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From Bol Chaal to Saoghal Thormoid


Co-writing “Hindi Urdu Bol Chaal” for BBC TV in the late eighties was a big and ambitious piece of work for me. Obviously a major lucky break, you might think it would be hard for an ageing one-time language teacher to cap that now. However, in terms of personal significance, I feel my latest recording venture, “Saoghal Thormoid” (“Norman’s World”), is certainly up there with it, albeit on a much more intimate scale.

hubcLooking back, and perhaps strange to relate, in many ways the former project set the latter up, being a first serious professional engagement with “community language” or “mother tongue” issues, especially in the context of recording technology and what it can potentially mean for one of my linguistic obsessions, the Primacy of Speech. Being filmed entirely in these islands, from London to Glasgow and at various points in-between, I also allowed myself to hope that we were doing something to challenge or subvert any complacent conceit that Britain is properly a “monolingual” country. Anyway, little did I imagine then, as a newly begun learner of Gaelic, that I would one day get to sit, chat, and record with the iconic Norman Maclean over an extended period as he chronicles a remarkable life and reflects upon it – and that in my own mother’s mother tongue, a language that, typologically, feels like it’s as far away as you can get from English while staying in the Indo-European “family”.

There’s plenty of laughter and entertainment along the way, of course, but it’s well worth listening to Norman for many other reasons than that: vividly recalled childhood memories of mid-Twentieth Century Glasgow and the Hebrides; open introspection on the community relations issues of those days, and their lingering effects; wide-ranging discussion of creative influences in music, literature, and popular entertainment; all brought right up to date with acute, and sometimes cutting, commentary on current affairs, but topped off with a generous commitment to the continued sharing of cultural gems. And all in language that I, as my mother’s son, can only describe as beautiful. Strange to think that, if he’d been sent just a few miles further north than Benbecula for his wartime primary education, she might have been one of his first teachers.

I really recommend giving the videos a shot (using the transcripts if necessary), but for those who prefer reading to listening, or perhaps enjoy both equally, either or both of these autobiographical works by Norman himself will provide fascinating parallel insights: The Leper’s Bell: The Autobiography of a Changeling and Eavesdropping on Myself: An Outsider’s Boyhood in Glasgow. But you’ll need to content yourself with English in order to access these written accounts!

The Sounds of Musics


Why do solfa and sargam have the same name for the supertonic? A common Indo-European linguistic root buried deep in the past, parallel evolution, or just plain coincidence? It’s this kind of question, once formed and lodged, that can keep you awake for hours…

Most people reading this will probably have heard “Doe, a deer, a female deer” enough times to know that it’s followed by “a drop of golden sun” – “ray” (or re, as it’s generally written in solfa), and can probably go all the way up to the “drink with jam and bread” (do, re, mi, fa, so, la, ti) that brings us back to do, do, do, do etc.

Compare and contrast with the Qawwali style of singing of North India and Pakistan, in which the lead singers launch into improvisations using the sargam system (sa, re, ga, ma, pa, dha, ni). In this Coke Studio fusion piece you get a taste at 4 minutes in, and then again from 5.55 onwards when Rizwan and Muazzam Ali Khan set up a ma ma ga ga re re sa riff, and then let rip right through to the end.

So how is it that the second note, the supertonic, has the same name – re – in both systems?

Wikipedia tries to be our friend here, but doesn’t answer the question – though it does pose an alternative to the conventionally advanced explanation of the solfa terms, by comparing them with the Arabic system (dāl, rā’, mīm, fā’, ṣād, lām, tā’). A cursory glance establishes that the Arabic system appears to be much closer to solfa than to the Hindustani sargam, so perhaps we can pass over my vague Indo-European “language family history” idea – romantic in its own way, but overly fanciful, as so often the case…

While on the subject Wikipedia does also point out that there is also a “home-grown” Gaelic sort of equivalent here in Scotland in the form of canntaireachd.

And is the Scottish supertonic also “re”?

