Category Archives: Language

The peculiar case of “text” as a past tense

When I wrote last week that originally all verbs in Germanic languages (such as English) formed their past forms by changing their root vowel (e.g. sing-sang-sung) and that the now productive (i.e. perceived to be regular) means of doing so by adding a dental suffix (-t or, more typically in Modern English, –ed), I would suggest that this was news to most readers.

At least consciously.

Yet every reader, in fact, knew this. As speakers of a Germanic language we are in fact linguistically programmed to know that the “dental suffix” ending marks the past. As a result, through time, it has become increasingly the case that it does (as noted last week, we now say helped not halp/holpen).

In fact, our pre-programmed determination to end past forms with a dental suffix overrides our preference for regularisation itself. There is a peculiar 21st century example of this.

The verb “to text” has emerged only in the past generation. It would have appeared senseless to anyone before the mid-90s that “text” could be anything other than a noun.

However, here is a funny thing: in casual speech, the verb “to text” is irregular in the past.

The regular past of text would of course be texted. Yet just listen out for it the next time you hear it, or even consider what you yourself say, and you will note that the past form (at least in casual speech) is in fact text. People actually say ‘I text her yesterday’ not ‘I texted her yesterday’.

We see this also with verbs such as “to bet”. What has happened is that our innate tendency towards ending a past with a dental suffix (in this case –t) has overridden our preference for outright regular past formation.

So, it turns out we know rather more about our linguistic heritage than we thought – even when using the most 21st century vocabulary!

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Irregular verbs in English

‘There must be a Japanese word for the feeling you have when you see someone write “has went”‘, I once tweeted. As I wrote on this blog some years ago, it is of course a lost battle; a generation or so from now, “has went” (rather than the currently Standard “has gone”) will be universally accepted.

One potentially interesting aspect of this is that went is a “suppletive”. Suppletives are words used as part of a paradigm (e.g. a past form of a present; thus went for go) which have no historical relation. Other examples in English include good – better and some parts of to be (which varies wildly through the paradigm across am and are through been to was and were). What generally has happened is that a word which originally had a restrictive term has come to be more generally used. Went was in fact originally the past form of wend (cf. sent of send); go (actually gan as it was originally, and still is in non-standard speech in Northumbria) had another suppletive past form eode (which combined with a suffix also gave ful-eode, now followed; the present form follow is in fact a regularised back formation versus the original fulgan, cf. German folgen). Over time went took over as the past form of what was now go, but the non-suppletive past participle form gone remains (at least in careful, standard usage).

Most neighbouring languages do distinguish between a past form (sometimes known as a “preterite”) and a part participle. French has parlai/-as/-a etc versus parlé(es); German has plauderte(-st/-n) versus plaudert; Spanish has hablé/-aste/-ó versus hablado; and so on. With regular verbs, however, English no longer does – talked is both a past form (used throughout the paradigm – I talked, you talked, it talked…) and past participle (I have talked).

However, these regular verbs are in fact an innovation in Germanic languages. Originally, all verbs formed their past (and occasionally other forms) by way of ablaut – essentially, amending the root vowel. Still around 150-200 verbs in English (and other Germanic languages such as German) do it this way: sing-sang-sung, break-broke-broken, come-came-come and so on. However, as even those examples show, there has been a tendency towards regularisation (broke-broken was, until even Shakespeare’s era, brake-broken as is still evident in the Modern German brechen-brach-gebrochen; cf. also Modern English swing-swung-swung [not/no longer swang]).

It was only over time that Germanic languages developed an alternative past formation by way of a dental suffix (basically either -t or –d) which became productive (i.e. the normal way of doing it) to the extent that now it is the way with almost all verbs. Many verbs which now do it that way were once not (help-helped was at the time of the King James Bible an innovation from help-halp-holpen, cf. again modern German helfen-half-geholfen).

The pressure towards regularisation, despite the fact the language is standardised, is what brings about such forms as “he has came“, “it is broke“, “she has rang” (or indeed “she rung“) or “I have went“. It also nudges some verbs into the regular category, or just causes outright confusion (e.g. regular transitive lay-laid-laid versus irregular intransitive lie-lay-lain) or comes to separate words completely (e.g. set versus sit). Since the invention of the printing press, this tendency has slowed down remarkably, but is still evident.

