An “Official Languages” Act For The North?

Treasures of the Irish Language

Treasures of the Irish Language

Interesting to note that David Ford, leader of the moderate Unionists of the Alliance Party, mentioned a “Languages Bill” (plural) rather than simply an Irish Language Act in a speech to his party’s annual conference in Belfast. I have been suggesting for some time that an “Official Languages Act”  is the best way to by-pass the opposition of the political leadership of the British Unionist minority to civil rights legislation for Irish-speakers in the north-east of the country. Such an act would make Irish and English co-equal languages in the region, a more palatable situation for the Unionist community at large perhaps since it is in line with both the spirit and the letter of the Belfast Agreement of 1998.

One hears on the grapevine that Sinn Féin has been discussing legislation along these lines, though recently the SDLP has been more pro-active on behalf of the Irish-speaking community and such a move may well emerge from them. The only deterrent seems to be the worry that Unionists will insist on the inclusion of so-called “Ulster-Scots”, an invented mishmash dialect of English and Scots-English, alongside mainstream English in order to block the working of the Act through prohibitive costs or public ridicule.

Perhaps the AP have a similar bilingual legislative solution in mind?

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20 Responses to “An “Official Languages” Act For The North?”
  1. Luann tú “…the “so-called “Ulster-Scots”, an invented mishmash dialect of English and Scots-English.”

    Ní dóigh liom go bhfuil an ceart agat. Tá fhios agam go raibh an teanga sin ag Sean-Athair agam (as Co na Cabhán a rugadh sa bhliain 1871). Bhí an teanga sin an-chosúil le “Lowland Scots” nó “Scots” an dara teanga atá acu in Albain agus bhí sé i ndán filíocht agus próis sa teanga sin a léamh agus a rá. (agus miniú a thabhairt dúinn ar filíocht Rabbie Burns!)

    Tuigim go bhfuil siad ann a deireann gur caniúint atá sa “Scots” ach táid ann leis a deireann gur “distinct Germanic language,” díreach mar atá an Ioruais gaolta le ach difriúil ón Danmhargais. Bheidh ort an nath “wir ain leid” a aistriú murach “Scots” a bheith agat (= “ár dteanga féin.”

    Ní ceart dúinn, dár liom, bheith ag caint faoi “so-called” nó “invented mishmash” nuair atá muid ag caint faoi teanga ar bith atá (nó a bhí) á úsáid ag daoine. Tá sé an-chosúil leis an rud a deireann lucht-frith Ghaeilge ó thuaidh faoin ár dteanga féin?

    • Thanks for the Comment, Eoin. I have no problem with the status of Scots or Scots-English as a distinct dialect of English. Distinct enough to be a Germanic language in its own right (as Dutch or Frisian is to German) and to be accorded respect as such. I think the linguistic arguments are strong enough to make the case. If it was Scots that was being discussed then maybe I could agree for official status in Ireland if some evidence for a genuine history could be found as a communal language of this nation.

      But “Ullans”? Maybe a form of Scots-English was spoken in Ireland in the distant past, combined with local English dialects, but I’m afraid that what we have now is a tongue invented in the 1970s with clear origins in the occult fringes of British Unionism in Ireland. It came from people who fed from the same well-spring that gave us the claim that Ulster Protestants are one of the Lost Tribes of Israel or that they are “racially distinct” descendants of the so-called Picts/Cruithnigh. In any other context this would be treated as “Aryanism”.

      Among the more ridiculous things I have heard is a member of the Boord O Ulstèr Scotch (a publically paid official) admit that they made use of an accent in the name of the board simply because “…we just thought it looked good” (as reported in the Irish Times). In other words an accent mark over a letter made it look like a distinct language separate from English. Like, say, Irish. We also have the admission that they use the same accent mark as Scottish (Scottish-Gaelic) so that it doesn’t “look Irish” and makes it instead “Scottish-looking”. A clear display of complete linguistic ignorance.

      Then, as reported by BBC Radio, we have the fact that “disabled children” translates as “wee daftie weans” in Ullans (and no, I did not make that up!). From the IT again, the Ulster-Scots for heavy rain is “pishing doun” (i.e. pissing down).

