I was lucky enough to be called into BBC Talkback on Wednesday week ago for what presenter William Crawley described as a “very civilised discussion” on language and culture, particularly with regards to the Irish Language Act.
What was interest was the response on social media. This involved widespread mockery of Ulster Scots, essentially for being too close to English to be regarded as a language. Most notably, this mockery often came from official Sinn Fein representatives or accounts.
Let us, first of all, address that concern. As anyone who speaks several languages knows, sometimes phrases are close or even identical. “La luna grande con la costa verde” is good Spanish, and good Italian. “My pen is in my hand” is good English, and good Afrikaans. Inevitably, given its proximity to English, even good Scots will also be quite similar in many respects (not unlike Irish and Scottish Gaelic). This is a simple linguistic fact, which needs to be accepted by all sides engaged in minority language development. (And, by the way, I never once on the programme insisted that Ulster Scots should be considered as having “language” status, merely that there was a case for it and that it should be afforded respect either way. Respect requires understanding, and understanding requires respect.)
So, to start with, anyone mocking this simple linguistic fact is in fact betraying their own ignorance. No one who is multilingual or has genuine command for and respect for language itself would engage in such behaviour.
Then, of course, anyone engaged in such mockery is also engaged in basic disrespect, both for the nature of language itself and for Ulster Scots.
Peter Robinson, former DUP Leader, wrote a fundamentally unhelpful analysis earlier in the week on his Facebook page, but suddenly his analysis was demonstrated to have a grain of truth. Sinn Fein activists are busy demanding respect, but are unable to give it. This is outright hypocrisy.
It should be noted that many prominent Sinn Fein respresentatives and any Irish language activist I know would reject such mockery, and would be saddened by it (I have no doubt that Janet Muller, who appeared with me, would agree). Nevertheless, if they want respect they have to ensure it is offered.
Meanwhile mockery of anything, including Ulster Scots and indeed Irish, is an absolute right in a free society. However, as ever, it should be based on an understanding of the issues and facts. Such an understanding takes effort and time. I am sorry that so few people seem willing to take that effort and time to be able to engage knowledgeably in issues around language and culture (and even appropriate mockery of them). That is, perhaps, the crux of our problem here.