Category Archives: Language

Who is ‘indigenous’?

In response to a recent piece, two correspondents came back asking some very interesting questions about what is “indigenous”.

I do not like the word “indigenous” at all. It does very little justice to our history, particularly in Europe. We are also inclined to tie together Ethnic and Linguistic terms (as one correspondent noted), which is unhelpful.

Let us take the north of Ireland in the 15th century. The Normans had come and integrated, so we are really at a stage when the “indigenous Irish” are all at peace living happily together all speaking Irish Gaelic.

Except, well, that was not remotely the case. It was in fact far more interesting than that. To the far north east, the McDonnells had become the dominant clan in the Glens – they were Gaelic speaking, but had in fact come over from Scotland within the last couple of centuries (where some of them remain – the McDonalds). To the west was “The Route”, dominated by the McQuillans, of Cambro-Norman origin (literally “west Brits” by origin within the previous few centuries). Well over to the west were the Sweeneys and other groups in Donegal who had also settled from Scotland, and would also have had little trouble doing so as Catholic Gaelic speakers, other than in that they were blatantly taking someone else’s land. Even to the south east, we find the barony of “Mourne”, inhabited by “indigenous Irish” who had been on the island probably for millennia. Except they had in fact taken over that territory only in the previous few centuries, hence giving it the name also given to “Monaghan” in preference to the name of the tribe previously “indigenous” at that location, the Boirche. This is all leaving aside the ongoing Anglo-Norman settlements scattered along the east coast – in Carrickfergus, Ards and Lecale – which were in fact of longer standing than some of the Gaelic settlements.

The problem is that throughout Irish history people have moved to and from the island – after all, St Patrick himself had been brought over from western Britain a millennium beforehand. They have also moved within the island – the largest death toll in any conflict in the island’s history was in fact in a battle about territory and overlordship near Moira in AD 637, before even the Viking invasions, never mind the Norman.

Then of course, there is the linguistic issue. Here, in fact, there is a better case for applying the words “Gaelic” and “indigenous”, although even there they are far from perfect. “Gaelic” initially refers to “raiders”, a name applied to a group who brought a Celtic language (specifically Q-Celtic, unlike Welsh which is P-Celtic) to the island of Ireland. There is no reason to believe that they took over or even dramatically altered the ethnic mix (a recent survey showed that neither the Vikings nor the Normans significantly altered British genes), but they did change the language spoken and the most unifying feature of pre-Viking, pre-Norman or pre-plantation Ireland was that its inhabitants spoke that language (albeit, of course, in hugely varying dialects and in common with many people in northern and western Scotland). This linguistic and ethnic separation, of course, applied with the subsequent dominance of the (Germanic) English language; it has not changed the ethnic mix particularly either.

The divisions/diverse identities this has brought about are even political, and not just in the obvious way. Even to this day, the broad (cultural, not ethnic) split brought about by the Norman invasion (never mind the Scottish settlements and the plantation nearly half a millennium later) still applies – people with Norman surnames are more likely to vote Fine Gael and less likely to vote Fianna Fail than people with Gaelic surnames, for example.

There is therefore something fundamentally wrong with people who seek to suggest that Ireland is somehow purely Gaelic, either ethnically or culturally. That is not to say that “Gaelicism” is not a significant, even the most significant, identity on the island. But to focus on it alone is to miss the diversity that makes Ireland what it is – complete not just with the influence of Vikings (who founded Larne and Dublin), Normans (who account for nearly a quarter of all surnames), or Ulster Scots and planters (who industrialised the north east); but also with smaller stories of movements from one part to the other, or interconnections with Scotland, Wales or the west of England (and further afield) which are all a vital part of the story. Throw all that into the mix, and not only is no one truly “indigenous”, but no one wanting to reflect the entirety of Ireland’s story would want to be, as it would be left incomplete.

I guess one man’s division is another man’s diversity. We probably need to stop creating the former, and start celebrating the latter.

Time for an Esperanto Language Act

I wrote a few weeks ago about the story of Esperanto. Given all the controversy over politicisation of the Irish Language and the gibberish produced in the name of “Ulster Scots”, it is obvious that a unifying language is needed for Northern Ireland – perhaps one we could all speak when we don’t fancy speaking our native tongue? What about a language that looks clearly different from English but doesn’t take an eternity to learn? What about a language which actually comes from the same country as our largest external minority, Poland? What about a language specifically set up to promote peace and bring people together? What about Esperanto?

Where Irish is unfortunately tied to politicised phrases and Ulster Scots is associated with straightforward ridicule, Esperanto is well known as the most successful constructed language ever and is designed specifically to unify rather than divide.