      Sorry, this is not a language. It is a stunt to “ethnicise” Unionism. And the Irish-speaking community is simply mad to give it any credence. They are creating a rod to beat their own back.

      Yes, there are real facets of Ulster-Scots or Scots-Irish culture. The Lambeg drum, marching bands, a distinct musical tradition, etc. Let us celebrate, PROMOTE, them. Even the Glorious Twelfth.

      But not this dangerous, quasi-racist Ultima Thule nonsense that is simply an artificial counter-language to Irish.

      • Breathnaigh mé ar WIKI agus is cosúil go n-aithnítear “Ulster-Scots” mar chuid den “Scots” (Mar atá Hiberno-English mar chuid den Bhéarla). Má aithníonn na hAlbanaigh é mar theanga níl mise sasta ná cáilithe a mhalairt a rá. Aontaím leat go bhfuil an-chuid “féin-déanamh” gan bunús ar siúl ag an mBoord úd ach ar bhealach d’fhéadfa a rá go bhfuil chuid den rud céann ar siúl sa Ghaeltacht. Dúirt duine éigin anseo nuair a bhí fadhb agam le mo charr, “Tá an diabhal battery frigáilte!” Agus ar ndóigh bíonn an báisteach ag pissáil anseo i gConamara anois is arís ;-) Ar bhealach is mishmash de short éigin chuile teanga – go mór mór an Bhéarla féin….

      • Marconatrix says:

        Thachair mi air seo o chionn ghoirid :

        http://www.scots-online.org/airticles/EagleFalconer2004.pdf

        Nise ‘s urrainn dhaibh faicinn có às a thàinig an stròc grave, co-dhiù …

  2. goggzilla says:

    Ullans as a language? A language comes into existence when there is a political will, look at Croatian inventing neologisms to separate it from Serb (or Serbo-Croat) likewise Moldovan which in my youth was Romanian with a rural accent. See also Danish and Norwegian.

    • The problem with “Ullans” (as opposed to Scots or Scots-English) is its clear and artificial origins. It was invented in the 1970s by “academics” in the occult fringes of British Unionism in Ireland. It came from people who fed from the same well-spring that gave us the claim that Ulster Protestants are one of the Lost Tribes of Israel or that they are “racially distinct” descendants of the so-called Picts/Cruithnigh. It is simply a form of “Aryanism”, a quasi-racist ideology requiring its own language to give it legitimacy. None existed so they made one up.

      I’ll repeat what I said above:

      Among the more ridiculous things I have heard is a member of the Boord O Ulstèr Scotch (a publically paid official) admit that they made use of an accent in the name of the board simply because “…we just thought it looked good” (as reported in the Irish Times). In other words an accent mark over a letter made it look like a distinct language separate from English. Like, say, Irish. We also have the admission that they use the same accent mark as Scottish (Scottish-Gaelic) so that it doesn’t “look Irish” and makes it instead “Scottish-looking”. A clear display of complete linguistic ignorance.

      Then, as reported by BBC Radio, we have the fact that “disabled children” translates as “wee daftie weans” in Ullans (and no, I did not make that up!). From the IT again, the Ulster-Scots for heavy rain is “pishing doun” (i.e. pissing down).

      Sorry, this is not a language. It is a stunt to “ethnicise” Unionism. And the Irish-speaking community is simply mad to give it any credence. They are creating a rod to beat their own back.

      Yes, there are real facets of Ulster-Scots or Scots-Irish culture. The Lambeg drum, marching bands, a distinct musical tradition, etc. Let us celebrate, PROMOTE, them. Even the Glorious Twelfth.

      But not this dangerous, quasi-racist Ultima Thule nonsense that is simply an artificial counter-language to Irish.”

      Your points about Danish/Norwegian, etc. are true (even in the latter we have two distinct forms). But Ulster-Scots is 99% invention. It exists simply to counter Irish. The Irish have their language so we must have ours.

      I get so frustrated by those who indulge this nonsense. Apologies for that.

