Minority Languages, Dying Languages, and Learning Them

Huh? Why? Why would you do that?

When I first started learning Gaelic, that was the reaction from speakers and people with some connection to the language alike. “It’s a dead language. There are too many dialects, you won’t be able to talk to anyone, whichever you learn. It’s not a real language. It’s useless, there’s no point to it. Everyone speaks English – that’s a good language. Gaelic’s dying. It’s not fit for the modern world.”

Okay, probably you don’t care about that, and I never got all of those arguments from the same person at one time. But Loving Languages posted today about endangered languages, about why we don’t care about them, not really, and about a Bashkir woman he met who is resigned to the language not being passed on. He also linked two articles others have written about why we should just let languages die quietly.

In Malik’s post, in the very first paragraph, he said:

“When Ned Madrell died on the Isle of Man in 1974, he also took the ancient Manx language to the grave.”

What’s interesting to me about that statement is that, by the time Ned Madrell died, there were already significant numbers of non-native speakers and in fact, just ten months after Malik wrote that article in late 2000, the Manx-medium primary school was opened, and today there are around a hundred children and young people who are regarded as native speakers.

Both of the articles seemed to be saying, “Well the culture argument is defunct because keeping a language alive artificially doesn’t preserve the culture – the closest thing is going to be the culture of similar groups.”

Richard’s point, on the other hand, is not necessarily that the culture is preserved pristinely by learning a language, but that one’s view of the world is widened by knowing these languages, and one’s ability to connect with others is the likewise expanded.

The idea of keeping “Gaelic culture” intact as if it were pre-Clearances is clearly ridiculous. The world isn’t the same as it was in the 17th century – and the fact that there are words in Gaelic for “global warming” and “spoilers” doesn’t mean that “Gaelic culture” is dead – quite the opposite, in fact.

Actually, there are neopagans who try to “revive” “Gaelic culture” from ancient texts and remnant traditions, and it gets a bit strange when you consider that they’re trying to revive a religion that hasn’t been practiced for 1500 years, sometimes without much care for the living culture. But more on that later.

But knowing the language can change how I see things. As an English-speaker, you have clear ideas about colours. There’s blue and there’s green. There’s red and there’s pink, there’s orange and yellow. In Gaelic, it’s different. There’s blue-green, and green-grey; pink doesn’t exist, because it’s obviously just “light red”, and orange and yellow are the same colour. There’s a word for orange-red, as well.

One can understand how the Gaels of the past saw the world, because of what there is in the language. There are a couple of ways of saying “I hope”, but none are quite so clear-cut. My favourite, and the main one used in parts of Ireland, is “le cobhar Dè” – “with the help of God”. In Gaelic, you don’t have a “lightbulb moment”, you have a “mionaid rathad Dhamascuis”, a “Damascus Road moment”. Wednesday and Friday aren’t just sounds to denote days, they’re “the first fast” and “the fast”, and Thursday is “the day between the fast”, because Christian observance pervaded the culture for so many years.

Languages aren’t something you speak, to a Gael, they’re something you have – inasmuch as a Gael ever “has” anything, considering the closest he can come is to have something at him, or with him, or to him. An older Gael I know, let’s call her Sìne, replied once when someone asked her, “A bheil Gàidhlig agaibh?” (“Do you speak Gaelic?”; or rather, “Is Gaelic at you?”), “Chan eil – is Gàidhlig a th’ unnam”. No, the Gaelic is in her. To her, the language is deeper than just something she speaks, it’s in her and part of her. The phrase she used to describe the language is the same phrase used to describe nationality or life calling.

“Why would you learn Gaelic? It’s a pointless language.”

Sìne sometimes shares memories of her childhood, with Gaelic pervading everything. But at the same time, she also recalls how she had to speak English at school, from the moment she started at the age of four without a word of it. Gaelic was frowned-upon. It wasn’t until after she graduated that it became an option as a Highers subject, but it still wasn’t to be spoken in any of the other classes.

