How Scottish Gaelic can Europeanise Britain

Fighting the UK’s linguistic paranoia

, by Gavin Dewar

All the versions of this article: [English] [français]

How Scottish Gaelic can Europeanise Britain
Hiking on the Isle of Skye, Scotland, home of the Sabhal Mòr Ostaig. CC Gavin Dewar

Even though they have not been highlighted by the successive British governments, the United Kingdom enjoys several regional languages, a neglected cultural richness of the country. Gavin Dewar, Scottish citizen and graduate in History and Politics from the University of Edinburgh, pays tribute to Scottish Gaelic, provides a critical analysis of “the UK’s linguistic paranoia”, and evokes the European dimension of Celtic languages.

Seen but not heard

Scottish Gaelic is seen but not heard. From north to south, east to west, Scottish Government policy since the turn of the century has seen the gradual conversion of many road and train station signs to accommodate the ancient language of the Highlands. Thus, from Shetland (historically Norse-speaking) to Glasgow (historically Scots-speaking), it is not uncommon to find oneself confronted with a sign declaring Fàilte! above a romantic and baffling Gaelic-isation of the town in question. Edinburgh becomes Dùn Èideann; Inverness becomes Inbhir Nis. Scotland’s signs are proudly bilingual.

Its people, however, are not.

Despite the prevalence of written Gaelic in modern-day Scotland, the lyrical, sing-song sound of spoken Gaelic is strikingly rare outside the Western Isles, folk festivals, BBC Alba (since 2008), and the occasional scene from Outlander. Indeed, while viewed with some romanticism by many Scots, it is also viewed with a considerable amount of scorn.

This can be seen in the debate surrounding the bilingual road signs. Rather than being considered as a celebration of a vibrant culture and linguistic education, the policy was widely attacked as a nationalist tactic and (falsely) an enormous waste of money. Ultimately, the promotion of Gaelic is seen as a close-minded political trick, not a far-sighted cultural shift.

Linguistic Paranoia

This angry response to the promotion of multilingualism may be considered a bizarre attitude by many of our fellow Europeans, especially those raised in regions where three or four languages are casually juggled as a part of everyday life. Yet in Scotland, and especially in the UK as a whole outside the melting pot of London, the speaking of modern languages other than English is held to be an exotic and, I would argue, even a suspicious act.

Indeed, I would go as far as to say that the UK is gripped with a linguistic paranoia. This phenomenon, which renders Continental languages threatening and Celtic languages a nationalist relic, is the outcome of the deeply embedded legacy of imperialism in British culture. The old attitude that “Britannia rules the waves”, bringing progress and civilisation to her subjects, has been engraved in the British psyche by a staunchly anglophone media, a strictly conservative political sphere, and an educative system which reinforces the “island mentality” under which this linguistic paranoia revels. The Empire is gone – the attitude is not. Wallowing in its own slow decline, Britain’s political culture is arrogant, antiquated, and profoundly insecure.

Celtic Decline and Tentative Revival

The social construction of the British identity required the destruction of competing identities, and it is in this context that the Celtic languages of the British Isles were historically squashed. The Welsh language was systematically decimated after the Wars of Independence which culminated in the fifteenth century, as was the Cornish language. After the deeply unpopular Treaty of Union between England and Scotland in 1707, and the subsequent Jacobite Rebellions which commenced in the Highland glens, the Gaelic clans had their rebellious culture and language fiercely repressed. And the colonisation of Ireland witnessed a similar, and arguably more violent, suppression of the Irish tongue as nascent British imperialism flexed its muscles in the first of many new dominions.

The explicitly violent suppression of Celtic culture gradually eased off. But by the time the popular novelist Walter Scott was romanticising Scotland’s Gaelic past in the early nineteenth century, setting the precedent for all future attitudes towards Britain’s Celtic heritage as a quaint curiosity, the damage had been done. The Highlands had been gutted, its people cleared to make space for sheep farms, and its language cornered into a tired and quiet periphery. The heart of the Welsh, Cornish, and Irish linguistic communities had been similarly silenced.

With the decline and fall of the British Empire, the independence of the Republic of Ireland, and the modernisation of the United Kingdom, the situation has continued to evolve. Welsh has survived and fought on, especially in the north, with about 720,000 current speakers (about 20% of the population). Cornish is spoken proficiently by about 2,000 people. And Scots Gaelic has seen a constant yet slowly plateauing decline at about 60,000 speakers (1.7% of the Scottish population), many of whom live in the Western Isles and would not consider themselves fluent. Yet, as previously mentioned, while the British establishment does not actively discourage the learning of these languages, the quasi-imperialist political culture it upholds certainly does not encourage it.

In the Republic of Ireland, and on the Isle of Man, some hope exists for Celtic languages which have been established as core component of the states to which they belong. Indeed, Ireland and its 1.8 million Irish speakers have successfully started the resurrection (or at least recognition) of Celtic languages on the European stage, with Irish now one of the 24 fully-recognised official languages of the European Union. Yet the pressure they emit towards the British system is negligible: whatever their European influence, Irish and Manx are foreign languages now, and as such are treated with the same distain as French, Swedish, or Maltese. For the status quo to be broken on the island of Great Britain, the paranoid hegemony of the English language must be challenged from the inside.