      • goggzilla says:

        No apology needed! We have having a rational debate. One may as well as for road signs in Brixton in Patwa “Where Dem Ras Clart Street Innit” After all it is not as if we are paid informers;)

  3. Willie Davison says:

    I was born in the mid-1950s in a valley in Co. Antrim, close to the site of St Patrick’s slavery on Slemish mountain : when I was growing up a majority of the population in the valley spoke broad Scots dialect, a form of Scots whose syntax was clearly influenced by the Irish language and with a substantial number of Irish loan words. To say that Ulster -Scots is 90% invention is ludicrous and a sign of the author’s ignorance, it was the communal language of my childhood and youth, I barely spoke standard English until I passed the “Eleven plus” and went to Grammer School. I still speak the dialect every day and though it is undoubtedly getting weaker, a substantial proportion of the population still speak it. The fact that it has been adopted by politicians, in an opportunistic fashion, has, undoubtedly, been a disaster, simply giving uninformed commentators, like the author of this blog, the opportunity to display their ignorance and prejudice. He should not assume that “official” Ulster-Scots of “Ullans” is real, it is not, and is regarded with derision by native speakers like myself and others. I would much prefer the term Irish-Scots.
    There is nothing specifically Ulster-Scots about lambeg drums, or marching bands, these are simply things which have been seized upon by some, Scots dialect was established in Ulster long before these were ever heard of. Some of the strongest speakers of Scots dialect in the County come from a Catholic and Nationalist background, from areas like Loughgiel and Carnlough, Cardinal Daly in his memoirs comments on the Scots dialect of his native Loughgiel, a noted hurling stronghold. There is a strong traditional music culture in a County like Antrim, strongly influenced by Scottish styles, particularly in fiddle playing, the dulcimer was also a popular traditional instrument in my own area, perhaps as a result of Scottish influence. If the author wants to hear some real Ulster-Scots, perhaps he should temporarily abandon his southern fastness and attend one of the numerous September sheep sales in North Antrim, or the weekly sales in Ballymena market, where he will hear authentic dialect, not the drivel peddled on the media and official publications. It makes me very angry to witness something organic and authentic, being used and corrupted by others and then to read an ignorant diatribe, in response to this corruption.
    Perhaps the author could take some time to educate himself, read the Ordnance Survey Memoirs for Co. Antrim, for example, where there are numerous references to the strength of Scots dialect (and the Irish language), plenty of “genuine evidence” there, Vol 13, Glens of Antrim, would be a good start. He could also get a copy of “The Hamely Tongue” by James Fenton, a good record of the dialect in my native county, with the additional bonus of a nice photo of Slemish on the cover, or google Brendan Adams, or R.J. Gregg. But I expect he will do none of these things, he has made up his mind, on the basis of the flimsiest of evidence, and is no doubt content to wallow in his prejudice and smug ignorance. It really astonishes me to read such nonsense.

    • Ok, Willie, lets go with your argument. A variation of the Scots language (Scots-English) was historically spoken in Ireland following the sustained colonisation of the north-east of the country by British settlers in the 1600s, primarily from the Borders region of Scotland and England.

      This Irish dialect of Scots, Irish-Scots as you perhaps correctly put it, continued in use amongst specific rural communities in Antrim and elsewhere up to the 1960s with a sharp decline thereafter. Remnants of that dialect have survived to the present day in isolated pockets and amongst older people of both sexes.

      However, that is not the argument being made by the advocates of “Ullans”. They argue for a distinct fully developed language, not a dialect of Scots or English. And certainly with no Irish substrata or influences. Even the Ulster-Scots Agency cannot agree what the “language” is. The official position was Ulster-Scots as a dialect of Scots in Ireland yet it wavers back and forth from that (look at the rows in 2008 over the so-called Ullans’ academy). It indulges a whole host of amateur academics who turn out glossaries replete with patently obvious neologisms dressed as genuine artefacts, spelling and syntax deliberately rendered archaic, false accents and word-formations. Not to mention the links to the counter-factual racial and historical theories of Adamson, et al.

      I have looked into this area. I have researched and studied it. I love languages, Willie. All languages. I love the diversity of human culture and society. Any loss to that is a terrible thing for us as a species. And if I thought there was any merit to Scots-Irish beyond simply being a counter-language to Irish I would support it.

      Maybe I am wrong. Maybe I am just ignorant. I have been to the north-eastern part of my country many times. I know Derry City, Fermanagh, Armagh and Belfast well. Antrim, Down, eastern Derry, Tyrone not so well or not at all. So you may be right. And as you say even speakers of the dialect do not recognise the “official version” represented by Ullans.

