because the whole language / dialect debate is ridiculous
Back to business. For any popular "movement" to succeed it needs to be "bottom-up", ie the people have to take it to heart, build a groundswell and momentum, which eventually, usually slowly, reaches up to the "top" of the social structure where politicians, governments and academics reside. (nb - by the way, I'm not comfortable with the bottom / top metaphor, because it implies that those at the top are superior to the rest, but it's a well-understood model so for convenience sake only I'm going to stick with it in this post). Movements seldom succeed when they are imposed "top-down", unless through fear or force.
When the general public in Northern Ireland hear the term "Ulster-Scots", they immediately associate it with two things - government & language. This is largely due to our friends in the MSM, and the post-Belfast Agreement spotlight which set up an Ulster-Scots government agency as part of a cross-border language body, to the horror and astonishment of many. This perception needs to be smashed - because it is false, it's a distortion of the truth. The shift in association needs to move from what might be called the "false Ulster-Scots" of simply government and language to one of the more complex and interesting "real Ulster-Scots" of community & heritage, of which language is an element.
[NB this shift is something that's been clear to me for years, I first publicly talked about on a Radio Ulster interview for "The Book Programme" that was broadcast back in October 08, and I've repeated it numerous times since then.]
The broad population of Northern Ireland will probably never take Ulster-Scots language to its bosom. Why? Because the general public in Northern Ireland are not just an Ulster-Scots people - there are three main strands - English, Irish and Scots. And of course other strands too. As a result, a sizeable percentage of our population do not hear significant amounts of Ulster-Scots words, phrases and expressions every day, and haven't done so for many generations. And even the folk who are descended from Scottish migrants will have lost huge amounts of the language, and even if they've retained some they'll have very low confidence in its relevance for the modern world. The wee pockets of folk who do use Ulster-Scots regularly and confidently, are wee pockets indeed.
And so, thanks to -
a) this three-way social division,
b) a state education system that did not inform them about Scots,
c) social norms which more or less humiliated the Ulster-Scots out of their vocabularies, certainly when in polite company or formal situations,
d) the tidal wave of mass media influence of the past 60 years or so, and
e) since 1998, outright media hostility and mockery
the linguistic situation may well be terminally weak.
And so up in media-land you get the "is it a language?", "is it a dialect?", "isn't Scots just bad English?" debate - far too much emphasis and even obsession on a very small aspect of the whole Ulster-Scots dynamic. The (purposeful?) effect of this is that huge swathes of the population are just turned off, dismiss the whole Ulster-Scots dynamic as irrelevant and a bit bonkers, and therefore sever the lifeline that connects them to the rest of the Ulster-Scots heritage universe.
I am fortunate. I grew up in an Ulster-Scots speaking household, with parents, grandparents and neighbours who were fairly uncontaminated by social graces, had not endured grammar school or third level education and were not saturated by the mass media. So I enjoy and identify with the linguistic and literary aspect to Ulster-Scots identity. It's part of me - but it's not part of everybody. And so I have to recognise that the disproportionate focus on language has turned many thousands of people off.
And no amount of high-level European recognition, state-sponsored linguistic policies or Section 75 legislation will convince a sceptical grassroots public otherwise. In fact, unthinking "top-down" imposition will create resentment, resistance and ridicule. (there's a good "three r's" sermon in there somewhere!)
You'll sometimes hear political commentators talking about Northern Ireland now being in a "cultural war". If that is so, then with so much emphasis upon language, Ulster-Scots is surely sending its weakest soldier to the front line.
It will only be when Ulster-Scots language interest becomes a truly "bottom-up" momentum, growing from the places where its' roots naturally lie, through people who understand it, care about it and cherish it, that real progress will happen.
Some might think me a heretic with this post, but the shift needs to come.
[ Email me your thoughts, or better still, post a few comments. ]
Previous articles in this series:
> Part Three
> Part Two
> Part One
> What is Ulster-Scots?
Thursday, April 09, 2009
Posted by Mark Thompson at Thursday, April 09, 2009