Should we let Gaelic lie in its grave with Latin and Greek? Or should we do our best to keep it alive in Scottish culture?
On 7 March 2021, 93-year-old Vera Timoshenko passed away in the Kamchatka Krai region of Russia. In her, Bering Aleut – a dialect of Eskimo-Aleut – lost not only its last native speaker but its last speaker categorically, making it officially an extinct language.
Languages die all the time. Although Latin and Ancient Greek both have pockets of speakers achieving varying levels of fluency, they are not considered the native tongues of any region and, thus, are pronounced dead. Similarly, despite its prestigious place in both religious practice and legal constitution, Sanskrit, in its classical conceptualisation, has no reported native speakers. Nonetheless, it “lives” through its descendants such as Hindi, Punjabi, and Bengali, each modifying the language in their own way while simultaneously immortalising it.
On the other side of the globe, the sociological changes that framed Gaelic’s decline were rarely the charge of its speakers. Forming around the east coast and Ireland during the 4th century, the language began to spread throughout mainland Scotland in the latter half of the first millennium, reaching its epoch by the 10th century. This coincided with the country becoming recognised for the first time as a unified nation, broadly sharing cultural and linguistic identities.
Scholarship pinpoints King Malcom III’s marriage to an exiled English princess, Margaret of Wessex, as the beginning of Scotland’s anglicisation. A litany of wars and persecutions followed: the Gaelic language became synonymous with disunity and rebellion. The Statutes of Iona, ratified in 1609, demanded that the eldest sons of Gaelic chiefs were educated in the Lowlands and achieve fluency in English. Later legislation forbade inheritance to any child who could not speak the language, while schools across the country rapidly began to adopt English-only policies. Gaelic, in short, was viewed as a hindrance to the centralisation goals of both the Scottish and English crowns, and its usage was systematically curtailed.
"A litany of wars and persecutions followed: the Gaelic language became synonymous with disunity and rebellion."
Despite this, the language lives. Official measures such as the Gaelic Language Act of 2005 provided minute steps towards a linguistic equality but when little came of it, more grassroots approaches rose up. The upcoming SpeakGaelic project promises multi-platform education in the language, making use of digital technologies in a way unseen until now, while teaching behemoth Duolingo reports over 400,000 signees to their course.
As encouraging as these ventures are, the Gaelic-shaped gap in the general education curriculum remains noticeably unfilled. By leaving the language out of schools and other institutions, attempts at re-introduction are met with severe backlash, such as the debates surrounding bilingual road signs. The issue is arguably one of discourse (or lack thereof): omitting Gaelic from general discussion means that when steps are taken to promote its speaking, they seem frivolous and without foundation. Were schools and higher education institutions to offer more prominent, well-rounded courses on the subject, then the language would have the chance to regrow far more naturally rather than in sputtering bursts.
Yet Gaelic’s survival in the face of deliberate administrative and educational erasure is a testament not just to its importance, but to the broader importance of language itself. Many take a Darwinian perspective on language – that if its ability to facilitate communication is minimal, then it should be allowed to fade into obsoletion. But this is a reductionist standpoint that overlooks the essential cultural significance that language holds.
Languages develop to express a people’s relationship with the world around them. We shape language and language, in turn, shapes us, and the preservation of these changes is essential in understanding us as human beings. The despots of the 17th century understood the transformational power that language held when they worked to wipe Gaelic out: is it not time we learn the same lesson for our own sake?
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