October 31, 2017

It gives me no pleasure but the recent opinion in The Times by the highly respected journalist Magnus Linklater really deserves a response. In a handy 899 words, it shows all the blind spots of a majority establishment that simply does not see what the deal is with minority languages. I can see where this position is coming from (Russia is not the most progressive country for awareness of its minority languages among the majority population), but really, one expects better — not just as far as the policy proposals go (we can surely disagree on that) but even in terms of basic journalism. The piece is full of inaccuracies that may not matter much for the central point, but boy do they get in the way.

it would be desperately sad to lose such an important part of our heritage. I remember summer holidays in Ullapool and Mallaig, where the herring were being packed in barrels by women who spoke to each other entirely in Gaelic - as pure as you could get. The herring are long gone. I hope the Gaelic survives.

Well that’s awfully nice. But note that we’re already slipping into the trope of non-modernity. Not only is Gaelic associated primarily with a traditional industry but it is also described as ‘pure’. When was the last time you heard someone’s English described as ‘pure’?

Don’t let’s pretend, however, that it is our second language. For all the street signs, station names and border posts translated laboriously into Gaelic

Another trope. ‘All’ the street signs? ‘Laboriously’ translated? This makes it sound like some sort of heroic enterprise whereby there are forests of signs going up all over Scotland. In Edinburgh, I am aware of precisely zero bilingual street signs. The number of ‘border posts’ can’t possibly be that large. Nor, in the grand scheme of things, is the cost of renewing some station signs (lots of them, incidentally, in the Highlands).

or the £30 million spent annually on promoting it

Ah yes, let’s put a price on it. How much on promoting English? How much of this money is spent on education and would therefore be spent in the English-medium education system anyway? We’re not told.

we are no more a bilingual nation than Cornwall or the Isle of Man.

I suppose at least someone in Cornwall or the Isle of Man might take exception to that, but we can let that pass.

In an attempt to reverse that decline, the 2005 Gaelic Language Act, which gave Gaelic formal recognition in Scotland, laid down that it should command “equal respect” with English but stopped well short of insisting on its use

In other words, ‘equal respect’ is a largely symbolic policy with not much in the way of real teeth to enforce it if it is not complied with. This is 100% true.

Just take a look at Catalonia, where since the early 1980s the “immersion” system in schools has transformed Catalan from an archaic Latin-based tongue, once suppressed by Franco, into the official language of the nation.

This is so confused one doesn’t know where to start. Immersion education has, in principle, nothing to do with ‘official’ status. Immersion is meant to produce more speakers — this is what we do in Scotland without Gaelic being the ‘official language of the nation’. The rhetorical contrast between ‘archaic Latin-based tongue’ and ‘official’ language of the nation makes no sense. Why bring in ‘Latin-based’ at all — after all the majority language in the Catalan situation is the equally ‘Latin-based’ Spanish. And note the non-modernity trope again — how is Catalan ‘archaic’? (On the scale of how much it has changed from Latin it is roughly at the same stage as Spanish, somewhere in the middle between Sardinian and French, but it’s still difficult to see what this has to do with anything.)

As a consequence it has become a divisive force. For those who want to stay part of Spain, it is the language of nationalism and separation; for those who back independence, it is simply the expression of who they are.

And here we come to the nub and the ground zero of projection. Here’s the thing: people speak a language because it’s central to who they are, or who they want to be, and there is absolutely no logical necessity that it should align to constitutional preferences. There are Spanish-speaking nationalists, and there are Catalan-speaking unionists. Minority languages are not spoken to spite the unionist majority. To say that Catalan was made divisive by immersion education feeding young nationalists, in the same breath as noting it was suppressed by Franco, honestly beggars belief. To blame the people who fought for the right to be educated, and live their lives through their own language, a right that was denied to them, for being divisive, betrays an unwillingness to step away from the majority’s view of minorities as a needy nuisance. It would be equally naive, of course, to say that the Catalan language question is completely politics-free, but here we are putting the blame squarely on the minority and not on a state with previous form for less enlightened attitudes.

The pressure to preserve a language is, of course, a strong one. There are those who argue that unless Gaelic is given official status it will be lost. They point to Wales, where the Welsh Language Measure of 2011 made it de jure the language of the state - the only part of the UK where English is not the principal language of government. Even here, however, the percentage of those speaking Welsh has dropped below the 20 per cent level.

But that is the point. The reason the Welsh Language Measure was introduced was that previous Welsh Language Acts, whilst fairly successful in many respects, particularly within education, the arts and the official sphere, were not sufficient to build many robust Welsh-language arenas, for instance in the private sector. This is exactly why Wales has moved to a language commissioner model, whose intent is to make sure Welsh-language provision can be expanded beyond areas directly funded by the state.

