Long-term, is Gaelic viable as a network language?

This is an important question, not only because Gaelic has long been spoken as a network language in the south and the east of the country, but also because research now indicates that Gaelic has become a network language in all remaining traditional communities in the northwest as well.

In recent debates about the Gaelic revival in Scotland, one often hears arguments along the lines of: “If we don’t preserve Gaelic as a community language in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, it will die out everywhere,” but the truth is, we have already passed that point; we passed it decades ago, in the 70s when many families in the remaining traditional communities stopped speaking Gaelic to their children in the home. Nowhere now in Scotland do we find the density of speakers in all age groups required for community level transmission to function as it once did.

So is Gaelic doomed? Is Gaelic already “dead”?

Well, in the first instance, many sociolinguists now agree that these biological metaphors for language vitality aren’t very helpful. They are super common in regular discourse in Gaelic revival circles, and I must confess that, as a short-hand, I use them too, but they can be misleading. There is no purely linguistic definition of what constitutes a “living” language. Many would say that a “real living language” is one that is spoken as the common language of all age groups in some territorial community somewhere, but plenty of very vital languages are not used in this way, so whether a language is considered living or dead is mostly an ideological question, rather than a material one.

Take an extreme example: take Latin. Most would call Latin a dead language, but Latin is still used every day around the world: in worship, as a creative language to write poetry, prose, and modern music, you can go to summer camp in Latin, and while it has been a long time since Latin was transmitted as a family language, it was used for centuries in Europe as a lingua franca amongst diplomats and scholars, long after it “died” as a community language in the former Roman Empire.

Or to take a less extreme, more practical example: what about the Manx language? Are our Manx brothers and sisters speaking a “dead” language? If one believes that a language is only really living if it is spoken and transmitted as a common community language somewhere, then one would have to conclude that, yes, Manx is dead, but I sure don’t agree with that assessment, and I’ll bet the kids at Bunscoill Ghaelgagh wouldn’t agree either.

Further, more generally, it may be the fate of most minority languages around the world that, if they are maintained at all, they will maintained as networked languages. As things are going, in the very near future it is possible that the only languages that will benefit from being used in territorial speech communities will be a few dozen mega-languages. If so, are all minority languages in the world then doomed?

I would argue no, not if they are still used. For minority languages anyway, there is nothing magical about territorial speech communities that makes them more stable than networks. Looking forward, it will definitely take a lot of effort and resources to maintain Gaelic networks in cities and in rural areas of the Scottish mainland, but given how mobile we are as a society, how connected we are now with technology, and how powerful the ideology of Anglophone privilege is in the UK, it will take a tremendous input of effort and resources to rebuild and then maintain Gaelic as a community language in Scotland’s islands as well. I am not saying we shouldn’t try, but if people hope that Gaelic as a territorial language will somehow exist in a more “natural” way than Gaelic as a networked language, they are not yet thinking clearly about the task we face.

So I would argue that the real question then is not whether Gaelic will “live” or “die” as a network language, but rather, can it be maintained as a network language into the future: as a language used in schools, in homes, at work, and socially amongst friends? Is that possible?

The short answer is: we don’t know, and anyone who makes definitive pronouncements one way or the other is speaking out of their Coire Bhreacain. However, I think there are reasons to be hopeful. The examples of Manx and Cornish make me hopeful, and there are other examples as well, but we need a lot more research. As Susane Romaine has written, “we understand more about how diversity is lost than about how it is maintained.” This question is critical, because networks may be the future of our language.

And please let me be clear. I am not at all arguing that we shouldn’t fight to strengthen Gaelic in traditional communities. We definitely should, but to do so, we have to understand clearly how the language is actually spoken, and what it will really take to maintain and strengthen its use. Gaelic is already a network language everywhere in Scotland. That is just a fact, and while I accept that Nis is not Edinburgh, and that different places will require different interventions, at the same time and in many ways, since Gaelic has become a network language all over Scotland, the language maintenance requirements of traditional communities and urban networks are actually progressively converging rather than diverging from each other.

Just one example of this is adult learning. Mention adult learning to most folk in the Gaelic revival, and I am sure that they will think first and formost of networks in urban areas, but actually, if Gaelic is to be maintained as a dense rural network language in the Islands, lots of adult learning will be required: to integrate incomers, to help parents with children in GME, and to welcome back those locals who either never got Gaelic or only partially acquired the language as children.

