Speech at “Channelling Links: An Exploration of the Literary/Linguistic Culture of Ulster and Scotland”

I wish to do three things in this brief piece – talk about the origins of language, talk about how languages could be better taught, and then conclude by combining this into how we take Ulster Scots forward.
I do so as a man of many hats – I chair the Ulster-Scots Broadcast Fund, I have worked as an Ulster-Scots translator, and I have recently published ‘Ulster Scots: A Short Reference Grammar’ [Belfast: Ultonia Publishing; 2012].
What frustrates me most is not the lack of understanding or respect given to Ulster Scots, but rather the lack of understanding and respect given to language. To explain this, we may usefully take two pictures – one of a Volvo S60 (2001 model), and one of an Audi Q3 (2012 model). The question is: which nationality are they; and which colour are they? We will answer this later in the piece.
Firstly, we need to go back in time – probably to somewhere in Ukraine, probably around 4,000 years ago. Here we find a language, which we shall now call “Indo-European”, spoken by a relatively small group. It is a relatively complex language, with perhaps eight or nine cases and a series of phonemes some of which no longer exist. The remarkable story is that half the world’s population now speaks a language descended from it, including almost the entire population of Europe, the northern Indian subcontinent, and much in between. Yet the key point is this is not a tribal thing – it is not true that half the world’s population is descended ethnically from this one group; but that it is a linguistic thing. I cannot over-emphasise the distinction between the two.
Study of this language provides some remarkable historical evidence which we would not otherwise have. For example, the words “knee” and “kin” are not obviously related in modern English pronunciation, but their spelling hints that they are. Toss in “gynaecologist”, and you have three words, albeit the latter coming indirectly, all with the same origin – meaning a part of the body on the front of the leg, a family link, and the female gender respectively. Why would they have the same origin? In all likelihood, women (“gyn-“) 4,000 years ago gave birth (to “kin”) on their “knees”.
There are other linkages carried all the way down too. “Mother-father-brother”, “mathair-athair-brathair”, “Mutter-Vater-Bruder” and “Mere-Pere-Frere” all end in “-r” because “-r” was the indicator in Indo-European of kinship. Across Celtic, Germanic, Romance and other daughter groups of Indo-European, this series remains remarkably similar, only differentiated by regular sound shifts in each.
This indicates a whole system of grouping things and seeing the world – and that is what languages ultimately are. The system varies from place to place because things are grouped differently and the world is seen differently. This is the bridge between the issue of language origins and the issue of how languages are taught – because languages cannot be taught as parallel systems grouping things and seeing the world the same way. They are not.
This brings us to our cars. Asked what nationality a Volvo is, most people will say “Swedish”. Yet Volvo at the time of that model was owned by the American company Ford; now it is owned by the Chinese company Geely. But here’s the real issue – the car referred to was actually built in Belgium! Asked what nationality an Audi is, most people will say “German”. Audi is indeed a German company, ultimately owned by another German company – yet the car referred to was built in Spain. The idea that a single car manufacturer belongs to a particular country is meaningless; so is the idea that a single language belongs to a particular group. If you speak Swedish you may still be Finnish; if you are Swedish you may still speak Finnish; there is no one-for-one correspondence.
Here is the other thing: asked what colour that particular Volvo is, people differ – some say “grey”, some “blue”, yet in fact it is officially “green”. Most people looking at that particular Audi suggest it is “black” – yet it is officially “blue”. Different people literally see different things – super-imposing on to the world groupings and definitions which are not universal. Again, there is no one-for-one correspondence.
That is why I detest vocabulary books! These small jotters with the line down the middle of the page suggest that there is a one-for-one correspondence of absolute precision between a word in one language and a word in another. Almost the absolute opposite is the case.
Let us take Spanish, English, and German – three western Indo-European languages. The Spanish word “puerto” is of the same (Latinate) derivation as the English “port”; but German requires the separate “Hafen”, which is cognate with the English “haven”, which refers to ports in place names but now conveys more the sense of “hideaway”; the Spanish word is also cognate with the feminine form “puerta”, which may mean “door” in English or “Tuer” in German; but Spanish uses the same word for “gate”, whereas German requires another cognate “Tor” and English requires the completely separate “gate” (which originally conveyed more of a “gateway” or even “road”). Spanish and German can also use this word to mean “goal(post)”, but English requires “goal” for that. On the other hand, German and English use the same word for “goal(post)” as they do for “goal (scored)”, but Spanish requires the separate “gol” (but also allows the verb “golear” whereas German lacks “toren” and English lacks “to goal”). English can also use the word “goal” as in an objective, but here German requires the separate word “Ziel”; on the other hand, German “Ziel” can also mean “destination” (as in, say, a holiday destination), whereas “destination” is a Latinate word from which also the Spanish word “destino” is derived; “destino” may also convey the meaning “destiny”, which requires a separate though cognate word in English, but the completely distinct “Zufall” in German, although “Zufall” also conveys a meaning close to “luck”, whose ultimate German cognate “Glueck” conveys more the meaning of happiness (Spanish “suerte” and “felicidad” cover this range), but the word “chance” borrowed into English and German (but not Spanish) from French may carry the meaning of “luck” in English but not in German, which despite the word’s French origin applies only a particular meaning of “opportunity” shared in part with English.
So, note well – not a single word in that list carries the same range of meanings as it does in either of the other two. When this is the case for three languages of common origin and common inter-connection, it is even more marked when you move between continents.
This brings us to Ulster Scots. Firstly, we have established that language and ethnicity do not have a one-to-one correspondence, or even anything approaching one – so, not everyone who speaks Ulster Scots is an Ulster Scot; and not everyone who is an Ulster Scot speaks Ulster Scots (in fact, as a first language, a comfortable majority do not). Secondly, we have established that individuals words almost never have a one-to-one correspondence between even closely related languages or dialects – so, it is not appropriate to start with Ulster Scots by assuming that it is a direct equation of Standard English. As just a minor example, you may be “starvin'” with the cold or with hunger in Ulster Scots, but only with hunger in Standard English.
It is for this reason that my own Ulster-Scots grammar refuses to participate in what is, ultimately, a pointless “language versus dialect” debate. What it is, is a descendent of the same language as everything from English to Hindi; a means of expressing a view of the world; and a window into a culture (a culture in which some people self-identify as “Ulster Scots” and some do not). As a result, my own work makes a point not just of describing the language as it appears to me to be in literature and contemporary usage, but also linking it – to other standard Germanic languages; to other dialects of English; and of course to General Scots in Scotland. In this way we can give due respect to the Ulster-Scots culture and to the Ulster-Scots language, which also recognising that they are distinct from each other and are each the result of a vast range of different influences stretching back millennia.

