I was born in a small village in rural Aberdeenshire and grew up speaking both English and Doric. It was natural for me to do so because these were the languages that were used in daily life. My father worked in the oil industry and so for a while we lived in an even smaller village in the West Highlands. It could hardly have been more remote and it couldn’t have been further west as it was on the coast. But I only spoke one language there: English.
None of my friends spoke Gaelic although their parents usually could and their grandparents frequently did. My school took part in Gaelic singing contests, but we learned the words to the songs without understanding them. It was, no doubt, a reasonably good imitation of singing Gaelic as our teacher knew the language and could correct pronunciation. But it was the sort of imitation that a parrot makes when it swears at you in English. The parrot doesn’t know what it is saying and neither did we.
When we left this village and returned home to Aberdeenshire I knew less than five Gaelic words. There is only really one way to learn a language. You learn it from your parents, your friends and your lovers or not at all. You can’t really learn a living language from books or from teachers. It ends up being a dead thing like Latin, or like Gaelic. You might try to resurrect the corpse, but resurrection requires a miracle and without it you still just have a body that is gradually decomposing. I can shout “Gaelic come forth” in as loud a voice as I can manage, but unlike Lazarus it remains stuck in its tomb. I lack even the words to tell it that it can leave.
What is a thing? If you want to answer this question you need to ask another. What is it for? What is a language? It is a means of communicating. Why do I learn foreign languages? I may do so because I want to read texts. For this reason I know some Hebrew, Ancient Greek and Latin. But I cannot speak these languages though I some idea of how they are pronounced. I have never had a conversation with someone in Ancient Greek, because unfortunately I don’t have a time machine. Learning a language to read texts is useful, but the language remains rather a lifeless thing. This creates a barrier between me and the texts of the dead language because I only know the words from my teachers or from my dictionary. I don’t hear how they were used in everyday life and so I miss the nuances and the naturalness of speaking is forever lost to me. I understand, in a way, but something is lacking, something has been lost.
The foreign language I speak best is Russian. Why should this be so? The reason is that my purpose in speaking it is to communicate with others. If I am in Russia I can speak to people who don’t know English. In the end that is the main reason for learning any language. People in Britain rarely speak a foreign language fluently. They think that they can’t. But this view is mistaken. Anyone can learn a language. You just need a reason to do so. But it has to be quite a powerful reason, for the effort involved is considerable. This is why most of us get nowhere with French at school. But if you lived in France you would soon speak French quite well.
But this is why learning Gaelic has no purpose. Where can I go in Scotland where I need to know Gaelic in order to communicate? Find me a Gaelic speaker who is not a three year old who doesn’t also know English. The purpose of language is communication, but I can communicate everywhere in Scotland perfectly adequately if I know English and perhaps also a form of broad Scots. There are no monolingual adult Gaelic speakers in Scotland. When this happens to any language, it can effectively be declared dead. When the purpose of learning a language is not communication, it is safe to conclude that there is no purpose. Why then should I learn Gaelic?
The reason I should learn Gaelic, of course, is political. Why is it that certain Scottish nationalist web sites occasionally have articles in broad Scots or in Gaelic? It isn’t because they want to communicate? Writing in Scots is a hindrance to communication. I have no idea how to write Doric apart from phonetically and I struggle to read lowland Scots as the words and the pronunciation are different to those we use in Aberdeenshire. We say “Fit” and “Foo” and “Far” for “What” and “How” and “Where” but people from Glasgow don’t speak Scots in this way.
Writing in Gaelic is even more of a hindrance to communication for the simple reason that only 50,000 people out of five million can speak Gaelic. How many of these speak Gaelic fluently? I have no idea. The census question is always deliberately vague so that anyone who has learned a little Gaelic can claim to be a Gaelic speaker. On the same basis I can claim to be a Spanish speaker because I can order a glass of wine there. But anyway even if 50,000 people in Scotland speak Gaelic fluently, how many of them are interested in articles about Scottish nationalism? So of course the purpose of writing like the Broons or in Gaelic is not about communication, it’s about making a political statement.
Language is political for the simple reason that borders in Europe are most frequently determined by who speaks what language. There are complexities to this of course. There may be historical or geographical reasons for a border existing. But nationality is connected with language. Someone is a Hungarian because he speaks Hungarian.
In most cases where there have been historical independence movements there is a clear and distinct difference between peoples. This difference is geographical, linguistic or religious. When people share the same geography, language and religion it is rare indeed for them to seek independence? What for? Western Hungarians don’t want to separate from Eastern Hungarians because there is next to no difference between them.
