Belfast Telegraph

Why an Irish language Act would be a total disaster for Irish

Both Gaelic and Ulster Scots will never thrive as long as they remain a political football, writes Brian MacLochlainn

The first Irish Language Act was in the reign of James I of England and VI of Scotland. It was known as the Statutes of Iona and required Highland gentlemen to send their sons to the Lowlands to be educated through "Inglis", as the Scots English tongue was then known. The Gaelic language in Scotland was then known as "Irish".

Symmetrically, our proposed Irish Language Act may be in the reign of Elizabeth II of England and I of Scotland, and is also likely to do major damage to the Irish language.

The trouble with an Irish Language Act is that we do not know what it will specify.

The greatest danger is that it will lead to more fake Irish in the public domain on the model of the fake Ulster Scots, which was generated to pretend that Ulster Scots is a separate language from English.

The fake Ulster Scots eventually swamped the authentic dialect in the public mind and a valuable linguistic and cultural asset was brought into disrepute.

This was done at the behest of unionist politicians, none of whom could speak any Ulster Scots. Sinn Fein politicians, almost none of whom can speak Irish either, will be content with such an outcome for Irish and it is already well under way, as can be seen from headings on public service and Government documents.

Respect is very much in the air these days and the best way to respect both Irish and Ulster Scots is to learn them correctly. This means, in particular, not making up your own dialect or your own defective pronunciation and grammar, or inventing your own spelling (but note that our education system does not even respect English by teaching Anglo-Saxon. This would validate many variants decried as "wrong" and suppressed in schools in favour of a lowest common denominator English).

Respect also involves looking at the history of repression of both Irish and Ulster Scots and at their historical interaction, including placenames and surnames.

Place names are predominantly Gaelic, with a thin veneer of homemade spelling, while Ulster Scots is a valuable source for Ulster Gaelic vocabulary, containing, as it does, literally hundreds of Gaelic words, some of which have been lost in Irish-speaking areas.

In view of the history, there should be no shame in acknowledging the weak state of both Irish and Ulster Scots.

This has major implications for the type of rights which might be asserted in an Irish Language (or "Languages"?) Act, which I take to encompass Ulster Scots, as an indigenous tongue.

The resources simply are not there for full equality in law, education, employment and public services. For example, few people know that the examinations authorities employ translators to render into English examination papers taken in Irish in subjects for which there is no marker competent in Irish (how do they translate bad grammar and wrong spellings?).

I have seen examination papers in Irish containing many grammatical and spelling mistakes, obviously set by people who were not competent in Irish.

Education through the medium of Ulster Scots is only a distant dream. Ulster Scots has no native-speaker literature, apart from the weaver poets and even that is small in quantity and variable in quality and density of register.

Their spelling did not deviate much from mainstream English, and this is true even of Robert Burns.

Burns would not have understood the offerings produced by the Ulster Scots political movement.

It is safe to say that Ulster Scots is going nowhere except under the umbrella of mainstream English, with which Scots English has converged since the Union of the crowns in 1603.

Irish is going nowhere either, except into a ghetto of smoke and mirrors if it is under the auspices of the politicians.

The Ulster-Scots (they prefer it hyphenated) Heritage Council and the DUP seem to have given up on the dialect and retreated into "culture" which, for them, means fifes, drums and bonfires.

Sinn Fein cannot even use Irish as an internal language of party administration, so how could it use it as a medium of Government administration?

No clergy of any Church preach in Ulster Scots and only a tiny number attempt to preach in Irish, mostly of a very remedial variety.

Lessons must be learnt from the Irish State, where "first official language" status has left the tongue on the verge of extinction.

The revision of the spelling has rendered at least two generations illiterate in the greater part of the literature written by native speakers before about 1969.

The synthetic Irish of the Dublin civil service is incomprehensible to native speakers.

Presidents and Prime Ministers now attend Irish classes. Modern media and newspaper Irish is woeful, being mainly a calque on English.

Aspiring writers in the New Irish have a very limited vocabulary, as a result of lack of exposure to native-speaker literature and so are reduced to "poetry" (if that is what it is) in which the language is drowning.

The solution to all this cannot be an assertion of something which does not exist. That is the classic Irish solution to an Irish problem.

Two small steps in the right direction might be: (a) to reintroduce the teaching of Anglo-Saxon in English language and literature courses in universities, to give some academic backbone to Ulster Scots (Queen's University abolished teaching Anglo-Saxon a few years ago); and (b) to introduce a module of Irish literature by native speakers in the unreformed spelling.

This needs to be done urgently while there are still people around who are capable of teaching these courses.

The next step might be the setting up of an institute of suitably qualified and concerned people, free of political affiliations and pedagogic bias, to examine the way forward for Ulster Irish and Ulster Scots without prejudice as to what has gone before.

The question is whether a language Act is for the benefit of the language, or for a political purpose.

  • Brian MacLochlainn is a long-time speaker of Irish and a native speaker of Ulster-Scots and works for the promotion of both.

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