Category Archives: Language

Dealing with the Irish Language in NI

The Irish Language is in that unfortunate space in Northern Ireland where reactions to it are emotional – often flavoured by “community background” – rather than rational. Cases around it are made to suit the existing narrative rather than on a genuinely reasoned basis; and anyone stepping outside the “expected norm” of their own “side” (most obviously the East Belfast Mission at Skainos) is castigated mercilessly (but often unreasonably) by that “side”.

It is worth noting that this is rarely done by stating outright untruths, but rarely by emphasising the truths which suit our own narrative. Thus the fact few speak it as a native language in Northern Ireland can lead to it being easily dismissed as “dead” (even though it is all around us); or the fact that Presbyterians were central to its revival in the late 19th century can be hailed as “proof of an inherent cross-community interest” (even though this has not been meaningfully apparent for over a century). As too often in Northern Ireland, we find facts being made to suit a case, not a case being made to suit the facts!

For all that, there are actually two core ways of looking at the development of the Irish Language (and the government’s/tax payer’s role in it). It is worth looking at them in the (no doubt vain) hope of a rational compromise.

Firstly, the argument goes that the Irish Language is unique to the island of Ireland; that if we don’t take action to protect it we’ll lose it (because only we can save it); and that it is all around us (not least in place names) and part of all of us (regardless of background). On those grounds, we in Northern Ireland should play a full and comprehensive role in its development (and, particularly relevantly right now, we should certainly not be deprived of that role by funding for development organisations being shifted in its entirety to Dublin and the Gaeltacht).

Secondly, the argument goes that the Irish Language is a minority community interest, effectively a hobby; that it is not the government’s (tax payer’s) role to fund hobbies; and that if people want to develop it that is well and good, but they may do so in their own time at their own expense because public money is needed for schools and hospitals. On those grounds, it is dubious whether there should even be a “Department of Culture”, English should be the sole language of administration at all times (not least because it’s cheaper that way), and if anything Polish should be the second language as it has more native speakers.

At a purely rational level, I can absolutely see both of those arguments. However, the issue then becomes consistency. Frankly (and almost crudely), if you take the first argument you have to deliver a meaningful cross-community basis to all Irish Language activity (which means getting out of “silos” such as using the language to “mark Republican areas”, and removing some of the more fanciful notions about the language such as its alleged “ancientness”); if you take the second argument to its logical conclusion, the Orange Order should pay for its own marches (including security arrangements, notifying residents of road closures, post-parade clean-up and so on).

I do tend, personally, towards the first of the above (I personally am willing to pay something towards protection of a language on the grounds of cultural value even if I don’t speak it); but I respect those who tend towards the latter – as long as we are all consistent! Therefore, it would be helpful at least if we could shift the debate on to more rational ground, and then recognise the logical conclusions on other aspects of culture of the position we choose to take.

Belfastisms… and Ulster Scots

The Daily Mirror published a list last Friday of 28 expressions you will only know if you’re from Northern Ireland.

This begs the obvious question – are they Ulster Scots?!

“Ach, yous-uns are eejits” – could be; Scots would have Ach, yous anes is eejits (“yous-uns” is a pluralised “you” plus “ones” or Scots “anes“).

“Yer man is doing my head in” – probably isn’t; it’s likely English dialectal.

“I’m totally scundered” – is derived from Scots although the phrasing is English; but the <d> is a hypercorrection, the Scots word is in fact “scunner” (“A’m fair scunnert“), but idiomatically it would usually be used as a noun (“A taen a fair scunner“).

“Let’s head out for a wee dander” – is derived from Scots; but again the <d> is a hypercorrection – Scots has “wee danner“.

“This jallopy is banjaxed” – isn’t; it is perhaps onomatopoiea.

“Yer ma’s blootered again” – is derived from Scots; the word “bluiter” means the sound of a gust of wind, but “bluitert” has come to mean “drunk”.

“He fell on his hoop” – probably isn’t.

“Away on with ye” – probably is derived from Scots; Scots does frequently use awa “away” almost as a verb.

“Alright mucker” – probably isn’t.

“Catch yourself on big lad” – probably isn’t.

“Do you like my new guddies” – probably is derived from Scots; Scots more usually has “gutties” (originally meaning anything made of rubber, then more specific to shoes).

“Shut yer bake” – could be from anywhere; but indeed Ulster-Scots poems from two centuries ago do use “bake” (“beak”) for “mouth”.

“My gub’s killin’ me” – again, could be from anywhere; “gub” certainly is used in Scots, including in such a context.

“Give us a gravy ring there mate” – probably isn’t; this seems to be a Northern Irish speciality!

“Shut that windee” – probably is derived from Scots; Scots typically pronounces final “-ow” in English as “-ee” (usually spelled “-a” or “-ae” – e.g. winda(e), folla(e), Glesca(e)).

“We’ve been firing bricks at the peelers” – isn’t.

“Bout ye” – probably isn’t.

“Give us a juke at that” – is derived from Scots; Scots has “deuk“, actually meaning “duck”, in this context.