The reason why some people in Quebec wanted independence was because they spoke French. The reason why some Catalonians want independence is because they speak Catalan. The reason fundamentally why the Republic of Ireland became independent is because the majority of people living there were Catholics.
But people in Scotland speak the same language as people in England. We share the same small island. If we have a religion at all it is likely to be a sort of Protestantism. Why separate what is the same? What quality does Nicola Sturgeon have that Theresa May lacks which should make some people so desperate that they live in different nation states? I have never heard an answer to this question that doesn’t assume what it is trying to prove.
There is no real difference between people in Scotland and other parts of the UK. This is why Scottish nationalists are so keen to emphasise both Gaelic and broad Scots. It creates difference. It’s worth remembering however that historically “Scottis” referred to Gaelic while the language of the lowlands was called “Ynglis” or “Inglis”. But Scottish nationalists usually have a poor grasp of history. They think of Scotland as if it were still independent, while campaigning for it to become so. They ignore that we have shared a country and an identity with our neighbours for centuries and only focus on ways to divide what is similar. Anything therefore that is different about Scotland from other parts of the UK must be emphasised and if possible increased. Ludicrously this means that some Scottish nationalists try to write on Twitter as if they were the Broons.
I don’t object to people speaking Gaelic. But I do object to ever more public money being spent on something as it hastens its way towards becoming the next Pictish or Anglo Norman French. Should people in the Middle Ages have campaigned to keep those languages alive? If only we’d had Pictish Television we’d never have had to import Gaelic from Ireland in the first place. But we need neither Pictish nor Gaelic to communicate. In the end what other purpose does a language have?
As the possibility of travel in the world increases we are going to see more minority languages die out. This is natural. It is also a good thing. One thousand years ago in Britain there were a huge number of different languages and dialects many of which were mutually unintelligible. There was conflict for this reason. It is progress that we all can now understand each other. The same goes for most of Europe. We started off as hostile villages and tribes, but gradually came together and ended up speaking French, or German or Italian. It is far better that we did so rather than remain stuck speaking words that only a few of our neighbours could understand. In time the world may even overcome the legacy of the Tower of Babel. When all can understand all there will be no need for nationalism. Scottish nationalists however regret that we speak a world language and would prefer that Scots could only talk with themselves in a language understood by no-one else. Above all this is because they want to divide.
It is natural for languages to die out. In Scotland today nobody speaks Pictish and nobody speaks Anglo-Saxon. Where I come from there were Vikings, but no-one anymore speaks Old Norse. These are just as much a part of our heritage, but no-one puts up signs in Norse. My university has been forced by the SNP to adopt a Gaelic policy. We now have signs in Gaelic. Who are these signs for? Who do they direct? A sign that does not communicate isn’t even a sign. It has no purpose whatsoever.
Scottish nationalists think that they will win independence on the back of people speaking Scots or Gaelic. But they will fail. The reason my young friends in the West Highlands didn’t speak Gaelic was because their parents wanted them to speak a language that they could use outside the Highlands. For the same reason my parents made it clear that it was fine speaking Doric in the playground or in the street with my friends, but I had to be able to speak Standard English too. I am very glad that they did, because if I try to speak Doric even in other parts of Scotland no-one understands me.
We have a huge advantage living in the UK. The language that most Scots speak is used all over the world. But foreigners can’t understand either Gaelic or Scots. The SNP will keep pumping money into the Gaelic body. But Gaelic hasn’t been spoken in much of Scotland for hundreds of years and in some parts never. This will not change no matter how much money you waste on signs that no-one ever reads.
The purpose of language is not to help nationalism and it is not to preserve culture. I have no reason to learn a language for this purpose unless I am already a nationalist. People who try to learn a language for any other reason than communication will not get far. It takes an enormous effort and without the reward of communication it just isn’t worth it. This is why Ireland still speaks English despite a heroic attempt to force Irish down the throats of their schoolchildren.
Let us hope that Scotland never gains independence or we would all have to sing Gaelic songs parrot fashion and learn languages that hinder us from communicating with the rest of the world. We could then describe this as being internationalist. We could then feel good about how progressive we are in erecting a new language barrier with our neighbours. But above all we could delight in the fact that we no longer spoke English.
This post was originally published by the author 28 October 2016: http://effiedeans.blogspot.com/2016/10/gaelic-is-for-natioanlists.html