Multilingualism as a fundamental European trait

It is often asked why any efforts should be put into maintaining these now-peripheral Celtic languages in the twenty-first century UK. Brits are socially conditioned from birth, after all, to assume that English is the most predominant and useful international language, certainly in the Western world, and that the UK should be proud as its birthplace and stronghold. This attitude is enormously telling, and an indicator of one of the psychological factors that feeds Britain’s collective island mentality: It is the cold, functional usefulness of languages, and the strength of the nation that ‘owns’ it, that is allegedly the most important aspect of international communication.

The merits and quirks of different languages are largely dismissed in the campaign to promote and defend the dominance of English. To learn another language is to adopt a new perspective, to adapt your mind to an exciting new way of thinking. It is thrilling. It is challenging. And, in traditional British society, it is frightening.

This attitude is out of step with broader European thinking, and the proud multiculturalism which partly defines European identity. With British political culture desperately clinging to the idea of English as the only language that is worth learning, the UK will continue to feel a detachment from the wider European community, which sees English as a unifying bridge between diverse linguistic cultures, not as a superior and exclusive language gifted to the world by the British Empire.

The faster the UK recognises that multilingualism is not a threat but a boon, the sooner we can begin to counter the fear, misunderstanding, and xenophobia that fuelled the vote for Brexit. When Polish or Hungarian can be heard on the streets of Hull, Swansea, or Aberdeen and recognised as a fellow European language which enriches our shared culture, not as the mark of an ‘outsider’, then Britain’s linguistic paranoia will finally have softened. And if European languages begin to be viewed with more admiration and comradely spirit, then non-European languages too will be met with less suspicion and imperialistic arrogance. By embracing German, Romanian, and Croatian, British society would in turn be opening its mind to the influence of Mandarin, Hindi, and Arabic.

European Gaelic

But how can this linguistic, cultural, and political awakening in Fortress Britannia be sparked? This is where we return our gaze to the untapped potential of the Celtic languages, and in particular Scottish Gaelic.

Gaelic has a number of significant but scattered proponents, tentatively marshalled by the Scottish National Party (SNP) government in Edinburgh. The Bòrd na Gàidhlig (Gaelic Language Board) and the Comunn na Gàidhlig (Gaelic Language Society), as well as the Gaelic college on the Isle of Skye (The Sabhal Mòr Ostaig) and the aforementioned media service BBC Alba offer some cultural and institutional backing to the Gaelic movement, all legally underpinned by the Gaelic Language (Scotland) Act / Achd na Gàidhlig (Alba) passed by the Scottish Parliament in 2005. And then there is the case of the bilingual road signs. But these initiatives, while certainly beginning the process of normalising Gaelic and raising plenty of interest, have not been able to spark a multilingual revolution and shatter the linguistic paranoia of our troubled island.

A fundamental change in the way Gaelic is viewed must be cultivated. For many, the learning of Gaelic is an indicator of fierce nationalism, and is inherently tied to a particularly radical branch of the Scottish independence movement. Regardless of Scotland’s constitutional future inside or outside the political framework of the UK, however, it will remain geographically, and to a large extent culturally, British. As a result, its potential as the catalyst for a more multilingual, and therefore more Europeanised, Great Britain remains, whatever political events are on the horizon.

If the resurrection of Scottish Gaelic can be done in a dramatic, intellectual, and inclusive enough manner, it could capture the cultural imagination of the British Isles and Europe as a whole. To do so, it can no longer remain ‘seen but not heard’: it must be proudly sung from every available pulpit.

Thus, an increase in Gaelic-speaking in the Scottish Parliament, as well as in the UK and European parliaments (while the chance remains), will be a crucial step. Gaelic must also become more widespread on TV, radio, and the internet: popularised, modernised, and normalised rather than treated as a curiosity on BBC Alba alone. Affordable, colourful lessons in Gaelic should be made more available and appealing across the nation. And above all, one fact must be repeated, emphasised, and shouted to the heavens: Gaelic is a European language! Tha a ’Ghàidhlig na cànan Eòrpach!

If Gaelic can stop being regarded as a dying separatist tool, and as a modern, dynamic force in Europe’s cultural fabric, then there is hope for Scotland and the island it shares.

Then, and only then, will we see the beginnings of an exciting new chapter in the European Project: an egalitarian and broad-minded social awakening at the heart of Europe’s most powerful and problematic island. Our continent, forever struggling to be “united in diversity”, will have become a bit more united, and a bit more diverse.

Scottish Gaelic as a European movement will be seen, heard, and celebrated all around the world.

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Your comments

  • On 24 October at 11:59, by Deagláin Ó Maolagáin Replying to: How Scottish Gaelic can Europeanise Britain

    The big question really is will a Westminister Government be either in a possition or show a willingness to fund the promotion of any minority languages post Brexit ? Also I note that there no consideration being given to closer Cultural ties to Ireland and it’s Gaelic experience !

  • On 24 October at 16:36, by Terry Weisenfels Replying to: How Scottish Gaelic can Europeanise Britain

    Absolutely right! I’m an American of Scots descent, and I am currently taking Gaelic classes. I will have very limited opportunities to use my Gaelic, but I love languages and don’t want to see the language of my forbears die out. However, there is much the same backward thinking in the US toward learning languages other than English. This is a sad state of affairs.

  • On 24 October at 18:06, by Charles G. MacLeod Stuart Replying to: How Scottish Gaelic can Europeanise Britain

    My family since the 14th century have spoken Gaelic. A revitalization of the language is vital to its very existence, and I wholeheartedly support any effort to do so. Slainte, Tearlach.

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