18 October 2011

An unfunny joke

An Englishman, a German, an American and a guy from Barra walk into a bar.  "Tha Gàidhlig cho cudromach," says the Englishman [Gaelic is so important].  "Tha Gàidhlig cho sònraichte," says the German [special]. "Tha Gàidhlig cho breagha," says the American.  "I'm going for a slash," says the Barrach.

Not funny at all, I'm sure you'll agree, but you might not fully appreciate just how unfunny it truly is.  In order to understand it, though, you need to know that the Barrach is a native-speaking Gael.  So why did he speak in English?

It's something linguists like to call "divergence".  We use language to indicate social distance from, and proximity to, others.  When we speak like someone, we show variously agreement, respect or even affection.  I find my accent when speaking any foreign language varies depending on who I'm talking to, as I try to match them (particularly if it's someone I fancy).

The Barrach in the "joke" isn't rejecting Gaelic, then, but is indicating that he doesn't associate himself with the three foreigners.

What we have here is the core paradox of the current Gaelic revival.  While everyone says that the goal is for Gaelic to be considered normal in all contexts, the act of attempting to achieve this is actually making Gaelic into a far more self-conscious choice.  Gaelic is at risk of developing a sort of "personality" based on the feelings of the loudest advocates of the language, and therefore people who do not identify with this personality will therefore find themselves subconsciously pushing away from the language.

Well, I say "at risk", but I actually think that this is already the case in many parts of Scotland.  While not a statistically significant portion of the population, there is a reasonable number of native Gaels in Edinburgh.  Yet when there is a Gaelic-related event put on, it's often mostly the learners that turn up.  The natives will happily sit and talk to each other in their own language, but Gaelic in a public setting seems to be overly politicised for most to identify with.  (The association of Gaelic with nationalism has no real basis in fact - Gaelic is a language and is spoken by people of every political allegiance.)

The problem is that the domain of the well-meaning learner is stretching further and encroaching into the few remaining Gaelic heartlands.  Adult learners are gaining ever-increasing air-time on television and radio, as well as positions at all levels of Gaelic education.  Even several prominant members of the Scottish Government's Gaelic language agency are adult learners.  People are even being encouraged to learn Gaelic in order to teach in Gaelic medium schools, despite it being self-evident that the education available is insufficient to bring anyone close to a near-native model.

It is now often said that Gaelic's future is in the hands of the learners.  This is true, but it does not mean what it is supposed to mean.  We as learners cannot save Gaelic, but we do have the power to kill it within a generation.

If we want Gaelic to continue, then we must be humble.  We must accept that:
  1. we are not "Gaelic speakers", and we never will be;
  2. the books we study do not, in fact, contain "correct" Gaelic, but someone else's guess about what Gaelic is - the natives are the only real model worth following;
  3. Gaelic is not "ours" or "our heritage" - it belongs to the Gaels;
  4. and the most difficult of all: we shouldn't put ourselves forward as representatives of the language, either in a professional or amateur capacity.
In fact, I think it would be far more healthy if no-one even defined themselves as a "Gaelic learner", but instead as a "language learner".  Gaelic is a language, just like any other.  Learning another language or two will not only help you see this, but it will also actually improve your Gaelic.


Anonymous said...

I must say or feumaigh mi radh, that this shook me to the core, myself being (to use your suggested term) a language learner.

You're right in your estimation that learners can sometimes come on a little strong to the point of being nuisances. And we would do well to have a little of your suggested etiquitte added to our textbooks under the heading "How to be a gracious learner".

That being said All languages belong to us. It's only a matter of ability, which determines our effectivness in each language. Example: You need not be hearing impaired to use sign language.

I do accept the point you're trying to make.

Nìall Beag said...

The thing is you can never get to the same level of ability as a native.

I was amazed at how quickly my Spanish deteriorated once I left Edinburgh for Skye. Coming back at Christmas I was just making lots of mistakes. My Spanish was probably stronger 6 months ago than my Gaelic will ever be, but I will never really "own" the language.

I will always feel like a guest in someone else's house.

Anonymous said...

I like Scottish Gaelic's (and I can only assume Irish's) concept of ownership. I think of those great prepositional pronouns "agam, leam, orm, nam".

Tha mi'n dochas gu'm bi latha, nuair 's urrain dhomh a radh le cinnt: Tha Gaidhlig agam.

Ach cha bhi mi riamh innis ri duine sam bith gu bheil 's e Gaidhlig leam. Tha eagal orm gu'm bi mi nam amadainn.

Neil McRae said...

Very good indeed 'ille. You absolutely nailed it.

Everytime I hear or see a spectacularly non-fluent learner self-described as "fluent", I think: another batch of native speakers alienated!

The language is being utterly devalued, by people who think they can be fluent after a year's study, or even just a couple of weeks at SMO in the summer. An attitude eagerly encouraged by the dim-witted Gaelic establishment.

Math dhà-rìribh!