“Have a wee hoak for it” – is derived from Scots, even idiomatically, although has come to be slightly mispronounced; Scots would be the same phrasing, usually written “hae a wee howk for it” (“howk”, strictly, has the same vowel as “cowp”, but then so has “bowl”…)

“My da will knock your ballix in” – isn’t really; “da” is typically Scots, but is in widespread usage across Ireland too.

“He’s half-cut again” – isn’t.

“That dinner was ratten” – hmmm, is English!

“Quit yer faffin’ about” – is derived from Scots, even idiomatically; Scots would have “Quit yeir faffin about” (though “faff” is a perfectly good English word too).

“Get your lazy hole out of bed” – isn’t, particularly!

“Do you think I came down the Lagan [more commonly actually Bann] in a bubble?” – isn’t; coming down a particular river in a bubble is known across the British Isles and probably elsewhere in the English-speaking world too.

“Give us a pastie supper” – is derived from Scots; the concept of “fish supper” and the like is understood in Scotland but not generally in England.

“This is pure wick so it is” – “wick” isn’t, but “so it is” is, so it is…

Essentially, most of the examples are relatively usual Urban Dialect English, but there is a widespread Scots influence.

Ulster Scots has words for everything – mostly similar to English

One Twitter correspondent asked a perfectly common question re (Ulster) Scots earlier this week – does it have words for everything?

Here is the thing: most German words are cognate with (meaning for the purposes of this article that they are identifiably originally the same as) words in Dutch, as is obvious here.

The same applies, of course, to Spanish versus Portuguese; or to Irish Gaelic versus Scottish Gaelic; or, dare I say, to Russian versus Ukrainian. So, naturally, the same applies to Scots versus English.

Ein wi the muin bricht owerheid, A gae intae the toun, an wantan to find the gowd thay ar leukan bi the pairk.

A fairly pointless sentence, but the point of it is this: every single word in it is cognate with English. Of course, Scots does have words entirely distinct from English (some quite common: wee, scunner, gunk; some which have even been borrowed into English: weird, daft, divot).

What we see in the above sentence is some common changes:

loss of intervocalic <v>: ein ‘even’, ower ‘over’ (also hae ‘have’, waw ‘wave’);

raising of English <oo> to Scots <ui>: muin ‘moon’ (also guid ‘good’, buird ‘board);

retention of velar written <ch> versus silent English <gh>: bricht ‘bright’ (also aneuch ‘enough’, fecht ‘fight’)

retention of long /i:/ usually written <ei> occasionally <ee>: heid ‘head’ (also deid ‘dead’, weel ‘well’)

retention of <ae>: gae ‘go’, intae ‘into’ (also sae ‘so’, staen/stane ‘stone’)

retention of long vowel written <ou>: toun ‘town’ (also doun ‘down’, nou ‘now’)

retention of short <i>: find is pronounced to rhyme with English ‘pinned’

vocalisation of post-vocalic <l>: gowd ‘gold’ (also know/knowe ‘knoll’, baa ‘ball’)

introduction of ‘y-glide’: leuk ‘look’ nearly rhymes with British English ‘nuke’ (as does beuk ‘book’)

lengthening to <ai>: pairk ‘park’ (also airm ‘arm’, yaird ‘yard’; though note warm ‘warm’ and even laund ‘land’)

This is, of course, something of a simplification and there are exceptions. However, they give a reflection of how the sounds of Scots and English had already shifted prior to the invention of the printing press, and subsequently continued to develop.

Ultimately, most Scots words are cognate with English – this does not make them ‘not Scots’!

Stop abusing apostrophes!

I don’t like to be prescriptive about the use of English. After all, this is the 1300th post on this blog and there are no doubt inadvertent errors all over it!

However, get this: in English, plurals are never never never never never never never never never never never never never never never never never never never formed with an apostrophe.

Not once. Never at all. Absolutely not.

Nor are third person present indicative singular verbs.

He carries three kilos of bananas to the quarries in the meadows. No apostrophes!!!!!!!!

Feckin’ stop it! Now!

Spelling systems do not always reflect pronunciation

(Ulster) Scots and French are not likely bedfellows linguistically, but they both reflect an important point when it comes to how we write languages – one with which those seeking to establish an orthography for the former should maybe become better acquainted.

It is essentially this: written standards do not exclusively, or perhaps even primarily, reflect the way words are spoken (pronounced).

Of course, the written system in Chinese does not reflect pronunciation at all. Other languages, such as Arabic, do so only partially, often by reflecting only consonants (cf. txtspk). So the prime objective is always merely to represent the word (and perhaps its grammatical relationship), not to reflect the precise pronunciation.

An example of this is in my own Ulster-Scots grammar, where I have regularised the spelling of strong verbs (those which change their root vowel to make their past form) into four main classes (plus a fifth which is irregular but consistent):

y – i : byt-bit ‘bite-bit(ten)’, ryd-rid ‘ride-rode/ridden’, stryk-strik ‘strike-struck’.

e(e) – a : creep-crap ‘creep-crept’, get-gat ‘get-got(ten)’, quet-quat ‘quit-quit’.

i – u: bind-bund ‘bind-bound’, pit-put ‘put-put’, rin-run ‘run-ran/run’.

ei – e/ui : beir-buir ‘bear-bore/borne’, steil-stuil ‘steal-stole(n)’, treit-tret ‘treat-treated’.

add -n : dae-daen ‘do-did/done’, gie-gien ‘give-gave/given’, see-seen ‘see-saw/seen’.

