Review by Seaghan Mac an tSionnaigh
The UK’s first post-Brexit population census was conducted on March 25th. For residents of Scotland, the question “can you understand, speak, read and write Scottish Gaelic?” featured in its national identity, ethnic group, language and religion section. A question about Scottish Gaelic has been part of every UK census report since 1881.
However, the true utility of such data tends at times to be overstated and often may only be appreciated fully in consultation with sociolinguistic nuance of the kind offered by Dr Conchúr Ó Giollagáin, the University of the Highlands and Islands’ Dublin-born Gaelic research professor. In the opening sections of his most recent publication, Ó Giollagáin et al have rather comprehensively reviewed and analysed state documentation in which statistics on the distribution of Scottish Gaelic speakers have appeared to date.
The 2011 census return of 57,375 Gaelic speakers, for example, represented a 2.27 per cent national decrease compared with the 2005 figures. This data is contextualised by Ó Giollagáin’s concern for the critical mass of community speakers in the traditional heartland of the Gàidhealtachd (usually translated as “Highlands” but in this context it corresponds to what Irish people know as the Gaeltacht). In the Gàidhealtachd, there has been a much more significant decrease and it has all too partially been offset by a community of mostly urban learners whose connection to the language is institutional in nature.
The equivalent question in the Republic of Ireland census more readily lends itself, as Ó Giollagáin points out, to sociolinguistic purposes – there, respondents are invited to record the extent of their use of the Irish language outside the education system. This instance of unfavourable comparison to sociolinguistic practice in an Irish state with many of its own such issues does not reflect well on Gaelic Scotland, a language community hereby declared by Ó Giollagáin to be in crisis.
To better understand the crisis, Ó Giollagáin would have us adopt a more nuanced sociolinguistic approach to demographic data. A “demo linguistic perspective”, he calls it, with reference to the field of demo linguistics by which the Brussels-born linguist Jacques Pohl had sought as early as in 1972 to observe “linguistic trends as affected by population distribution and redistribution and by the status of societies” in the light of “the spread of ‘big’ languages to the disadvantage of the ‘small’ ones”. The demographic data that Ó Giollagáin’s team collected in connection with The Gaelic Crisis in Vernacular Community represents an important contribution to the field of Gaelic language demo linguistics and forms the cornerstone of all subsequent reflection in the book.
One of the significant findings on evidence here is of immediate polemical value to Gaelic activists whose concern for the oldest of all living Scottish languages has wrongly been accused of being a sort of nationalist essentialism. I refer to Ó Giollagáin’s work on outlining what are known in the field as “speaker typologies”, one of which indicates a greater likelihood among those who self-identify as “Gaels” to associate themselves with more than just one kind of Scottish identity, when compared with the majority of other Scots who do not identify as “Gaels”.
At the same time, Ó Giollagáin duly acknowledges the fact that in many respects Gaelic is afforded more favourable attention than most minority languages, and I find that he is quite on point with regard to his critique of the combined lot of all Scottish minorities in the specific context of postmodernist interfacing with identity complexity. The “assumption that minority groups can have a sustainable role in cosmopolitan identity formation”, he writes, “veers more towards creative thinking or imaginative musings than social analysis and critique, and is yet another instance of the postmodernist prioritisation of the discursive over the real”.
Thinly veiled digs such as these are a recurrent feature of The Gaelic Crisis in Vernacular Community. One might take this past month’s Seachtain na Gaeilge campaign as a concrete example of the sort of thing meant by “prioritisation of the discursive over the real”. The social media optics epitomised by the #SnaG21 hashtag and its accompanying platitudes seem to recall what Ó Giollagáin has to say about the kinds of language attitudes which live “through avowed assertions rather than collective practice”.
Clifden Post Office in Connemara is now closed – “all the banks and post offices in the Donegal Gaeltacht close, swathes of Conamara are riddled with cryptosporidium.” Top picture is of King’s residence at Aughrusbeg, near Cleggan. Pictures by Bill Heaney
It’s all well and good to invoke the Gaeltacht brand as a marketing ploy to fill your mates’ inner city pubs on their quieter week nights. Meanwhile, all the banks and post offices in the Donegal Gaeltacht close, swathes of Conamara are riddled with cryptosporidium and Kerry County Council says you are sufficiently Irish-speaking to live in Dingle if you can say yes to the question “Do you speak Irish?” – asked in English. This is the context in which Ó Giollagáin advocates for a collective approach which would seek “to address the process of societal disempowerment which has led to the current demographic contraction and the lack of social viability in the remaining social networks in which the minority language is spoken”.
There was another sociolinguistic study published in 2020, New Speakers of Irish in the Global Context: New Revival, one which as it happens is conspicuously absent from the cited works section of The Gaelic Crisis in Vernacular Community. Co-authored by John Walsh and Bernadette Rourke, its demolinguistic approach contrasts with Ó Giollagáin’s collective model by focusing on the circumstances not of communities but of a series of individuals who have acquired Irish as a second language. Central to New Speakers of Irish is its insistence on the validity of Irish language acquisition more or less independently of having anything to do with the Gaeltacht.
On the other hand, those learners who express preference for Gaeltacht speech and its community of native speakers are repeatedly caricaturised in New Speakers of Irish as uncritical heirs to the Gaelic Revival sensibilities of the late nineteenth century. Of course, it is relevant to wonder about the kind of ideology implicit in the presentation of certain attitudes to language learning as normative ones, while accusing other ones of naughty nationalism – or some other antithesis to contemporary neoliberal thought. Ó Giollagáin too writes, as part of a discussion of contemporary sociolinguistic attitudes to native speaker communities, of a “neo-liberal zeitgeist”.
One of the hallmarks of neoliberal linguistics is a desire amongst its proponents to oversee, as per Ó Giollagáin’s articulation of the issue, “a sense of empowerment through aligning itself with middle class aspirations [establishing] a discursive leadership”. Such a discourse serves to manufacture consent, if indeed I may borrow this phrase beloved of Noam Chomsky, with a whole new kind of Highland clearance. Except, under the neoliberal Highland clearances, both Gaeltacht and Gaidhealtachd give way to reservations replete with state curators crying crocodile tears over the loss of old ways of life.
Enough of the rant. The Gaelic Crisis in Vernacular Community is a far more credible source on Gaelic sociolinguistics. Of course, just as in the cases of virology and immunology, so does sociolinguistics these days have its disinformation narratives pushed by populist professors in service of political agendas and without regard for their effect on real-life communities. Some will read this review and jostle for clout with all the pomp of performative expressions of comment section consternation. But maybe others will read The Gaelic Crisis in Vernacular Community and heed its legitimate and well-articulated concerns.
Dr Seaghan Mac an tSionnaigh has taught at Uppsala University, Queen’s University Belfast, the University of Notre Dame, and Concordia University in Montréal. He now lives in Brussels, where he works as a translator for the European Commission.