book notice: Alistair MacDiarmid, Language Revitalization in Cape Breton

Jonathan Dembling dembling at
Fri Sep 12 20:56:11 UTC 2008

Alas, this book does not exist; the reviewer appears to be a fan of  
alternate history and has several faux reviews on his blog. I have  
heard of writing alternate histories, and certainly of reviewing them,  
but this is the first I've heard of reviewing an imagined alternate  
history book.

As a scholar of Cape Breton's Gaelic community, I am embarrassed to  
admit that I didn't immediately recognize the review as fiction. Apart  
from the reworking of Cape Breton University Press as "Press of the  
University of Cape Breton" and the praise of purported author Alistair  
MacDiarmid (who?) as a "sociological giant",  most of the demographic  
data cited are wildly inaccurate. Unfortunately, such misinformation  
is par for the course for a good chunk of Gaelic historiography, both  
popular and academic. For example, we see here a variation on the  
popular "more Gaelic in Nova Scotia than in Scotland" canard, a claim  
you can find in recently published books (real ones, that is) such as  
John MacLeod's Highlanders (Hodder & Stoughton, 1996) and Houston &  
Knox's New Penguin History of Scotland (Penguin, 2002). Also raising  
an eyebrow is the claim that Gaelic was strengthened in Canada due to  
"Cape Breton's independence from Nova Scotia", though even there I  
assumed this to be reference to the period of 1784-1820 when Cape  
Breton was a separate colony from NS - and again, the fact that Gaelic  
settlement in Cape Breton was still in its early stages by the end of  
this period did not dissuade me from believing that someone out there  
could make such an assertion.

For those who are interested (or just mildly curious) about the state  
of Gaelic in Canada, here are some basics: Gaelic-speaking settlers  
came to British North America in large numbers beginning in the 1770s  
and large-scale migration (in which entire communities were  
transplanted) continued into the mid-1800s. The largest areas of  
settlement were the eastern Maritimes (Cape Breton Island, the eastern  
mainland of Nova Scotia, and the eastern two-thirds of Prince Edward  
Island), Glengarry County in southeastern Ontario (moved from upstate  
NY after supporting Britain during the American Revolution), a  
patchwork of communities in southwestern Ontario (centered around  
Bruce County), some of the Eastern Townships in Quebec, and a few late  
19th century Prairie towns. Gaelic speakers were also very active in  
the fur trade out west (the mixed language Bungi supposedly has some  
Gaelic elements, though I've never seen anything on this beyond the  
claim itself), and practically dominated the fur trade headquarters in  
Montreal. At the time of Confederation in 1867, Gaelic was the 3rd  
most widely-spoken language in Canada, albeit a distant third. The  
usual suspects led to rapid language shift from the late 19th century  
onward, to the point where Cape Breton has the only population of  
native-born Gaelic speakers - perhaps a few hundred, and all of them  
elderly. There is also an active learner community, though how  
significant is difficult to ascertain. Official recognition/assistance  
in Nova Scotia has historically been non-existent or tokenistic (e.g.  
part of the tartanist tourism pitch). The current provincial  
government recently created an Office of Gaelic Affairs to effect  
language policy and language revitalization strategies.

Some useful resources:

1. Michael Kennedy. Gaelic Nova Scotia: An Economic, Cultural and  
Social Impact Study (4.6 MB pdf file - curatorial report prepared for  
the province)

2. Leasachadh agus Gléidheadh na Gàidhlig an Albainn Nuaidh  
(Developing and Preserving Gaelic in Nova Scotia) - pdf files in  
English and Gaelic:

3. Office of Gaelic Affairs webiste:

4. Nova Scotia Gaelic Council website:

Other published work:

- see Elizabeth Mertz's chapter "Sociolinguistic creativity: Cape  
Breton Gaelic's linguistic 'tip'" in Nancy Dorian's Investigating  
Obsolescence (Cambridge, 1989)
- Charles Dunn's Highland Settler takes a historical/folklore/Celtic  
Studies view of Nova Scotia;
- Margaret Bennett does much the same for two other parts of Canada in  
The Last Stronghold (Newfoundland) and Oatmeal and the Catechism  
- John Shaw has produced three superb folklore collections from Cape  
Breton tradition bearers - Sgeul gu Latha/Tales Until Dawn, Brìgh an  
Òrain/A Story in Every Song, and Na Beanntaichean Gorma/The Blue  
- my own chapter, "Gaelic in Canada: New Clues from an Old Census", in  
Canan & Cultar / Language and Culture: Rannsachadh Na Gaidhlig 3
- unpublished, but my MA thesis on Gaelic revivalism in Nova Scotia is  
downloadable from here:

