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:
- we are not "Gaelic speakers", and we never will be;
- 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;
- Gaelic is not "ours" or "our heritage" - it belongs to the Gaels;
- and the most difficult of all: we shouldn't put ourselves forward as representatives of the language, either in a professional or amateur capacity.