There’s an elderly man, let’s call him Donnchadh, who rang in while I was presenting a programme for Scottish Radio, very excited about hearing me speaking some Gaelic on-air. “Cha do chuala mi a’ Ghàidhlig ‘o chionn fhad’ – ‘o chionn ‘s marbh mo mhathair!” He hadn’t heard Gaelic in such a long time, since his mother died. “Tha mi an dòchas gun cluinnidh mi mòran Gàidhlig ‘n uair a bhitheas tu ann,” he told me earnestly, before clamming up. He was reluctant to speak any more Gaelic with me, because he didn’t think he knew it well enough. His parents were foster-parents when he was a child, and the government had paid them extra to not use Gaelic in the house, let they taint the foster children, who had come from the Lowlands.

I think it’s probably rare for languages to just die by chance. Perhaps there are some out there that where honestly let go by their speakers because they preferred another. Majority languages can be pushy, offer a better life, and the speakers of those majority languages don’t do it maliciously.

In the case of Gaelic, that wasn’t the case. I’m more proficient in it now than I was when I got those comments with which I opened the post, and my ability to speak Gaelic isn’t so obviously a decision (you must bear in mind that it’s a language with a lot of native partial-speakers, so not being fluent doesn’t preclude having spoken it from childhood). The reactions I get now are different. The older Gaels I meet are usually sort of pleased that someone young speaks the language, particularly as it’s so rare for that to be the case outside Scotland.

But I still get a lot of “But how? But why?” The older native demographic have a very hard time understanding why anyone would learn a language they were conditioned from their childhood to believe was backwards and dying… even if it’s so deeply a part of them and they love it for the memories in it.

Things are swinging around now. The language hasn’t been actively suppressed for several generations. My parents’ generation are ambivalent. They aren’t against the language, as so many in my grandparents’ generation are. They just don’t really care. It doesn’t affect them. Their parents spoke it – they don’t. My father remembers hearing it from children at the village school, but the response he heard when it was mentioned was, “Oh, that? No, it’s a dying language.” It’s not as important as French or German.

And now, the government is supporting the language. People are for it. Not everyone – there’s still a lot of the anti-Gaelic sentiment going around, as those conversations when I first started learning the language will show. But, by and large, it isn’t a dying language, it isn’t a useless language, it’s part of us, and we can bring it with us into the modern world.

Not all endangered languages have that support, or even that mentality. It’s sad that Aboriginal languages are dead, you see, but they’re stone age languages (even if we won’t say that out loud) – they can’t cope with the modern world. Better for the Aboriginals to learn English. – That’s the rhetoric we have, unspoken, in our heads, anyway.

Well, that’s the same sort of rhetoric that went down about Gaelic not so long ago. Actually, I’ve been interested recently in an article I found from Scotland in the 1850s about Gaels and “the slovenly and stupid Celtic race” and how everyone would be better off without them. What struck me was that, if “Celt” and “Gael” had been replaced by “Aborigine” and “Black”, it could so easily have been published in Australia at the same time.

“Bashkir is a village language”, I imagine the woman Richard spoke to thinking. “It’s dying anyway. It’s my language, but I speak Russian – what do I care if my children speak only Russian and not Bashkir? That’s just the way things are.”

Maybe. Should we care if languages die? Languages die all the time, and we can’t do much to stop it. Great and mighty languages have died – Demotic, Phoenecian, Latin. If we can’t stop languages so big as those dying, why should we care about the village languages? It would probably make things easier if everyone spoke the same language, anyway.

I could go on about how diversity is good – that seems to be a word bandied about a lot. We’re enriched by the sum of our parts, and all that. I’ve already said that different languages have different ways of seeing the world. I could have proved that with a major language, like German perhaps. But when it comes down to it… why?

Why would you do that? Why would you learn Gaelic?

