Stigmatized varieties of Gaelic

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St. Patrick's Day was last Thursday, but this afternoon I saw someone wandering around in a sparkly green top hat.  In that spirit, I offer a post about perhaps-fictional attitudes towards a variety of Scottish Gaelic.

The content comes from Ken MacLeod's novella The Human Front, which the publisher's blurb calls "a comedic and biting commentary on capitalism and an exploration of technological singularity in a posthuman civilization". We learn that "the story follows John Matheson, an idealistic teenage Scottish guerilla warrior who must change his tactics and alliances with the arrival of an alien species". The protagonist tells us that

My mother, Morag, was a Glaswegian of Highland extraction, who had met and married my father after the end of the Second World War and before the beginning of the Third. She, somewhat contrarily, taught herself the Gaelic and used it in all her dealings with the locals, though they always thought her dialect and her accent stuck-up and affected. The thought of her speaking a pure and correct Gaelic in a Glasgow accent is amusing; her neighbours' attitude towards her well-meant efforts less so, being an example of the the characteristic Highland inferiority complex so often mistaken for class or national consciousness. The Lewis accent itself is one of the ugliest under heaven, a perpetual weary resentful whine — the Scottish equivalent of Cockney — and the dialect thickly corrupted with English words Gaelicized by the simple expedient of mispronouncing them in the aforementioned accent.

This attitude towards the Gaelic of Lewis reminded me of the attitude that George Bernard Shaw puts in the mouth of his hero Henry Higgins in Pygmalion, addressing the Cockney flower-peddler Eliza Doolittle:

A woman who utters such depressing and disgusting sounds has no right to be anywhere—no right to live. Remember that you are a human being with a soul and the divine gift of articulate speech: that your native language is the language of Shakespear and Milton and the Bible; and dont sit there crooning like a bilious pigeon.

This despite Shaw's statement in the preface that

It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him. […] The reformer England needs today is an energetic phonetic enthusiast: that is why I have made such a one the hero of a popular play.

The reform that Shaw had in mind was for "people troubled with accents that cut them off from all high employment" to be taught to speak properly — though as he explained

[T]he thing has to be done scientifically, or the last state of the aspirant may be worse than the first. An honest and natural slum dialect is more tolerable than the attempt of a phonetically untaught person to imitate the vulgar dialect of the golf club.

The idea of reforming the prejudice against "slum dialect" — or for that matter "the vulgar dialect of the golf club" — never seems to have crossed his mind.

Anyhow, stigmatizing Lewis Gaelic is not the only politically incorrect attitude expressed by Ken MacLeod's John Matheson. There's also this:

Why the Highlanders nurse a grievance over the Clearances was a mystery to me at the time, and still is. In no land in the world is the disproportion between natural attraction and sentimental attachment more extreme, except possibly Poland and Palestine. Expelled from their sodden Sinai to Canada and New Zealand the dispossessed crofters flourished, and those who remained behind had at last enough land to feed themselves, but their descendants still talk as if they'd been put on cattle trucks to Irkutsk.


  1. Jonathan Badger said,

    March 20, 2016 @ 8:06 pm

    Speaking of Pygmalion, I'm reminded of a German-language production of "My Fair Lady" that had the Eliza character speaking in the somewhat-stigmatized Berlin dialect and learning to pronounce words like "grün" in the "standard" way.

  2. Seonachan said,

    March 20, 2016 @ 9:13 pm

    "and those who remained behind had at last enough land to feed themselves"

    Wow. Is this character's penchant for being spectacularly wrong a key plot device?

    As for Lewis Gaelic, people make fun of it, because it's so different from the other dialects, but it isn't particularly looked down upon, and unlike Cockney it isn't restricted to or associated with a lower socioeconomic stratum. A lot of BBC Radio nan Gàidheal presenters are Leòdhasaich.

  3. Jenny Chu said,

    March 20, 2016 @ 9:27 pm

    Speaking of stigmas and [sparkly] green hats: I have hesitated to celebrate St. Patrick's Day in this particular fashion since arriving in Hong Kong, where "to wear a green hat" is synonymous with "to be cuckolded".

  4. AntC said,

    March 20, 2016 @ 9:37 pm

    Ah, I was hoping this would be a piece about some archaeology in the back of a pub in Ireland, that suggested the 'Celts' had been there since at least 2,500 BCE; were not pushed to the northern/western edges of Europe from what is now Switzerland; but in fact had spread to there from Ireland/Scotland/Portugal/….

    (That was a syndicated piece from somewhere for St Patrick's day. I don't think it was just something that had strayed early by a couple of weeks. I'll look it up.)

