Is Gaelic an Indigenous Language?

“Stupid question.” That’s the short answer, tinged perhaps with weariness, perhaps indignation. “Of course it is. Next question.”

Well, there is a next question – indigenous to where? And so what? We need deeper reflection in a British/UK context, where indigenous or aboriginal status may be most loudly proclaimed by sometimes closet, sometimes open, racists of a self-styled “British nationalist” perspective affecting to speak on behalf of the “original” (read white) English, Scottish, Welsh, and Irish peoples.

The Gaelic I speak is definitely Scottish – hopefully as Uibhisteach as I can get it – but I’m aware (though no historian) that in earlier times the language in Scotland was referred to in some quarters as “Erse”, perhaps pejoratively, but clearly as a marker of its Irish (and therefore not Scottish) origins or links. So how far back do you go in order to establish your indigenous/non-indigenous origins? How long is a piece of string? That really depends on who’s doing the measuring, and for what reason.

Which raises the more interesting question – why is any of this important? What’s the significance of an indigenous claim?

On her study visit to Scotland in 2008 Dr Makere Stewart-Harawira, Associate Professor in the Faculty of Education at the University of Alberta (and Maori speaker), quizzed me on my apparent reluctance to use the “indigenous” label when talking about Gaelic. We had a long and interesting (to us, at least) conversation – edited “highlights” collected here: Indigenous Language Conversations across the Globe.*

My first difficulty is our local British one, referred to above. Speaking for myself, I would really want to put oceans of clear water between a Gaelic identity and the seriously wrong-headed and delusional thinking (putting it most generously) of the sort of “British nationalist” that consorts with the Ku Klux Klan. Lining up alongside them under an indigenous label could make for very unpleasant company.

But that begs another question: why should cranks or worse be allowed a free run when claiming the indigenous title? In other parts of the world, for example Canada and New Zealand, as Makere explained, the values for which many indigenous peoples speak would be very far removed indeed from the lingering white supremacist ideology behind those that are active in far right British nationalism.

Is there a sense in which Gaelic culture and Gaelic speakers hold onto an alternative set of values from the British mainstream – perhaps, for example, more respectful of the natural environment, and with a stronger sense of community and interdependence? Well, it would be nice to think so. And I can see elements of truth in such an assertion. Here in the Hebrides we no longer really live it, but we’re still not that far removed from the days of a subsistence agriculture lifestyle with communal sharing of labour, and are very conscious of the rhythm of the seasons. (The climate ensures that!) We are, almost perforce, very aware of the environment. At a cultural level the language is also under extreme pressure in the face of rising English monolingualism, which some are trying to actively resist. So yes, Gaels might well seek solidarity with the Maori and the Cree in the name of standing up for indigenous languages and cultures.

But that stands to gloss over an inconvenient historical fact – namely that plenty Gaelic-speaking Highland soldiers and other adventurers were up to their necks in the very same British (albeit Anglocentric and predominantly Anglophone) imperial venture that brought many indigenous languages and cultures across the globe to ruination. You could argue that many in the “lower ranks” were co-opted or coerced, citing for example the forced evictions of the Highland Clearances, but let’s not kid ourselves that Gaels were immune to the pervasive racial ideologies of earlier times, or universally eschewed the opportunity to play their own skin colour for what it was then worth. There were Gaelic-speaking slave owners in the American colonies.

That’s the elephant in the room when we talk about Gaelic, Maori, and Cree all in the same breath as indigenous languages, particularly if we go on to say that together they stand for distinctive cultural values. I believe there has been attitudinal change in British, including Scottish, society over my lifetime to date. I don’t think the kind of racial language that went frequently unchallenged in my own nearly all-white grammar school when I was growing up would get much of a hearing in my children’s (also nearly all-white) comprehensive school today. In terms of core cultural values, our society is the better for that, and in no small measure we have migration (and indeed the “global village”) to thank for it, by confronting the ill-informed or lazy racial stereotyping of once remote peoples through simple everyday presence and contact. That’s cause for some celebration, but not for complacency or too much self-congratulation. There are still ugly undercurrents which break surface from time to time, as recent media events have demonstrated.

So, is Gaelic an indigenous language? Not such a simple question after all, and liable to be emotive. But probably worth asking if it does make us think about fundamental human values, and who we might share them with across the globe.

