Commentators have been predicting Gaelic’s death for some time, but Gaelic is nowhere near going out of use as a spoken language in Scotland. Gaelic will be spoken by learners, new speakers, and native speakers alike long after everyone reading this post is dead and buried. Gaelic communities are, however, rapidly changing, and that change is a cause of anguish for many. The political scientist William W. Bostock (1997) has called this sort of distress ‘language grief’, the collective despair that communities can feel when they perceive that their language is falling out of use.
As in any situation where people are grieving, it can be natural to try to assign blame. We can see this happening in current debates about the future of Gaelic, with claims and counter claims that different groups are to blame for Gaelic’s ‘demise’: academics, Bòrd na Gàidhlig, the government, learners, native speakers, Gaelic-medium educators, and so on, but the truth is that no living group of Gaelic speakers or supporters is to blame. The current state of Gaelic speaking communities is the result of political, economic, and social forces acting over centuries. Assigning blame is understandable but thoroughly counterproductive if we want to build the kind of social movement that can actually help to increase Gaelic-language acquisition and use in Scotland.
No one disagrees about the numbers, but there is substantive disagreement about the best course of action. We now have reliable data from several research teams suggesting that the last traditional Gaelic communities in the Western Isles arrived at a kind of tipping point sometime in the late 1960s and 1970s when community-level transmission of the language to children born in those years started to break down. (cf. Smith-Christmas & Smakman 2009; Mac an Tàilleir et al. 2010; Ó Giollagáin et al. 2020)
While many families in these communities still raise their children in Gaelic and/or send their children to Gaelic-medium units, that ‘tipping-point’ generation is now in its 50s and 60s, and for generations below this age, the default community language is overwhelmingly English. Gaelic has not died, but it has changed from a community-transmitted language to a network language everywhere in Scotland now. That is the reality. The question is what to do about it.
There is no reason to believe that in the long-term Gaelic could not be revived as a community-transmitted language in many places in the Highlands and Islands, but this will require years of grassroots language activism in these areas, and anyone who argues that we can build the kind of sustained community-wide support required for such a huge effort in the short-term, or even in the medium-term, is very much underestimating the enormity of the task.
It is also important to recognize that rural communities today are fundamentally different from Gaelic communities fifty or a hundred years ago, and not just in terms of language use. In general, UK society is becoming ever more cosmopolitan, mobile, and atomized, and communities in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland are no exception. Discussions around the Scottish Gaelic revival often suffer from a great deal of romanticism about traditionally Gaelic-speaking communities, but the reality is that both the relative isolation and the intensely communal way of life that once sustained the language in the Northwest of Scotland are now long gone. We cannot go back in time, and in many respects, we wouldn’t want to. (see Dunn 2019)
Instead, the work now is to build on our successes over the last fifty years of Gaelic-revival activism and strengthen Gaelic networks throughout Scotland, anywhere Gaelic speakers can be found, from Edinburgh to Shawbost. Sleat in Skye can be seen as one model of what can be accomplished in terms of strengthening a dense rural network of Gaelic speakers. Gaelic in Sleat is not a community-transmitted language, yet, but it is also very much not dead, and there is no reason to believe that we could not replicate many elements this model throughout the Highlands and Islands.
We need to build a broad movement across Scotland to revive Gaelic, and to do that, we need to build solidarity between Gaelic speakers of all kinds, and neither finger pointing nor proclaiming Gaelic’s imminent demise will help us at all in this effort. Of course we have to be realistic about the state of Gaelic, but we also have lots of reasons to be optimistic.
People cannot be scared or shamed into saving a language. Rather, the future of Gaelic can only be built on a foundation of solidarity and optimism.
More on some of the concepts I used above:
Living language — What makes a ‘living’ language is a question of ideology, not demographics. There is no objective linguistic or sociological measure that we can use to say definitively that a language is living or dead. It really is just an opinion. Any language that is in some way still used and passed on could be considered ‘living’ depending on your criteria. The key factor is not speaker density, but language loyalty. If speakers are zealous about using their language and passing it on, that language community will persist and possibly even grow, but if speakers are shifting to using and passing on a new language, it doesn’t really matter how closely they live together; their language will sooner or later pass out of use.
Community-transmitted language — A language can said to be transmitted to the next generation by the whole community when (almost) everyone in a given place speaks a particular language, and that language is used as the common means of social interaction between all generations in (almost) all situations. Is such a case, children not only acquire the language from their parents and teachers, but also from extended family members, from neighbours, and critically, after a certain age, from other children. For some, community language transmission is what makes a language ’really’ living, but as above, this is just an opinion rather than some linguistic fact. The best current data strongly suggests that it has been several generations since Gaelic was a fully community-transmitted language anywhere in Scotland.
Network language — A network language would be one that is spoken by a network of speakers spread out more or less densely in any given area and linked by a variety of sites of language use. In the case of Gaelic, such sites might include GME units and schools, Gaelic higher education, Gaelic-language workplaces, Gaelic-language church services, Gaelic events like the Mòdan and the Fèisean, Gaelic activist and special-interest groups, formal and informal Gaelic social centres (such as the proposed Cultarlann in Inverness or the Park Bar in Glasgow), and Gaelic-speaking homes. Gaelic’s future as a network language in Scotland is far from certain, but there is no reason to believe that Gaelic-speaker networks throughout the country couldn’t persist and even grow in the future.
Bostock, William W. (1997) “Language Grief: Its nature and function at community level.” International Journal: Language, Society and Culture (2).
Mac an Tàilleir, Iain, Rothach, Gillian and Armstrong, Timothy C. (2010) Barail agus Comas Cànain. Inverness: Bòrd na Gàidhlig.
Ó Giollagáin, Conchúr, Gòrdan Camshron, Pàdruig Moireach, Brian Ó. Curnáin, Iain Caimbeul, Brian MacDonald, and Tamás Péterváry. (2020) The Gaelic crisis in the vernacular community: A comprehensive sociolinguistic survey of Scottish Gaelic. Aberdeen: Aberdeen University Press.
Smith-Christmas, Cassandra, and Dick Smakman. (2009) “Gaelic on the Isle of Skye: older speakers’ identity in a language-shift situation.” International Journal of the Sociology of Language (200): 27-47.