I am hopeful about Gaelic as a network language. I live in one such thick, rural Gaelic network in Sleat. Gaelic is the language I speak at home, at work, with Alasdair and Ruth at the Coop, with friends in the community, all day long. And yes, this network depends on the institutional support of the College and Bun-sgoil Shlèite, but similar institutional support can be replicated elsewhere. So, then, an even better question is: can we come together and build the kind of real open, grassroots movement required to win that same sort of institutional support for all our Gaelic communities wherever they are?

Chaidh seo a phostadh ann an punc. Dèan comharra-lìn dhen bhuan-cheangal.

11 Responses to Long-term, is Gaelic viable as a network language?

  1. Tha mi ag aontachadh 100% le seo Tim.

  2. Thuirt ocovag:

    The problem is, without a T1 community, intergenerational transmission becomes sporadic and fragile. The language becomes completely reliant on institutions and each new generation has to learn it from scratch. This makes it harder to maintain, rather than easier, and if the time ever comes when English is surpassed as the world lingua franca and language of power and commerce, as happened with Latin and many others (English may have the potential to break this trend, but that’s another topic), then institutionally maintained T2 minority languages stand little chance of being kept up indefinitely. The example of Ireland, where everybody ‘learns’ Irish in an institutional setting but few can maintain a conversation, less than 2% of people use it daily, and even less can speak it to a standard even approaching that of a native speaker (in terms of phonology, grammatical accuracy, even idiom and other aspects like listening, understanding etc), should give you an idea of the difficulties of trying to rely on institutions and learners to maintain a minority language and it’s networks without a complete breakdown in almost every aspect of the language that makes it unique from the majority language.

    The only examples of successful language revitalisation and maintenance were community first projects with demographic density of speakers and intergenerational transmission at the heart of all of it.

    Networks are good, but they are also transitory domains.

    • Thuirt Cian:

      I think Irish is complicated as an example, because I don’t think we’ve been very good at developing these kind of institutions for Irish speakers in the South (outside the education system – and our education system mostly suffers from the same problems Tim has mentioned previously with GME: it sells itself as education, just through Irish, rather than an ideological project). We have built networks, but the social institutions that sustain them seem often to be absent. There are no Irish speaking scout troupes outside the Gaeltacht, one Irish speaking bar in Dublin, two Irish speaking GAA clubs outside the Gaeltacht, both of whom are less than 25 years old. Even the Irish speaking institutions we have are scattered around cities, rather than being centrally located. I’d ascribe this (with no research backing) to the lack of an acceptance in our institutions that for most speakers, we are and will remain a network language for at least the next several generations.

      Northern Ireland, on the other hand, does appear to have built what appear to be more reasonable institutions for maintaining Irish as a network language. Things like the Irish houses in Belfast, and even the Cultúrlanna don’t really have an equivalent down South, and their Gaelscoileanna seem (based on anecdote, rather than proper research) to have a far stronger identity based component.

      Which I think begs and important question, and one I have no answer to; what do the institutions of a strong network language look like, and how do they differ depending on the thickness of the language in that area. What actual concrete changes in our actions come from deciding to try and build a networked language community?

    • Thuirt lasairdhubh:

      I agree that maintaining a language like Gaelic in a thinly dispersed network is going to be super difficult, but my point is that restoring and maintaining Gaelic as a community language is possibly going to be just as difficult or more so. The Gàidhealtachd (Irish or Scottish) is no longer “protected” by its isolation. These areas are now fully integrated parts of the Republic and the UK respectively. Even if we solve the jobs and housing crisis, folk are still going to be constantly moving in and out, and we are all so connected by technology to the Angloshere now. Estimates vary widely (I have seen up to 90% mentioned in the literature), but there is agreement that it takes a very high concentration of a minority-language population like bilingual Gaelic speakers to maintain community-level transmission, and maintaining that level in the modern world will require both a strong grass-roots movement in these communities as well as substantial and ongoing institutional support *just as would be required to maintain a network*. I am trying to argue against the mystification of the Gàidhealtachd that is such a problem in Ireland, and becoming increasingly problematic in Scotland. There is nothing magic about territorial speech communities. The days of “natural” language transmission for Irish and Scottish Gaelic is simply over. I am not arguing at all that we should abandon the Gàidhealtachdan; quite the contrary, but we need to be realistic about the actual state of the language in these communities and the enormous scope of the task.