*Makere has informed me (29/09/11) that Indigenous Language Conversations has moved and is under reconstruction:

About Gordon Wells

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

Posted on 01/11/2009, in Uncategorized and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 10 Comments.

  1. Dear Gordon

    I was alerted to this post by Michael Newton. What you’ve said here brilliantly sums up exactly what I myself think on the issue – in the recognition and reclaiming of indigeneity, the need to challenge white supremacist claims to speak for us all, and also our own complicity in the past in the imperial process (and ongoing, with our current imperial wars, I would add). I am not a Gaelic speaker though my dad had 2 Gaelic speaking grandparents, but culturally I am deeply part of the Isle of Lewis where I was raised and educated.

    Alastair McIntosh
    (author of Soil and Soul)

    • gordonwellsuist

      Thank you, Alastair, for your comment. I’m glad we’re in agreement. I’m sorry I haven’t read your book – great title – but I have caught some of your BBC Thoughts for the Day, which I’ve enjoyed (despite being the kind of vicar’s son that rarely “darkens the door”…)

      It could be interesting to develop thoughts and exchanges along these lines further. Perhaps Makere’s site (link in the main post) would be an appropriate forum?

  2. Nach do thoisich sibh beagan deasbaid a charaid!

    • gordonwellsuist

      Chan eil fhios agam cò th’ agam ann an Gràisg, ach tapadh leibh airson nan ceanglaichean sin. Cha deach agam an ceangal gu Iomairtean Gàidhlig a leantail, agus mar sin chan eil agam ach na quotes a chleachd sibh fhèin. Mar sin, cha chan mi cus mun deidhinn – ach nach eil mi a’ dol a dh’iarraidh maitheanas airson sgrìobhadh sa Bheurla an toiseach. Chan eil e follaiseach dhomhsa nach fhaod luchd na Gàidhlig sgrìobhadh sa chànan eile aca. Far a bheil mi fhèin a’ fuireach dh’fhaodadh tu ràdh gum bu chòir dhut an dearbh chànan a chleachdadh a bhios muinntir an àite fhèin a’ leughadh agus a’ sgrìobhadh, agus chan e Gàidhlig a tha sin san fharsaingeachd, ged a bhios iad ga bruidhinn gu siùbhlach gach latha. Ach ‘s dòcha gur e cuspair eile a tha sin airson post eile…

      Co-dhiù, tha mi airson fàilte a chur air a h-uile duine a tha leughadh seo bho Iomairtean Gàidhlig no Fòram na Gàidhlig, no làrach Gàidhlig eile. Ma tha beachdan eile agaibh mu na sgrìobh mi nach cuir sibh comment thugam – Gàidhlig no Beurla?

      Agus mas e seo a’ chiad turas agaibh an seo, agus ùidh agaibh ann an cuspairean co-cheangailte, cuiribh sùil cuideachd air na ceanglaichean seo:

      guthan nan eilean: background thinking
      european award: a perspective on community languages

  3. Interesting, provocative and timely post, a Ghòrdain. As an ex-student of yours and a current student on An Cùrsa Adhartais I should be writing this in Gaelic, and indeed joining in a Gaelic-language debate on Foram na Gàidhlig, but it would take me hours to craft a detailed reply and it would only be accessible to Gaelic speakers. Which is my way of getting an apology in for writing anns a’ Bheurla.

    In practical terms, to the simple question “Is Gaelic an indigenous language?”, the answer has to be ‘yes’, in that it’s _an_ indigenous language going back many centuries. However, a linguist friend of mine says that Gaelic came from Irish invaders/settlers (take your pick) who colonised the Highlands & Islands. He takes the piss out of reactionary (as opposed to progressive) Scottish nationalists who proudly proclaim “Alba gu bràth” and flaunt their often pidgin Gaelic by accusing them of speaking the language of the oppressor, and that a true Scot should be speaking Pictish 😉

    Ok, a rhetorical point, but as you point out, where do you stop in deciding what is/was a country or region’s ‘indigenous language’? To which the answer has to be, ‘whereever it suits your ideological purpose’. Gaelic has a good press and is flavour of the decade in Scotland, going hand in hand (or so it seems to this outside but Albaphile observer) with the relatively progressive and inclusive nature of currently dominant Scottish nationalism. However, as you make clear, Gaelic and the Gaels haven’t always been touch-feely Earth Mother types, and have plenty of blood on their hands. It’s not unlikely that, were dominant nationalism to take a more defensive and right-wing course (perhaps sparked by economic, political or even military conflict with its barbarian neighbour to the South), Gaelic heritage would be used to bolster a reactionary, perhaps even neo-fascist ‘purity’ agenda.

