Thursday, July 23, 2009

The Ulster-Scots language future

Deep breath. Devil's Advocate time. Is there a future for Ulster-Scots language? The heritage stuff, the historical stuff, the cultural stuff, the light entertainment fluff - these have appeal and plenty of people involved or interested. But the language? Nah.

From what I've observed over the past few years, hardly anyone cares enough about the language to give it a future. The way the media froth about it as an issue you'd think that it was a huge public concern. Aye right.

During the 20th century there was ongoing large scale population change in Ulster. Two world wars / emigration to Canada, Australia, South Africa, New Zealand / the emergence of a national and international mass media / emphasis on education and "getting on" / an emerging affluence and educated class / the Troubles opt-out which saw many seek refuge in yacht clubs and golf clubs, or who just upped and left for GB / the bourgeoisification of the countryside that saw wealthy town dwellers buying up the rural dwellings and which drove wedges through the rural communities / the Troubles momentum that caused people to move out of the urban areas into the small market towns and villages - these things and more all decimated that older population that grew up with naturally spoken Ulster-Scots language and a more primitive way of life.

Meaning that by the time "peace" arrived in the mid 1990s and Ulster-Scots was getting attention for the first time in a generation, the pool of genuine Ulster-Scots language speakers to draw upon was already at an all-time low. And those speakers didn't recognise the importance and value of their own speech.

10 years ago there was an opportunity to capture the natural Ulster-Scots speech of this older, pre-mass media generation. But half of those people are now dead - and unrecorded. There are maybe ten years left until all of them are dead. And then naturally-spoken Ulster-Scots will be gone. Apart from a few words and the odd expression here and there which survive as part of general Ulster English, it'll be finished. Sheughs and oxters will continue to raise a smile, or a smirk, but that's about all.

My father's generation (he's 64) reminisce about local characters, rural folkways, manual horse-drawn farming, the idyllic but poverty-stricken 40s and 50s, of life before "The Troubles". My generation (I'm 37) reminisces about tv programmes, toys of the 70s, fashion and pop music - but only faint fading glimmers of the life that my parents knew so well, and which had changed very little in the previous 100 years.

The Ulster Folk Museum to my parents is their childhood. To me it's a nostalgia trip, or a time machine that takes me to a place I didn't live in and only heard older people talk about. They had Burns' poetry and kailyard novels in the house - I had the Broons annual. They drew water from the well every day with a bucket, and tried to not catch the eel that was down in there which kept the water clean - I had an immersion heater. They can remember going to school in bare feet - I had Nike trainers for PE. That generational transformation includes massive language shift, from the once-widespread use of rurally-preserved but establishment-ignored Ulster-Scots, to a world of mass-media and international English. Even today in the Irish Gaeltacht (ie Gaelic speaking) regions, I'm told the best selling newspapers are the English tabloids.

Ulster-Scots language will dwindle and remain the interest of the dedicated few who genuinely love it. And it'll provide intellectual cud for the anoraks and academics, nostalgia for the luddites and fuel for the identity zealots. And perhaps it'll be exploited by those who see the current gravy train as a way of building personal empires - but which will be light years removed from general public interest. Public sector signage, job adverts in the papers that tick some equality box will ultimately attract further public disdain and scorn - and thereby damage the overall Ulster-Scots momentum. Because in reality, to 99% of the population, Ulster-Scots language will be a fossil, an extinct Dodo. Unheard, unspoken, and book-learnt if learned at all.

I wrote an article for the News Letter about this general issue back in March 2007. No-one batted an eyelid. Because hardly anybody cares.

There are ten years left. The need is to leapfrog my generation, and to connect the limited, diluted, eroded, Ulster-Scots language of grandparents with the world their grandchildren live in. The clock is ticking...


Ulsterscot said...

Deep breath indeed.

I think that there is a decision to be taken within the language community as to whether the future for the language is as part of the heritage and culture tapestry or whether the aim is to have a true "living language" with it used in conversation, education and all social spheres.

I don't have any pretensions to be qualified to pronounce which of those options would be best - or indeed that they are the only options available - I suspect they are not. However, I think the decision is an important one as it shapes the language planning future.

Dewi Harries said...

This lot ain't given up.

Ulsterscot said...

Nor should they.

Actually, that sort of project seems invaluable as a way of safeguarding the position of the language without necessarily insisting that language use in schools has to be ... medium education.

Again, it is the use of language as part of of the heritage/culture tapestry.

Actually, a brave dose of the words on the board there would have been in pretty frequent use in my Primary School too...

Alan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Alan said...

A very well written and honest article.

Personally I don't think there is a future for it as a living language, for the reasons you have written.

Those who have a passion for it, who research it and write in it should be encouraged, but the idea of teaching it to future generations as a spoken language is a no go.

