[lg policy] Can £27m a year bring a language back from near death?
haroldfs at gmail.com
Wed Aug 1 11:48:34 EDT 2018
- Language <http://www.bbc.com/capital/tags/20141118-language>
- Economics <http://www.bbc.com/capital/tags/economics>
Can £27m a year bring a language back from near death?
Finding the value in an ancient way of speaking.
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- By Lennox Morrison
1 August 2018
The feeling of walking barefoot across a beach in summer and the sun-warmed
sand chafing my toes takes me the length of this sentence to describe. My
great-great-grandfather, Angus Morrison, would have used one word:
That’s because, born and bred on the fringes of Western Europe, on Lewis,
in the archipelago of the Outer Hebrides, his mother tongue was Scottish
It’s the ancient Celtic language heard by TV audiences tuning into the
Highlands time-travelling saga Outlander
Scottish Gaelic is considered at risk of dying out. On Unesco’s list of
imperilled languages, it is classed as ‘definitely endangered’
In real life, working together crofting, fishing, weaving or cutting peat
for fires, my ancestors spoke in Gaelic. It was spoken at home, sung at
parties, used at church. But education in Angus’s day was strictly in
English. As late as the 1970s, children were sometimes punished for
speaking Gaelic at school.
Raised alongside Atlantic surf and storms, he became a sailor. Then, in the
mid-nineteenth century, moved to Glasgow, and settled there working as a
ship’s rigger. Among the principles he instilled in the family was the
importance of education. But he did not pass on his cradle tongue.
[image: (Credit: Getty Images)]
Dr Marsaili MacLeod says there's a fear that we risk losing some of our
cultural diversity "through globalisation and English as a global language”
(Credit: Getty Images)
*On the brink of extinction*
My family story illustrates what linguistics experts call intergenerational
breakdown. In 2018, along with about half of the world’s estimated 6,000
languages, Scottish Gaelic is considered at risk of dying out. On Unesco’s
list <http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0019/001924/192416e.pdf> of
imperilled languages, it is classed as ‘definitely endangered’. Research
suggests that one of the biggest factors to blame for killing off minority
languages is a thriving economy. As economies develop, one language often
comes to dominate a nation’s political and educational spheres, meaning
people are forced to adopt the dominant language or risk being left out in
One of the biggest factors to blame for killing off minority languages is a
Today, only my father has a little Gaelic. My own knowledge is limited to
words adopted into English, such as ‘ceilidh’ – meaning a social gathering,
usually with Scottish or Irish folk music.
That puts me in the same boat as most Scots. The 2011 census
showed only 1.7% of people in Scotland had some Scottish Gaelic skills. In
a population of five million-plus, this amounts to 87,100. Of these, only
32,400 were able to understand, speak, read and write it. Which is why the
Scottish government is investing millions in trying to save it – through
broadcasting, cultural and education projects. This ranges from Gaelic
groups for pre-schoolers to ensuring the police and ambulance services have
Gaelic language policies in place.
The budget for this tax year is £27.4m ($36m). But is it even possible to
resuscitate a dying language – and does it really matter anyway?
In Scotland, news of £2.5m of further public funding for a new Gaelic
dictionary has stirred debate. Over the past four decades, successive
governments of different political stripes have all supported the language.
But critics say the policy is artificial and nostalgic and the cash should
go to teaching modern world languages such as Spanish. “If Gaelic is dying
does it deserve a financial kiss of life?” wrote columnist Brian Beacom in The
[image: (Credit: Getty Images)]
The 2011 census showed only 1.7% of people in Scotland had some Scottish
Gaelic skills, In a population of five million-plus this amounts to around
87,100 (Credit: Getty Images)
The controversy is mirrored across the globe
in countries such as New Zealand, where funding for Te Reo Maori
<https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/blogs-news-from-elsewhere-40493398> (one of the
country’s three official languages) is hotly disputed. In Germany, 60,000
Sorbs are fighting to retain government funding for the *two *separate
languages they want to keep alive.