Why would you learn any endangered or dying language?

Sometimes there’s no sensible answer. I never really had a sensible reason for learning Gaelic. I still don’t, not really. Paul from LangFocus talks about being “bitten by a love for a language” and I suppose that’s the best explanation I have.

No language doesn’t mean something to someone. And no language has nothing to offer.


You know you’re an expat Gael if…

[Yes, yes, I know people get annoyed when I write in Gaelic and don’t provide a translation. That should be on the list, actually. But never mind, here’s the translation. New things I just thought of, and the odd translator’s note, are written like this].

… if Jamie MacCrimmon is your favourite Doctor Who character, but you’re a bit confused as to why he doesn’t speak Gaelic (and isn’t part of Clan Leod).

… if your accent is messed up. You can go from Lewis to Argyle to Canada in but one sentence.

… if you’ve waulked a bed-sheet. On stage.

… if someone’s accused you of speaking “Elvish” after hearing you speak Gaelic on the phone.

… if you’ve been invited to join the nearest Còisir Gàidhlig… and it’s only ten hours’ drive away.

… if you’re fed up with explaining that no, you don’t speak “Celtic”, you speak “Gaelic”.

… if you’re not quite sure about this whole “Clan” business… because your “clan” isn’t so important as being a Gael.

… if you’re fiercely proud of your language, but you only speak it when you’re around other Gaels.

… if you’ve only been to Scotland but once, and most of your knowledge of its geography is from classes at the Sgoilean Nàiseanta of the local Commun Gàidhlig or from classes by telephone with Sabhal Mòr Ostaig.

… if you can’t convince people that there are but seventeen (or eighteen) letters in your language, after they’ve seen it written down.

… if you’ve never visited Stornoway, but from what you’ve heard, it’s a massive cultural centre and metropolis.

… if you’ve heard the “garlic” jokes too many times.

… if you’ve heard and read every possible surprised reaction from Scottish Gaels on finding that you’re in Australia… where you were born and raised.

… [if you don’t care about your Clan but at the Highland Gathering, when you set up a tent to promote it].

… if a lot of your friends have the surname “MacLeod”, but at the Gathering, you hate them… because they’re tartan is so ghastly bright yellow.

… if you’ve punched the computer screen for telling you (again) that BBC Alba i-Player doesn’t play on your continent.

… if you’re annoyed by the assumption that you’re part of the English-speaking cultural majority… just because you’re white.

… [if you’re annoyed by the term “Anglo-Celtic”, because you’re not Anglo but just Celtic].

… [if you can properly use the Gaelic Gasp/ Swedish Schwoop… and know that what Stephen Fry did and said about it on QI was wrong].

… [if you get annoyed by the neopagans. Gaels are Christians, didn’t you know?]

… if you’re a Christian, but you’re not quite sure what to make of the Free Church.

… if you wish Clan Donald would shut up about Clencoe already!

… if you understand every word in “Outlander”.

… if you’re teaching Gaelic at the community centre, and more than half of the students are there only because they watched “Outlander”.

… if you suspect that Adhamh’s dialect is influencing all the actors on Outlander.

… if you still write fadas in both directions.

… if you write every letter in “am màireach”, “an uair”, “an nis”, and “an nochd”.

… if you write “cèilidh” with a “dh”, and you’re against any other spelling (such as “céili”).

… if you sometimes feel that you’re more Scottish that 99% of Scotland… just because you speak the language.

… if you yourself make up the entire youth section of your local Comunn Gàidhlig.

… if you can read Manx… but only with your eyes closed.

… if you are against tartans on principle (because they’re a product of English imperialism)… but sometimes the “Scottish Expat” part of you is stronger, and then you wear yours anyway.

… [if you know what Hogmanay is, but you still call it “New Year’s”, because that’s the literal translation from Gaelic].

… [if you avoid saying “glè mhath” because you know someone will make a whiskey joke if you do].