Not only is Esperanto easy to learn and set up to promote harmony and good relations between different groups, but it comes associated with a global community of its own whose objective is world peace. Who could object to that? By giving it prominence in Northern Ireland, we would be inviting peace makers from all over the world to our shores. It would earn us prominence and prove to the world that we are serious about building a new, peaceful and harmonious society.

What is more, Esperanto is easy to pick up quickly but also helps directly with learning other key languages. Primary school teachers could learn it quickly and use it as an introduction to other languages before pupils get to post-primary level. It is advantageous across the board too. Much of its structure is similar to German, while two thirds of its vocabulary comes from Latin or languages descended from it (mainly French and Italian). There is also significant Slavic influence, making our fellow citizens originally from Central and Eastern Europe immediately at home and helping us expand our trade into fast-growing economies beyond the old Iron Curtain. It is also used and shaped globally, further helping us develop an outward-looking approach essential to creating new trade and thus new jobs and wealth.

A rights-based Esperanto Language Act would include:

– the right for any pupils to learn Esperanto from P2, with teachers instructed to deliver this (designed to help later language learning);

– the right to correspond with authorities in Esperanto and with other citizens for trade (it may well be easier for Polish and Lithuanian citizens in particular to communicate with us in Esperanto, creating a fair and neutral environment of genuine equals); and

– the right to use Esperanto in daily life without discrimination (after all, it is a global language so cannot be deemed in any way exclusive).

So, there we have it. Esperanto is a potential second language for all which is easy to learn and obviously neutral, and which was designed to promote peace and unity among all people. It would give us the type of global outlook necessary to think the way others think and even learn other European languages to enhance trade and knowledge, leading to new wealth and jobs. It would also help with the integration of people arriving here, while giving us a reputation as a first-class location to promote peace and harmony regardless of background. Kio estas pri tiu propono, kion oni ne sxatus?!

You’ve noted the date. Obviously this proposal is not serious. It could not possibly be adopted. It is, after all, totally rational…

Minister’s answers on Primary Language programme unacceptable

The Minister of Education is withdrawing supplementary funding from primary schools to teach languages tomorrow. This decision is ludicrous, for many obvious reasons – you need to learn languages young; you need languages to trade (and create jobs); you need languages to open your mind to other ways of seeing and experiencing things. The evidence is clear cut.

However, his excuse is even worse. He is having to withdraw the funding to “protect front line services”.


The Minister has just funded an Irish language school against advice. I supported this, precisely on the basis that languages are good for young people. But it is not a “front line service”.

The Minister has just, yet again, recommended 600 teachers be trained in Northern Ireland (more than half in an inefficient, segregated environment), when we need no more than 400 (in an efficient, integrated environment). So, not a “front line service”.

The Minister continues to stall on mergers, over-spend on bureaucracy and put obstacles in the way of efficiency (not least integration), all of which take from “front-line services”.

So let’s hear less of this “front-line services” garbage. He is trying a cheap but, in the long term, serious cut to pay for a few pet projects, none of which add up to the best future for our young people.

Let’s Debate…

Ed Miliband accuses David Cameron of not wanting to “debate him”.

It’s a strange one. I – and many others, judging by my Twitter conversations on the subject – would have thought you debate something, not someone. In other words, the object of “debate” should be a topic, not a person.

A similar issue was raised a few weeks previously over the use of “protest” with a direct object – e.g. “they are protesting cuts”. Many would suggest this makes no sense – you protest for something, or you protest against something, but surely you cannot protest something?

What is the linguistic issue here?

The issue concerns something called valency. To explain this, let is deal firstly with something else, related, called transitivity.

Verbs (in English and most similar languages, anyway) are either transitive or intransitive.

Those which are intransitive, such as sleep or rain, cannot take a direct object at all: ‘I am sleeping'; ‘It rains on the roof’.

Those which are transitive, such as like or break, can (and, generally, must) take a direct object: ‘I like it'; ‘I spoke English to the woman’.

There are some verbs which may be used transitively but it is not obligatory: ‘I helped him’ (transitive), ‘I helped with the move’ (intransitive).

There are also some verbs in Modern English which can be transitive or intransitive: ‘I’m boiling the water’ (transitive), ‘The water is boiling’ (intransitive). In older Germanic, such verbs were distinct from each other, and occasionally this distinction is retained, although usually unstably: the ‘sit’ versus ‘set’ distinction is now regarded as having developed to a semantic distinction (specific versus general); the ‘lie’ versus ‘lay’ distinction is very unstable in contemporary Spoken English, with the latter generally taking over from the former. [German retains, more stably, the specific original intransitive versus transitive distinction: ‘sitzen’ versus ‘setzen’ and ‘liegen’ versus ‘legen’.]