There are some further slight complexities to exactly how this system works, but once it is in place you have a written form of Scots which leaves over fewer than 20 outright irregular verbs (plus some modals) – all others are either regular weak verbs or regular strong verbs in the sense that they fit consistently into a particular class. In other words, the written form I use leaves fewer than 20 verbs whose past forms are unpredictable – simply by learning regular rules you know all the rest. If only German, Spanish or indeed English were that easy!

Far from being unique, this is common in most languages. English itself spells ‘says’ as if it is derived consistently from ‘say’ and ‘does’ as if from ‘do’, yet this is not so in pronunciation. Likewise, consider plurals ‘dish-dishes’, ‘sack-sacks’, ‘mirage-mirages’, ‘car-cars’, ‘youth-youths’ – these all vary either in how he ending (‘-(e)s’) is pronounced or the preceding letter changes (in the latter case), yet they are spelled consistently.

Perhaps the most obvious example of this comes from French. For example, in the modern language, grand ‘great’, lent ‘slow’ and bon ‘good’ rhyme – they all consist of a consonantal sound plus the most common nasal vowel; there is no indication whatsoever in speech as to what the final consonant actually is. This is because spellings reflect older pronunciations – but it is a very good thing they do, because when they come to form the feminine form (grande, lente, bonne) that final consonant re-appears and is pronounced.

The point here is that if French spelling were updated to reflect only modern pronunciation, we may end up with the spelling gra’, le’ and bo’ or even gro’, lo’ and bo’. This would reflect pronunciation precisely – but it would give no indication whatsoever as to what the feminine forms are. You would simply have to know – or just guess – that gra’ adds -dle’ adds -t and bo’ adds -n. Such a system, while effectively in place in spoken French, would be incredibly difficult (frankly impossible) to learn. By leaving spellings which reflect older pronunciation (and specifically not reflecting current pronunciation) in place, French becomes a much easier and apparently more logical language to learn.

It is clear, therefore, that such things are important when it comes to developing spelling systems. They are far too frequently ignored.

*Less* flags?

One BBC correspondent picked up on Tuesday night the Education Minister’s call for “less flags” – not because of its political content, but rather its linguistic.

I have in past posts made the distinction between “wrong” grammar on one hand and “non-standard” (but dialectally correct) grammar on the other. This “error” isn’t clear cut – it falls in between.

Put simply, a football team could be said to have “more chance” (i.e. a greater likelihood) on one hand, or “more chances” (i.e. a greater number of opportunities) on the other. However, in reverse it would be said to have “less chance” but “fewer chances”, at least in Standard English.

“Less” (and “least”) derives from “little” – meaning originally “more little” (its universal use now for comparison means that something which actually is “more little” is usually said to be “smaller” – an issue of usage rather than grammar). “Fewer” derives more obviously from “few”, meaning a “low number” (thus a “lower number”).

Such semantic shifts are not usual. “Little” is usually replaced in Scotland and Ireland with “wee”, but “wee” was in fact originally a noun, meaning a “short time” (hence “Bide-a-wee” is a common name for a B&B, such as one just outside Strabane).

Is mixing “less” and “fewer” a serious error? Not really – if “more” does not need to be distinguished from “more”, then why distinguish “less” from “fewer”? Nevertheless, it is something the Education Minister should do less often and on fewer occasions. Maybe that’s a wee bit clearer…?

“If he had have went”…

Oh dear, it doesn’t get any better, does it? “If he had have went“, which was actually overheard in speech (so conceivably may even have been intended to be written “if he had of went“), contains one outright grammatical error, and one non-standard (not strictly wrong) verb form.

Let us start with the latter. To clarify, the use of “went” as the past participle, widely discussed in these pieces, is non-standard but actually grammatically defensible – in the sense that it is widely used, a natural progression, and in fact perfectly logical.

It is widely used – in that almost everyone I know uses it including government ministers, chief executives and solicitors.

It is a natural progression – in that it is common for the preterite and past participle forms to merge (as previously discussed).

It is logical – in that “went” was originally both the preterite and past participle of “wend“, so why would it not be so adopted for “go“?

However, a key point here is that “went” does not replace “gone” in all contexts. In fact, there is a new distinction between its use as part of the verb phrase, and its use as a standalone adjective – one sometimes made with other verbs.

Consider the Class II strong verb “strike“. Class II verbs are tricky because they vary somewhat – they include “choose-chose-chosen“; “fly-flew-flown” (but also “show-shew/showed-shown/ed”?); “write-wrote-written” and “strike-struck-struck/stricken“. Stricken? Well yes – as in “grief-stricken“. Here, the adjective (at least in the common phrase) has remained “stricken“, but common usage, even in Standard English, has shifted the participle used in verb phrases into line with the preterite as “struck“. 