… if you didn’t watch “Outlander” for two years because the title of the first episode was spelt wrong.

… if you put “Scottish” on your high school application where it asked if you were part of another culture… and you were very annoyed when the school told you that “Scottish” wasn’t a different culture to “Australian”, and they wouldn’t believe you when you said that it meant you spoke another language.

… if you play fiddle at cèilidhs, bush dances, and on stage… but you are annoyed when Australians play “nighean donn bhòidheach” so fast. It’s a broken-hearted air, not a jig.

… if you only met your grandparents but once or twice, but you had “grandmothers” and “grandfathers” in many elderly Gaels.

… if you argued with a high school teacher over “indigenous” people. You’re indigenous, but you just don’t live in the place you’re indigenous to. Yes, you have white skin, but the English conquered and suppressed your ancestors, too.

… if you know the names of individual fruits and vegetables, but you didn’t understand the phrase “glasraichean ‘us measan” the first time your teacher said it to you.

… if you know the English equivalent of every Gaelic name, but you can’t always explain the connection between he two.

… if you know the difference between a “surname” and a “sloinneadh”.

… if you know the difference between a “native speaker”, a “lapsed native speaker”, a “background speaker”, a “background learner”, and a “raised background speaker”.

… if you know the date of the Battle of Culloden. It wasn’t in 1745.

… if you know that your language was once the third-most-spoken language in Australia, after English and Irish.

… if you know that Gaels are Gaels. But you can’t understand why the Irish won’t speak to you if you’re not Irish.

… if you know that there was once a bill taken to the Canadian parliament to make Gaelic the third official language.

… if you know someone who can only swear and pray in Gaelic (and you know that the two things are basically one and the same).

… if you know exactly how many Australian words are actually Gaelic.

… if you get really angry when someone says to you that Gaelic is a dead (or dying) language.

… if you get frustrated when a fellow Gael (or aspiring Gael) has an untranslatably English name, because you never know how to address them. Just how does the vocative case work with a name beginning with “J”?

… if you didn’t put the newly-translated “Sòisgeul Eòin” (Gospel of John) down for a week after it arrived. (You had no idea Scripture could be that gripping).

… if your version of the Irish national anthem goes: “Sinne fianna fail… a tha faoi gheall ag Èirinn… chan eil fìos agam… mu dheidhinn na faclan!” [“We are the brave heroes… that are fighting for Ireland… I don’t know… the words!”]

… if you’ve ever travelled to another city for a weekend Irish-language school… just because you’re curious.

… if you use the word “Gàidhealtachd” to mean “Highlands”, even though you know that the real Gaeltachd is in na h-Eileanan Siar.

… if you speak German… only because so many Gaelic-learners are from Germany. Why is that, anyway?

… if you prefer Am Briathrachas over Dwelly’s, but to be honest, that new dictionary with sound files on learngaelic.net trumps both!

… if you play Rùnrig on the radio just to prove that all Gaelic music isn’t boring, traditional, slow sean-nòs (which you love).

… if you know what shinty is.

… if you know the difference between “walking” and “waulking”.

… if you follow the caman scores.

… if you find it amusing that Seumaidh Friseal calls Clare “mo nighean donn”, and you sing “ho-rò mo nighean donn bhòidheachd” every time he does.

… if you’ve loved the song “Is Gàidheil Mi-i-i-i-i” from the first time you heard it, and you vowed to learn it.

… if you can understand Irish, but Irish-speakers say that they can’t understand you.

… if you know when fiddlers know the words of the tunes they’re playing.

… if you can remember the time when there was no Gaelic on the internet.

… if you can pronounce “a dh’fhaithgheàrr”, but no-one believes you when you do.

… if you call shinty “caman(achd)”.

… if you’re afraid you’ll forget your own language.

… if the thing you want most in the world to do is go to the Royal National Mòd.

