Losing Our Way Part II

BY EFFIE DEANS

The other day I wrote about my experience on a trip to the Highlands. I didn’t expect it to be particularly popular article, after all Gaelic is a minority language spoken on a daily basis by about eleven thousand people mostly in the Outer Hebrides. But suddenly my timeline was filled with raging Scottish Nationalists.

Not one of them addressed the substantive point I had made about names. Instead I received an almost uniform series of comments insulting me personally. I was blind. I had a poor reading/driving ability. I was stupid. Each Scottish nationalist missed the point in exactly the same way as if they were reading from a script. Perhaps they were. I don’t know how Scottish nationalist Facebook groups work. Perhaps they go around with a metaphorical fiery cross to gather up the Scottish nationalist clan underlings to make a Highland charge against me. Perhaps it happens by chance and the scripted appearance of the attack is accidental. Who knows? Who cares? I block on sight. I am uninterested in these people’s comments.

The logic of my argument is very simple. If quadrilingual signs are less clear than trilingual signs, then it follows logically that bilingual signs are less clear than monolingual signs. It is indisputable that quadrilingual signs in four languages and three scripts would at a large roundabout be less clear than trilingual signs. But if someone disagrees, we can increase the number of languages until we reach one hundred when the point becomes self-evident.

It may be that in certain countries where multiple languages are spoken that such signs are justified out of necessity. But the fact that countries with monolingual cultures prefer monolingual signs shows that bilingual signs should only be justified by necessity.

It would for instance be considered ludicrous to include the Anglo-Saxon name of a place in England as well as the Latin name and the Brittonic name so that signs would be quadrilingual. But more people in England speak Anglo-Saxon and Latin than speak Gaelic in Scotland. In recorded history, Brittonic is the indigenous language of England and most likely of Scotland too, being the language spoken in Pre-Roman times both in England and Scotland. Gaelic is derived from Middle Irish and was imported to Scotland, so it is in fact neither Scottish nor indigenous.

No one in England nor anywhere else in Europe would consider having signs in a language spoken by just 0.2% of the population, not even if they were indigenous.  It would make the signs less clear for no good reason. If this were not the case, why doesn’t England have bilingual signs in Latin just for the sake of it or for the tourists. But the resultant lessening of clarity would have no purpose. No Latin speaker in England would fail to find his destination because of the lack of Londinium or Luguvalium on the signs.

Until relatively recently in the Highlands all signs used only the modern form of place names that are in common usage in the Highlands. This is no different from in England where they prefer the modern spelling and pronunciation of place names. No one asks the way to Jorvik. Not one single Highlander or Gaelic speaker lost his way because a sign did not direct him to A’ Mhanachainn [Beauly] or Cille Chuimein [Fort Augustus]. Quite the reverse. If signs had only included the Gaelic name no one would have been able to find their way unless they knew where it was already.

So, it has been established that the purpose of the Gaelic signs is not about describing the names of places as they are commonly used. Few if any people living in the Highlands ask the way to Cille Chuimein. So, the signs do not describe names that are in common usage. The vast majority of Highlanders including Gaelic speakers use Inverness and Dingwall in daily life. Almost no one asks the way to Inbhir Nis [Inverness] or Inbhir Pheofharain [Dingwall]. Perhaps 0.2% of the Scottish populations use these names, but probably even they don’t.

But if that is the case then the Gaelic signs neither describe place names in ordinary use nor do they direct anyone to anywhere. They are therefore not signs at all. If the signs were only in Gaelic no one, or almost no one, would be able to find their way to Dingwall, which means qua sign, the Gaelic part is redundant.

Why then do we have signs that are redundant, and which contribute to lack of clarity in signage for no purpose? After all no one in England would stand for signs in Latin and English for no reason. They would immediately describe them as a road hazard and a waste of money.

There are two reasons why we have Gaelic signs. The Gaelic language is in decline and some people in Scotland wish to stop this decline and indeed reverse it. The other reason is political. Scottish nationalism requires a language other than English to express its difference. Scots as spoken by most Scottish people does not serve this purpose as it is merely an accent with a few different words and is readily understood by most native English speakers with no more difficulty than we have in understanding people from Yorkshire.

The drive to increase the number of Gaelic speakers is political. Why is there no concern about the decline of Urdu speakers or worries that Polish children in Scotland will soon cease to speak Polish? Why are those who first learned the Cyrillic alphabet not aided by having a sign saying Инвернесс? It is not its minority status that justifies the special treatment given to Gaelic. There are many minority languages in Scotland that are spoken more than Gaelic is. It is the idea that Gaelic is indigenous and Scottish that justifies the attempts to save it. But this isn’t a linguistic argument it is a political one and obviously nationalistic. The indigenous being more important than the immigrant is the essence of ethnic nationalism. This is why Scottish nationalists go crazy when I criticise Gaelic road signs. 

Only politics can explain why vast amounts of money are spent on Gaelic schools and Television. Never in the field of human language was so much spent by so many on so few.

But while there may be lots of people learning a few words of Gaelic and while there is an attempt to bring up some children bilingually in Gaelic and English, these people always choose to use English in their daily lives both at home and at work. The more effort that is made to make Scotland a genuinely Gaelic speaking place, the fewer people there are who actually speak vernacular Gaelic. There are no monolingual adult Gaelic speakers and each Gaelic speaker always finds speaking English more useful. This is why Gaelic speakers continue to dwindle no matter the evening classes and lessons in Gaelic medium schools. SNP politicians tweeting in Gaelic doesn’t change this reality. Tweeting in Gaelic just means very few people indeed can understand your tweet. It would be more profitable Tweeting in Ancient Greek. 

But lots of people earn their living from this attempt to keep Gaelic on life-support. If you speak Gaelic fluently you have a much better chance of working on Gaelic language TV than you do on English language TV. It is perhaps for this reason that none of these people will admit that the attempt to keep Gaelic alive has failed.  

At this point Gaelic will be kept alive in universities and by learners, but it will become the equivalent of Anglo-Saxon. We do not mourn the loss of Anglo-Saxon, because the loss of languages is an inevitable feature of human history and indeed progress. If that were not the case, then Gaelic speakers would still be speaking Middle Irish. If we had had a Bòrd na Gàidhlig when we were speaking Middle Irish, we would never have reached Gàidhlig, but would have kept speaking An Mheán-Ghaeilge [Middle Irish].

One of the great pleasures in life is learning a foreign language and speaking it fluently. If Gaelic were as widely spoken as Welsh in Scotland, I would unquestionably learn it. But I know more Polish speakers in Scotland than Gaelic speakers and I can travel to Poland and use the Polish that I have learned. I’m sorry, but I can’t do that in Scotland.

Scottish nationalists direct their anger at me for pointing out truths that undermine their arguments. But they never find counter arguments, they just find abuse. It makes me worry about how opponents of Scottish independence would fair in an independent Scotland. I suppose eventually we would become as rare as Gaelic speakers. 

Scottish nationalists are abusive about a Gaelic language they cannot themselves speak and which they have no intention of learning. I think Gaelic is dying. Instead of swearing and ranting at me why don’t you study it? Why don’t you prove me wrong

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