Then there is the issue of valency, which includes the subject plus any other “argument” that can follow the verb. For the sake of this post, we will limit these to indirect objects, which in Modern English must be introduced by a preposition: ‘I am sleeping’ (valency=1); ‘I like it’ (valency=2), ‘I spoke English to the woman’ (valency=3). Typically, valency=3 includes a subject (‘I’), an unmarked direct object (‘English’), and an indirect object marked by a preposition (‘to the woman’). An object is always required with transitive verbs, but with some verbs this need not necessarily be a direct object – ‘I spoke English’ (direct object) is a complete meaningful clause, but so is ‘I spoke to the woman’ (indirect object).

However, valency=3 is arguably possible even with intransitive verbs, for example ‘I went to Belfast by car’.

It is generally accepted that the maximum in Modern English is valency=4: ‘I bet him fifty quid on Arsenal’ (the four are ‘I’, ‘him’, ‘fifty quid’ and ‘on Arsenal’). This is odd, however, because ‘bet’ appears to have two direct objects – ‘him’ and ‘fifty quid’. Many languages would not allow this (and would require it to be rephrased), but Modern English now appears to.

Some other verbs are unstable here: ‘He gave the chair to him’ is standard transitive valency=3; however, ‘He gave him the chair’, with word order changed, is now valency=3 but with what appear to be two direct objects. One analysis is that ‘him’ is still an indirect object (in this and the ‘bet’ example above), even though it is unmarked – its status as indirect object is arguably marked by word order, with the indirect object always appearing in English before the direct object (you can also say ‘I gave the man the chair’ and ‘I gave him it’).

[Fellow Germanic language, German, allows this but marks it not by word order but by using a different case for each of subject, direct object and indirect object (underlined): ‘Er gab ihm den Stuhl'; ‘Er gab dem Mann den Stuhl'; ‘Er gab ihn ihm‘ (the word order is actually different when two pronouns are used versus two nouns; pronouns always appear before nouns regardless).]

So, what about debate and protest?

In prescriptive grammars and dictionaries, debate is like help – it may be used transitively or intransitively. However, according to both the Oxford English and Webster Dictionaries (perhaps the best authorities in British and American English respectively), its transitive meaning refers to a topic, not a person: to ‘debate David Cameron’ therefore means to debate about the Prime Minister, not with him, in both varieties. It would be possible to ‘debate with David Cameron’ or perhaps even ‘against David Cameron’, thus making him an indirect object, but the preposition is required if he is to be the opponent rather than the topic. Valency=2 either way, but the transitive meaning is specific to a thing rather than a person; of course debate could be used with valency=3: ‘Ed wants to debate the standard of living with Dave’ – a subject, a direct object, and an indirect object marked by a preposition.

According to similar authorities, protest is intransitive in British English but transitive in American (inherently, in American, it means specifically ‘protest over’ in British). Thus, ‘protest cuts’ is good American English, but would (prescriptively, at least) be ‘protest over cuts’ in British English. Valency=2 either way, but one is transitive and the other is not.

That said, the above usage is prescriptive – it is laid down by academic authorities, but there is no “Academie Anglaise” to enforce it. If the British decide to adopt the American usage of ‘protest’ to mean inherently ‘protest over’ (thus becoming transitive), it will not be the first time and the dictionaries and grammars will soon catch up.

The usage of ‘debate’ with a personal direct object will probably become common too. It is possible for verbs to move from requiring clearly marked indirect objects to allowing the indirect object to appear direct (as we saw above with ‘I gave the chair to him’ and ‘I gave him the chair’). It is even more common in American English, where this is allowed for standalone indirect objects: British English has ‘write a letter’ but ‘write to me’ (indirect object clearly marked with preposition), but American allows ‘write a letter’ and ‘write me’ (presumably an indirect object, but deemed obvious from the context). This is probably why ‘debate me’ sounds like an Americanism. Its future is less certain in British (which, after all, has not yet adopted ‘write me’), but if the Leader of the the Opposition is using it, it will probably become common over the next generation. In fact, I bet you fifty quid on it (valency=4)…

Those colours again…

A correspondent (a very important correspondent – my wife’s election agent!) kindly drew my attention to an article which covers some of the aspects of the colour issue I raised last week.

The whole programme is worth watching and appears to be available here.