… if one of your parents (and all her side of the family) don’t understand Gaelic. And most of the other side of your family doesn’t speak Gaelic either.

… if more than half the songs you know are about how evil the English are.

… if there are towns in Scotland whose names you only know in Gaelic.

… [if you always need a moment to connect “Fort William” to “Gearasdan” and vice-versa].

… if a Lewis accent is the most amusing thing you can hear.

… if you’re a subscriber to several FaceBook groups consisting entirely of pictures of signage misprints in Scotland.

… if you can sing three verses of “O Fhlùir na h-Alba”, but you don’t know the words in English!

… if you wanted to learn the bagpipes when you were small.

… if you resent being called a “Scot”, because you’re not; you’re a Gael!

… if you became a radio presenter just because the newest presenter on Scottish Radio Hour was anti-Gaelic.

… if the history of your people begins and ends with the Clearances.

… if you watched dodgily-taped episodes of Dòtaman, even though it hasn’t shown on television since years before you were born.

… if you call television “taidhsearachd”.

… if you call Bob the Builder “Calum Chlachair”.

… [if you can sing the Postman Pat theme song, but only in Gaelic (it’s Pàdraig Post)].

… if “the Koala Brothers” dubbed into Gaelic is the best thing you’ve ever seen on television!

… if you understand the spoilers on “Outlander”, because they’re in Gaelic.

… [if you were the only one in the cinema getting the joke about the name of the bear in “Brave”].

… if you wrote in Gaelic online for Gaelic Twitter Day.

… if you’re sure “Suas leis a’ Ghàidhlig” is the national anthem of Scotland (because it’s more stirring than “O Flower of Scotland”).

… if you’re forty years younger than every other Gael in your state.

… if you did a Welsh-language short course, but you got annoyed with the other students for being so slow… initial consonant mutations aren’t such a difficult concept to grasp! [translator’s note: this one worked better in Gaelic, because the entire phrase “initial consonant mutations” is one word, “sèimheachadh”].

… if you did Scottish Country Dancing when you were younger.

… if you’ve dropped in on the Cornish-language class at the Celtic festival… just out of interest.

… if you know that Gaelic and Scots aren’t related. Your language is just called “Gaelic”… isn’t not “Scots Gaelic” at all. [Google Translate, take note].

… [if you’ve ever spent ten minutes explaining the difference between Scots and Gaelic].

… if you’ve seen every Gaelic-language video on YouTube… and you’ve seen every Irish-language video on YouTube… and you’re thinking of watching the Welsh-language videos just for fun.

… if you are translating silly “You Know You’re If” memes into and from Gaelic.

… if everyone knows your clan from your name, but no-one cares one white about it so long as you speak Gaelic!

… if you’re not sure you’re writing proper Gaelic, and you’re afraid someone will call you “àmadan” and tell you “your Gaelic is like a small child or a Gall”.

Me, Languages, Colonialism, Community and Identity

I’ve probably talked about being a TCK before on here, in an “oh, by the way” sort of way (actually, I’m not convinced I am a TCK, but I read a statistic a few years ago that something like 80% of TCKs doubt their TCK-ness, and most of the time it seems like a better explanation for some of my weirdness than me simply being weird, even though I was born and raised in my mother’s home country). Even though I’m Australian, I went to the German Ethnic School, and I spend a lot of time on the internet claiming to be a Scottish Gael. I’ve never really felt the need to explain why all this is, really.

But recently, there’s been a bit of kerfuffle in the language-learning community over “eco-linguism” vs. “linguo-tourism”. Insults have been slung about selfishness and about thoughtless name-calling. You’re colonialistic, or you’re ignorant, and so on. If you really want to know what’s going down, go and read about it for yourself. This post is based on a comment I made over on Loving Language.


The picture.

