Who’s Afraid Of…

Longsufferinggirlfriendoftheblogbeth and I went out to celebrate the birthday of one of my old undergraduate pals last weekend. He’s the last of the group, I think, the reach forty. He may have been presented with a Chuckle Brothers birthday cake, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a sobering experience.

…and a card signed by Ian Rush and John Aldridge!

[The Chuckle Brothers say,
“If you’ve not signed up for the apoplectic Tiny Letter, you’re missing out!”]

This means that more or less twenty years have passed since we were at the University of Edinburgh together. A lot of things have changed in the intervening years. One of us has experienced a massive haemorrhagic stroke, for example. In the aftermath of that, I’m back in Edinburgh, and back at the University, completing a Masters degree.

Another big change is that the University of Edinburgh now holds something called “Innovative Learning Week” halfway through the second semester of the academic year. Taking place in Edinburgh, @InnovLearning was of course billed as a “festival”. A festival of creative learning at the University of Edinburgh.

What’s innovative about that? Eh? Oh.

Our wee group could probably have used that back in the day, stuck off at the north-east corner of the university area with our collective heads stuck in the Scots Law Times. #ilw is a great opportunity to go for a holiday. Or, y’know, do some learning for learning’s sake. Clicking through the online catalogue, I plumped for a screening and discussion of a documentary called The Daughters of De Beauvoir, and two three-hour classes entitled Whit Like! An Introduction to Learning the Scots Language.

As previously discussed, I’ve been writing in Scots quite a bit recently. Furthermore, language tends to be a bit of an obsession with people affected by stroke, so this was recht up ma close. No less because Beth, as a non-native, has been trying to figure out exactly what Scots is. An accent? A dialect? A fully-fledged language? Something else?

Are ye askin? Well then, ye’re gettin tellt.

Before we got down the learning some actual Scots, the academic leading the group, an Irish linguist, got into this issue. I learned that, per linguists, there is no settled definition of what a language is. If someone tells us that Scots isn’t a language, the best retort is to ask on what grounds that person has come to her conclusion.

Our professor also went round the group of about twenty, asking where we were from, what languages we spoke, and to what what neighbouring languages they might be related. During the course of this discussion, we received first hand confirmation of the mutual comprehensibility of (1) Spanish and Italian speakers, (2) the inhabitants of various Scandinavian countries, and (3) Macedonians, Serbs, and Croats. Conversely, Italian speakers from the north and south of the country may not be able to understand each other at all.

That’s nothing. I’m not sure I understand Comely Bank.

So, mutual incomprehensibility isn’t the test, either.  In fact, the Macedonia/Serbia/Croatia issue may be the key to unlocking the the issue. Much like sovereignty under public international law, politics and power upon the ground in question tends to control. When I was a kid, I spent a summer at camp with a girl from (the now former) Yugoslavia, who described the language she spoke as Serbo-Croat. Characterising it as such now would of course be a non-starter.

Expressions of Scottishness (whatever that meant at the time), including speaking Scots, were clamped down upon in the aftermath of the failed revolution of 1745. That being the one after which Bonnie Prince Charlie fled to Skye with the help of Flora MacDonald, before carrying on back to exile in France.

Bonnie Prince Billy reflects on the ’45

As luck would have it, upon my return to regular classes this week, I was required to read To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf. It’s set on Skye, and more particularly in Finlay, the summer home of the Ramsays. It’s much concerned – I would say – with the passing of the Victorian and Edwardian eras, as well as the fact of the First World War, and the sun setting over the British Empire. Army and Navy Stores, and the training up of young well-to-do men to rule the Indian subcontinent, are given a sideways look.

The character of the linguist, Augustus Carmichael, was a civil servant in India as a young man, and expresses “a willing[ness] to teach the [Ramsay] boys Persian or Hindustanee.” In his introduction to the Oxford World’s Classics edition, David Bradshaw notes that

[t]he British promoted the use of Hindustani as a lingua franca throughout the subcontinent as part of their attempt to bring (their notion of) order to the Indian Empire.

Nowhere does anyone note the similar (I’m not likening the fate of the Scots to the still-reverberating impact of Partition) imposition of English on the Scots. Perhaps this isn’t surprising, given that the inspiration for Finlay is the home in Cornwall in which Woolf summered with her family as a child. The Skye she describes isn’t redolent of the Isles. So much so, that Finlay is described as being 300 miles from London. Skye is 600 miles from London. St Ives in Cornwall on the other hand….

Over the bridge to Skye

So, yes, I found out a bunch of stuff about Simone de Beauvoir and the Scots language last week. Most importantly, that there’s a lot of stuff I don’t know, and that it pays to keep learning.

As the comments to this post may well demonstrate….

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4 thoughts on “Who’s Afraid Of…

  1. “A language is a dialect with an army and a navy.” – I wouldn’t at all be surprised if that notion came up in your discussions.

    Longinsufferablefriendoftheblogknight like the majority of Thais actually speaks Thai as a second language. The country has four main languages (or dialects, depending on how you want to view it), and these correspond to the four regions of the countries. The Central region around Bangkok is where Thai language is the mother tongue.

    In the 20th century, the powers that be decided to Thai-ize and homogenise the entire country and mandate the Thai language for education, media, etc. While nearly everyone still speaks their native language, the scripts have been almost completely wiped out. The only people who can actually read the written language are linguists and learned monks. So when people want to write in their native languages, they just approximate it with the Thai script. (And this would be common in super casual communication like text messages, or Facebook chats. But never at all in school or anything remotely formal or official.)

    Thais in every region do all speak, read and write Thai to a native or near-native level though since all education is in Thai and just about all TV, movies, etc. One of the few exceptions is music. There’s still fair bit of music created in the native languages, and some of the musical genres are specific to certain areas anyway. It’s also really common for people to create albums that are mostly in Thai and then a song or two in their own regional language… kind of like a Latino pop star who makes English-language albums and peppers them with the occasional song in Spanish.

    Side note: The way Indians often make the language/dialect distinction is that if it has its own script/alphabet, it’s a language.

      1. I heartily endorse this suggestion. Start with Gaelic versions of your “standard English” names. This is always interesting.

        If your name was “George Square”, for example:

        50 George Square Gaelic

        Image and video hosting by TinyPic” alt=”” />

    1. Ah, I love it when we’re on your home turf, Ron. I hadn’t heard that phrase, but it encapsulates beautifully much of the thinking behind the post. I read here that ‘Randolph Quirk adapted the definition to “A language is a dialect with an army and a flag” (adding a defense policy and a national airline).’

      What this means for English, now that BA is not state-owned, but is a Flag Carrier airline with the associated privileges, I’d don’t know. But it’s an interesting question. “The” army here is of course presented to us as the army of the United Kingdom. Is this then modified to ‘A language is a dialect spoken by an army’? Since English is presumably the language spoken by The Royal Regiment of Scotland (neé The Royal Scots) and the Welsh Guard (Happy St. David’s Day!), I suppose there’s another level regarding the origins of power to be inserted in this rather wonderful, pithy and insightful remark.

      A brief detour on the subject of flags in this week’s post, I suspect….

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