I would suggest the same thing is happening with “went” versus “gone“, and thus predict “went” will be regarded as Standard in verb phrases a century from now – but not as an adjective. Thus we will have “he has went up the stairs“, but “foregone conclusion“, “bygones be bygones” and even “She’s gone!” (not “She’s went! - as this is regarded as an adjective expressing the status of disappearance rather than a verb expressing movement).

However, what about the former – “if he had have“? There’s an unnecessarily and linguistically illogical duplication there – a confusion formed by a combination perhaps of uncertainty over a common abbreviated form (“he’d“) and in fact a clash between Standard American and Standard British. American here has “if he would have“, British has simply “if he had” – either is perfectly logical.

In older forms of English (and in contemporary German, albeit with an umlaut used for distinction), the past form could double-up as the conditional with some common verbs, most obviously “to have”. Thus the form “had” could be used either has a past (“I had a house” – modern German “Ich hatte ein Haus”) or as a conditional (now usually “I would have a house” – modern German ich hätte ein Haus”). The slight confusion is that “have” is also an auxiliary verb often used to refer to things which have happened (strictly this is a present tense indicating aspect of something completed, but in practice most people regard it as past) – thus “I had seen him” (German “Ich hatte ihn gesehen”) versus “I would have seen him” (German “Ich hätte ihn gesehen”).

The distinction is obvious. However, when used in conditional clauses (almost always starting “if…”), British Standard usage still allows “had” as the conditional (or perhaps conjunctive) form – thus British “If I had seen him” versus American “If I would have seen him” (German “Wenn ich ihn gesehen hätte”). Either the British or the American is perfectly logical and consistent – what is inconsistent is combining them to the duplicated *”If I had have seen him” (which effectively means “If I would have have seen him” – an obvious nonsense). This is not a “pluperfect” form either – logically, that would be “If I had had seen him”.

This serves again to mark the clear distinction between usage which is grammatically wrong on one hand (“If he had have”), and usage which is grammatically non-standard but otherwise widely used, logical and consistent on the other (“have went”). There is too much talk of “wrong grammar” and “bad grammar” to refer to perfectly consistent developments which are not (yet) standard; but that does not mean there is no such thing as “wrong grammar” – there is, but it is clearly defined and distinguished from “non-standard”.

Now peers “are sat”…

One correspondent shared last week with us that not only do the BBC say “was ran by”, but a peer says “was sat”. Oh dear!

So what is going on there?

As mentioned last week, strong verbs exist in languages such as English and German, as a set which form their past forms (preterite and past participle) by means of changing their root vowel (most obviously sing-sang-sung; singen-sang-gesungen). These initially fell into seven clearly distinguishable classes, although English in particular has reduced/merged them to such an extent, that this is all but redundant – for example, in the same class as sing-sang-sung there is put-put-put and, here it is, sit-sat-sat.

The last of the three forms is the “past participle”, not in fact a verb form at all but effectively an adjective, which is also used for the “present perfect” tense (actually “aspect”; e.g. I have sung) and the passive (it was sung). That latter, of course, indicates that it was sung by someone/something. Therefore, using sit rather than sing, it makes perfect sense to say or write “I have sat” but none at all to say or write I was sat (with the arguable exception of if you were being forced to sit by someone).

Another aspect of this, tying into last week’s article, is whether or not a verb is “transitive”, i.e. whether it takes (or can take) a direct object. Essentially if a verb is “intransitive” (cannot take a direct object; like sit), then it cannot really have a passive form (because that essentially switches the subject and the direct object - I sing the song versus the song is sung by me).

In a number of cases, the original verb in -i- was intransitive (e.g. sit) but had a “brother” word in -e- meaning essentially the same thing but transitive (as sit has - set). English has by and large lost this division, and does not even maintain it strictly with sit versus set (in English you now “sit yourself down” whereas German “correctly” uses setzen instead of sitzen for this). Also, the “brother” word is usually a regular verb not a strong one (although unlike in German, set in English has effectively become strong).

Herein lies the origin of another common linguistic catastophe of recent decades. German has setzen versus sitzen and also legen versus liegen; English has set versus sit and also (less obvious in modern spelling) lay versus lie. Those spellings only hint at the origin – in Old English these were lecgan and licgan (and in Old German leggen and liggan), as is still fairly obvious in the pronunciation. Here again, the -e- verb has the transitive meaning and is regular, not strong (in this case in both German and English –  legen-legte-gelegt and lay-laid-laid are perfectly regular); and again the -i- verb is not (liegen-lag-gelegen and lie-lay-lain). As demonstrated in the previous paragraph, English has been generally poorer at maintaining the distinction between the transitive and intransitive forms and it is proving difficult to maintain this one, with lay taking over in almost all informal speech as the intransitive (*I will lay down and go to sleep) as well as the transitive verb.

Originally, another two verbs in this category were wind and wend; in the end wind took over for all purposes and wend was left notable only for providing its regular past preterite form went to the verb go from about 1300 onwards… which takes us back nearly to the problem identified last week!

The BBC has went and ran “wrong” verb forms…

According to a recent BBC article, a company “was ran” by someone. It is, of course, now common place for government ministers, Council Chief Executives and Grammar School head boys to “have went”. Is this really a problem?