      Yet the official version is the one we have, the one with the official history, and the official backing of the political leadership of Unionism.

      Do you believe that the language you speak, or whatever form that is distorted or misrepresented by others, is used as anything but a counter-language to Irish? That it is merely a sword and shield in the hands of political demagogues acting they think in defence of the British minority in Ireland against the indigenous language of the island of Ireland?

      • I think you are a bit unfair to Willie, A Shéamais. I suggest, from my fastness deep in Irish speaking Conamara, that the language spoken by Willie is in fact a bona fide language, maybe hijacked by certain political forces but nevertheless a language not only from influence of the plantations but also from the relationship of that area on the ancient Sruth na Maoile and Scotland – the historical Dal Riada.

        Moreover, My Grandfather (Born 1871) spoke this language in his childhood in County Cavan, as I have said above. This was no political act it was just the language that they spoke.

        Just because political forces embracing a language for political reasons make it no less respectable nany more than the hypocritical espousing of Irish by Sinn Féin (and other political parties) makes its identity and richness any less valid. If we want any proof of their hypocracy I suggest nothing more than a quick look at the Irish Language version of their website (http://www.sinnfein.ie/ga/) and compare it to the main page of the Welsh political party Plaid Cymru! (http://www.plaidcymru.org/)

        Both languages deserve our deep respect if not affection. They belong to the people who speak them and to their ancestors and hopefully to their descendants. The contain their and our common values, aspirations and history as people of this Island.

        • I am reminded of the famous (or infamous) row between Bertie Ahern and David Trimble on the issue of Ulster Scots as described by Tony Blair:

          “”Now you might think that co-operation on these two issues [trade protection and the Irish language] would be relatively uncontentious. In fact the Unionists screeched to a halt. It turned out there was some obscure language called Ullans, a Scottish dialect spoken in some parts of Ulster which was the Unionists’ equivalent of the Irish Language. By this time nothing surprised me. They could have suggested sitting the Assembly on Mars and I would have started to draft options.

          Everyone was now tired and fractious. I had an awful meeting with Bertie [Ahern] and David Trimble, in which Bertie did not take quite the same relaxed view of the importance of Ullans as I did, suggesting that maybe David would like to speak some of the ‘fecking thing’ so we could hear what it sounded like; and David taking umbrage at the idea that the dialect was a Unionist invention, explaining solemnly and at length the Scottish roots of Ullans with all the sensitivity of a landowner talking to a village idiot.”

          Apparently this was around the same time when Bertie “came within an ace” of punching Trimble, according to Jonathan Powell, Blair’s personal aide. So these are no small matter.

          I can accept a strong regional or national dialect of Scots in Ireland; that is Irish-Scots. But Ullans, with all its falseness and political purposefulness?

          In relation to Willie, if I was intemperate or unfair in my descriptions of Scots-Irish, I certainly apologise for any offence given. Genuinely. I have no wish to offend minority speakers in any tongue and I would certainly be supportive of Scots-Irish in any other context.

          But, in this context, I find it hard to support something that is designed ultimately to kill off the indigenous tongue of this island-nation in the north-east of the country. And that seems to be the choice some Unionist politicians are determined to force upon us.

          There is no scope to choose both, as they would have it. It is one or the other.

          About that I am sorry. In the world of realpolitik, not wishes and aspirations, can anyone see another way forward?

          • Dhá phoínte agam:
            • Ní Ullans a thug Willie ar a theanga.

            • Ní bheinn ró thogtha le trachtaireacht Tony Blair ac an oiread. Déarfainn go raibh an iomraca Hand of History ólta aige nuair a scríobh sé a leabhair!

  4. anne says:

    “This Irish dialect of Scots, Irish-Scots as you perhaps correctly put it, continued in use amongst specific rural communities in Antrim and elsewhere up to the 1960s with a sharp decline thereafter”

    The decline is a class thing – no good Ulster Protestant wants his/her sons and daughters speaking a farm labourer’s dialect. They aim at the Queen’s English with a local accent – as indeed they should – though you do hear some strangled “middle class” utterances!

