Gaelic Language Planning — CIOL Scottish Society — Translator’s Reflections

CIOL: Gaelic Language Planning Presentation — guest speaker Andrew O’Halloran — and Scottish Society AGM — 17 November 2018, Mercure Hotel, Glasgow

First of all, may I begin by expressing my immense gratitude to CIOL and very particularly to CIOL Scottish Society for organizing yet another rich and profound event to help humble translators and other linguists keep their fingers on the pulse of the most recent developments in their professional field.

The key speaker at the event on that Saturday was Andrew O’Halloran who captivated the audience by covering the cornerstones of history as well as the present and future of Scottish Gaelic. As a person who adores languages and finds intriguing everything that is related to that domain I enjoyed every moment of the event.

The linguistic diversity of the British Isles has been fascinating me ever since I arrived in the UK at the turn of the century. However, the wealth of languages located in such a relatively small area as Scotland with a population just over 5 million is direct evidence of a mesmerizing heritage stretching back for millennia.

I was absolutely enthralled by the thoroughly beguiling journey into the origins of Scottish Gaelic and its place on the map of the languages spoken in Scotland.

Mr O’Halloran explained to us that Gaelic arrived in Scotland from Ireland well before Christianity — however, even though it descends from Irish and both are Celtic (Goidelic) languages — they are different and each has been following an independent path. Historically Gaelic was the language of the foundation of the Scottish State (Alba or Pictland) and was widely used across much of  its territory. Contrary to common belief that Scots appeared as a language in the Middle Ages, for many centuries Gaelic had shared space with Scots. The two languages had co-existed and grown together side by side before the Medieval period of history.

Modern entry points to Scotland are marked by bilingual road signs indicating Gaelic name of Scotland as Alba. However, going back in time the term “Alba” denoted the territory of the whole of Great Britain — that is a clear sign of how overwhelming was the influence of Gaelic. Curiously, in Russia people often refer to the United Kingdom as “Foggy Albion” (Туманный Альбион) — perhaps enchanted by the mysterious nature of everything that is related to the British Isles. Little do they know that Albion is not even an English word.

It is incredible, but Gaelic is the first modern European language to be written down, i.e. it has the oldest vernacular literature (literature produced in any other language except Latin) in Western Europe. The oldest surviving manuscript is dated VI century and the first translation of the Bible appeared in the XVII century. In those days many communities spoke exclusively Gaelic and translation of the religious texts was a necessity.

Development and the geographical distribution of Gaelic in Scotland were influenced by many factors, among which it is worth mentioning the shift from clans to feudalism that resulted in the agricultural reforms depriving many Scottish families of their land and causing entire communities to resettle in search of a better life. This is one of the reasons why Gaelic names of towns and villages are scattered from Inverness to the Hebrides . Ironically, it includes Kilmarnock where Robert Burns first published his book of poems… in Scots. There is also a large community of Gaelic speakers in Canada (Nova Scotia) where many Scottish people emigrated over the centuries.

Gaelic is an intriguingly beautiful language. It has enchanted me from the few words I learnt that Saturday. Thanks to Mr O’Halloran and his fabulous lecture I now know that any place name that has “dun” (“fort”), “kil” (“cell”), “loch” (“lake”), “drum”/”druim” (“ridge”), “glen”/”glheann” (“valley”) and “bal”/”baile” (“town” or “village”) — are of Gaelic origin. I am also aware that Gaelic has two genders and noun declensions — but rather than changing the ending (like we do in Russian) they change the “fronting” (a new word for me). Gaelic syntax places key words at the end of the sentence and that characteristics comes across in colloquial English spoken in respective areas: “Nice city is Glasgow” as opposed to “Glasgow is a nice city”.

Gaelic language went into decline during the age of “monolingualism” when it was perceived that knowledge of one language gives you a better position in life than if you can speak two or more languages. How bizarre? How can it even sound reasonable? Nevertheless people from local communities denied their children access to Gaelic in favour of a “more upmarket” English that was thought essential to launch successful careers and was routing out minority languages, such as Gaelic. The Education (Scotland) Act of 1872 put a full stop to the future of those languages by banning any non-English and specifically Scottish Gaelic medium of education. The harmful effect of that legislation is still evident today. According to the census of 2011 at that time in Scotland there were just over 57,000 speakers of Gaelic (representing 1.1% of the population) and that was 1,275 people less compared to 2001.

However, several years ago the Scottish Government introduced important legislative acts (in years 2005, 2010) which aim at reviving Gaelic and giving it the place it deserves. Scotland now promotes Gaelic in all fields, including education and set a target of increasing the number of speakers of the language. The solid and comprehensive framework and finances that are being invested into that plan give hope for the future of Gaelic. In fact Gaelic language classes attract many foreign speakers — that means the language may expand beyond the British Isles into Europe and further.

That Saturday was a magical experience.

Thank you CIOL Scottish Society and Andrew O’Halloran — I really enjoyed the day!

Liudmila Tomanek

@Russian Translation World Ltd

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