Gaelic, by contrast, has been in decline for far longer, and has never been truly the language of the establishment; the writer Allan Massie argues that the last king of Scotland to have spoken Gaelic was James IV in the 16th century.

It is telling that Allan Massie (with all due respect), and not, say, Charles Withers is the principal authority on the history of Gaelic, but the important thing rhetorically is that again the case for Gaelic is connected to the pre-modern past. Literally no-one serious is basing proposals for a stronger Gaelic policy on how long it survived as the language of the Scottish court. The reason stronger statutory protection for Gaelic is needed is that it represents best practice in building sustainable minority language communities, not that James IV spoke it. This is a straw man and a continuation of unfortunate framing of the language as irrelevant in the modern age.

Seeking to elevate its status would, therefore, be to reverse a centuries-long trend.

The ‘trend’ being, of course, often the result of quite deliberate government policy. But let’s not mention government policy, shall we?

Finland, once part of the Swedish empire, framed its laws in Swedish, and Finns spoke it as the national language, even after their country was annexed by Russia in 1809.

It’s not obvious what it means that the Finns ‘spoke it as the national language’. Yes, educated citizens of the Grand Duchy of Finland routinely read, wrote and spoke Swedish, but Finnish was also there, wasn’t it? The words ‘national language’ are doing a lot of work here.

Then, after independence in 1917, the Finnish language, whose origins go back to the Magyar empire of the middle ages

This is so wrong it’s good. Yes, Finnish is (distantly) related to Hungarian but the Magyar settlement of Pannonia has absolutely nothing to do with Finland.

and which was once used mainly in rural areas, gradually gained the ascendancy and today, on the centenary of independence, has become the language of the majority with barely 5 per cent speaking Swedish for preference. Even here, however, language has its tensions. Try going into a shop in rural Finland and speaking Swedish: you may get a dusty response.

The majority in Finland always spoke Finnish — it’s just that the elite stopped being exclusively Swedish-speaking. (Also, I wonder if the ‘dusty’ response has to do with people’s command of a language they learn at school but don’t use much, rather than divisive nationalist politics?)

How then can Gaelic be saved? Probably by making it a vital part of our education system.

This is exactly what Ireland and Wales and many other places have been doing. And we know that it’s very important, but we also know that it’s not enough. Education is vital, but providing a sphere for the language beyond the school is more vital still. This is exactly why Wales has been trying to push for a more assertive language policy. This is why when you visit Catalonia or the Basque Country and see the bilingual (trilingual, even) signs literally everywhere and not just on the odd railway station, you see just how much stronger their language policies are.

With the unchanged Scottish state system flatlining at best, those schools teaching Gaelic are often better resourced,

There is no evidence for this. Certainly, none is given. Generally, this seems to be a meme among opponents of Gaelic-medium education. (In Edinburgh, this seems to be fuelled by the fact that GME at secondary level is offered at the desirable James Gillespie’s High School — largely by virtue of the fact that before the opening of the dedicated school the Gaelic-medium primary unit was at Tollcross Primary, which feeds into JGHS, meaning that’s where the expertise is.)

give pupils the extra dimension of a second language and provide greater stimulation than the relatively unchallenging Curriculum for Excellence.

Without getting into a scrap over education policy, which is something I’m not competent to do, Gaelic-medium education in Scotland offers the Curriculum for Excellence, except it’s in Gaelic.

The Gaelic they have been taught may indeed have been “broken” by modern jargon, but those who have learnt it will have become familiar with the lilting quality and romantic poetry of a language once spoken by the bards and a part of culture that enriched Scotland’s life and heritage. Better by far to have absorbed a language at source than that the state should try to force it onto the statute books.

And once again the pre-modern framing. Do you ever hear Coleridge and Milton referred to as a justification for the massive support the government gives to English, by teaching it at schools, supporting the arts, funding a broadcaster? No. Do you ever hear that we should all be learning English because it’s the language of international commerce? That’s preposterous. English is taught and supported because it is the language of its speakers, and that is justification enough. So why is it not enough for Gaelic?

But most perniciously, the sweet words about ‘lilting quality’ and bards are just an excuse to say ‘the burden of reviving the language is on the speakers’. It is on them to come through the school and keep using their Gaelic, as we keep it off the statute books. ‘We’, the majority, don’t need to do anything, need suffer no inconvenience, not even the indignity of seeing a railway station sign. How are people meant to keep using their Gaelic outside of their own circle when the state offers no protection, no support for it? We’re not told. And when the small numbers of speakers give up, dwindle further in the monolingual sea of the modern nation-state, we shrug our shoulders and say ‘it’s a centuries-long trend; should’ve taken better care of it, really’.

We can, and should, do better.

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About me

I’m Pavel Iosad, and I’m a Senior Lecturer 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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