In the end, regularisation in informal speech creeping into the standard language over generations is a forewent conclusion… (ahem, actually gone will remain as an adjective and in set phrases, such as “bygone” or “days long gone” but as a participle it will be “gone” soon enough…).

“Between you and I” and other horrors…

It was one of a number of papers exchanged between Michelle O’Neill and I“, noted Arlene Foster earlier this week.

She is not having a good run. Not only is it obvious that her party leadership had an agreement to restore devolution and then couldn’t provide the leadership to make the easy sell, but she then got mocked for her use of English. It should, of course, be “between Michelle O’Neill and me“.

This is a poor error – and it is an outright error, not just a non-standard variation – yet I see it all the time. What is going on here?

Fundamentally, the rules around personal pronouns are quite simple in English. “Direct” forms are used when they are the subject of a clause (thus “I, he, she, we, they“) and “oblique” forms are used when they are an object (“me, him, her, us, them”) – the form you is now used for both. Thus it would be “Michelle and I saw the draft” [subject]; but “Other negotiators joined Michelle and me“, “They showed Michelle and me the text” and  “There was an agreement between Michelle and me” [direct object, indirect object and pronoun object respectively – but it does not matter, any object takes the same form].

So how could anyone get this wrong?

Firstly, there is the issue of hyper-correction of a common dialectal (non-standard) rule. In many dialects of English, and in Scots, the grammatical rule is in fact that the direct form is only used if the pronoun is the subject and stands alone. Thus it is “I saw the draft” but, in many non-standard varieties, “Her and me saw the draft” (or indeed perhaps something like “Me and her seen the draft). There are some slight variations on this “rule” – other dialects require the pronouns to be removed from the verb, for example. Because this rule is so widespread in non-standard dialects, it is a prominent part of education in Standard English (whose rule, it must be said, is a lot simpler) that it should in writing and formal speech be “She and I saw the draft“. It is emphasised that the subject form is required, and indeed that to be polite the “I” should come second.

Secondly, we have the tendency in speech not just to distinguish between “direct/subject” and “oblique/object” but also between unstressed and stressed – when we stress a pronoun we tend to use the oblique form, e.g. “I didn’t see the draft, me“. This is quite common – French has a similar tendency (“Moi, je n’ai pas vu le document“), and Dutch has an entire separate set of unstressed person pronouns.

Both of these – the hyper-correction and the spoken tendency as well as the underlying grammar of some non-standard dialects – tempt us towards the oblique (object) forms over the direct (subject). Additionally, there is also the confusion around what happens after copulative verbs (verbs which do not take an object, most obviously “to be“); here, modern English tends towards the oblique form (“It’s me“, cf. French “C’est moi“), whereas the more typically Germanic “It is I” sounds archaic or even pompous (German actually has “Ich bin es” or “Das bin ich“, literally “I am it / That am I“). Indeed, this process has already led to the complete collapse of one direct/subject form, as the formerly uniquely oblique/object form “you” has come to take over from ye” entirely.

Nevertheless, the “rule” in Standard English is extraordinarily simple. As a subject of a verb, the direct (subject) form is used; as an object (of any type) of a verb or a pronoun, the oblique (object) form is used.

Between you and me, I suspect she did show her a draft…

Why “Taoiseach” but not “Bundeskanzler”?

A question was raised in social media the other day, albeit slightly in jest, around why the media refer to the head of the Irish Government by his Irish language title “Taoiseach”, but to the head of the German Government by her English language title “Chancellor” (as opposed to “Bundeskanzlerin”, noting the additional feminine suffix -in).

In fact, the reason is simple. The Head of the Irish Government’s title even in English is “Taoiseach”. This is one example of the way in which the Irish language plays a symbolic (rather than a particularly communicative) role in Irish national life, and it is far from the only example. The police service is referred to even in English as An Garda Síochána, the planning authority as An Bord Pleanála, and so on. Most political parties maintain their Irish language name even in English. Part of this plays into the profound role the Irish language plays among those who do not in fact speak it but nevertheless regard themselves as holding an Irish national identity.

