May 16, 2017

An important dimension that’s often missing from the debates about whether it’s worthwhile to support Gaelic or promote Scots in Scotland is why one would do such a thing in the first place. In today’s feverish political environment these things slide all too often into outright constitutional mudslinging or at least a debate that foregrounds the essential Scottishness of the country’s languages, either as a good thing or a bad thing. Scott Hames has written about this approach being unhelpful, and I agree. But if this is not about nationality, why indeed would one put up Gaelic signs in the Borders or push for more recognition of Scots?

Several misconceptions are widespread among both opponents and supporters of minority language promotion. For instance, the introduction of Gaelic or Scots into schools is often framed as an attempt by the government to ‘teach [alternatively, indoctrinate] the children to speak’ the minority language — ominously, at the expense of Standard English? The infamous Gaelic signs (the number of which in all of the Lowlands probably runs, let’s face it, into the low three figures) are seen as an attempt to stake a claim on territory for Gaelic, presumably on the basis of it having been spoken in the area historically; this often tends to provoke a backlash along the lines of ‘why don’t we promote Welsh then — isn’t it the closest living relative of the historical language of Lowland Scotland?’ Here is a typical example. This latter argument, of course, is only true if the purpose of Gaelic signs is to promote Gaelic for these historical reasons — which supporters of the language are often wont to support, pointing to the very real Gaelic heritage of much of the country.

These ideas, whether espoused by well-wishers or detractors of minority languages, suffer from a failure to invert the majority’s perspective. Those who do not identify as members of the linguistic minority tend to see language policy as largely aimed at them, rather than catering for the needs and desires of the minority speakers themselves. Hence the frequent trope of the language being ‘pushed down our throats’ and ‘subsidies’ and ‘catering to the needs of the minority at the expense of the majority’.

Here’s the problem: the kind of visible gestures that raise the most public ire are, in fact, just that: gestures. It is preposterous to think that having a ‘Burns week’ at school or a bunch of English lessons attempting to write a poem in Scots (it’s always a poem, of course) is sufficient to guide pupils’ linguistic behaviour outside class. The way people end up speaking depends on the speech first of their caregivers, then of their peers, perhaps particularly in adolescence, and also on their attitude to the different in- and out-groups they are members of.1 A lesson or two in written Scots will no more turn a child with a middle-class accent into a speaker of broad Scots than many years of schooling eradicate non-standard varieties in working-class communities.

Similarly, a couple of signs at a railway station or the introduction of Gaelic into local council branding will not indoctrinate children into speaking Gaelic, and I strongly suspect they will not be able to somehow push children into having a stronger Scottish identity than they otherwise would have. Such token gestures are utterly ineffectual at the aims that they are commonly seen to have. If you’re looking for an actually effective policy tool, look at the LEACAG project currently conducted by several Scottish universities working towards a reference grammar of Gaelic, with funding from Bòrd na Gàidhlig. Yet it doesn’t seem to be the target of quite so much ire.

Why do it then? It starts making sense if you look at it from the perspective of someone who is (or aspires to be) a speaker of a minority language or a non-standard variety. This is part of prestige planning — measures that improve the perceived status of the minority language in the broader society and building democratic consent for further policy initiatives in that area. In this respect, involving the language in ‘official’ uses such as signage or school teaching is a signal both to the minority language users themselves and to the society at large that minority and non-standard varieties are valued and respected, and not an irrelevance or an inconvenience to be dismissed. That is an important part of promoting the languages: speakers’ attitudes to their language are partly, of course, personal, but also shaped to a large extent by the broader societal attitudes — can we really always expect a person growing up in an environment for few signs of appreciation for the way they speak to have a positive attitude to it themselves?

This is also the problem with the often-made argument that Scotland-wide promotion of Gaelic is a waste of resources and funding should be concentrated in areas where it has a stronger claim to being a ‘regional’ language (in practice, the Highlands — not even perhaps all of it — and Islands). But look at it from the perspective of a speaker or user of Gaelic. The intent of the current policy is to signal to them: ‘we value your language because of who you are — one of us — not because of where you live’. A ‘regional’ policy says: ‘we’ll allow you weirdos to have your fun where there’s enough of you around, but please don’t come here inconveniencing us, the numerical majority who actually matter’. This is, in some ways, quite an insidious argument that makes a ‘democratic’ appeal to the will of the majority against the interests of the minority.

Have a look at this programme recently broadcast on BBC Alba. It’s on Gaelic in Aberdeen, showing how people with backgrounds from both the north-east and elsewhere keep the flag flying. All too often they hear people say ‘but it was never spoken here’, ‘it is being imposed’. And yet they have lived in the north-east for years, sometimes, as some of those interviewed, all their lives — they are living proof that it is spoken. How do you tell such a person that their language is an imposition and an inconvenience? This sort of argument betrays a fundamental lack of empathy.

This is true even when the argument is couched in the language of ‘I have nothing against it, but it should stand on its own two feet’. It is majority communities that have the luxury of being confident their culture and language aren’t going away, because they already have the support structure and the social scaffolding that ensures their culture and language remain in it. Building and maintaining these structures requires the kind of time and effort that very few people have to spare. Telling them to get on with it and stop being so damn visible shows the very same lack of empathy for these circumstances.

(Parenthetically, the programme, quite well done and produced, is largely preaching to the choir when it’s on BBC Alba. An establishment really keen on promoting and imposing Gaelic would be showing it, probably in English, on prime-time BBC One. As noted, if the SNP or whoever are intent on pushing the language down everybody’s throats, they are doing a pretty rubbish job of it.)

There is, of course, a cultural, heritage argument to be made for the promotion of Gaelic — one that can be legitimately appealed to if we want to decide on, say, the appropriate level of support for ‘immigrant’ minority languages that have a ‘home base’ outside of Scotland. But it is by no means a central plank of Gaelic-language policy. Minority language policy should focus on protecting the rights of speakers, and the rights of speakers are best served with a coherent programme of language planning. This includes prestige planning that aims to build consent for the protection of speakers’ rights everywhere — not just in designated areas where they are tolerated, but wherever they choose to live. People who think others shouldn’t have these rights are of course entitled to their opinion, but it would be great if they argued their case on that basis, not referring to an imagined nationalist plot or bungled heritage programme.

PS- If you want to put yourself into the shoes of a minority language speaker Who Has Had Enough, I highly recommend this tweetstorm by @Madeley.

  1. Incidentally, some of the groundbreaking research in this area was conducted in the significantly Scots-speaking community of Buckie in the north-east of Scotland. [return]

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About me

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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