Losing Our Way Part I

BY EFFIE DEANS

For a few years as a child while my father helped build an oil rig, I lived in a very remote part of the West Highlands near to where Boris Johnson tried to go on holiday with his family. There were less than twenty children in the school and around one hundred people in the village. The elderly people could speak Gaelic but usually didn’t even to each other. The parents of my school friends could all speak Gaelic, but never did least of all to their children. The children couldn’t speak Gaelic at all and even pronounced local place names as if they were English. In the years that I spent there I didn’t learn to speak a single sentence in Gaelic and learned less than five words in total. Even as a child going to the Mod and singing songs none of us understood, but rather sang parrot fashion, I realised that I was singing a dead language.

I imagine my small West Highland village had been fully Gaelic speaking one or perhaps two generations earlier, but the language was lost, not because anyone forced the people to stop speaking it, but because for various reasons they chose not to. There were attempts to ban Polish when Poland ceased to exist, but it was kept going by the people. Even if it was forbidden to speak Polish in public, they spoke it at home and their priests taught each subsequent generation. Language loss always happens with consent and because people decide that their old language is no longer useful. This is why we no longer speak Anglo Saxon nor any of the other former languages of Europe and the world.

A week ago, I went for a day trip in the direction of my former home. I set off very early because I wanted to get from Aberdeenshire to the West coast and back again in a day. As a child I had known only one place name for each of the towns and villages of the Highlands. These were the names everyone used. I never once heard Fort William called An Gearasdan and if I had asked someone how to get there my query would have been met with bemusement. So too if I had asked where A’ Mhanachainn [Beauly] is not a single person in Inbhir Nis [Inverness] could have told me though Beauly is only ten miles away.

But suddenly on arriving at Inverness I found all the signs were bilingual with one name in a language everyone knew and spoke and the other in a language which no one knew and spoke.

I used to know someone in the census office who described how the census takers always devised the language question to get as many Gaelic speakers as possible. If you had once watched Dòtaman or football with Gaelic commentary or used Saor Alba as part of your Twitter name, then you counted as a Gaelic speaker even if you couldn’t ask for a pint of beer in Gaelic.

The truth is that there are only eleven thousand people who use Gaelic as their daily language in Scotland. They are nearly all elderly and they nearly all live in the Outer Hebrides. The idea that this number will increase by making bilingual signs is preposterous. There were more Gaelic speakers when I was a child and none of the signs were in Gaelic.

Am I opposed to regional languages? No. I love languages and speak many. I speak Doric, the language of Aberdeenshire, fluently. I speak it because when I was a child everyone in rural Aberdeenshire spoke it. Doric is a living language still. But the place names of Aberdeenshire are very frequently of Gaelic origin. Should we have signs in triplicate, with Fraserburgh called A’ Bhruaich and The Broch? If we do that all over Aberdeenshire, we can quite quickly prevent anyone finding their way.

What is a name? A name is what a thing is actually called. It is a matter of usage. A name is not what something used to be called. If I ask the way to Londinium people will think I am mad or joking. So too if I go to Poland and ask the way to Breslau rather than Wrocław I might get an unpleasant answer. It is simply illogical to use as a name for a place a word that is never or extremely rarely used. It is to misunderstand what a name is.

Parts of Scotland used to speak Gaelic, but then again some of them used to speak Pictish, Old Norse, Old English and Anglo Norman French. So too England used to be a Celtic speaking country, then it spoke Latin, Anglo Saxon, Middle English and finally modern English. Are we really to have signs in every language that was ever spoken in Britain?

Road signs should be a matter of directing people to their destination. I lost my way repeatedly on my journey to Loch Duich [Loch Dubhthaich] because I kept hunting for the place I wanted in a long list of place names I didn’t recognise and could not pronounce. In the few seconds I had to judge where to turn I scanned the signs rather than paid attention to the road. It was dangerous and it was without linguistic purpose.

Not one single person has chosen to learn Gaelic because of road signs though I wonder how many accidents they have caused. The purpose of the signs is purely political. It is to pretend that Scotland is not an English-speaking country, because if that were the case it could be used to justify Scottish independence. The signs are there to describe a difference that no longer exists and place names that are no longer used.

Scottish nationalists pretend that they can speak Gaelic, because they hate the fact that they actually speak English, but they never learn Gaelic to the extent that they add just one to the eleven thousand. They get no further than Alba gu bràth. Scottish nationalists can rarely even speak Scots like I do. They think that slang and patter is Scots and pronouncing House as Hoos is enough. It isn’t. They merely Scotify English and think that this is Scots. The Scots I grew up speaking had its own grammar and a rich vocabulary. We needed no signs to tell us to speak it. We didn’t use Doric to pretend that we were somehow distinct from the rest of Scotland that could neither speak it nor understand it.

Try learning a language if you are interested in it, but don’t politicise what you can’t understand.

The excellent Effie Deans writes at Lily of St. Leonard’s here.