A few years ago, I had a revelation about Gaelic. I was visiting the natural history museum in London with my family, back in the day when Dippy the Dinosaur was still in the Lobby.
We were in the cafè and I was waiting to order food. There were three people out front serving and there were a couple of people in the kitchen area who they were talking to via walkie-talkie.
As you’d imagine, they were talking in English but I noticed that every single one of them had learnt English as a second language.
This is of course very common in London – and indeed in most places today. We speak to second language fluent English speakers ever day and don’t think twice about it. Why? Because it’s normal!
As a Gaelic speaker, my revelation was that in a situation like this, the use of Gaelic between a group of people who are all or mainly fluent second language Gaelic speakers would be likely to be seen by some as artificial and condemned as such both by those who are anti-Gaelic and amongst some within the Gaelic community.
Of course, Gaelic and English aren’t the same thing. Gaelic is a minority language and sometimes there are different factors to be considered over and above pure communication. But not in this case. To paraphrase Freud – sometimes a language is just a language.
I learnt Gaelic, I use Gaelic every day. There’s nothing artificial about it. And even if there was, what does it matter?
But in the Gaelic world, the need for authenticity is so great that some Gaelic speakers not only consider learners or use of Gaelic outwith traditional Gaelic communities as artificial but even call Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, the national Gaelic college in Skye and attempts to promote Gaelic in Stornoway artificial. I’ve heard this often over the years and the social media controversy over the last few days is nothing new.
Part of the problem is a simplistic understanding of the word community. As a sociologist, I often joke “every time I hear the word community I reach for my gun”. But there is a serious point behind this. The idea that only communities of the type you get in a rural areas are real or authentic communities ignores the fact that the vast majority of people in Scotland don’t live in communities like that. And more importantly, it ignores the fact that the communities of the type perceived as authentic have actually changed a lot too.
I live in Glasgow. I don’t know my neighbours more than to say hello to. I don’t see them socially. I don’t bump into them at local events – in fact there are few local events. And this isn’t a new thing. This is just normal urban life.
But I do live in a community – I have many friends who live in other parts of Glasgow and I see them regularly and I have a sense of community which isn’t just based on the small area I live in and based on me knowing the people who live closest to me. This isn’t individualism or being anti-social – it’s just a different type of community. A type of community which enables me to use Gaelic very regularly.
Basically, the talk about “real” communities in the Gaelic context doesn’t only hold that using Gaelic in an urban area is artificial but condemns urban community itself as being artificial. This is clearly daft given that Scotland is particularly urbanised country.
And the discussion of “real” communities fails to recognise how much they’ve changed. In recent years, rural communities have become far more like urban communities due to various social changes. As Tim Armstrong has pointed out, the Gaelic community in traditional communities are becoming more like urban networks. When people are comparing Hebridean communities with new Gaelic communities, they are often comparing idealised versions of these communities or communities as they were before Internet 2.0 (and to quote Big Country’s song Beautiful People, I suspect that to some extent “things were never what they used to be”) .
In fact, differences between native speakers and fluent learners and between urban and rural communities are smaller than they’ve ever been before and they are more interlinked than ever so I think it’s time we laid all the talk of artificiality to rest once and for all.
And most important of all, languages are social and not biological. Nothing social is artificial. And even if it was, using English in new contexts would be just as artificial.
The Gaelic world is and always has been diverse and I for one welcome this.
It’s time for more Gaelic use and less judgement of who is using it and where IMHO.
Totally agree. I have learnt Welsh (since the mid 1980s) and Cornish (1 year). I live in a village 85% Welsh speaking and still haven’t developed a local accent, but that doesn’t matter at all to people, it’s the speaking Welsh that does. Welsh has a strong learners community, and people who are too judgemental about people’s efforts to improve are usually jumped upon by others.
Nothing has pleased me more over lockdown than to see so many people learning a language as threatened as Cornish over Zoom. Of course it’s not a first language to any, even the fluent speakers, but communication in the language is what keeps everyone going.
'S toil'S toil
The biggest difference between English and Gaelic spoken as a second language isn’t merely minority vs majority, though — it’s that English is used globally where speakers don’t have a shared language, but if there are any learners of Gaelic at all that aren’t more comfortable and competent speaking in Gaelic than in English, they are extremely few and far between — I have never met them (and I’ve met learners from at least 6 non-English-speaking countries so far).
That’s what makes people see the Gaelic situation as “artificial”, although I think a better term would be “deliberate” or “a conscious choice”.
Speaking Gaelic as a learner serves to hamper communication on the most basic transactional level, so there’s always something more to it, and that can be problematic — some people are discouraged from speaking Gaelic due to a perception of it as a political act.
'S toil'S toil
I’d say though that if you’ve learnt Gaelic fluently (mar a rinn sinne!) it doesn’t hamper communication. I’ve been using Gaelic so long I feel just as at home in it as I do in English and prefer using it.
I just meant that there is nothing wrong with non traditional speakers using the language.
'S toil'S toil