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22 July 2012

Gaelic signs

A response to the narrow minded letter writers of The Herald and The Scotsman who protest against bilingual signs.

I was born in Scotland and grew up in Dunblane, Perthshire. Like many parts of Scotland outside the Highlands, there were native Gaelic speakers living in Dunblane. One of them, my teacher, was a crowned Mod Bard originally from Glencoe. Having been denied the opportunity to learn Gaelic in school because apparently there was "no demand" yet there was sufficient demand to run a class of 4 for Russian and a class of 4 for Latin, the same teacher ended up teaching me in Essex of all places. 

Only then did I begin to pronounce properly and understand the nearest hill name to the house where I spent my childhood - uamh bheag. To those who say "there is no history of Gaelic here". Look around you at the personal names and place names right across Scotland including Balerno, Duns and Dalmeny in the Lothians. From a family that lived in Lothian and Berwickshire for 23 continuous generations before me I don't particularly care how many of them spoke Gaelic or didn't because I am forward looking, not back. However, there's a fair chance that when my ancestor was knighted by King Alexander III, the King was likely a Gaelic speaker. I don't confine Gaelic by a past where its decline has been largely confined by apathy, persecution and ethnic cleansing. We can't change, the past but we can shape the future. I look forward to a positive future when the Gaelic native speakers going through Gaelic medium education across Scotland become fluent adult speakers. I look forward to a time when Scots don't dismiss part of their heritage just because it hasn't been spoken widely on the street in living memory as such arguments can also be used to ban ethic minorities from moving in and of holding back a progressive and dynamic nation. "Not traditional here" is the view of right wing extremists, not of a forward thinking modern nation.

I find the English road signs in the Highlands a distraction because as a Gaelic speaker all I see is badly spelt corrupted Gaelic calling itself "English". I also don't understand why they are in a different colour, in Wales the bilingual signs have the town name in the same font and colour for both the native language and the one from England. Having learnt Gaelic to reasonable fluency, I look back on the time when I was just a monoglot speaker and realise now how much I missed. The placenames I couldn't understand, the songs I missed out on, the shocking embarrassment and ignorance of climbing a hill and not knowing how to pronounce the name of it, the perspective of the people who founded Scotland, the perspective of my country's history from a Scottish or Highland point of view rather than an English one. These things are taken as acceptable by so many Scots, simply because it has been that way by tradition. See Runrig's fichead bliadna (with translation below) for what Highland history looks like. Were you taught that in school?

It may be a language spoken by a few, but Gaelic language and culture are probably the biggest single thing which clearly differentiates Scotland from England. It is the cultural foundation stone on which our nation was founded and which resonates through our history to the present and beyond. Many Gaelic icons such as the kilt, bagpipes and whisky now are national icons representing all of Scotland. Gaelic may be few in number, mostly due to historical political persecution and forced clearances, but cultural icons are not defined by mere numbers alone - repeated surveys have shown that the majority of Scots as a whole, Gaelic speakers or otherwise, believe Gaelic is important for the nation as a whole and should be supported by the nation as a whole. 

Gaelic needs two main pillars of support to survive. It needs political will to enact legislation that removes the barriers to Gaelic's growth and provide the legislative and financial support for Gaelic to not be held back. However, alongside this it needs the social will amongst Scots to want to support the language in the same way that the Welsh do in Wales, the French speakers do in Canada. Scottish Gaelic was the third most widely spoken mother tongue in British North America in the 1850's - spoken by 200,000 people but now even in formerly Gaelic speaking areas, the few Gaelic speakers left now are vastly outnumbered by French speakers. State support for a language combined with national will amongst the people will turn a language around, no matter how long it has been in decline.

If Gaelic dies out in Scotland it dies out everywhere. It is our responsibility to take the language forward for the next generation and not to let a minority of monoglot English speakers say "Gaelic has no place here", we embraced devolution yet that had no political precedent in Scotland. Multilingualism is to be welcomed and we in Scotland are lucky to have Gaelic, Scots as well as English to call our own. The bilingual street signs and road signs are just a small token, it is when we have a proper understanding of Gaelic and a population that can fully appreciate it, that we will really have moved forward.


CanadaCanoodles said...

I'm not sure that you have your facts completely correct. The few Gaelic speakers remaining in "British North America" are in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia (for the most part), and they're heavily outnumbered by English speakers.

That being said, I agree with you that bilingual signage (or multilingual signage, depending on the area) is a solid and worthwhile practice. I can assure you that people visiting parts of Canada where there is bilingual signage are not confused, and in some places, unilingual signage causes havoc.

Craig Cockburn said...

British North America as defined here

Yes, I'm aware of the Gaelic speakers in Cape Breton Island and that's what my comment was aimed at. Once it was mostly monolingual Gaelic, now the French speakers considerably outnumber the Gaelic speakers and Gaelic is on the edge of dying out. I visited it in 1997.

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