Thursday, March 06, 2008

When language revitalisation reopens old wounds

Not everyone welcomes language revitalisation efforts. Apart from anything else, it often implies that a major decision taken by you or your parents - to speak to the children in a different language - was wrong, and, by increasing your exposure to the endangered language in question, puts you in a position where you can't help but notice that this decision's implications are nearly irreversible. (I have speculated that this might be one reason for the less than enthusiastic reaction of some of the first speakers to have brought up their kids as Arabic monolinguals to my arrival in Tabelbala.) The writer Ken MacLeod's recent attempt to come to grips with what annoys him about the proliferation of Gaelic-English bilingual roadsigns in Scotland nicely expresses this:
...my guess is this: we regret not speaking Gaelic, and we resent the presumption that we should. We have done their best with the hard hand we were dealt. Some of us have left for the Central Belt or the ends of the earth. Others have made a living in the desolate, depopulated landscape, working on the shooting estates or digging the thin and sodden fields in the old days; in tourism, commerce and industry today. And in almost all cases, to do this meant forgetting the language, leaving it to dwindle in the Sunday-morning sermon and the ceilidh and the old folks' private talk. We had to learn English, and we were proud that we spoke a more standard English than the Lowland Scots.

And after all that has left us illiterate and inarticulate in the language of our ancestors, but sharp and cutting in the lingua franca of the modern world, you come back and mock the teuchter again, with your signs for Raon Gnìomhachais (Industrial Estate) and Pàirc Gnothachais (Business Park) and Snaidhm-Rathaid (Interchange) and Port-adhair (Airport) - bright green sticking-plasters across what we had thought were faded scars.

14 comments:

Jeffrey Hayes said...

Initially confused about language revitalization, I looked at a few articles online and realized that your title for this blog post perfectly fits the description of the process itself. Reviving a language from its "extinct" state can certainly be met with resistance when the existence of that language is associated with a period of political or cultural repression. No one wants to relive it, especially since it implies injecting it into a community with added forms (grammar, vocabulary), thus defeating the purpose of reviving the original language. Really pushing the revitalization of a language would also mean having a written form and having its presence in the educational system in a given community - it certainly takes a HUGE collective effort to get that done successfully. Thanks for this great post!

David Marjanović said...

What does teuchter mean?

Glen Gordon said...

David, I think teuchter is a term being used here to refer to the Scottish Gaels perhaps with a soupçon of self-deprecation for comedic flavour. The author is casually suggesting that they are being 'mocked' by this sort of well-intentioned revivalism.

At any rate, I think that language revitalisation all depends on social context because not all revivalisms are necessarily received in a bad or offensive way, although to be honest I can't think of an example of revival that doesn't relate to feelings of oppression. Hmmm... These are some interesting ideas to ponder.

Anonymous said...

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Teuchter

Panu said...

we regret not speaking Gaelic, and we resent the presumption that we should.

This neatly illustrates the relationship of many Irish people to the Irish language (which, as you know, is a close relative of Scottish Gaelic).

My favorite Irish-language writer, Séamus Ó Grianna, wrote in several books about the humiliations of his childhood, when he came to school a monolingual child with no idea of English and was beaten by the schoolmaster for speaking Irish. He lived to master English completely - he was a man of terrible linguistic resources, whose English was as impressive as his Irish - he wrote a kind of scientific, accurate English with lots of skilfully employed "hard words", and his ability to deride and dismiss was formidable. However, he is basically remembered for his wonderful depictions of Irish country-life in a rich and colourful Donegal Irish. He was no ribín réidh as we say in Irish - i.e. he was obviously a difficult person to get along with - but his linguistic and literary is justly cherished by us who are trying to revive and enrich Irish in the 21st century.

BUT: he never brought his children up with Irish. He was himself sure that Irish was dying, that it was better off as an honoured dead, and that the Irish language revitalization movement was a bad idea. He was basically writing about his childhood Donegal all the time. He thought that Irish was perfectly fine for his childhood Donegal, but towards the end of his life he became increasingly embittered about the language revival movement.