Why do they need it? How will it help them in todays (and indeed tommorows) world? Whats the incentive to learn it? I can't see one.

What is more important is that why we spoke Ulster Scots is taught to them. When I went to school we learned of the Battle of Hastings, and English Kings, while much of our own history was left unmentioned. This must change, our own history is fascinating and children should be taught it. It would not only be more relevant to them and thus hopefully mean they had a greater interest in it, but it would give them a greater sense of identity as well.

The language should be preserved, but the energy of the Ulster Scots community would be more wisely spent on pushing the history and the culture rather than trying to keep the language alive, its too late.

Daithí said...

The heritage stuff, the historical stuff, the cultural stuff, the light entertainment fluff - these have appeal and plenty of people involved or interested. But the language? Nah.

Many Irish-language organizations have learned that when language and dancing, language and music, language and sport, language and history are offered, the language always loses out and is abandoned while dancing, music, sport and history may very well flourish. This is simply because language learning is hard work.

It’s far better to offer dancing, music, sport and history through the language.

And it’s even better to offer computing, cooking, aerobics, car repair and the like in the language.
Conradh na Gaeilge also stresses visibility. Is tha Ulstèr-Scotch leid plainly visible on signs and posters at Ulster Scots heritage festivals and folk gatherings?

Even today in the Irish Gaeltacht (ie Gaelic speaking) regions, I'm told the best selling newspapers are the English tabloids.

Sadly, since the deaths of Lá Nua and Foinse, the English tabloid are the only newspapers sold in the Gaeltacht.

Yet, the wonderful Nuacht24 is now available to Irish speakers.

Perhaps, something similar can be done for Ulster Scots.

Bail ó Dhia ar an obair.

Mark Thompson said...

Daithi, thanks for your input - I've met a few people from Conradh na Gaeilge over the years and was impressed by them, and their work. It's going to be an uphill struggle, but it's one worth attempting - I'm glad to have contributed to the debate.

Anne Smyth said...

Well done to you, Mark, for setting out the issues so clearly. However, a few important additional points need to be made.

When you talk to language activists from other countries, there is no doubt that there isn’t a European minority language that does not in varying degrees share the difficulties experienced by Ulster-Scots. In the modern world, in every sphere of life, we have become adept at knowing ‘the price of everything and the value of nothing’. Ulster-Scots has to be valued as something intrinsically worth preserving, without which our lives would be that much poorer.

The European Charter has not made the difference it should because of the fact that it does not specify sanctions against defaulting governments to make them fulfil the obligations to which they signed up. That creates the perfect conditions for the triumph of perception over substance, as governments talk up their contribution to the protection and promotion of these languages when in reality no solid work has been done to create a lasting infrastructure for them.

Furthermore, the ‘support’ mechanisms for Ulster-Scots that were put in place by the Belfast Agreement have in fact militated against the advancement of the language. These have placed the emphasis on ‘culture’, when in fact there is little of Ulster-Scots ‘culture’ that is unique to Northern Ireland. An Foras na Gaeilge also acts as a conduit for funding for culture – in this case culture based on the Celtic heritage – but it is the Irish language that takes the lead. I believe that is the correct approach. The responses to your original blog show how much needs to be done in the line of status building, to counteract what has been described to me by a native speaker as ‘the embarrassment factor’ involved in using Ulster-Scots.

I’d like to make the point that for seventeen years now the Ulster-Scots Language Society has been working quietly away in the face of much uninformed opposition to make the best of the body of Ulster-Scots writings from the past and present available to the public (in 23 publications, and counting) and to promote and protect the language. Naturally, we would love to have done more, but it is actually a miracle that we have been able to achieve so much with so little in the way of encouragement or resources. We have sought to work with the schools, and in pursuit of that aim we have more recently managed on three occasions to run a schools’ competition in which pupils are asked to work on a project with a selected theme. This has been hugely rewarding, and we have been amazed at how much interest and knowledge is out there among even primary pupils.

In your blog, Mark, you have implied that no work has been done to record the speech of the older generation of Ulster-Scots speakers. In fact, for the last fifteen years the Language Society has been conducting an ongoing programme of recording with funding support from the Ulster-Scots Agency and indeed more recently the Ulster-Scots Academy Implementation Group. The resultant recordings are languishing in stores in Newtownabbey after the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure impounded our entire collections, in a move which implicitly denied our ownership of these materials. Are you suggesting that we should forget about the recordings that DCAL has impounded and start afresh? Of course, many of the people who took part in these recordings are now dead, and the pool of possible interviewees is shrinking daily. Our collections represent an enormously important resource for the study and teaching of Ulster-Scots, and one that is currently denied to us by unwarranted government intervention.

Anne Smyth, Chairman, Ulster-Scots Language Society