The essential point is that colour names are merely names we apply to perceptions; and that our linguistic naming of colours actually determines what colours we see. In English, for example, we distinguish pink-purple-red-orange but have only one “green” despite a similar range:

Colour Spectrum

Put another way, I remember arriving in South Africa as a 10-year-old and my first thought as we landed at Johannesburg, genuinely, was “The grass is yellow!”

This was a first indication that colours are literally different in Southern Africa, and it is more important to be able to distinguish between yellows and greens that, say, between greys and blues. Southern African languages would name their spectrum accordingly – with different words for various shades of green but quite possibly nothing at all for blue and relatively little for red – and this in turn means speakers of those languages literally distinguish those colours more easily in sight, but effectively only see one red and do not see blue at all (as evidenced in the linked article above).

Indo-European languages (such as English, Irish, French, Greek and Hindi) all derive from a single language, probably spoken in Ukraine around 5,000 years ago. To this day, there are some common markers derived from it, such as -r for family relationships (father/mother/brother; athair/mathair/braithair; pere/mere/frere and so on). Another point of interest, as noted in the article, it is impossible to reconstruct reliably a word for “blue”. This may give us some clues as to climate, location, geography and so on – in the same way we can reconstruct words for some types of tree and foliage, but not others.

Ultimately, what linguistics is doing here is given us a clear source of evidence about where we come from and how we perceived and perceive the world.

Give up languages in primary schools, you say? Crazy!

That dress – and linguistics…

I am amazed that I haven’t written about the subject of language and colour before, because it forms the start of every single training course I do, regardless of the topic.

So, what colour is this dress?
The dress...

Well, what colour is this car?
A car...

Here’s the interesting thing – the language we speak will, to a large degree, determine what colour we see things as.

For example, we know a banana is yellow. Even if a banana is placed under a blue light this making it blue, we will still see it as yellow – because we know a banana is yellow. Our brains actually correct our vision to record the colour as the one we know it to be, even as another part of our brain is seeing it as blue. If memory serves, there was a BBC Horizon programme about this some years ago.

Speaking of fruit, the classical Romans did not initially have oranges. Not only did this mean the word for the fruit was missing from Latin, but so was the word for the colour. The colour word is taken from the fruit. Ancient Romans, at least before familiarisation with the exotic fruit, would literally have seen anything orange as either dark yellow or light red. Traditional Irish has no colour orange at all, likewise generally using “buí” (more usually translated as yellow, thus also the colour of a banana…)

Likewise, in Traditional Irish, the above car is unquestionably “glas”. It is in fact right in the middle of the spectrum; no Traditional Irish speaker would be in any doubt about it. “Glas” covers anything from the colour of a grey horse to the colour of a murky sea (blue) – but not all blues, most blues are in fact “gorm”.

A lot of this is also determined by the environment. The Romans also had no word for “brown” (French had to borrow “brun” from Germanic); in Latin, brown things are generally described as red. To emphasise: this literally meant they saw them as red, not brown, as their brains reconnected the colour with the language. Germanic languages, spoken 2000 years ago predominantly by people living in forests, did have “brown” no doubt because of that arboreal environment.

In English, we see a lot of things as “green” (anything from a dark bush to perhaps even a tennis ball) where, in many languages, these different shades (say a dark bush, grass, lime and a tennis ball) would be clearly distinct (i.e. a different word altogether, the same way we distinguish purple from crimson from pink from red from orange). On the other hand, some languages do not meaningfully distinguish blue from green at all – seeing the sky and foliage as marginally different shades of the same colour.

Only a distinction between white/light and dark/black is universal in all languages. Interestingly, if any languages have only those plus a third colour, the third colour is always red. If there is a fourth colour, it is generally centred roughly on the colour of a tennis ball (yellow or green); if there is a fifth, the other of “yellow” or “green” comes next. Only upon the introduction of a sixth does blue appear – in other words, every single language which distinguishes between five colours excludes blue; every single one which adds a sixth includes blue. These terms are somewhat relative, but they are fundamental to how we literally see the world.

Those are the linguistics. The car, officially, was platinum green. You may make your own mind up about the dress!

Who is hoping for Esperanto?

Cxu vi parolas Esperanton?” he asked.
Iomete” I responded, startled that someone had actually asked me that.

We were outside a conference in Chisinau, Moldova; he was Romanian. He did not speak my language, I did not speak his, yet we mustered a conversation about linguistic minorities. What was going on?