5 thoughts on “Speech at “Channelling Links: An Exploration of the Literary/Linguistic Culture of Ulster and Scotland”

  1. harryaswell says:

    Interesting. I had no idea you were an expert on Ulster-Scots language. Surely, it is debateable that the Ulster-Scots language is not actually a language at all but a dialect, and hence is derived from English and also other dialects? Does it have it’s own grammar, for instance? Could it have originated from the Viking language? – I have to say, I would love it to be a “real” language, if only to annoy the Republican Irish who have successfully hi-jacked the Irish Gaelic language as their own!

  2. James Campbell says:

    As you say, to debate the distinction between “language” and “dialect” is pointless; and the background of confusing accents makes it even less amenable to rationality. i suspect the difference only matters to someone making a political point.

    Nevertheless, you should perhaps be more careful about your examples. “Starve” has, in my dictionary, 11 separate definitions, most of them related to hunger or deprivation. The final definition is “perish with or suffer from cold” – from the Old English “steorfan – to die”.

    At school, we used to tell “The Antrim Joke”, particularly to annoy a classmate from Antrim:
    “Houl these twa coos till ah coont thim”. Thus demonstrating (to our own juvenile satisfaction at least) the intellectual and cultural superiority of metropolitan Belfast. Only a Malone Road accent was more likely to amuse us.


    • I think the example stands – the point being that NI “dialect” has retained the former Standard usage, whereas Standard hasn’t. The whole point, of course, is that Standard is itself merely a dialect!

      • James Campbell says:

        I suppose my problem may be that I don’t really believe that “standard English” exists, having been taught by academics and by experience that the strength of English is its dynamism. Whether “former Standard” has any realiy, or can ever be defined, I doubt very much. If there is a standard pro tem, it might lie in the written rather than the spoken language. And I’m not sure that invoking the commonality of Indo-European gets us very far.

        The survival of older language/dialect in placenames has long interested me. Very obvious in Ireland (Ligoniel, Limavady, Strabane, Derry), Scotland (Glasgow, Galashiels, Caithness, Aird Uig), Wales (Traeth Bach, Moelfre, Abermaw, Cardiff), England (Esk, Irby, Duggleby, Pickering); but are there survivals of Ulster-Scots in the NI landscape?

        You article induced me to look at the U-S Agency website and it was a disappointment. To claim Lord Kelvin as U-S is fair enough (though he seems to have been committed to Glasgow from the age of 10) – but Viscount Castlereagh and Davy Crockett?

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