25 June 2013

Language, the independence referendum and the Scottish identity

It was always going to be controversial, but Scottish Gaelic didn't get the approval it needed to be included on the referendum paper for Scottish independence.

A bunch of people mobilised rather late in the day to campaign for it.  Right from the start, though, I argued that a campaign for Gaelic on the referendum paper was really just a hiding to nothing.  The question of legitimacy always hang over the referendum, and the best way to prevent any questions of legitimacy was to stick with the Westminster/Whitehall rules on elections, which is why I always felt that the appropriate course of action was to campaign for those rules to be changed, which would not only affect the current referendum, but all future elections whichever way the vote goes.

As far as I'm concerned, all the noise about the referendum question is just wasted energy, for two reasons:
  1. Even if they succeeded in changing the policy, it would be a one-off with no automatic effect; while for the same effort we could get the referendum and everything else.
  2. There was no way in hell the Yes campaign were going to go for it, because it doesn't help them achieve their goals, and gives the No campaign another stick to bash them unfairly with.
This morning I was directed thanks to Facebook post by a man born in the Basque Country (the part north of the Spanish/French border) to Galician and Asturian parents, via a blog that would appear to be Irish to a blog post from a Scotsman decrying the lack of Gaelic on the paper, entitled "Yes Scotland. No Gaelic. Feart Horses."

The post is (and I'm sorry if this seems harsh) just an exercise in bigotry.  Let's look at the author's opening line:
"It's the language that dare not speak its name. Partly because its name - Scots/ Scottish - has been hijacked by another - Inglis/ Anglo-Saxon."
Since when did the term "Scots/Scottish" belong to Gaelic? It never did.

Yes, there were times in history when some outside commentators called it "the Scottis tongue" or similar, but this was always an exonym -- a name chosen from outside the speech community to describe it. If you look at the endonym (the name from inside the community -- i.e. the name the Gaels themselves use) it has always been Gàidhlig or some variant thereof (and the same goes for Irish, incidentally).

His insistence that the Anglo-Saxon-derived Lowland Scots language is properly called Inglis or Anglo-Saxon isn't a standard to which any other language would be held. Consider that the ancestors of Modern French, Italian, Spanish etc all called themselves either "Latin" or "Roman" for many centuries after they ceased to be mutually comprehensible, and at some point the speakers started self-identifying differently, and changed the way they referred to their language.

Consider the Franks.  They were a Germanic tribe who were conquered by Rome and taught Latin (badly), but they never ceased identifying themselves as "Franks", even though they spoke "Roman".  Eventually they decided this was stupid so now they're French people who speak French -- even those who aren't descended from the Franks (most of modern France isn't).

Which brings us neatly to "Scotland" and "Scottish".

"Scot" was never a term that "belonged to" the Scottish Gael. It originated as a Latin term for an Irishman, but there is no historical evidence of either Irish or Scottish Gaels self-identifying with the term.  It was an "exonym" (a name imposed from outside the speech community) rather than an "endonym" (one used from inside). It was the Scottish Lowlanders, not the Highlanders that continued the term when Gaelic died out, and it is entirely reasonable that a Scottish person would want to use the same term for his nationality and his language -- not to do so would be to effectively declare himself "less Scottish" than a Highlander.

Now, like France, modern Scotland is composed of the territory of multiple tribal/ethnic groups.In the northwest, the Highland Gaels; in the northeast, the Picts; in the southwest, the Galwegians (a Gaelic-speaking people) and the Strathclyde Britons; and in the southeast, the Anglo-Saxon/Danish people of northern Mercia.

Five peoples, one country.  It would be crazy to try to unwind a millenium of history and declare that the only true Scot pertains to the one of those five cultures and races that the name applied to then.

And yet that is what Mac an t-Srònnaich wants us to do.

He is particularly vocal about the fact that the Gaels tend to allow their self-identity to be subjugated by English:
"The fact that some Gaels think this way is neither here nor there - every indigenous and once-repressed people has it's own doubters. Centuries of repression and decades of having the language beat out of you in school will leave some people's self-respect at a low ebb."
And yet... notice the word "feart" in the title -- the original referent was "frighten the horses", so the author chose the word himself.  He also said "aye".
I do not know who Mac an t-Srònnaich is, but it seems to me most likely that he's a Lowlander, and a learner of Gaelic.  I strongly suspect that his childhood lect was somewhere on the spectrum between Scots and English.  I wouldn't be scared to suggest that at primary school he, like me, was told not to use words like "feart", "aye" and "cannae", but instead "afraid", "yes" and "cannot".
I would suggest that Mac an t-Srònnaich is suffering for the same affliction that he accuses the Gaels of: he has been so deeply shamed into devaluing his own language that he denigrates it himself, and like many of his ilk, he's found it easier to pick a new language to support than to challenge the negative attitudes towards his own.  If that's the case, he has no right to criticise anyone else for it.

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