Gaelic unites

gaelicsignsAPRecent story in the Atlantic about the interest in the Irish language, a Celtic language, also called Irish Gaelic (as distinct from Scottish Gaelic) in Northern Ireland, the majority Protestant region of Ireland that is part of the UK, separate from the majority Catholic Republic of Ireland.  The Irish language has long played an important cultural role in the Republic, but not so traditionally in the North, where it has often been associated with the Catholic South. Now efforts are underway to try to use the Irish language as a way to bring Protestant Republicans and Catholic Unionists in Northern Ireland together.  There are still smoldering feelings of resentment and injustice there, going back to the “Troubles”, the 40-year violent confrontation between the two sides over the political future of Northern Ireland.

One of the surprising facts about Irish is the role that Protestants played in keeping the language alive at a time when its continued existence was threatened. This is a fact that Linda Ervine, a Protestant helping to organize Irish language classes in Belfast, the capital of Northern Ireland, uses to recruit fellow Protestants:

 “The language was almost lost by the end of the 19th century because Irish became associated with poverty and Catholicism (particularly during the potato famine, which hit the poor the hardest). During the famine, about 3 million Irish emigrated. But what few Protestants in the neighborhood know, Ervine says, is that Irish, or Gaelic, was saved by a small group of Presbyterians, many of whom were steadfast loyalists.”

 The interest in Irish in the North corresponds to an initiative there called Líofa 2015, or “fluent” 2015, which seeks to promote Irish as a means of reconciliation through interest in a common cultural heritage. It’s not only in Ireland that languages which seemed destined to die out as living languages have been revived and used as a way to bring groups together.  The role that Hebrew has played in shaping modern Israel is perhaps the best-known example.  In the U.S. Native Indian tribes such as the Navajo are emphasizing the importance of learning their language as a way of cementing cultural identity.

A Scots Loss

Bobby Hogg, last speaker of Cromarty Scots

What’s lost when languages and dialects die out? It’s of course a sad loss for the local community – part of the cultural identity of the place is gone.  In the news recently (also: NPR) was the death of the last speaker of a Scottish dialect, spoken in a fishing village.  Bobby Hogg lived in Cromarty and spoke all his life the Scots dialect spoken there.  Scotland has a complicated linguistic heritage, with the many Scots dialects, Scottish English variants, and Scottish Gaelic  (a Celtic language).  Scots Gaelic has seen a revival of interest in recent years, witness the popularity of Julie Fowlis, who sings almost exclusively in her native Gaelic.  Her Gaelic version of the Beatles Blackbird was a surprise hit in England and she was chosen to contribute songs to the recent Disney/Pixar’s Brave.  Many English speakers find Scottish accents to be very pleasant, even though sometimes difficult for non-Scots to understand.  In an interview with Glaswegian singer Amy MacDonald, NPR’s Scott Simon told her that he found her English “utterly charming” but was “only understanding every third or fourth word”.  Scots dealing with non-Scots listeners, like Craig Ferguson or Sean Connery, have learned to “tone it down”.

How much would the typical English speaker understand of the Cromarty dialect?  Some would be understandable but sound archaic, such as the use of thou and thee.  One might figure out as well that beginning consonants were sometimes dropped, what becoming ‘at and where ‘ere.  But one might still have trouble understanding “At wid be scekan tiln ken?” (“What do you want to know?”).

What’s lost when language dies is more than just local color. Language is culture, and the Scottish culture, like that of Ireland, is so strong in its linguistic and literary creativity that we all lose something with the disappearance of Cromarty Scots, whether we’d understand Bobby Hogg or not.