Well, what is happening here?

Almost all the languages of Europe through even to northern India derive from the same common ancestor, Indo-European. One of the first dialects of Indo-European to spring westwards was Germanic, which spawned languages such as English, German and Swedish. Even though the former became subsequently heavily influenced by French and Latin, its grammar and vocabulary remain fundamentally Germanic.

One of the linguistic features of Germanic languages (marking them out as a group from others) is the presence of “strong verbs”, those which mark their past preterite and past participle forms by changing the root vowel (thus sing-sang-sung; break-broke-broken - also German singan-sang-gesungen; brechen-brach-gebrochen). In fact, initially all verbs in Germanic languages were “strong”; it was only later that “weak” verbs developed, forming their past in what is now regarded as the “regular” way by adding a -or -t (e.g. like-liked-liked; learn-learnt/learned-learnt/learned; also note send-sent-sent).

These verbs were initially split into seven classes, depending (primarily at least) on the root vowel – for the record, linguists assign sing to Class 3 and break to Class 4.

Another Class 3 verb is run – this is confused because originally this was rin(nan), thus making it more obviously like sing. What has happened here is that the (standard) past participle form run (cf sung) has taken over also as the present form. Some users – including the author of the BBC story mentioned in the first paragraph – instinctively assume that any past form should be different from the present, and thus assume that if the present is run the past participle must be something else – say, ran.

Class 7 is a confusing class made up of verbs which initially reduplicated (no need to know how or why) – and one of these was usually spelled gan in Old English but has become, in modern English, goCommon verbs like this are often unstable, taking shortened forms quite often, and in fact go very early in the history of English (i.e. in the second half of the first millennium) developed a “suppletive” (i.e. from a completely different source) past preterite form eode - so “he eode” in Old English would now be “he went“. (This is in fact the origin of the end of the word follow, which was originally folgan with the past folleode but then essentially adopted a present form as if regular with the past form, thus follow-followed-followed.)

Over time, this “suppletive” form was replaced by another suppletive form from the verb “wend” – so that where “went” was originally the past preterite form of “wend” (e.g. send-sent), it has become since late Norman times the past preterite form of “go” (the past preterite of the now rare “wend” has been “regularised” to “wended“).

Nevertheless, throughout this time the past participle has remained “gone” or something similar to that – which also gives the adjectival form (e.g. “foregone conclusion”, “let bygones be bygones”). Similarly to the case with run, however, the tendency to want to use the same past preterite and past participle has begun to prevail, thus leading the near dominance now, even in formal careful speech, of “went” as the participle as well as the preterite.

This is in fact a perfectly normal tendency, evident throughout the history of English – after all, the example I gave above of break-broke-broken exhibits a similar regularisation (in Shakespeare’s time most educated speakers would have insisted on break-brake-broken and for that matter speak-spake-spoken). Some verbs have been regularised altogether – just a few generations before Shakespeare, the same strong verb class had help-halp-holpen but by his day it was help-helped-helped. Without the invention of the printing press in the late fifteenth century, which greatly slowed down linguistic change because it made the written word so widely transferable (and thus effectively required “educated written standard” versions of English and other languages to be determined), we may be sure that this process of regularisation would have gone further – as it has in most non-standard dialects (likewise, I argue, in Ulster Scots).

So what is the answer to the question in the first paragraph? It is not really a problem. Language change is language change – like any sort of change, it is a fact of life and necessary to progress even though few like it at the time. Nevertheless, a careless use of language can often point to carelessness in other ways. Standard grammatical forms haven’t gone away, you know…

Exercise free choice and a new, better NI opens up before us

This is the original of a piece to be published in the University of the Sorbonne’s “Etudes Irlandaises”:

A map of the languages of Europe as spoken roughly a century ago, overlaid with modern international borders

A map of the Indo-European languages of Europe as spoken roughly a century ago, overlaid with modern international borders

One of the biggest challenges faced by minority language movements across Europe is the association between a language and a people (or a nation) which most people inherently make. After all, if most people who speak Slovene are Slovene, and most people who are Slovene speak Slovene, then why would the same correlation not apply to any other language? As a result, almost inevitably and often unintentionally, minority language development becomes associated with movements of national determination, of whatever kind – summed up perhaps by the old Welsh maxim “Cenedl heb iaith, cenedl heb galon” (“a nation without a language is a nation without a heart”). The difficulty is that the correlation is almost universally inaccurate. This paper argues that the correlation between “language” and “nation” is often unhelpful to minority language development, particular with reference to Ulster Scots (defined as the variety of the Scots tongue spoken in parts of Northern Ireland and County Donegal); and that indeed the “language versus dialect” debate this correlation inevitably engenders is pointless and unhelpful.

How is the correlation between “language” and “nation” inaccurate? Most obviously, most people who speak English (however defined) are not English; indeed, counting those who speak it fluently as a second language, England itself is a comparatively minor part of the modern English-speaking world. Furthermore, the recent census of England and Wales demonstrated clearly that an increasing minority of English residents do not in fact speak English at home (or at all). The correlation falls down immediately, in the case of the world’s most widely spoken language.