My last two language blogs have both focused on Ulster Scots, and specifically on some people’s desire to use government money to provide translations in a language which is in fact made up. I have noted that this is a gross inefficiency and total nonsense, because there is a real Ulster Scots in which it is possible to write formally (as I demonstrated by writing both pieces in formal Ulster Scots). I noted also that, for all that, if you are developing a language which has fallen largely out of use, the very formal end is the wrong end to start.

The other thing, of course, is that not only does real Ulster Scots exist, but so do real made-up languages. However, they are usually “made up” in a consistent and logical way. Some have a specific dramatic purpose – Klingon was made up, for example, and even contains irregularities for realism. Others have been deliberately designed to be regular and easy to pick up (much unlike the garbage put out too often under the heading “Ulster Scots”), the most famous of which is Esperanto.

L.L. Zamenhof, topically perhaps, grew up in the mid-19th century in a town which was then within the Russian Empire but which is now in Poland, and where the contemporary dialect was in fact a version specifically of Belorussian. Himself a Jew, he in fact probably spoke Yiddish (closely related to dialects of Western Germany) natively, and married a Lithuanian. This mix of languages (his father also taught French and German) seemed to him to cause confusion and confrontation, and so as a young man he created a wholly new language, with a vocabulary predominantly of Latinate, Germanic and Slavic origin, to be used as everyone’s second language. He did so under the pseudonym “Dr Hoping” or, in his new language, “Doktoro Esperanto”, and so the story (and the name) began.

The language he designed had just 16 “rules”. He had begun in 1878, entered into widespread correspondence and thus changed his language to something very close to the current one by 1887, attempted a reform based on further correspondence in 1894 which was almost universally rejected by supporters, and then laid out the “16 rules” of the new language in the “Fundamento de Esperanto” of 1905.

Zamenhof was a remarkable innovator. He did many of the simple things well – ensuring that all parts of speech and all tenses were formed entirely regularly, for example. He also did some complex things well, developing an elaborate system of affixation from which new words with immediately understandable meanings can be derived (for example sana ‘health’ goes to malsana ‘ill-health’ to malsanema ‘prone to ill-health, sickly’ to malsanujo ‘sick person’ to malsanulejo ‘hospital’ in the same way that bela ‘beautiful’ goes to malbela ‘ugly’, batalo ‘battle, war’ goes to batalema ‘bellicose’ and lerni goes to lernejo ‘school’). He did introduce some tricky but arguably simplifying measures such as the 45 “correlatives” (translating words such as ‘how’, ‘hence’, ‘what kind of’, ‘in this way’); and some quirks such as an accusative case used even with adverbs and what is, in effect, a subjunctive mood.

From 1905, however, Esperanto developed in very much the same way as any other language. There were battles over usage (particularly around participle tenses and neologisms, i.e. new words entering the language). There was even a split, as 10-20% of speakers left on 1907 to speak a reformed version called Ido (meaning “derived from”), which removed some awkward sounding letters and some of the quirks, but also became slightly less predictable. Some innovations have crept in – new affixes or even derivations from affixes, and the ability to convert adjectives directly into verbs (e.g. vi belas “you are beautiful”).

Zamenhof’s own destiny, having designed a language as a vehicle for world peace, was to receive a cruel lesson from human nature. He himself died with the world at war, in 1917, and yet even worse was to follow – all three of his children perished in the Holocaust a generation later. Sadly, there is rather more to peace than communicating in the same language, as we know in this part of the world.

Therefore, the goal of the so-called pracelistoj (roughly “original goal people”) has not been achieved and never will be – in any case, English fulfils most of the role they were proposing for Esperanto globally, despite their rational claims that this gives the English-speaking world an unfair advantage. However, Esperanto retains a sizeable speech community, as many now in East Asia than in Europe, and given its “origins” in a mix of the three main Indo-European branches (spoken by more than half the world’s population), it does offer on account of its regularity a potential bridge into language learning – not least for a Chinese person wishing to learn an Indo-European language or indeed, say, for a Spaniard (Latinate) wanting to learn Russian (Slavic). Some primary schools in England are even trialling its use as a first “foreign language” because children find they can communicate in it so quickly that they are then inclined to continue language learning rather than deem it “too difficult”.

There are qualifications and diplomas available which can be attained quickly given the language’s regularity and predictability. I got mine in 2004, but to my shame have not kept it up – mi estas malfelicxe eksesperantisto; mi estis gxin plejparte forgesinta. It is a pity. It was later in 2004 that I went to Chisinau. I would not now be able to have a conversation with a random Romanian outside a random conference in a random venue in Moldova. Yet it was a remarkable thing that the conversation took place – Esperanto may not have achieved its “pracelon“, but it has certainly achieved something.