No such commonality exists between the German language and German national identity – not least because the vast majority of Germans speak German all the time anyway. In fact, if anything, the “cool” thing to do in German is to borrow an English language word (such as the word “cool” itself) or even entire phrase (though not always precisely – Germans say “last not least” and speak of “das Happy-End”, neither of which is quite right, but perhaps such things are “fifty-fifty”). There is thus no insistence that the title of the Head of Government must be in German, as long as it is a rough translation. (Germans do, out of interest, have a bizarre keenness for the all-compassing use of the prefix “Bundes-” meaning “Federal”, to the extent that the manager of the national football team even is referred to simply as the “Bundestrainer” – which would literally suggest he trains the entire federation, and not just its elite footballers!)

The distinction between “Chancellor” and “Prime Minister” is merely one of cultural reference, but it is notable that it is maintained in English. Similarly, the United States (and some other countries such as Argentina and Mexico, referred to in English) has a “Congress” whereas most other places have a “Parliament” – “Congress” implies specifically a legislature bringing together members from different parts of the federation meeting “in congress”, whereas “parliament” requires only members. Ireland, of course, splits its parliament into Dáil Éireann (with Teachtaí Dála or “TDs”) and Seanad Éireann, even in English.

There are some quirks here in the English-language references to other Heads of Government too, however. Whereas English translates “premier ministre” as “prime minister” and “Kanzler” as “chancellor”, it does not do Southern European or Scandinavian leaders quite the same courtesy. Italy and Spain, for example, refer to their Head of Government as “Presidente” (“President”; understood in these cases to mean “of the Council” or “of the Government”), but to avoid any clash with the usual term used for the Head of State in a republic English sticks with the translation “prime minister”. Sweden, Denmark and Norway, on the other hand, refers to their Heads of Government as “statsminister” (“minister of state”), but to avoid potential confusion with lower ranking ministers English again here sticks with “prime minister”. These things are never straightforward!

Interestingly, although it was widely used from the Victorian Era, the term “Prime Minister” did not appear in law even in the UK until the 1930s and still does not, of itself, carry any salary. An Taoiseach is, of course, notoriously overpaid…

Making Irish a political football is disrespectful of the language

I have no problem with an Irish Language Act in principle – indeed I think it rather odd that Northern Ireland lacks one, given similar legislation for Gaelic in Scotland and Welsh in Wales.

I am also sympathetic to the broad point being made by Nationalists that the disrespect shown towards Irish by particular hard-line Unionists needs to be tackled quickly. It is not unreasonable to suggest that politicians should be held accountable for being disrespectful towards the Irish language or indeed any other aspect of culture and heritage cherished by people here.

However, making the Irish language the centre of the political breakdown is also disrespectful and unhelpful to it. What is being done by some (though not all) in Sinn Féin can only end up entrenching positions and thus sectarianising the language. This shows clearly that they too are seeking to put political advantage ahead of what is genuinely good for the development and promotion of Irish.

If people have a genuine interest in the progress of the Irish language and of the devolved (including cross-border) institutions, then they will not be so crude as to make the Irish language the fundamental sticking point. The broader issue of demonstrating respect and building relationships between parties – even if to some extent represented by attitudes towards and comments about Irish – has to be tackled for what it is.

The fact is if trust in general is lacking, we need to rebuild it carefully. We should not drag languages into it, for their own sake as much as anything else.

Numerical nightmares in foreign languages

This is a brief blog post to ask foreign language speakers and learners a simple question: do they have the same problem with numbers I have?!

The trick to speaking a foreign language fluently is to think in it – something I find comes to occur naturally. You get used to the different structure, the different rhythms, and the different means of naming things quite quickly, particularly if you have the opportunity to immerse yourself (for example by living and/or working where the language is spoken daily).

Yet one thing always seems to jar – a number.

For example, if reading a document, “1985” to me is always “nineteen eighty five” regardless of which language I am reading. Even if not reading aloud, I find myself almost skipping the number, knowing that I have just internally “pronounced” it in another part of my brain – in English, in effect.