Even within the boundaries of Europe, where the “nation state” (which often defined or was defined by linguistic boundaries) took root, the correlation is of scant value. Most French people do indeed speak French – but so do lots of Belgians and Swiss. Proportionately as many Austrians speak German as Germans; yet Austria was itself once the centre of a multi-national and multi-lingual empire which, even after the “independence” of many of its nation states, leaves linguistic minorities all over the place. A third of Hungarian speakers in Europe do not live in Hungary; many live in Romania, yet many Romanian speakers live in Moldova. Polish is indeed the dominant language in Poland, but is also now the second language of Ireland, North and South. Some Italians speak German; some Czechs speak Slovak; some Estonians speak Russian. This is before we get into the “language definition” debate – some Spaniards speak Galician (perhaps closer to Portuguese than Spanish); some Swiss speak “Swiss German”; most Luxembourgers switch between Germanic Luxembourgish and Standard French depending on context. Even though international frontiers came sometimes even to mark linguistic frontiers (e.g. between “German” and “Dutch”), even a Europe of over 50 sovereign units does not match “nation” with “language” in any meaningful way.

If the correlation between “nation” and “language” does not stand up to scrutiny in the case of widely known national and administrative languages, why then do we insist on assuming the two are linked with minority languages? It is widely assumed that anyone who takes an interest in the development of, for example, Catalan or Scots is likely a Catalan or Scottish Nationalist – indeed, most people would assume the two are directly interlinked, with the language used (or abused, according to preference) to emphasise the distinct “national identity” of the would-be independent state. It is not for me to determine whether or not this helps the political objective being assumed; but I am certain it hinders the linguistic one.

The fact, with the both the above examples, is that Catalan and Scots are widely spoken languages in certain spheres of life (exactly which spheres differ, with Catalan now enjoying much wider access to more formal, educational and administrative settings than Scots does). The fact is also that their speakers are almost all proficient in the dominant administrative language of the state (Spanish in the case of Catalonia/Spain and English in the case of Scotland/UK), and that this “dominant” language also has a wider global role, and thus international economic and diplomatic importance, as one of the most widely spoken languages on the planet. Therefore, to tie the minority language in with an independence movement is to suggest the minority language could one day enjoy the same status as the currently “dominant” language – even though Spanish and English have obviously global reach and Catalan and Scots obviously never will. However, this is plainly a ludicrous suggestion. The current national governments of Catalonia and Scotland may aspire to independence on a par with (the rest of) Spain and England and they have every right to that aspiration, but most of their residents (even those pre-disposed to support the objective of independence) would recognise that suggesting minority languages could or even should ever enjoy parity in a globalised world with the languages of Spain or England is quite ridiculous (and conceivably even economically harmful). The result is that tying minority languages to independence movements suggests an unattainable objective for those minority languages – leaving a lot of people, even those instinctively supportive of the independence movements, to give up on them altogether.

Across the “Sheuch” from Scotland lies Northern Ireland, which naturally has its own constitutional peculiarities. Here, the “Irish” language had already become intertwined in the familiar way with Irish Nationalism (itself assumed to correlate with Irish Catholicism too). Thus, Scots (known in Northern Ireland and the border counties of Ireland as “Ulster Scots”) became intertwined with Unionism; given the tendency for minority languages to be associated with breakaway national movements, it in fact became more obviously associated with “Loyalism”, a form of Unionism which vehemently opposes any hint of unity with the rest of Ireland and yet regards its affiliation to Britain as strictly conditional (indeed, stands of “Loyalism” have frequently hinted at an ultimate preference for a separate Protestant State in the north east of Ireland). However, the link between the Scots tongue as spoken in Ireland (Ulster Scots) and “Loyalism” is ludicrous because it bears no relation to reality whatsoever – as is immediately obvious from the fact that contemporary Ulster Scots is spoken exclusively in rural areas and “Loyalism” is more evident in the urban inner-city.

Government department and agencies in Northern Ireland have, unfortunately, subscribed to the fiction that “Ulster Scots” and “Loyalism” are somehow linked. As recently in 2012, a Department of Culture consultation referred throughout to “Ulster-Scots language, heritage and culture”, implicitly suggesting that the Scots language and Loyalist heritage and culture were to be regarded as a single unit, when in reality they are almost entirely distinct – even geographically. As a result, the language has come to be almost totally ignored – since it is tied to a group of people who do not speak it, any attempts at promoting it invite ridicule (with the result that most people in Northern Ireland refuse to believe there are any speakers). Ulster-Scots Speakers themselves, meanwhile, are left marginalised from any attempts at “promotion”, because almost all such attempts are aimed for “culture and heritage reasons” at a completely different set of people – people who actually speak English! This is a perfect example of the risk of trying to link “language” to “nation” – sometimes to two scarcely coincide at all.