      On the subject of language abilities of young Gaelic speakers, I know more about this than most. My day job is running the Gaelic and Communication course at SMO, our first-year intensive, immersion course for fluent speakers. My students come from all backgrounds and all around Scotland, including the Western Isles. Some are advanced Gaelic learners from other universities, some acquired Gaelic in GME, and others both in GME and in the home. All of them are fluent, nattering away completely comfortably in Gaelic, but also *all of them* speak versions of the language that are very different from the Gaelic spoken by native speakers 60 or older. And we work on that in my course. To succeed in the Gaelic work-world, they will need a very formal, “native-standard” version of the language, and at the end of the year, almost all of my students acquire that register. But I always endeavour to teach them this register without devaluing the Gaelic they already speak, because they really are already completely fluent. They may come out with non-standard structures like: “Tha mi oileanach” or “Tha mi a’ dèanamh e” that make purists squirm, but honestly, that is just an aesthetic judgement. I understand what they mean. Everyone understands what they mean. They *are* fluent. The problem is with other people, not with my students, gaisgich iad uile!

      • Thuirt ocovag:

        “I agree that maintaining a language like Gaelic in a thinly dispersed network is going to be super difficult, but my point is that restoring and maintaining Gaelic as a community language is possibly going to be just as difficult or more so.”

        In the short term yes, having to include more involved societal planning in the approach will make things more difficult than just running classes and having a few network outlets.

        The choice between the two, long term, is a choice between having a living language with a community, potentially, as the outcome of one approach, and eventual language death as the outcome of the other. It will survive as a learned T2 language until people start to view it as a school subject and nothing else, and something more pressing comes along which needs to be included in the school curriculums, another world language replaces English and the GME schools slowly give way to the next language that people want to bilingual with English in.

        “Estimates vary widely (I have seen up to 90% mentioned in the literature), but there is agreement that it takes a very high concentration of a minority-language population like bilingual Gaelic speakers to maintain community-level transmission”

        67% – 70%

      • Thuirt Misneachd:

        Chan eil mòran air na cùrsaichean SMO a bhuidhneas Gàidhlig taobh a-muigh nan clasaichean, fiù ’s air làraich na Colaiste, gun luaidh air co-theacsan sòisealta. Agus tha a’ mhòr chuid den fheadhainn a bhruidhneas sna beagan bhliadhnaichean a dh’fhalbh an sàs le Misneachd agus gu mòr a’ creidsinn gum feum sinn na coimhearsnachdan eileanach dùthchasach a ghlèidheadh, agus gur fhiach e an strì a dh’aindeoin cho doirbh sa bhios e.

      • Thuirt lasairdhubh:

        Misneachd chòir, Chan eil cleachdadh na Gàidhlig aig SMO mar a bhiodh duine sam bith ag iarraidh, ach bidh sinn daonnan ag obair air, agus gu dearbh, tha iomairteachd chànain na phàirt mhòr dhen chùrsa agam air an dearbh adhbhar sin. Ach a-rithist, chan eil dad seunta mu na sgìrean traidiseanta. Bidh e a cheart cho doirbh Gàidhlig a chumail a’ dol an sin san àm ri teachd, no nas dorra bu dòcha. Chan urrainn dhuinn sgìrean Gàidhlig ath-thogail mar a bha iad, le Gàidhlig a’ siubhail bho ghinealach gu ginealach “gu nàdarra”. Tha an linn sin seachad. ‘S e obair gun chrìch a bhios ann a bhith a’ feuchainn ri a’ Ghàidhlig a thoirt dhan ath ghinnealach annta, dìreach mar a bhios e ann an lìonraidhean, agus dìreach mar a tha e aig an t-Sabhal. Sin dàn na Gàidhlig anns an àm ri teachd, ge be dè nì sinn. Ach chan eil mi idir ag argamaid nach bu chòir dhuinn Gàidhlig a neartachadh anns na sgìrean traidiseanta. Tha beachdan eadar-dhealaichte agam, bu dòcha, air an dòigh as fheàrr sin a dhèanamh, ach cha duirt mi a-riamh gum bu chòir dhuinn ar cùl a chur ri coimhearsnachd sam bith anns an tèid a’ Ghàidhlig a bhruidhinn.

  3. Thuirt ocovag:

    “Things like the Irish houses in Belfast, and even the Cultúrlanna don’t really have an equivalent down South, and their Gaelscoileanna seem (based on anecdote, rather than proper research) to have a far stronger identity based component.”