This can be potentially troublesome. While I have, in general, little difficulty following the radio news in German (allowing for the odd inevitable misunderstanding around alien people or concepts), the traffic report can become tricky particularly if a three-digit road number is mentioned. Firstly, three-digit road numbers are read out in full in German (as opposed to digit by digit as in English), and then of course the last two digits are effectively inverted – so the A647 would be literally the “A six-hundred seven-and-forty”. My brain seemly seems wired wrongly here, having to take time even while otherwise “thinking in German” to untangle the seven and the four – by which time I may have missed the crucial diversionary exit!

This cannot be a fundamentally linguistic problem because of course no such untangling is necessary with numbers from 13-19 in English itself – “fourteen” is effectively the wrong way around (with the four first, contrary to “twenty-four”, for example) but takes no time to untangle – at least not for a native speaker.

Is it more that the parts of the brain which deal with language and numbers are separate, and only one gets re-wired when operating in a different language from native?

All thoughts welcome!

Language or dialect? It doesn’t actually matter…

In Italy, linguists refer to lingue italiane ‘Italian languages’ – plural. This is odd. Travelling around Italy, by and large, the road signs seem to be in a single language, waiters address you in a single language, newspapers are in a single language. So why ‘languages’?

This is complicated further by the fact there are various ‘degrees’ of ‘language-dom’ apparent across the country.

Firstly, let us start with the basics. The language we refer to as ‘Italian‘ is, as noted in the link, in fact based on a conservative form of literary Tuscan. This, notably since the Risorgimento of the mid-19th century, has been gradually accepted across the country as the written and subsequently even spoken standard. All Italians can now speak it, and a majority now do in all contexts (even informally among family).

Secondly, like any large European country, Italy has borders which were (and on the margins in some cases still are) contested, with national and linguistic minorities thus left within the boundaries of the Italian state. Thus, to the northeast there are tens of thousands of Slovene speakers; in the north there is a German speaking majority in South Tyrol; in some northwestern valleys there are speakers of dialects which would be more commonly linked to French rather than Italian; and in the Sardinian town of Alghero an estimated 20,000 people speak Catalan. These are languages with their own standards which are clearly distinct from Standard Italian, which can themselves be written, and which are clearly therefore different languages. So far, so easy.

Thirdly, within Italy, there are other Latin-derived languages with their own clear identity and, broadly, their own standard form. Two of these are particularly noteworthy. First, there is Sardinian, which like Standard Italian derives from Latin but which broke off and became literally isolated much earlier than dialects on the mainland or in Sicily and is thus markedly distinct – few doubt that Sardinian constitutes a different language with regional status. Second, there are Friulian (near the Slovene border) and Ladin (in South Tyrol) which are also derived from Latin but also broke off from Latin earlier than dialects elsewhere in Italy, which were maintained in valleys of mountainous areas (often largely cut off from communities elsewhere), and which have now developed their own place in education and written standards (Friulian and Ladin, alongside Romansch in neighbouring Switzerland, are related to each other more closely than any is to any other Latinate language, but are spoken in distinct regions and thus generally treated separately). Sardinian and Ladin-Friulian constitute a different case, as they are spoken by communities which have been based for over a millennium within the boundaries of what is now the modern Italian state. They are regional minority languages, but they are not languages of national minorities (and thus they have their own standards developed within Italy, rather than based on national or regional languages spoken in greater numbers elsewhere), which requires somewhat different treatment to enable their protection and development.

Thirdly, there are ‘languages’ (usually referred to as such in Italian, but as ‘dialects’ in English) of clear historical importance – notably perhaps Venetian, Sicilian and Neapolitan – which are spoken in some contexts by millions of Italians. These are written informally but have no agreed ‘standard’ as such, nor is there any particular desire for one – by and large, speakers are happy for written communication to be carried out in Standard Italian. These are not, however, ‘dialects of Italian’ – they followed a distinct progression from Latin and therefore do not derive from the same medieval Tuscan origin as Standard Italian (although they are historically and linguistically closer to it than Ladin-Friulian or Sardinian).

Within Italy, there is also a noteworthy linguistic boundary, referred to as the ‘La Spezia-Rimini line’). One marked distinction between traditional speech on either side of this line is that plural forms take -s to the north (including in Friulian-Ladin, Sardinian and Venetian, as well as in all dialects of French, Spanish and Portuguese and all regional Latin-derived languages and dialects in France, Spain and Portugal; thus Spanish lengualenguas ‘language-languages’) but involve amendment of the final vowel to the south of the line (including in Neapolitan, Sicilian and Tuscan and thus in Standard Italian, so lingualingue).