Another difficulty for Ulster Scots, given its implicit association with “Unionism” (and therefore against Nationalism), is that its proponents have often been unwilling to share their development work with those developing Scots in Scotland, precisely because the latter are assumed (often correctly) to be in favour of Scottish independence and thus of a completely opposing view concerning the constitutional future of the UK. As a result, the tendency in Northern Ireland has been to argue for language status for “Ulster Scots” alone, suggesting it is distinct not just from “English” but also from “Scots”. Politically this is bizarre and linguistically it lacks any justification whatsoever. Politically, it amounts to supposed Unionists (i.e. people assumed to support linkage between Northern Ireland and Great Britain) opposing an obvious link to Scotland; linguistically, there simply is no case for suggest Ulster Scots is distinct grammatically, lexically or phonologically from Scottish Scots, and indeed its development is harmed by doing so. Depriving for political reasons the obvious linguistic links between Ulster Scots and Scottish Scots deprives Ulster Scots of much of its interest – why would proponents of any variety of Scots wish to cut themselves off from the writings of Burns (including Auld Lang Syne) or the vocabulary of the game of golf (putt, links, divot etc), when these are the key introductory points of immediate and obvious interest to millions of people even well beyond the British Isles?

The other fundamental difficulty with the false intertwining of “nation” and “language” in the case of minority languages is that too many proponents of minority languages are inclined to take an attack on one as an attack on the other, and define them in similar terms. For example, a suggestion that Scots is not a “language” in the true sense is not, in fact, an attack on the idea that the Scottish nation could do perfectly well as an independent country; it is merely a suggestion that the Scots language is not used across the whole range of settings from formal to informal. People who are inclined to tie together minority language development with campaigns for political independence are inclined to spend a lot of time arguing over language status in the same way they argue over national status – yet the two are separate arguments! Scots could quite easily be revived with Scotland remaining within the UK (after all, Welsh has flourished within the UK far more than Irish has in the independent Republic of Ireland); on the other hand, an independent Scotland could quite easily decide to promote English for economic reasons to the exclusion of Scots.

This point transfers to Northern Ireland too. The suggestion that Ulster Scots is not a language, or at least lacks the range that English has, is often taken as an insult to Loyalist or broader Unionist culture because the that culture is supposedly intertwined with the Ulster-Scots language. It is noteworthy that the public figures who react most vehemently to this suggestion are, without exception, unwilling to utter so much as a word in Ulster Scots – because, as established above, they actually speak English! Visiting actual speakers of Ulster Scots, on the other hand, one is instantly struck how unconcerned they are about the “language versus dialect” debate (in much the same way speakers of Swiss German are unconcerned about it). The most prominent living poet in Ulster Scots, Jim Fenton, has long studiously avoided the debate altogether by referring to it as a “tongue” – precisely because he wants people to enjoy it, not argue about it!

Why is this? Here, I proceed with caution because when assessing a group of people, however defined, it is easy to drift into generalisation and conjecture. Nevertheless, much of this still derives, in my view, from the “Siege Mentality” of many Ulster Protestants – a mentality which is felt very much to be literal.

The story of “The Siege”, which in Northern Ireland needs no further definition to be taken automatically to mean the 1689 Siege of Derry, is perhaps highly relevant here. The albeit slightly simplified narrative carried down to the present day involves not just the clash between the Catholic “Irish” Jacobites seeking to take the city and the mainly Presbyterian “Ulster-Scots” city residents who held out against all odds, but also the other essential aspect involving the “English” – namely the English ship which waited further up the River Foyle for months instead of intervening, and (in common Ulster Protestant perception at least) leaving those inside the city walls to starve. This presentation of the “English”, as essentially gutless and untrustworthy, remains characteristic of much Ulster Protestant mentality and instinct to this day – ironically further enforcing the “siege mentality” as they see themselves caught between an adversary on one side (the “Irish”) and fellow countrymen they don’t trust on the other (the “English”).

It is this which, long pre-dating any “language” movement, gives the notion of “Ulster Scots”, even if it was not always so widely referred to as such, a particular resonance for many Ulster Protestants, particularly those for whom “identity” is most important (the world over, those who obsess most with identity tend to be those of fewer means and thus, these days, those in the inner cities and some rural locations). Exactly how this played out politically and linguistically has varied from time to time. Most “Ulster Scots” instinctively took the American side in 1776, many joined the 1798 rebellion, some (including nearly a third of Presbyterian Ministers in Ulster) were supportive of “Home Rule” at least until the “Ne Temere” Decree of 1907. Prior to the Victorian Age, Ulster Scots were marked for the priority they gave to education and particularly literacy, but in creative writing and particularly in poetry many purposefully followed Scots norms rather than English ones (i.e. those of Burns rather than Wordsworth) – these included not just vocabulary, spelling and grammar but even verse forms. The County Down poet Hugh Porter, writing at the start of the 19th century, perhaps summed it up best when he wrote of his own use of language (and, perhaps, of his own identity):

It is nor Scotch nor English either, but a bit o’ baith mix’d up thegither, but it’s the sort my neighbours use, wha prefer shoon prettier far than shoes.