It was probably the picture at the top of the screen that set off that rant-like comment. I’d been mostly ignoring the whole debacle, but a single picture turned “linguistic colonialism” from an abstract concept to something that hit a little too close to home. Other things seem to have worked their way into the rant, too. Things which have been simmering for probably a long while. Conversations I’ve had, articles I’ve read and written. Things not worth commenting on individually, but which all contribute to the whole which resulted in this reaction I had to a simple picture.

The thing is, colonialism is something close to me. Close to my family. And not in the best way. It’s something I’ve learnt to ignore and not talk about, particularly since I’m working in an ethnic radio station side-by-side Indians and Bangladeshis and Pakistanis and Malaysians.

It’s not just because I live in Australia, and I have relatives who will happily refer to my family as “living in the colonies”. It’s because both of my father’s grandfathers served in the Indian Army. It’s because my grandmother was born in British-occupied Lahore and my grandfather spent his youth in British-occupied Malaya. It’s because my great-grandparents knew each other in India long before my grandparents met and married in the UK. It’s because my grandfather taught me to count the chickens in Bahasa, and because I’ve been known to say “jaldee, jaldee” to little kids to get them to move along.

And it’s because all this is shameful. “Colonialism” is such a bad word, particularly in Australia, where it means “white invaders killing the locals”. Home Rule is a good thing, and it didn’t dispossess hundreds and thousands of Anglo-Indians who had never known a home other than Lahore or Lucknow, Culcutta or Bombay. My grandmother was stopped in the customs queue every time because her paperwork said she was born in Pakistan, but I didn’t even realise until I was a teenager that my family had spent two generations in India, or that Urdu (“Hindustani”) was part of my vocabulary.

Colonialism isn’t a clear-cut thing. I’ve known Aboriginal people to get stuck into me – and any white person – for maliciously coming over here and invading. It’s a major point of debate, argument, name-throwing and campaigning here at the moment. I don’t speak back against it, because my family was literally in the army that did it – if not here, then in other countries like here.

And you know why that is? Because after the English invaded our land, my clan had the good sense to be traitorous and swear allegiance to the English (well, German) king. That’s the only reason we’re one of the largest and most powerful clans today, and why we weren’t killed and scattered across the globe like so many of our brother and sister Gaels, most of whom won’t recognise us as Gaels because we were Anglicised so quickly. The colonised had become the colonisers. So many of those “white invaders” in the 18th and 19th centuries in Australia weren’t invaders at all, but refugees, looking for a new home after having lost theirs for one reason or another.

So, do I do the same thing? Or would I, rather, given the money and half a chance? Yeah, sure, I’d travel to Scotland in a heartbeat to immerse myself in the language my ancestors lost. I’m getting more and more curiosity about Lahore, so I wouldn’t half mind visiting this place I’ve only just realised had such an impact on my family. I’d travel the world if I could, yeah. I’d see the sights and have delights on every foreign shore. I’d probably try and learn a bit of the language, and I would almost certainly come away with a few new dishes, just as those evil colonial ancestors of mine did.

I’m pragmatic enough to realise that there are languages I probably should be learning just to exist in my local community. Doing the hospital chaplain thing and realising that I can’t communicate with half the people in the ward. Finding three Italians but exhausting what little I know within a minute with each of them. Greek and Vietnamese and Serbian and Madi: there’s a long list of languages I should come to grips with to be useful in my community.

Is it “colonialism”, then, in this new and negative meaning of the term, to say that they’re not my language, and that frankly I don’t care about them as much as I should? It rankles at me that I’ve lived in Adelaide all my life, but don’t speak the local language, Kaurna, even though there are only a few dozen speakers of Kaurna in the world and all of them speak English first. I can learn community languages for their use, but it’s dying (and reviving) indigenous languages that really make me care.

Learning Gaelic is like discovering part of myself that’s been squashed over the centuries. It doesn’t make sense, here on the other side of the world, but it’s helped me build a community in both countries, and to see the colonial history of Australia in a whole different way. It used to be the third-most-spoken language here. There are now less than 1000 speakers in the whole country.