Then there are naturally versions of modern spoken Italian (i.e. generally close to the standard) which include traces of these latter regional ‘languages’. These may properly be referred to as ‘dialects of Italian’ because fundamentally they do, for the most part, derive from the Tuscan-based standard.

Why does this matter to us, say, in Northern Ireland?

It means that within Italy there are various languages and dialects in use: firstly, there are languages spoken more commonly in neighbouring countries with longstanding written standards; second, there are Latin- (but not Tuscan-) based regional languages now in use in education with developing written standards; third, there are regional languages (in fact with much greater numbers of speakers than either of the previous two categories, but whose speakers use them only in limited circumstances) with significant historical relevance but limited modern use and no widely accepted standard written form; all in addition to the Tuscan-based Standard Italian which initially developed primarily as a literary and thus written form. The important point is this: in fact most Italians in informal speech speak along a spectrum between their regional language and Standard Italian, tending increasingly towards the latter with each passing generation.

Which of those are ‘languages’ and which are ‘dialects’ is irrelevant, particularly given the last sentence. In fact, most Italians speak what is clearly a language (Italian) in a dialect form influenced by what they themselves generally regard as another ‘language’. There are at once Italian languages (plural) alongside a single Italian language – and this causes no problem to any Italian.

Bring this back to Northern Ireland and we have some obvious parallels. First, like German in South Tyrol or Slovene near the Adriatic, languages such as Polish or even Mandarin have pre-existing standards in their own country of origin, so although there are rights for speakers of those languages there is no need for a process of ‘linguistic development’ because they are not endangered and have standard forms, dictionaries, grammars and so on. Second, like Sardinian on Sardinia or Friulian-Ladin in mountainous areas of northern Italy, Irish is a native language of the jurisdiction (under severe threat) with a written standard but which does, unlike Polish and others, have a requirement for linguistic development because its use has (or, at least, had) declined and, if Northern Ireland does not take action to protect and promote it, there is a serious chance it will be lost altogether. Third, like Venetian or Neapolitan, Ulster Scots (like Scots across the North Channel) is a historical regional language whose speakers now use it in a spectrum with Standard English tending towards the latter; arguably, its historical importance requires some intervention to protect it, but such intervention would not be the same as is appropriate for Sardinian, Ladin-Friulian or Irish.

Those who are serious about the development of minority languages will reflect on these realities sympathetically as they introduce legislation and policy designed to promote both speakers’ rights and protect languages which may otherwise be lost. Desirable outcomes will perhaps be different in each case, and the approach towards attaining them will inevitably be.

We are, of course, about to find out who is serious and who is not.

 

Sinn Fein itself has way to go on “respect agenda”

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.

Irish Language Act – where now?

I was on BBC Talkback on Wednesday where I expressed gloom about the prospects of agreement on an Irish Language Act before the “deadline” yesterday.

To be clear, my main point was that this is not really about the Irish Language, but rather about trust between the two main parties here. The Irish Language happens to reflect this in two ways: firstly, it was the withdrawal of funding for bursaries which proved the final straw for Nationalists in December; and secondly Nationalists (rightly or wrongly) generally feel they were promised an Act in 2006 if not before.

Nevertheless, we may look at some of the issues around it.

Unionists tend towards the view that an Act is simply not needed because the Irish Language is already well enough looked after (a view expressed by an Ulster Unionist peer yesterday) or because this is a matter for a Commission on identity and tradition due to report later in the year and has to be taken “in the round”.

Nationalists take the view that an Irish Language Act is necessary to protect and enhance the rights of Irish speakers, and perhaps implicitly because they feel respect for it should be placed in law.

For fear of being cast as a woolly Liberal, in fact I would suggest that objectively neither of those is quite right. Therein perhaps lies the compromise.