“It’s very easy to use an economic argument that monolingualism would be
much more cost effective and that would reduce conflict and create economic
efficiencies,” says Dr Marsaili MacLeod, lecturer in Gaelic at the
University of Aberdeen, UK, and a champion of language rights. “But we
would lose something if we all became one international nation with one
language. People today really value cultural diversity and there’s a fear
that we’re losing that through globalisation and English as a global
*The value of an ancient tongue*
Spoken in Scotland for more than 1,500 years, in Medieval times it was the
primary language for swathes of Scotland. But over the centuries usage
shrank back to the Hebrides and the Highlands. In 1746, at the Battle of
Culloden, British government troops defeated Jacobite forces. Afterwards,
state suppression of clan culture and traditions included banning Gaelic.
Generally, English was seen as the language of study, commerce and material
It was further weakened over the following century by the Highland
clearances, when landowners evicted crofters from land rented for
generations so that sheep farming could be introduced for higher profits.
The resulting mass migration means that today there are Gaelic-speaking
communities in Nova Scotia in Canada as well as in New Zealand, Australia
and the US.
“Historically, Gaelic and pretty much any minority language tended to be
excluded from formal usage, marginalised from economic life,” says Wilson
McLeod, professor of Gaelic at the University of Edinburgh, UK. “The
traditional formulation was that Gaelic had no commercial value.”
Then in the 1970s a pioneering business model emerged on the Isle of Skye.
Landowner Sir Iain Noble turned disused farm buildings into the Gaelic
college and cultural centre Sabhal Mor Ostaig
<http://www.smo.uhi.ac.uk/en/> and set up an hotel and a whisky distillery.
He insisted that Gaelic was to be the normal working language of the
estate. This was a new idea. “Nobody in the 1950s and 1960s in Scotland was
working in an office in the medium of Gaelic,” says McLeod.
With 18 letters in its alphabet, no direct equivalent for ‘no’ or ‘yes’ and
five syllables needed to say ‘please’, it is very different from English
Thinking began to change. Politicians became interested in the idea of
Gaelic as a motor in economic development, particularly in peripheral
areas. “From the early 19th Century onwards, the economy of the Highlands
and islands had been in perpetual crisis with out-migration, serious
population decline, serious underdevelopment, and poverty,” says McLeod.
The 1980s brought key language policies with increased public funding for
Gaelic arts, culture and education and especially for television. In 2005
the Scottish parliament in Edinburgh passed a law
<http://www.legislation.gov.uk/asp/2005/7/contents> to promote and protect
Gaelic as an official language of Scotland, with the aim of it “commanding
equal respect to the English language.” Since then, Gaelic education has
been growing. Even parents arriving in Scotland from countries such as
Germany and Turkey are sending their offspring to Gaelic-medium nurseries
Today, latest research
by Highlands and Islands Enterprise in 2014 puts the present yearly
economic value of Gaelic at about £5.6m and estimates its potential as high
as £148.5m. In sales and marketing, for instance, it can enhance
perceptions of uniqueness, authenticity and provenance, thus increasing
appeal to target customers.
[image: (Credit: Getty Images)]
In 2005 a law was passed to protect Gaelic as an official language of
Scotland, with the aim of it “commanding equal respect to the English
language” (Credit: Getty Images)
*Saying things you can’t say in English*
But for lovers of Gaelic, the language is beyond price. With 18 letters in
its alphabet, no direct equivalent for ‘no’ or ‘yes’ and five syllables
needed to say ‘please’, it is very different from English. It gives access
to a unique treasure trove of history, literature, song and storytelling —
and vocabulary to express ideas not readily put into English.
“It’s all to do with identity,” says Marsaili MacLeod. “It’s the language
of my forebears, my grandfather’s and grandmother’s generation, the
language of place and of people. It gives me a sense of who I am and where
I come from.”
It provides an understanding of environment that’s been built up over
generations — from the workings of landscape and weather to the healing
properties of plants, she says. “Any indigenous language has a lot to tell
about that place.”
Rooted in close-knit rural communities, these original languages also tend
to place people. “When you meet someone in Gaelic the first thing you ask
is ‘Where are you from? Who out of are you? Who do you belong to?’”, says
In the Maori language of New Zealand, she says, people introduce themselves
with ‘What boat did I arrive on? Which is my lake? Who are my people?’.
