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.