    [(myl) See "Irish DNA and Indo-European origins", 12/31/2015, for a pre-St.-Patrick's-Day listing and discussion of the original research.]

  5. Roger Lustig said,

    March 20, 2016 @ 10:19 pm

    @Jonathan Badger: Es grient das Grien wo Spaniens Blieten bliehen.

    [all of the 'ie's except for the one in 'Spanien' would be 'ü' in "standard" German.]

  6. AntC said,

    March 20, 2016 @ 10:22 pm

    "… over the last decade [so perhaps this isn't news on LL], a growing number of scholars have argued that the first Celtic languages were spoken not by the Celts in the middle of Europe but by ancient peoples on Europe's wetsernmost extremities, possibly in Portugal, Spain, Ireland …" Goes on to quote John Koch, a linguist at the Centre for Advanced Welsh and Celtic studies at the University of Wales.

    For (linguistic) science journalism, seems well written. Good on the WP, even if it isn't new news.

  7. S Frankel said,

    March 20, 2016 @ 10:55 pm

    I was taught not to imitate the "sing-song" intonation of Stornoway (largest town on Lewis, and in the entire Gaelic heartland); it definitely seems to be stigmatized.

  8. cr said,

    March 20, 2016 @ 11:00 pm

    @Roger Lustig:
    Not quite. A closer approximation of the Berlin version would be "Et jrient so jrien wenn Spaniens Blieten bliehen" which is "Es grünt so grün wenn Spaniens Blüten blühen" in Standard German. (/yː/→/iː/; /#ɡ/→/#j/; eset.)

  9. Pat Barrett said,

    March 20, 2016 @ 11:23 pm

    Do pigeons croon or coo? The Pigeon Formerly Known As Bing?

  10. AntC said,

    March 21, 2016 @ 1:54 am

    Ah yes I think it's:

    Assuming the WP's "gentleman", one of three at McCuaig's Pub County Antrim are the same three analysed by Queen's University Belfast and Trinity College Dublin, found on Rathlin Island (which has a McCuaig's Bar and is offshore of County Antrim).

    myl posted about that on New Year's Eve (another great Gaelic occasion). Possibly I was on holiday and missed it. Does Mark never take leave?

  11. maidhc said,

    March 21, 2016 @ 4:14 am

    I've known a few people from Lewis, and while they may have their own way of talking, I don't see why it should be considered better or worse than anywhere else.

    I'm reminded of the immortal Myles and An Béal Bocht, where the German linguistics professor has a great chat with the family pig.

  12. mollymooly said,

    March 21, 2016 @ 9:34 am

    Here's an academic paper on how the artificial standard dialect of Irish Gaelic has gained prestige over the vernacular natural dialects.

    "the last state of the aspirant may be worse than the first" — a reference to h-adding?

  13. J. W. Brewer said,

    March 21, 2016 @ 9:39 am

    I see from wikipedia that the author was born on Lewis, so he may know whereof he speaks, although it seems vaguely improbable to me that the Lewis variety would be notably more "corrupted" with English loan-words than any other variety.

    I may have told the story here before about driving around Lewis circa 1994 right after they'd used a pot of EU minority-language-preservation grant money to replace all the road signs in the countryside outside Stornoway (where signage was bilingual) with new ones using only the "Gaelic" spellings of place names, which was rather a problem because most tourists in rented cars had road maps (no GPS in those days . . .) giving only the "English" spellings of the same place names. Although the joke was rather on the Gaels since many/most of the toponyms had been originally bestowed by speakers of Old Norse, with the "English" spellings being much closer to the originals and the "Gaelic" spellings looking like someone had started with a Norse gazateer and then gratuitously added bh's, dh's, and various diphthongs more or less at random.)

    I learn elsewhere on wikipedia that the most "telling" pronunciation shibboleth of the Canadian varieties of Scottish Gaelic is "broad /l̪ˠ/ is pronounced as [w]. This form was well-known in Western Scotland where it was called the glug Eigeach ("Eigg cluck"), for its putative use among speakers from the Isle of Eigg." "Glug Eigeach" sounds rather pejorative/judgmental to me, and also seems a bit odd just because Eigg is a tiny place — even before the Clearances its population was probably on the order of 500 (it's now <100), which is certainly enough to have had a distinctive local variety of Gaelic but seems on the low side for *other* Gaelic-speakers to have well-established stereotypes about "the funny way those yokels over on Eigg mispronounce things."

  14. Seonachan said,

    March 22, 2016 @ 1:15 pm

    see here for a Ph.D. thesis by Claire Nance that describes dialectal variance among Gaelic speakers in Lewis and Glasgow.

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