    All this is not off topic for the status of the Irish language.
    Acht na Teanga is just another item on a long list of GFA promises that were never maintained. Using Ulster-Scots as an excuse penalizes both communities in NI – Gaelic speakers (mainly Catholics) whose rights are not recognized, English speakers (all) who are condemned against all their instincts for social betterment to embrace the low class (status) Ulster Scots. Not only Croppies have to lie down!!

    • I tend to agree, Anne.

      Is Irish-Scots a language or a dialect? There is an academic distinction. The majority of linguists outside of Unionism say a dialect of English, less divergent from mainstream English than Scots which has developed a form taking it to the level of a distinct Germanic language.

      If I thought that active support for Irish-Scots, whether the supposedly genuine form or the Tolkienesque stuff passed off for it now, would advance the civil rights of Irish-speakers in the north-east of Ireland I’d be there placard in hand. But it doesn’t. Irish-Scots, Ulster-Scots, Ullans exists purely for the leadership of Unionism to block any advance on Irish language rights. That’s it. No more, no less. Only a handful actually believes the more farcical elements of the myths behind it (Cruithnigh and such like).

      I know I annoy, anger, infuriate, disgust Wille Davison above on a regular basis, but one can only speak from one’s experiences. Though, in fairness, so does he. But these are my experiences of the Hamely Tongue.

  5. bangordub says:

    I am no expert on languages but I have some knowledge of dialect. Great discussion above by the way in my humble opinion. My Mothers family spoke a version of English from south Tipperary that was heavily influenced by the Irish language. It was new to me as a child. I was brought by the hand to a barn in my grandmothers, sisters farm, near Bansha, and it was explained to me in Engish that I barely understood how “some boys had been fed “buckets” of tae with quare hunks of butter, proper butter mind, slabbed on the cakes of bread. They needed the feed for the fight ahead” I was told. Not a language in itself but a rich use of language that I still remember 35 years later.

    • Thanks for the Comment, BD. I do support regional dialects and accents (any learner of Irish or someone with a meagre smattering of An Ghaeilge will sooner or later run up against the impenetrable blas of Gaoth Dobhair. I understood not a word which was actually kind of wonderful). Dialects add to the diversity of culture and society and should be treasured.

      My issue with Irish-Scots (to adopt Willie’s phrase) is the OTT claims made for it, not to mention the political agenda behind its most vocal supporters.

      Is it possible to escape the designation of a “counter-language” to Irish?

      Thinking about it the last few days, and reading the Comments of others, maybe I am wrong not to make a clearer distinction between Irish-Scots and Ullans? Willie and Eoin could be right.

      However, that still leaves us with the same problem. Ullans exists to stop civil rights for Irish speakers and equal recognition for the Irish language in the north-east of the country.

      How does one get around that?

    • anne says:

      That sounds like the type of language used by Synge. He pushed English as far as it could go towards Gaelic which underlay the thought forms, turns of phrase etc of the people on the Western seaboard. John Milton did the same type of thing in Paradise Lost when he pushed English as far as it could go towards Latin.

      • Pádraig Mac Piarais and other writers, dramatists and poets of the Gaelic Revival made similar efforts to capture the rhythm and cadences of Irish in their English language works. An Piarsach in particular went to great efforts to write his English or translated poetry in a self-consciously Irish style, adapting Irish poetical metres and forms to English. Of course many others have continued to adapt and adopt distinctly Irish motifs into English.