Perhaps his most famous contemporary, James Orr from Ballycarry in County Antrim, went further and dismissed the English entirely, most notably in “Ode to the Potatoe” where he mocks the “English” for requiring so many crops when the “Irish” (to which he is clear he belongs) make do perfectly well with one – a poem made, in restrospect, almost into a tragedy by the Great Famine little more than a generation later. In other words, politically and linguistically, the notion of “Ulster Scots” has long been compelling for Ulster Protestants, as has the link between the politics and linguistics of “Ulster Scots”, based as they are upon Ulster Protestants’ sense of being caught besieged between the English and the Irish; however, how precisely this has revealed itself has swung dramatically over time. Those self-defining as “Ulster Scots” have always been split fully three ways – Nationalist, Liberal and Unionist – but exactly in which proportion has varied hugely from generation to generation, and may do so again.

So it is that we arrive at a contemporary situation in which most (though not all) who associate themselves with “Ulster Scots” regard themselves as “Unionist”, see the two as intertwined, and yet often at the same time reject outright any direct linguistic association between “Ulster Scots” and “Scots” – in other words, for many “Ulster Scots” has become something to be associated exclusively with “Ulster” and not shared with Scotland. It is a peculiar thing, surely, for “Unionist” who support the link with Great Britain politically to deny it linguistically?

Yet the combination of the two core parts of this paper explain this peculiarity, at least in part. Firstly, because everything in Northern Ireland is “mirrored” into two “sides”, if “Nationalists” have their own exclusive culture (incorporating a language), so much “Unionists” have theirs. Secondly, most “Unionists” are of a heritage which, while supportive of the link with Great Britain, is also greatly suspicious of the people who live there. These combine to explain why “Unionists”, having in fact secured their constitutional future as best they possibly can within the UK, remain so wary and suspicious. This lack of confidence cannot easily be overcome.

It was noted earlier also that many “Ulster Scots”, at least historically, had in fact been “Liberals” (now most likely to associate with the contemporary Alliance Party rather than any of the Unionist groupings). Even in the run-up to the Covenant of 1912 led by all the great Unionist Leaders of the time, entire hamlets in Scots-speaking and predominantly Protestant parts of rural Ulster (such as Armoy) refused to sign.

So what do modern “Liberals” make of this intertwining of language and culture? In truth, they do not think much about it. Liberals across the world tend to focus more on the reasoned and rational (and thus make political appeals to the “head”) where many others focus more on the emotional (and indeed identity-based; thus making political appeals to the “heart”). The recent “Flags Dispute” over Christmas 2012 was a classic example – the Liberals took a rational position that the flag on Belfast City Hall should change from flying 365 days a year as it always had in Belfast to flying on “designated days” as was the case with most Councils in the UK, in a way which would maintain the flying of the sovereign flag without overdoing its use in the centre of a city of divided national affiliations; Unionists took the more emotional position that “their flag” was being “taken away”. The fact that once militant Irish Republicans, for the first time in the history of Ireland, voted to fly the Union Flag over a civic building was lost to all sides, even though in theory it was a thorough endorsement of both the Liberal position (on the flag) and the Unionist position (on the constitution). Liberals were unable to engage at the emotional, identity-based level in order to claim victory; and for aforementioned reasons Unionists are always too suspicious to engage rationally to claim it.

Similarly, on language, Liberals tend to focus merely on the use of language as a mode of direct communication, rather than on the intertwining of language and political identity (and the way in which language can be used to communicate much more than just what is conveyed by the words themselves). In the same way they dismiss emotional attachments to symbols, they dismiss emotional attachments to languages. Although in theory Alliance Party policy is supportive of the development of all minority languages, this support rejects any notion that “indigenous” languages such as Irish and Ulster Scots should be treated any differently from more recently arrived languages such as Cantonese or Polish; and in practice gives such primacy to English that other languages would perhaps be best subtly forgotten. This is, rationally, an entirely sensible policy and position, of course. However, does it do justice to the emotional side, based as it is on centuries of the intertwining of language, politics and identity?

Therefore the whole thing has, in my view, broader political implications for Northern Ireland. Once one accepts that “language” and “nation” are not necessarily intertwined, and may indeed not be connected at all, one can begin to imagine that the whole diametric view of Northern Ireland to which we are supposed to subscribe may not be true at all. Under nationality, we are supposed to choose “Irish” or “British”; under political affiliation “Nationalist” or “Unionist”; under religious background “Catholic” or “Protestant”; under language “Irish Gaelic” or “Ulster Scots”; under sporting preference “GAA” or “hockey/cricket”; even under football team “Celtic” or “Rangers”. However, if the correlation between “language” and “nation” does not stand up to scrutiny, do any of these other correlations?

Once we in Northern Ireland begin to accept that the idea that to be “French” you have to speak “French” and to speak “French” you have to be “French” is a myth, suddenly a whole lot of other myths become apparent – such as the one that we must neatly box ourselves into compartments marked “Irish-Nationalist-Gaelic” or “British-Unionist-Ulster Scots”. Once we recognise that in fact we may wish to exercise a free choice in distinguishing between “language” on one hand and “nation” (or “culture and heritage”) on the other, a very different, new Northern Ireland opens up – one which is not so much bitterly divided as fascinatingly multi-faceted. Is a future embracing that new Northern Ireland not much, much better than the one in which a bitter sectarian conflict cost thousands of lives?


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