Island Voices/Guthan nan Eilean: background thinking

The “Island Voices/Guthan nan Eilean” project was conceived as an exercise in teaching materials development. Its primary purpose is to help people learn languages. It has also been an immensely enjoyable piece of work to produce – trying to capture the “day to day creativity” of a bilingual community.

It has certainly sparked interest beyond a narrowly educational one. Over the summer of 2007 it formed a part of the annual “Art on the Map” trail, with the videos being played on a loop at Nunton Steadings in Benbecula. Pasted below are the introductory comments that I wrote for any interested viewers. I’d like to take the project further. Any comments or suggestions welcome.

“Art on the Map”

We rely on our power to think in order to make sense of ourselves and the world in which we live. Our thoughts take shape in words. Language is fundamental to the way we find or create meaning in our lives.

Yet we are not born with it. Every one of us goes through a creative process by which we learn to recognise and produce particular sounds, and organise them into patterns which have a shared significance for ourselves and those around us. And the patterns allow an infinite variety of shifting combinations, freeing us all to constantly mean something new and different every time we open our mouths to speak.

Generally we take this highly intricate complexity for granted, so naturally engrained is it in our everyday lives. We rarely acknowledge it, let alone celebrate it. Sometimes, however, the existence side by side of two distinct linguistic systems, for example English and Gaelic, presents a choice and may make us stop and think a bit about “everyday language”, and perhaps appreciate it more. The Uist communities of the early twenty-first century, through their day-to-day sharing of two highly differentiated yet equally valid “methods of delivering meaning”, offer the opportunity for reflection on a remarkable human characteristic.

In this series of short films the documentaries offer “slices of life and work” in the Uists. While they were undeniably fun to make, their function is really to establish a context. They are therefore, in an important sense, subordinate to the interviews with real people talking naturally about their life or work. Most of the interviewees are bilingual, and offer “two takes” on their world. The monolingual viewer, confronted with an opaque wall of sound in an unknown language, may be alerted to an alternative and intricate way of making meaning. The bilingual viewer may reflect on the richness of choice available to them with their varied linguistic repertoire, and consider the value of maintaining it. The language learner can look forward to making the once opaque seem quite transparent.

The project is created, at heart, for learners – those who see inherent value in continuing to extend their expressive range. Yet some broader benefit may also be seen if we are all reminded of the unique creative capacity that we share – the natural art that is natural language. What people say about their daily lives may sometimes seem quite unremarkable. How they say it, when you do stop to think about it, is actually beyond words.

Gordon Wells, Benbecula, 14/07/07,

About Gordon Wells

Language learner and teacher (English, Gaelic, Hindi and Urdu). Interested in bilingualism and creativity. At home in the Hebrides.

Posted on 15/11/2007, in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. “But is it art?” comes to mind as one response to the statement above. I guess I’m staking a claim in different ways. Firstly, “Art on the Map” is a very inclusive community scheme, with a whole range of different kinds of work sheltering under its banner. To the extent that video production is in itself creative work I’m happy to contribute my offering alongside that of fellow Uist residents, comfortable in the knowledge that judgements on quality are for others to make.

    But there’s also a stronger claim that “natural language” itself is a form of “natural art” – a claim, if you like, on behalf of the community rather than the individual. Depending on your viewpoint that stance could be viewed as anything between “humble/unctuous” and “bold/presumptuous”. For me, language itself is a source of wonder/inspiration/amusement/entertainment, and I can see myself sticking the label “art” on even a simple utterance. Others may feel that that devalues the term to the point of meaninglessness, robbing talented and dedicated individual creators of their worth and distinctiveness. I don’t see it that way. I would rather affirm the creative potential we all share as common ground, which makes possible both individual acts of highly developed artistry and their appreciation by the wider community.

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