A guid naem is suiner tint nor wun

Gan on frae ma screed seiven dey syne, a wheen fowk his cam bak speiran at me, whit wad we fash oursels wi the Ulster Scots for ava. Hit is a guid quaisten.

A canna gie a repoen tae it, an no first shawan at the linguistic oncum on Ulster Scots haes nocht a-dae wi the linguistic oncum o the Airis leid. The baith o thaim is claucht thegaither frae the 1998 Greeance, at caad for lyk respect for Ulster Scots an the Airis leid. This is nae fash tae me, but hit isna meanan the baith bes needan the ae thing.

The oncum o Ulster Scots (tak tent: “the variant of the Scots language spoken in parts of Northern Ireland and County Donegal“) maun be sindert frae the oncum o the Airis leid for thrie heid reasons:
– Scots is a mukkil nearer the admeinistrative leid (Inglis);
– thaim as taaks (Ulster) Scots deyandeilie disna forordinar pit it at the founds o thair national identitie; an
– Scots haes nae tradeition, athin the 400 year bygaun, o uiss in the admeinistration.
Thir thrie pynts is claucht tae ilkaither.

First aff, thaim as taaks Ulster Scots forordinar haes nae fash wi the readin in Staundart Inglis. Thon isna a-dae wi its staundin as “leid” or “dialect”, it is juist a fact o lief for thaim as bieds wi the Ulster Scots in deilie uiss.

Forby that, naebodie pits Scots alane at the founds o thair national identitie. Hit is a pairt o our linguistic identitie – wirds the lyk o “wee” or “anent” kythes ein in Staundart Inglis screeds in Scotlan an, whiels, on this sied o the Sheuch anaa – but juist a aefauld pairt o monie. Hit isna in uiss the wey the Airis is as a pairt o a oweraa national identitie, naither haes oniebodie as taaks it forordinar a notion o makkan it ane.

Linguists taaks o “Dachsprache“; “ruif leid”. Fowk as taaks ae leid forordinar deyandeilie whiels uises anither for admeinistration – for ensaumpil, fowk in Luxembourg taaks Luxembourgish forordinar but maks uiss o the Frens, an wrytan admeinistrative. The ae thing gaes on in Scots-taakan airts – fowk taaks Scots unformal an ocht near Staundart Inglis formal, an sae thay wryts Staundart Inglis forordinar. Sae the ar nae tradeition o, an nae caa for, the uiss o Scots in the admeinistration – fowk is blythe aneuch makkan uiss o Staundart Inglis, the warlds foermaist langage in uiss, for offeicial ettils.

The ar nae pynt fowk giean out services naebodie bes wantan, an nae caa ava for the govrenment tae be makkan uiss o our siller, an daean it. Scots is a langage fowk maks uiss o, an taakan about a wheen things. The ar a caa frae thaim as taaks it anaa for a bit creative wrytin in it – bairns stories an the lyk (an mebbes a orra blog screed this lyk o this ane!)

“Lyk respect” isna meanan “lyk oncum”, for Ulster Scots an Airis isna lyk things. Ane is gey near the big langage (Inglis), an haes its docht in fowks wey o taakin in the kintra an wi the creative wrytin (pairteicular poems); the tither is gey differan frae the Inglis, an haes its docht in the braidcastin an the studdie o the Celtic leids.

Fact, the siccarmaist wey o tynan respect for the Ulster Scots is makkan uiss o it for things naebodie bes wantan, an makkan uiss o thair siller for it! It’s a waur thing yet, haean fowk wi nae ken o the langage juist makkan it up for tae dae things, as disna (yet) ansuer tae it.

Thaim as kens the leid an taks tent tae it wad ken the auld Scots proverb: “A guid naem is suiner tint nor wun”!

Scunnert wi seean our cess gien thaim as disna ken the Haemlie Tongue

A taen a mukkil scunner, an seean the new strategie for the oncum o the Ulster-Scots Langage, Heirship an Cultur ower the twintie year cumman. It wis a ill aneuch thing at the strategie taen nae tent o the reed, frae me an thaim A ken, at “langage” disna belang wi “heirship an cultur”; a mukkil waur wis whit kythed alang wi the Inglis version! For whit kythed wisna the Haemlie Tongue me an monie ithers kens weel, but a maed-up mixter-maxter o haivers. A wad howpit siclyk wis lang bygaun.

