments with all the usual accusations and allegations (‘never spoken here’, ‘pushing it down our throats’, ‘dead language’, ‘spend it on hospitals instead’), and equally noisy pushback. Paul himself was moved to write a blog post that has also been well shared (even, judging by my Facebook feed, by people not normally part of the absorbing world of Scottish political Twitter).

So to start with: it is absolutely correct that most of the anti-Gaelic stuff has a tenuous hold on reality. There is almost too much excellent writing on the Internet dealing with this, but have a look at this by Malcolm Combe or this by Daibhidh Rothach or this by Rhona NicDhùghaill or even this by Ingi Birchell Hughes (it’s about Welsh, but the silliness is much the same).

We should be able to take preposterous claims and call them preposterous. It is not true that Gaelic was never spoken in the Lowlands, and yes, that includes Aberdeenshire (home to the abbey of Deer, itself home to the Book of Deer, commonly recognized as the earliest source for specifically Scottish Gaelic texts as opposed to standard Old Irish), Fife (with, for instance, baile names found all the way to the East Neuk) and the Lothians (Balerno and Inveresk being clear examples).1 The dastardly signs seem to me be a distinct rarity in the Lowlands (not being a driver, I have no idea how many bilingual signs there are on the M8, but I suspect not a great deal). In Edinburgh, where I live, I know of (mostly well hidden) Gaelic signs at Waverley and Haymarket stations (well, the smaller stations like Gyle a Dheas too), bilingual branding in the Scottish Parliament, and some signs around Edinburgh University (mostly for things like the School of Literatures, Languages and Cultures and the School of Scottish Studies Archives, where not having them would be a very poor show indeed!).

In any case, as Malcolm touches on in his blog, the idea of Scotland as some kind of Gaelic dictatorship where vital resources are channelled away from vital spending areas is so far off the mark it’s laughable. In Tromsø, in the far north of Norway, where I did my PhD, all signs at the university (and the university hospital) are bilingual Norwegian-Northern Sámi (or trilingual with English). In Wales, all road signs are bilingual (not just those in Welsh-speaking areas) and give or take all school pupils are meant to do Welsh at school. In Scotland, we don’t even have a right to Gaelic-medium education enshrined in law, so give me a break — if the government wanted to really impose Gaelic on everyone, they are doing a piss-poor job of it. (But then, as I’ve said elsewhere the SNP aren’t really a language-rights party à la Plaid.)

But, there’s a but. Much as I would have liked to endorse the arguments of those who defend Paul’s Gaelic maps venture, I confess I feel a distinct unease at promoting Gaelic primarily as a vehicle for Scottish culture. For the avoidance of doubt, I have absolutely no time for the argument that promoting Gaelic is some kind of dastardly SNP plot to manufacture artificial difference, or that Gaelic culture has no worth in the modern world (the ‘dead language’ canard). Those arguments are preposterous too. And yet.

History and heritage and culture are important, and they might sway some people, but others — who do not happen to share that particular sense of history and identity — will be much more difficult to persuade. This is not (I think) where the main arguments for promoting Gaelic should be. The main argument is that it is a real language spoken by real people here and now who have real rights. And one of those rights should be to live as much of their lives as possible through Gaelic — and in an English-dominant society they need help. (Scott Hames makes some related points on Scots here.)

The aspect of the Gaelic Language Act I like most is its insistence that Gaelic is a national language of Scotland. All people living here, whether they live in Stornoway or Jedburgh, Stranraer or Lerwick, whether they have a Highland family background or are just interested in the culture, whether they support independence or the union, should all have equal rights to Gaelic. Dragging it into nationalist vs. unionist Twitter fights does not help. The language should not be put into any kind of box, whether constitutional or political or regional.

I disagree with people who say that funding for Gaelic should be focused on areas where it ‘has a chance’.

If (say) you grow up with Gaelic but want to pursue opportunities available to you in areas where such targeted support is absent, such a policy essentially forces you to choose between opportunity and getting help with sticking to Gaelic — and then gets you blamed for not caring enough. This is what any such division produces. And there is the same danger if the ‘box’ becomes party-political.

It is with such arguments that we should engage. Fights over identity and culture and belonging are fun but don’t look good to outsiders. Let’s see opponents build a positive case for depriving people of their rights instead. There are rational arguments against the promotion of minority languages; I would probably disagree with most of them, but let’s have them out in the open in a grown-up manner.

Anyway, I hear you say, who cares, it’s a Twitter fight. But Twitter fights are loud, and it looks like some MSPs are listening:

For now, the Conservative and Unionist Party remains committed to Gaelic, at least as far as its manifesto commitments go. But for how long, if the debate slips onto the usual nationalist vs. unionist rails? And if you’re a supporter of Gaelic, do you really want this to happen? The SNP will not be in power for ever. To keep support for the language, we need it to be broad and above party-political disagreements. Look to Northern Ireland, where an Irish Language Act has stalled for years because it’s tangled up in constitutional disagreements. So — careful now.


  1. In any case, you don’t need local Gaelic speakers to have a Gaelic name for a place: English has (had) no problem with calling München, Venezia, and Pfalz Munich, Venice and the Palatinate. For instance, the Gaelic name for Linlithgow (Gleann Iucha) was well-known among Highlanders even if they never visited. [return]

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I’m Pavel Iosad, and I'm a Lecturer in Theoretical Phonology in the department of Linguistics and English Language at the University of Edinburgh. ¶ You can always go to the start page to learn more.

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