Jonathan Dembling
Department of Anthropology
University of Massachusetts-Amherst

>>> --- On Wed, 8/27/08, Harold Schiffman <hfsclpp at> wrote:
>>> From: Harold Schiffman <hfsclpp at>
>>> Subject: book notice: Alistair MacDiarmid, Language Revitalization  
>>> in
>>> Cape
>>> Breton
>>> To: "lp" <lgpolicy-list at>
>>> Date: Wednesday, August 27, 2008, 12:35 PM
>>> Alistair MacDiarmid, Language Revitalization in Cape Breton
>>> Imagine a world where Canada had three official languages.
>>> * * *
>>> Alistair MacDiarmid's new Language Revitalization in Cape Breton
>>> (Press of the University of Cape Breton: Sydney, 2008), is a thin
>>> paperbook book at only132 pages, but befitting his status as the
>>> sociological giant of Canada's Scottish Gaelic-speaking community  
>>> it's
>>> quite a good one. First providing a brief survey of the evolution of
>>> the Gaelophone community of Scotland, he then turns his eye to  
>>> Canada.
>>> He identifies the Cape Breton's retention of its independence from
>>> Nova Scotia as a key event in the evolution of Canadian Gaelic
>>> inasmuch as the existence of a province with a Gaelic majority  
>>> forced
>>> the colonial government to communicate with the majority  
>>> population of
>>> unilingual or poorly bilingual Gaelophones, this in turn having a
>>> ripple effect elsewhere in Canada. The end result? There are several
>>> times as many Gaelophones in Canada as in Scotland, and twice as  
>>> many
>>> Gaelophones in Cape Breton than in Scotland's Western Isles.
>>> MadDiarmid's not an optimist. What, he asks his readers, prevents
>>> Canadian Gaelic from going the same way as Newfoundland Irish? The
>>> rates of language shift in non-Cape Breton Gaelophone communities  
>>> are
>>> well-known, and even in Cape Breton things are difficult, with
>>> Gaelophones surely to lose their majority status as of the next  
>>> census
>>> and the "Town Gaelic" produced in Sydney by the industrial
>>> immigrations of the early 20th century starting to show itself as an
>>> intermediate stage to full Anglicization. What is there to be  
>>> done? In
>>> brief, he recommends that Cape Breton adopt Québec's full suit of
>>> language laws, including mandatory Gaelic-dominant signage and  
>>> public
>>> education. (I'm sure that the Acadians of Arichat, Isle Madame, and
>>> Chéticamp would love that.)
>>> MacDiarmid's hope blinds him to the realities facing the language, I
>>> fear. Québécois might be a minority in Canada but their an integral
>>> member of a worldwide francophonie, a cultural community that can
>>> provide essential resources (human, economic, and otherwise) for a
>>> traditionally isolated community. Gaelophones can sadly claim no  
>>> such
>>> wider language community. Just as importantly, without any taboos
>>> against intermarriage or social intercourse, the community is  
>>> bound to
>>> lose members--my grandparents on Prince Edward Island my mother's  
>>> side
>>> spoke Gaelic to each other, but didn't pass the language on to her,
>>> judging it unhelpful in the world and wanting to preserve it as a
>>> language for gossip besides. I took my mandatory Basic Gaelic in  
>>> high
>>> school but I can only manage a few words an gàidhlig, mainly--I
>>> admit--because I judged French to be a much more useful language.
>>> These factors, in top of the fact that cohort fertility is just as  
>>> low
>>> for Gaelophones as for Anglophones, ensure the eventual death of the
>>> language--not now, but perhaps in a half-century's time.
>>> His hope aside, I'd still recommend Language Revitalization in Cape
>>> Breton. People interested in language dynamics and language policy
>>> will love it, as it is not only a case study of minoritized  
>>> languages
>>> but a guide to Canada's language politics. If only, I suppose,  
>>> things
>>> were different, but how could they have been? Canadian Gaelic was
>>> lucky as things stand now. In my opinion, the task facing  
>>> specialists
>>> in the language now should probably be to archive as much of the
>>> culture as they can before it's took late.
>>> --
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