Panu said...

What does teuchter mean?

Teuchter is a kind of racist insult. English-speaking Scots call Gaelic-speakers teuchters, when they want to insult or deride them.

Panu said...

his linguistic and literary is justly cherished by us

Sorry, of course there is the word "accomplishment" missing here.

David Marjanović said...

Thanks!

Robbie Kunz said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Robbie Kunz said...

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mark said...

A bittersweet quote. I was in the field, so somewhat late to the party, but I had Sapir's Selected Writings with me.

More than 70 years ago, Sapir wrote about Gaelic: 'Many of these restored or semimanufactured languages have come in on the wave of resistance to political or cultural hostility. (...) It is is very doubtful whether these persistent attempts to make true culture languages of local dialects that have long ceased to be of primary literary importance can succeed in the long run. The failure of modern Provencal to hold its own and the very dubious success of Gaelic make it seem probable that, following the recent tendency to resurrect minor languages, there will come a renewed leveling of speech more suitably expressing the internationalism which is slowly emerging.' (pp. 30-31, originally published as Language in the 1933 Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences).

mark said...

BTW, I note that your post has been copied verbatim and put online at http://mgabo2.livejournal.com/52942.html , which looks very much like a spam infested blog.

You can report the copyright violation to LiveJournal, perhaps they'll do something about it.

Panu said...

Many of these restored or semimanufactured languages have come in on the wave of resistance to political or cultural hostility. (...) It is is very doubtful whether these persistent attempts to make true culture languages of local dialects that have long ceased to be of primary literary importance can succeed in the long run.

What is problematic about this quote is, that "local dialects that have long ceased to be of primary literary importance" or have never before been of primary literary importance have indeed been resurrected or elevated in much of Eastern Europe. Czech hadn't been much used in literature for two centuries, when it was revived as a modern language. Much of modern terminology in these languages had indeed to be "semi-manufactured" in order to make them useful in modern society. But this is a truism: all languages have to improvise or to borrow new terms.

As regards the cases of Provencal and the Gaelic languages, these are rather exceptional in not being successfully revived. For the Provencal speakers, an established standard language closely related to their spoken variety was already available (i.e. French). And in Ireland, of course, when the linguistic revival started, the majority of the Irish had already shifted from Irish to English as vernacular language.

Maltese was standardized only recently, and had little literary significance before the twentieth century: the national poet, Dun Karm, died only in 1961, and wrote his early work in Italian. However, Malta never underwent such a language switch as Ireland, and thus, when the language was elevated to national and cultural medium, it was still there to be elevated. The problem with Irish is, that in most of Ireland, it has to be "artificially" revived - it isn't there as a vernacular anymore.

Skanda Aryan Jaggar said...

I agree with Panu, the evidence does not support the contention that languages cannot be revived; an excellent example is hebrew (modern) spoken in Israel. It is lingua franca in Israel, not English, Yiddish, Russian, Amharic, Aramaic, etc. Israel is a glaring example that a language can be revived if there is a national will to do so AND if the government and society do it in an intelligent and inclusive way. Meaning, a continuous and consistent marketing campaign and conversion plan with well defined stages. What doesn't work is the pathetic rote learning half-assed implementation carried out in Ireland. A ill-thought out approach involving rudimentary mandatory school courses, and throwing money at the issue without governmental and societal support for national multimedia and mass media support along with a positive incentive based support for the language will fail. Countries that use mainly a bureaucratic, mandatory and coercive means of pushing the language will fail (Ireland, Scotland, Quebec-Canada). Whereas regions that use incentives, positive reinforcement and high-quality entertainment in the target language (as well as stress speaking skills as opposed to rote grammar instruction) succeed; i.e. Eastern Europe, Wales, and most States in India where regional languages have rebounded with a vengeance despite the huge increasing uptake of Hindi and English in that country.