To learn more about great-great-grandfather Angus, I need to head to the
windswept and wildly beautiful tip of the island of Lewis, the most
north-westerly point in Europe. It’s here that descendants of migrant
families find their way from north and South America, South Africa,
Australia and New Zealand to a trim white-painted former schoolhouse – home
to a museum and café run by the Ness Historical Society
Annie Macsween, chair of the society, helps visitors navigate family
archives from the 1800s, and earlier. A retired teacher of Gaelic, and a
native speaker, Macsween’s fascination for the past was sparked by a summer
job in a retirement home as a teenager.
“I would sit and talk to the old folks at night and hear about their lives
and history,” she recalls. “In school we learned all about kings and queens
and the geography of other places but not of our own Highlands and islands
and the history of it.”
The subject of her university thesis – the poetry and history of her home
village – was at the time considered not very academic. Today, it’s what
Unesco call “intangible cultural heritage”.
With husband John, a fisherman now retired, she brought up their four sons
as Gaelic speakers. “We made our kitchen an English-free zone, encouraging
them to speak Gaelic naturally.”
Living in the Gaelic heartland, where the highest concentration of speakers
is found, how does she feel about new learners with no link to the
language? “I spent my life teaching Gaelic to people from every place under
the sun but the day we lose the natural communities where Gaelic is spoken
I think Gaelic is going to become like Latin,” she says. “It’ll be a dead
She sees it as a priority for public funding to support the language in the
areas where it is still spoken – and where there are a wealth of dialects
with their own idioms and sayings.
“The language is part of me and I would feel I would be losing part of my
own being if I wasn’t able to use it,” she says.
Her family has farmed locally through the generations for nearly two
centuries. Today, eldest son Donald runs a nearby croft but rather than
fishing or weaving, his other job is presenting Farpaisean Chon-Chaorach
<https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00ptnlc> – a series about sheepdog
trials on BBC Alba. Two of his brothers are also in jobs where Gaelic is
into the Gaelic language labour market identifies the key sectors as public
administration, creative industries, education and tourism. Women are
taking up more of these jobs than men. This is probably because many new
posts are in education, early learning and childcare – sectors employing a
higher proportion of females. The study by Skills Development Scotland
projected that 98,000 new jobs would be created across the country between
2015 and 2027.
[image: Scottish Gaelic is classed as ‘definitely endangered’ by UNESCO
(Credit: Getty Images)]
On UNESCO’s list of imperilled languages Scottish Gaelic is classed as
‘definitely endangered’ (Credit: Getty Images)
While Gaelic was written out of business for centuries, recent research
into Irish Gaelic – closely related to Scottish Gaelic – reveals that this
exclusion brings its own surprising advantages. This is because Irish and
Chinese culture differ to Anglo-American culture in that business is
developed on the basis of personal relationships, rather than power and
money, says Cathal Brugha, professor emeritus in the School of Business at
Ireland’s University College Dublin.
“Your typical American trying to do business in China will start by handing
out their business card or Visa card and say ‘I want to buy this’ and the
Chinese person will say ‘I don’t even know you, I will not do business with
someone I don’t know. We’re going to develop a relationship and then we’re
going to do things together’,” he says.
The Chinese word for this concept is guanxi – which exists in Irish as
caidreamh, he says.
Translated into English? “You would need almost a paragraph: personal
relationships that involve a certain amount of getting to know each other
and reciprocity and reliance on one another and favour-making and leaning
on the other person when you have a need and remembering that they owe you
something so that you’re going to ask them to do something maybe in years
to come,” says Brugha.
It's a concept understood the world over but certainly the Irish Gaelic
word is a neat distillation. So, this summer, when I wander along a beach
on the island of Islay in the Southern Hebrides, and feel the white sand
between my toes, I will think of my forebears and their wealth of words yet
unknown to me.
Harold F. Schiffman
Professor Emeritus of
Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305
Phone: (215) 898-7475
Fax: (215) 573-2138
Email: haroldfs at gmail.com
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