My family’s been on both sides of the colonialism thing, and it’s easy to emphasise the one side over the other. The Gaels, the indigenous people of Scotland, were invaded and brutalised and suppressed and brainwashed and poorly-treated and re-educated and bribed and helped just as much as the indigenous people of any other country the English invaded were. It’s just that, with our white skin, we blended in after we learnt the language, we joined the military and joined the occupying forces and became half of the “Britain” that formed the British Empire.

My family escaped the Clearances by assimilating, and so even though we lost our lands to the government, we didn’t suffer at English hands. We became part of the hierarchy, part of the establishment, part of the military. So many of the rulers and officials and land-owners and everyone else who made the Clearances happen weren’t English invaders at all, but Scottish landowners – Gaels themselves – who had to turn on their own people to survive.

And my family spent two hundred years on the other side. The British Empire learnt how to build empires on its own soil. Even into the last century, “England” could stand for the whole of the United Kingdom, even though that included Wales and Ireland and Scotland. Every trick that the British Empire ever used to subdue and assimilate and destroy local cultures was trialled and tested and perfected at home, and it was those people on whom it had been trialled and tested and perfected who then carried it out on the next generations.

You see, there, I’m emphasising the “victim” part of my ancestors’ colonialism saga. I shouldn’t do that, because it obscures the truth: my family, my own grandparents and great-grandparents served in the occupying force. There’s a lot of pride in that, pride in the Empire, pride in what was achieved and what it makes us. My cousins speak with posh Public School accents and plan to join the army. My grandmother – that same grandmother who used Scots and Gaelic and Urdu words in her speech, who was so down-to-earth and sensible, cooking in the kitchen and weeding in the garden and teaching me to sew – was one of the most ardent imperialists I’ve ever met. “The Crown can do no wrong”, regional accents have no place on television, and just why “the colonies” want to become republics is a complete mystery.

And that’s a part of me, too, probably more than singing in Gaelic about the Clearances can ever be. And sometimes I need a reality check to remind myself where I really come from.

So I’m a TCK. It’s something borne out of three centuries of colonialism and the resultant generational homelessness. There’s always going to be two warring parts of me, one saying “put down roots, form a community”, and the other one saying, “move already! your horizons are too narrow!” Hopefully one day I’ll be able to do both.

Until then, there’s no use in getting upset over a bunch of twenty-somethings travelling the world and learning languages. They’ll get older and wiser and more pragmatic. They’ll put down roots and get dug into their communities, and their youthful “linguistic tourism” experiences, however colonialistic they might have been, will give them a little more perspective than someone who’s just stayed cemented in the single community all their life, and an extra way of connecting to the others in the community, and of building it up for later generations.


George Campbell Hay in the 1970s. [Gordon Wright]

And as for me, I’ll continue speaking Gaelic, immersing myself in reclaiming that part of my heritage. I’m not the first of my clan – my family – to do so. One hundred and one years ago, George Campbell Hay (who looks scarily like so many male members of my more immediate extended family) was born – I’ve only just discovered that. Like me, he was born and raised English-speaking. Like so many of our clan, he served in the British Army and was an ardent Scottish nationalist. Like me, he was caught by a love of the Gaelic language as a teenager, and he persisted in learning it.

I’ve learnt important world languages. Yes, they’re all European, and I can’t help that. Now, I think, it’s the time for me to learn those endangered languages I’ve mentioned earlier. Learning Gaelic has given me a deeper understanding of language loss. Yes, it’s sad when an immigrant community loses their language, but there’s always the lingering thought that “they still speak it in the homeland”. When indigenous languages die, that’s it. They’re gone.

I’ve been told by people that Gaelic is dying. I’ve been told by people that Gaelic is dead. It’s not, as far as I can see, and I don’t think it ever will die. The numbers of Gaelic-speakers are rising among the younger generations. There’s government support for it. No, the Celtic languages that are alive now aren’t going to die. Two of them already have, and they’ve come back to life.

