Thursday, April 09, 2009

Objections to Ulster-Scots: Part Four

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
> Intro
> What is Ulster-Scots?


Buster said...

Hi Mark,

When I read job adverts posted in the Belfast Tele by the Ulster Scots Agency looking for "High Heid Yins" of some description or another I can but only cringe in total embarrassment. The U/S literary canon, tradition and it's very integrity has been utterly compromised by the conflation of words/idiom transcribed phonetically for the language of Burns, Thomson, Orr, Porter etc etc. In fact a total hames has been made of it. I very rarely see proper Scots vocabulary used-it's almost as if it's Ulster Scots Lite.

What concerns me most is that is it too late to retrieve something that has been appallingly badly managed? Can we start again? The only way in my opinion is to stop publically making the culture an easy target as per the above quoted nonsense and making sure that our children are properly educated about their own culture. via the curriculum.

Mark Thompson said...

I don't think it's too late - not just yet. In language terms I think we're at the half way stage - it's 10 years ago that Ulster-Scots was first thrust into the limelight, and 10 years from now all of the older generation of language users will have died out.

In cultural terms, the classroom is a bit of a wasteland - but parents need to get to grips with this problem in the home too. We can't rely on the state for everything, if we value our broad heritage we must learn about it, and pass it on to the weans.

Buster said...


You are right of course-but we live above your "Maginot Line" in Bangor...

My crusade with my own bairn is to make sure that she is aware of her roots and heritage, where she comes from and what her ancestors on both sides of the sheugh were all about. These elements can also be highlighted and reinforced, as part of an overall education of the main and minority strands of the community within the classroom.

Unfortunately the language issue is not as straightforward. She's aware of everyday words that I would use anyway, breeks, lugs and oxters etc(good title for a childrens book??), but would rarely use them outside our front door. In terms of the language proper it's probably down to yourselves in the Ards and the other Ulster Scots heartlands to keep it alive in it's "natural" habitat and to educate and make the language available to the wider community through festivals and the very well presented works that you are and have been involved in for example.

Artificial,unrealistic,erroneous,knee-jerk and poorly managed promotion of the language and by extension the culture outside these heartlands and their immediate hinterlands can only be and has been counter-productive. Those of us living outside these Ullans areas can and should do our bit but it would be, and to date has been a mistake to mirror the patently unrealistic promotion and unfortunate politicisation of the Irish language in the RoI and NI.

Managed to get a first edition of Three Wee Ulster Lassies by the way...for a tenner!

Buster said...

Mark-where can I get a copy of:

28 page A4 educational booklet from the early 1980s, written by E.M Griffith BA LLB, entitled "Ulster - the Founding Fathers".


Mark Thompson said...


Well down on tracking down Three Wee Ulster Lassies - a tenner well spent! I have a few photocopied editions of The Founding Fathers, I can post you one if you email me your address?

All the best

Buster said...

Hi Mark,

Many thanks for your offer, I'm spending a lot of time on the road at the minute-is there any chance of a scanned copy?


Mark Thompson said...


Forgive my laziness, but I'm not going to scan 18 pages! If it's an issue of anonymity, send me a friend's address and I'll post it to them instead?