  6. Willie Davison says:

    Unfortunately, as a self-employed person, I have to work and, therefore, have just looked at the responses to my post of the other day.
    Politics and politicians are the enemies of language and culture, to them, these are just so many commodities to be cynically commandeered in support of their chosen dogma, whether it be Republicanism or Unionism : these people have no intrinsic interest in either, they are simply weapons to be wielded.. Both Irish and Ulster-Scots, or Irish/Hiberno-Scots, as I prefer to call it, have been severely damaged. Irish was requisitioned by Nationalism in the late 19th Century and has subsequently been adopted as a favourite cultural weapon of violent Irish Republicanism, so it ceased to be part of our shared cultural heritage, those who weren’t Nationalists or Republicans were explicitely excluded, which was not always the case.
    To a certain extent Seumas and I are singing from the same hymn sheet : our area of agreement is this : in the late 1980s/early 90s some Unionists, mostly in the D.U.P., looked around for something to requisition in response to the requisitioning of the Irish language by Republicans : luckily for them a strange patois existed, which they could adopt as their identity marker, ignoring the fact that in its rural Antrim redoubt its native speakers were drawn from both sides of the main religio/political divide; but that wasn’t the point. This was a political project, these people had no intrinsic interest in the native speakers, or their dialect. What they wanted was to claim for Unionism exclusive ownership of a language and culture, which had never been experienced such ownership, in response to Republicans claims of exclusive ownership of the Irish language. Once the project was established, money could be drawn down, Quangos established, bureaucrats employed in well-paid sinecures to churn out material overwhemingly incomphrensible to native speakers.
    That is where Seumas and I overlap. Unfortunately he appears to believe that the Ulster-Scots Agency and the Government Departments and organisations like the Arts Council who churn out endless artificial rubbish are all there is. In doing so he is adopting precisely the same attitude that he criticises in those Unionist politicians, who adopt a knee-jerk attitude of hostility to the Irish language. Despite all the official vandalism, the real people are still there on the ground, still speaking this barbarous patois, virtually untouched by the organisations supposedly set up to promote their dialect. It is really tragic that such an act of cultural opportunism and vandalism has occurred, but that should not entirely negate the real, natural, organic linguistic culture which remains. It is lucky that recording has been carried out of native speakers, otherwise future generations might think that what has been produced in recent years is authentic. In its “broadest” and most dense manifestation, it is the equal of the broadest Scots spoken in Scotland itself, pithy, expressive, colourful, the very antithesis of official “Ullans.”
    At the last census a figure of 33,000 was arrived at for those with some knowledge of Irish-Scots: this is possibly optimistic, as I belong to the last generation who speak the dialect in any numbers. By the end of this century it will undoubtedly be gone : it is remarkable in itself that it has survived since the 17th Century, with no further mass migration. It was a dialect which has always attracted great hostility, you only have to read the Ordnance Survey Memoirs, written in the 1830s, to realise that, it is the ultimate irony that those who purport to cherish it will have driven the final nail into its coffin.
    The idea that its few native speakers constitute a threat to the Irish language is ,of course, ludicrous : it existed side by side with Irish and was influenced by it, for Irish speakers, it was often adopted as their localised form of English : if the parallel universe of official Ulster-Scots is regarded as a threat to Irish, then the Irish language must be in a more parlous state than I realised. Of course, the reality is that once the number of native speakers of any language dips below 50,000, extinction cannot be far behind : it amuses me when I hear non- native speaking Irish-Scots enthusiasts talking about how the dialect is “thriving” : what they mean is that their activities are thriving, on the ground the real dialect is slowly, but surely, dying. I wonder if native speakers of Irish and Scots Gaelic feel the same, once a language falls below a certain threshold no amount of optimistic talk, no passing of Acts, will make a blind bit of difference : languages which are thriving don’t need Quangos, or legislative intervention.
    If the Irish and Scottish Gaelic languages were to follow Irish-Scots into extinction it would be a great pity, Although I was brought up speaking broad Scots dialect, I have numerous Mac surnames in my family tree, with the certainty that many of my own ancestors spoke these languages, but I wouldn’t be optimistic about any of them in the longer term.
    There is a good article on ” Ulster Scots in the Glens” by Brian MacLochlainn, in a back issue of the annual Journal of the Glens of Antrim Historical Society, you should be able to download it from the Society’s website. Brian was brought up in the same valley as myself and went to the same Secondary school, he from a Catholic background, myself, Presbyterian. We share views on Ulster Scots and its contemporary shameful exploitation, which, of course, is why I recommend his article. His daughter, Sorcha Nic Lochlainn has an article in the same Journal, “Long-Forgotten Gaelic songs of Rathlin and the Glens.”

    • Thanks for taking the time to leave such a detailed and thoughtful Comment, Willie. Thinking about it and the other contributions over the last week I’m inclined to have a more favourable or at least open view of Irish-Scots than I did. In the future I will strive to be more accurate in the terms I use. Some of your points have cerainly given me food for thought.

      Here is a link to the download Glynns 2009 mentioned by Willie for anyone who is interested.

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