The heidin alane gies you aneuch awaur o whitna haivers hit aa bes. Whit wad a “roadin” be? How wad “fur” an “tae” cum thegither as the ae wird? Whit is the umlaut ower “bring” for? Whan did “graith” cum a verb? Hou wad “bring forrits” an “graith” gae foernent the Inglis “enhance” an “develop“, an thaim richtlie meanan “bring forwards” an “equipment” (a noun, no a verb)? “Heirskip” is nae forordinar spellin, an ither sic sounds written “sh”, no “sk”. The waurst is the haivers o pittan “an” atween the first twa an last twa deigits o the year – hit is a nummer (2015, 2035), no a wird, sae aa leids wi alphabets juist haes the feigurs written nae maiter whit wey ye speaks thaim!

Ein in the Depairtments ain heidin, hou is “cultur” nou “fowkgates”, an whaur did sicna wird cum frae? “Aisedom” disna gie a richt translate o “leisure” forby, an whit the deil is “trokin”? A “exchange” in General Scots coud be a “niffer” (frae “neive”), gin ye be for makkan wirds o braider meanin, but the ar nocht wrang wi “exchynge” (fact, “trokin” wad be a gey auld-farrant wird for the graith a bodie daes the exchynge wi, no the exchynge itssel). The ar a wheen Scots an Ulster dictionars; but the ar nae dictionar, haes aa sic wirds wi aa sic meanins!

The skaithsom an kenspekkil thing is, at whit is written in “Ulster Scots” in sic screeds is juist maed-up haivers an aabodie kens it. An wrytan formal, a bittie licence bes ay nott; but that isna the ae thing as juist makkan wirds an meanins up! Forby aa that, whit kythes in the screed isna a richt translate o whit kythes in the Inglis, an isna near oniebodies actual wey a taakin (or wrytan, an makkan poems an siclyk). Deed, A am shawan, an wrytan this screed, at ye can wryt the Haemlie Tongue formal an no juist mak it up! Aabodie in Scotlan an Ulster will ken, at whit A am wrytan is relate the tradeitional tongue o Burns an Orr, but whit kythes in the strategie is juist haivers at naebodie can unnerstaund (lyklie ein thaim as maed it!).

The ar nae dout ava, the bodie at maed thon screed wisna acquent wi the linguistics, an haes a pukkil notion o whit fowk, as maks uiss o the tongue deyandeilie, is thinkan anent its richt oncum thenou.

It is a orra thing, at the Depairtment itssel lat sicna translate gae furth, an it siccar no in oniething relate Ulster Scots (as hit bes taakit in the kintra thenou or as hit wis written in Ulster frae makkars the lyk o Orr or Thomson 200 year syne). We aa peyed for siclyk wi our cess, an that is an ill thing anaa.

Thon siller is haean an inpit, no tae the oncum o the Haemlie Tongue, but tae its deith. The ar nae howp for bringan on the Tongue ava, an sic haivers put furth unner the heidin “Ulster Scots”. A wad maun speir at thaim, wad that be the pynt? An we war for bringan the Haemlie Tongue foerairts, we wad gie it thaim as kens it, an as knaws a bittie anent the linguistic oncum. This screed alane shaws ye can mak it formal an yet hae fowk ken it weel as a Tongue relate a leiterar tradeition (the “Rhymean Wabsters” an ithers) an fowks wey o taakin ein thenou. The ar nae caa for makkan it aa up. But A amna siccar, we ar richtlie for bringan it on; mebbes gin “20an35″ hit will be gaun awa an we can aa hain our siller for ither things?

Ancient Romans couldn’t read… and what that means for language

Agricola servat nautam.

That was the first Latin sentence I learned. “The (or a) farmer saves the (or a) sailor”. The point of using this sentence straightaway (written in a textbook used across the British Isles whose author was Head of Latin at Methodist College, out of interest) was emphasised by the next one:

Agricolam servat nauta.

This means “The (or a) sailor saves the (or a) farmer”. The point is that it is the word endings which contain the grammatical information as to who acted (the subject) and who was acted upon (the object). With the exception of personal and occasionally relative pronouns (e.g. “he saves him“, “the sailor, who(m) he saves”), modern English and nearly all languages derived from Latin no longer use the word endings to provide this information – instead they use word order. Modern English, alongside most national languages derived from Latin (French, Italian, Spanish, etc), are all known as “SVO” languages – generally, the subject (“doer”) comes first, then the main verb, then the object (“done to”) – “l’agriculteur sauve le marin”.

Furthermore, the ending could also be used to indicate other information: nautae is “to/of the sailor”; agricolā is “by/from the farmer”, and so on. So “Servo agricola nautae” may mean “I save the farmer with the sailor”. As a result, fewer prepositions were employed by the Ancient Greeks and the Classical Romans.