To take the last first: Irish speakers have no theoretical reason to believe their own rights alone (and not those, say, of Polish or Gujurati speakers) should be protected in law. Rights would apply equally to anyone who cannot or, arguably, prefers not to use the common language of the vast bulk of the population. That is the case for saying that rights are already protected; or it is the case for placing the rights of speakers of minority or foreign languages in a Bill of Rights; or it is even the case for a rights-based “Minority Languages and Cultural Respect Act”.

However, in fact I do believe there should be specific Irish Language legislation on the grounds that statutory responsibilities to protect and promote the language itself should be placed in law, in order for the language to be maintained as part of our cultural heritage. This is a little different from the “rights-based” approach, even if the outcome would not necessarily be too dissimilar. The issue here is that Irish is a native language in only two jurisdictions, and those jurisdictions therefore are both charged with ensuring its survival as a language in use.

This then, by the curious logic of the talks process, leads to discussion of a “Cultural Respect Act” or whether there should be a standalone “Irish Language Act” accompanied by an “Ulster Scots Act”. Here we need to be clear that an “Irish Language Act” is not just part of “culture and tradition” as Unionists suggest, but fundamental to building trust between parties charged with governing. However, we also need to be clear that delivery of “an Irish Language Act” (note specific phrasing) does not mean delivery of the exact legislation that Sinn Féin or any other party wants.

This takes us back to purpose. The objective of Irish language legislation should be to put the development of the Irish language on a sure footing, while also securing respect for it. This requires Unionists to recognise its importance to many people in Northern Ireland (not exclusively speakers and not exclusively Nationalists); and it requires Nationalists to focus on what is important for the language, noting that this means they have a right to expect an Act but not necessarily one absolutely in their own image. This last point is worth emphasising: when Sinn Féin talks of “implementing past agreements” it has a right to suggest that an Irish Language Act is part of that implementation, but it has no right to insist on the precise Act it wants.

An obvious way around this, of course, is to do both a “Cultural Respect Act” and an “Irish Language Act”. The former would put general rights and statutory requirements with regard to minority languages and cultural respect in general into law (statutory requirements to encourage awareness, spell names correctly, enable government correspondence in languages in use in NI with a written standard, set objectives for encouraging use of minority languages including 10% of the population fluent in Irish by 2031, etc). The latter would add those specifically deliverable for Irish (noting in the preamble the theoretical possibility that they could be added for Ulster Scots or indeed other languages in due course), such as official recognition for Standard Irish in NI and the right to parental choice for Irish-medium education or for their child to learn Irish regardless of which school sector the child attends – a right which is beneficial to the survival of the language as it encourages its use across the community, but which is currently impactable for anything other than Irish. (Politically, Nationalists get their standalone Irish Language Act and establish a broad “respect agenda”; Unionists deliver on matching it, as far practicable, for Ulster Scots and all cultures in general. It is not how I would do it, but it may just work for the key participants.)

Compromise is necessary, in other words. Who knew?

Scots language – does allowing people to make mistakes work?

in response to this piece last week, one Scot responded arguing that Scots could not survive unless people were allowed to make mistakes.

Up to a point, that is true of anything, of course, and particularly of language learning. I have argued for a long time that making mistakes and learning from them is central to the art.

There is a problem here, however. It is essentially this: if I am learning a language, I do not go writing newspaper articles in it until I attain a reasonable degree of fluency.

I would argue this is even worse when the language in question is endangered. Far from people using them wrongly for symbolic reasons, what minority languages need is people taking the time to learn them properly and then using them well. This situation is magnified when the minority language is in any case similar to the majority language (Scots to English, Catalan to Spanish, etc).

No language can survive if, ultimately, it is constantly used with reference to another language (e.g. Scots with reference to English). That applies whether the problem is that there is too much interference from the other language (as is often the case with Scots in Scotland), or if the problem is that the language is artificially distanced (with, for example, deliberately inaccessible spellings and bizarre neologisms, as is often the case with Ulster Scots).

So, yes, people who care about minority languages should use them. But they should use them with the ultimately objective of learning them thoroughly, and they should be aware there are certain levels of proficiency required before they try using it in certain contexts. It is also inappropriate to use it for the sake of political symbolism when it is not being used well – that just invites ridicule, as last week’s blog post demonstrated. To be absolutely clear, if you just write English with a few made-up spellings and pass it off as Scots, you will end up with everyone speaking English and not Scots.

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