    To be honest, you could write whole books on this topic, and indeed yer man Alistair MacIntosh, who’s commented above, has (a bit spiritual for my tastes, Alistair, but many of your points are well taken). And I don’t think you’d ever get anywhere by forensically dissecting history and spinning it to fit one or more ideologies – IMO all that does is give legitimacy to reactionary projects which use historical nostalgia to fit backward agendas. What’s preferable, I think, is to look forward to the future of Gaelic as one of many indigenous languages (Scots and Doric come to mind, maybe Norse if you’re up in the NE), and to see it as a useful bulwark against the linguistic and cultural imperialism of English. (Indeed, I remember seeing a flyer up in Uist, I think, claiming that learning Gaelic is an anti-capitalist project against corporate culture.)

    This might sound a bit Blairite, a bit ‘let’s move on’, but that’s definitely not what I’m trying to say. History and linguistics are important to a culture, but go OTT and you really do end up wallowing in the past. I’m half-Irish and can see that the Irish can be guilty of this, using folk memories of Cromwell and the Famine to stoke up anti-English feeling and buttress backward Irish nationalism to reinforce ruling class power. The half-Brit side of me sees reactionary English nationalism on a very alarming rise, and that’s buttressed by a deeply selective reading of history, going as far as revisionism on the British Empire (which yer man Brown was guilty of not so long back). As you point out, the white supremacists of the far, and sadly not so far, Right in Ingerlan actively appropriate the ‘indigenous rights’ language used so effectively by progressive liberation movements elsewhere, to promote their reactionary ‘purity’ agenda and return to a mythical whites-only state.

    Sorry, I’m banging on, wanting to fit too much into too small a space. This topic really does deserve a larger debate space, and with respect to Gràisg (nice handle :o)), a debate carried out in English and Gaelic, as it affects us all, not only Gaels.

    On the issue of languages encapsulating values, that’s something I’ve wanted to write a blog entry about for a while but just haven’t had the time. That cultural norms and practical realities (all those Scots words for ‘rain’, for a start ;)) are encoded in a language is almost a truism. Static languages like English, French and German actively encode power relations and property rights, and it’s often difficult to talk in English of, for instance, propertyless egalitarianism, because the very language and its littering of direct possessives conspires against you – no wonder some wilder radicals take to inventing their own dialect! For me, learning Gaelic has been a revelation in this regard, as previously I spoke only English, Italian and French, all static languages – Gaelic is very clearly a dynamic language where things mutate according to context, and above all with no clear encoding of property and possession. The lack in Gaelic of the second-most important verb in a static language, ‘to have’, is a clear indication of that, as is the use of the genitive to encode ‘being a part of/being related to’. So “taigh Sheumais” means James’ house, not the house that James owns – he might own it, but equally might not, he just lives there. Or “a’ chlann aca” , which translated into English as ‘their children’ immediately infers ownership, but, to me at least as a mere learner of Gaelic, clearly means ‘the children who are of/with them’, without any ownership.

    To me, one of the dominant cultural norms inherent in Gaelic is the lack of possession of things and land, and the relative lack of interpersonal power relations. That’s a partial view based on my libertarian Left beliefs I’m sure, and Celtic culture has hardly been an examplar of egalitarian anarchism in the past, but I think there’s something in it, as there is in your view that there’s an encoding of respect for nature in it.


    • gordonwellsuist

      Wow, plenty to chew over there, Fred. I tend to tread rather carefully where Whorf and Sapir boldly went, so I’ll just let this sizzle for a while. Not sure about your static vs dynamic dichotomy, but maybe you should develop that idea in a blog entry. I’ll be interested to read it. I note you’ve toned down your rhetoric here, but it’s a great rollicking read when you really do let rip on “This England”.

      By the way, Hindi has no “have” either, just like Gaelic. But it does encode for inalienable possession (arms, legs, brothers, sisters etc) versus alienable possession (books, computers, yesterday’s newspaper and so on). Not quite sure what that proves, but I thought you’d be interested…

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