As it happens, Latin was generally an “SOV” language (thus the most usual form was “Agricola nautam servat“), which is in fact the most common type. Hints of this remain in modern French, Spanish and Italian where, for example, pronoun objects precede the verb (“Je t’aime”, “(yo) te quiero“, “(io) ti amo“) – literally “I you love”). Unusually, German and Dutch are “V2″ languages, where the verb comes second in the sentence regardless of what came first (Old and early Middle English were like this too, and Modern English contains vestiges – “So am I”, “Hardly had I arrived…”, etc). However, the main point is this: Latin generally determined subject and object (and other such grammatical information) by word ending, whereas modern languages derived from it (as well as English, which is not) do so by word order.

Why did this change?

For me, the likeliest reason is this: the Romans couldn’t read.

Well, some of them could read – obviously. However, they could not read other than aloud. If you were transported through the Time Tunnel to Ancient Rome, you may glance over and see a Roman reading a tablet, and you would immediately notice him mouthing the words as he did so. In Classical times, speed reading was unknown. Reading itself, after all, was a comparatively new “technology”. Just as it took 500 years to move from the word on the page to the word on the screen, it took many centuries to move from reading an alphabet at all, to speed-reading it in the head without having to read it aloud (or at least mouth it).

Speed-reading in the head is clearly a much different thing from reading something aloud. Mouthing the words as they went, the Romans (and the Ancient Greeks and others, for that matter) had time to consider the grammatical information contained in word endings as they went along. They needed fewer words in total, because the endings showed how they went together without to the need to worry about word order or too many prepositions.

Once speed-reading became the norm – where small words can be skipped and little attention paid to endings – it became more useful to add more prepositions and determine grammatical relationships by word order.

We can tell from the writings between the Roman Republic and the Fall of Rome that this process began in the first few centuries after the birth of Christ; so it is possible that speed-reading began in that period, perhaps from around 200 AD. However, we cannot be sure of this, as we also know that the letter “-m” after a vowel at the end of a word came not to be pronounced in Latin from about that time, restricting grammatical distinctions in speech regardless. In fact, it is even possible that changes in pronunciation actually enabled speed reading, as it became possible to pay less attention to word endings and easy to use the extra prepositions as “signposts” while reading quickly.

A not dissimilar process may have happened in Germanic languages (though none was written down at all until 350 AD). Modern German may still express grammatical relationships by endings to some degree (so “Der Bauer rettet den Seemann” meansThe farmer saves the sailor“, but “Den Bauer rettet der Seemann” means “The sailor saves the farmer”, at least technically). Other Germanic languages (and German, in modern practice) now depend almost entirely on word order, just like those derived from Latin. The process may in fact have started slightly sooner, as Germanic languages are marked by having shifted the stress on words to the first syllable of the word (whereas Latin-derived languages it tends to be on the penultimate), meaning endings were pronounced less distinctly in Germanic even 1700 years ago. This has left Germanic languages not reliant on endings even for verbs, whereas most Latin-derived languages still are (with the notable exception of French, precisely because it was heavily influenced by Germanic languages in its early development separate from Latin). Thus, for example, Latin-derived languages except French tend to allow the dropping of pronoun subject whereas Germanic languages and French do not – hence “salvo” in Italian and Spanish (and “servo” in Latin), suffice on their own to mean “I save”, whereas the pronoun is required in German (“ich rette“) and French (“je sauve“) as in English.

However, the process of moving away from reliance on word endings generally did not occur in Slavic languages, where they are still an essential part of each language (which makes them very difficult to learn for most Western Europeans). It is unclear when Slavic speakers began speed-reading or even whether they do – it is not as necessary, after all, because there are fewer prepositions and word endings remain crucial to understanding.

Oddly, this Slavic linguistic conservatism led to the inclusion of an object ending in the well known constructed language Esperanto (thus the above would be “la konstruisto konservas la mariston” versus “la konstruiston konservas la maristo“), whose creator Ludwik Zamenhof grew up around Eastern Europe surrounded by Slavic and Baltic tongues – it would be unthinkable for a Western European to have included such a distinction. (It is perhaps noteworthy that the nasal suffix, either -m or -n, is common as a marker of the object across almost all Indo-European languages and would have existed even in Proto-Indo-European, the common predecessor language of Latin, Proto-Germanic or Old Church Slavonic, spoken many millennia ago – thus agricolam, den Bauer, and even konstruiston; note also even English him, whom, them).

This is yet another example of how linguistic development gives us a fascinating insight, in and of itself, into historical  and even technological change – and perhaps into how similar, ultimately, we all are.


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