What about Kaurna? It’s been revived, but it doesn’t have the sort of support of Cornish or Manx. What about Narungga or Pitjantjatjara or Barossadeitsch? Maybe if I took the time to learn them, to build up – even if it’s just with the addition of a single person – those communities, maybe they would start to stand a chance at surviving. Maybe I can begin to undo some of the destruction my ancestors (and all those like them) wrought.

I still get bitten occasionally by a love of some exotic foreign language. Okay, more than occasionally. I’ve been harbouring a secret desire to learn Maori for years. Russian’s been on my list for almost as long, and Arabic is also vying for attention. Would it be so bad, if I had the money, if I travelled to learn one of those languages?

Yes, maybe I wouldn’t stay there indefinitely. Maybe I would. I don’t know that. As I’ve said, I’m a TCK. I’ve a feeling my feet will keep me moving my whole life. Or perhaps I’ll find somewhere I can settle down and contribute. I really don’t know.

But all the while, I am building connections. Maybe not always in my local community. Gaelic is useless as far as the local community is concerned, although it has given me a small handful of people within the same city with whom I now socialise regularly. It’s also given me connections across Australia, connections in Scotland and the potential for connections in Canada and New Zealand and Ireland. Maybe they’re not building my local community. Maybe they are. Maybe they will one day.

Gaelic and German together have helped me understand the immigrant experience, such as it is. Being a white “Anglo-Celtic” immigrant – or the child of a white “Anglo-Celtic” immigrant – is not being an immigrant at all. But you don’t get to lecture me on not understanding what it’s like to have to study in my second language, because I’ve both studied and functioned day-to-day in my second and third and fourth languages. And you don’t get to lecture me on not understanding what it’s like to live in a foreign country, because I’ve been confused by foreign supermarkets and got lost in foreign towns and been unable to communicate with foreign authorities.

And maybe that’s what “linguo-tourism” does, in the end. Yes, maybe all those young twenty-somethings who are going off to spend two or three years splashing all their western money about in some other country can seem young and arrogant and naïve at the moment, and maybe it does seem a bit pointless to spend time in a city and not put down enough roots to stay there, but in the end, if they end up going back to wherever they came from, they’re going to better understand the people who don’t have that choice to go home, and they’re going to be better people, and better communicators, and better community members.

Young people don’t always have the same perspective as someone who’s “been there and done that”. And I say this as a young person. Even I think some of the “linguo-tourism” behaviour seems a little arrogant and spoiled at times, but I won’t judge it as wrong.

Community is important to me. I tried to pretend I didn’t need it for a lot of years. But not everyone’s community is the same, and not everyone’s way of relating to community is the same.

In Gaelic, the first thing one Gael asks when meeting another is not about the weather, it’s about the ceangal. It means “connection” or “link”. We’re all connected, we just need to work out how. Sometimes it’s as simple as speaking the same language (although in a language community that small, it’s rarely just the language, even for someone with no Gaelic-speaking family members like me). From those links, then, we can build our community and our future.

The first title I gave this rant was “Where are you from?” I can answer that, I suppose: “Not here. But also here.”

The second title I gave it was “Why I’m a TCK”. I suppose I’ve answered that one, too: “Colonialism.”

So I’m going to have to settle for giving it less a title and more a collection of nouns. Me, Languages, Colonialism, Community and Identity.

Film: From Tony Blair to a Dead Language

About: Adrian Cain has been the Manx Language Development Officer for Culture Vannin for more than a decade. Here, he talks about the language, language activist work, and the place of the Manx language on the Isle of Mann and in a global setting.

Language: English (some Manx)

Subtitles: None

Year: 2014

Time: 15 minutes

This is a series of posts showing you some of the films and documentaries I’ve been watching in the past months.