    This is an important point. If you read Joshua Fishmans work (Reversing Language Shift, for example) you will realise why a small group of people in Belfast, with no institutional support, achieved more than the Republics institutions achieved (and likely ever will achieve, barring a complete overhaul of the whole sector) in a hundred years of independence, institutional support for the language in schools, and symbolic gestures like making it an ‘official’ language of the State.

    Ireland seems to have a vague goal of societal bilingualism which is based not in any evidence but on either (a) wishful utopian thinking or (b) an unwillingness to change approach to a way of working that would support Irish speaking communities and societies, including the in-crisis (as linguistic entities) Gaeltacht regions. Due to not caring enough and not wanting to bother putting in extra effort.

    Essentially, what they did right in Belfast, was start with community. A group of adults, who were fluent in the language, planned to live next to each other in close proximity on the one street and raise their children through the language. After they had already started this, then they started the process of attaining Irish Medium Education for their children.

    In Ireland (and increasingly in the North too), Irish Medium Education attends to children from English speaking families in English speaking communities. This rarely leads to the establishment of a community of minority language speakers, even in the Athbheochan years when a large percentage of Irish schools were Irish Medium and when all schools had to teach at least one subject through Irish, no new Irish speaking communities appeared.

  4. Tim – I couldn’t agree more with your analysis here.

    I have another point to add to what you say about the problems with using biological terminology and about with the view that Gaelic development is only worthwhile in the context of the traditional communities.

    Basically, talking of “language death” and “artificial Gaelic communities” as many people in the Gaelic world are doing just now is using the same language as those who are sceptical about Gaelic and is playing into their hands in a way.

    Anti-Gaelic letters to the newspapers etc are always about “a dying language”, “life support machines” etc. People using the same terminology within the Gaelic community will be music to their ears.

    Also, using biological terminology hides the fact that power relations are behind language shift and makes it look like a natural process. (Those within the Gaelic world know this of course, but those outside don’t and for that reason, I think it should be avoided).

    I think TBH that part of the use of biological discourse at the moment is an attempt to deligitimise urban Gaeldom and new speakers. “Unnatural”, “artificial”, not important to the real “living” Gaelic communities. I for one have no desire to be buried alive!

    The discourse that Gaelic learning and urban Gaelic use (which as you point out, crucially – are not the same thing) are artificial, unimportant, a distraction or even damaging to traditional communities which has become common of late also tallies well with the discourse of those opposed to Gaelic development. (The “I suppose it’s ok to promote Gaelic if you really have to – but only in places where they really speak Gaelic!”) Of course, some people in the Gaelic world might support this – I certainly don’t – but this brings me onto my final point.

    If the only performance indicator perceived as important for Gaelic is the numbers of speakers in the Western Isles/Skye and the level of intergenerational transmission there (a view which the viewpoint that is sceptical about urban Gaelic and new-speakers puts forward) and any progress made elsewhere is seen as unimportant, irrelevant or even damaging, a failure to make progress in the traditional communities in the short term will be seen as an admission that Gaelic is “dead” and that the whole game is over by policy makers.

    This is unfortunate as it will take a while to turn the ship round even with the most radical measures. I think that both communities are important and I also think that urban communities and adult learners all over Scotland are crucial in raising support for Gaelic amongst decision makers – including the support needed for measures for the support of Gaelic within the traditional communities.

    And new communities and new speakers are important in their own right too!!
    So, I’d argue basically that using biological terminology and being negative about urban Gaeldom and new speakers is damaging for all, including native speakers and traditional communities.

    I think we need to fight against biological terminology in the strongest possible way.
    And we need to fight for the right to be optimistic! I grew up in Glasgow in the 1980s when there was no GME yet, where there was no Gaelic to be seen anywhere in the city and where Gaelic was nowhere close to being on the political agenda. I see it every day now, I even hear it quite a bit and I certainly use it every day. Things are a lot better now in cities and the main thing holding Gaelic back in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Inverness etc now IMO is the continuing view that urban Gaelic speakers and new speakers are at best a distraction and at worst cultural appropriationists.

    Again, an excellent and important post. Let’s keep the Gaelic world inclusive – the ethnicisation of the debate and the scepticism about urban Gaelic development and new speakers in some quarters is causing real upset, alientation and disillusionment for many many Gaelic speakers.

  5. Pingback: English is artificial – another unwise foray into the Gaelic debate | Trèanaichean, tramaichean is tràilidhean

  6. Pingback: Gaelic is not dying. | Air Cuan Dubh Drilseach

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