Well, no, it’s much more complicated than that, though Barnaby Brown, an early visitor to Ceòlas, evidently has a good handle on it in his notation guide, and has also been exploring Indian links. It turns out there are no easy answers to my sleep-disturbing question, but I do have an excuse to finish with a couple of clips of South Uist’s own Rona Lightfoot, who is a real Ceòlas stalwart…

Here’s a nice piece of work from Education Scotland with an audio clip of Rona:

And here she is again, in YouTube style, with Phil Cunningham adding his own brand of edge-softening “fusion”.

Rona really does know her musical stuff, is grounded, and has a lovely voice. Suitably soothed, I can go back to sleep…

Hindi Text to Gaelic Speech

Hindi Text for Gaelic SpeechI had some fun on Facebook last week, posting a link to a Google Translate page – not because I was at all interested in the machine translation, but because with some languages, including both English and Hindi, an additional “Text To Speech” (TTS) facility is thrown in. It’s this synthesized speech function I was wanting to highlight. I’m not sure all my friends got that point, so I’m posting again, but this time with a bit more explanation and a screenshot thrown in. (This is where WordPress wins over Facebook hands down!)

So here goes. If you’re interested in Gaelic “TTS” follow this link to get my own “off the shelf” take on it. Never mind the proffered translation on the right hand side of the page. That’s irrelevant to my purpose. Just click on the “Listen” speaker icon (circled in red in the picture above) in the left hand box containing the “Hindi” script.

Some of my Gaelic-speaking friends were quite taken with the result, whereas I can be sure none of my Hindi-speaking friends would have made head or tail of it – unless they could also understand Gaelic…

Ho hum, if only our Gaelic-speaking forefathers had chosen to write in Devanagari instead of the Roman alphabet, how much further forward might we now be!? Actually, you can do the same sort of trick with “English” TTS. Follow this link – which, if nothing else (if you can bear to listen), demonstrates the phonetic distance that your “average” English English speaker has to travel in order to get anywhere close to the Gaelic sound system…

A bit of fun, as I said. But I’m tempted to extract a linguistic moral, nonetheless. Language and writing are not one and the same thing. Speech can be effectively represented on the page or screen in many different ways. When we privilege one system over another, perhaps in a search for standardisation or normalisation, we may be prone to accord an exaggerated importance to orthographic orthodoxy, at the cost of undervaluing oral ability. Yet speech comes to us first. It is the real deal, writing a mere representation.

Me, music, and language

The hunter hunted. (When I helped Loriana get started with her fantastic blog and interview work, I didn’t expect her to turn her guns on me…) Fair game, I suppose, and if the second clip encourages others to try things out with Island Voices, then fair enough. It’s achieved something.

Part 1 on SoundCloud here:

Part 2 on SoundCloud here:




This interview  with Gordon Wells, the Project Officer of Island Voices, is given in two parts.

I. In the first part, Gordon speaks about his home made flute – the ‘ Gaelic Shakuhachi’, the Winter Blues and why he has chosen to live on the Uists.

To listen to part I (13.30 min), click here:


II. In the second part of the interview, Gordon talks about his interest in languages  and gives a very beautiful and inspiring definition of language. At the end he shares with us the background and the vision of the project Island Voices.  To listen to part II (15.30 min) click here:

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Abair spors a bh’ againn a-nochd le Carrageen agus “Gille an Fheadain Duibh” – sgeulachd le Pàdruig Moireasdan a tha ri fhaighinn san leabhar “Thugam agus Bhuam”. Chaidh a cur ann an cruth ùr dà-chànanach airson an àrd-ùrlair le Màiri Mhoireasdan agus Eairdsidh Caimbeul. Agus is iad a rinn dsioba math dheth!

Ach bha gu leòr eile an sàs sa phìos obrach seo – na sgoilearan ann an Loch nam Madadh agus Càirinis, a’ choisir aig Fèis Tir an Eòrna, Chris Spears – an neach-ealain a rinn obair ionmhalta a’ toirt beatha uamhasach dhan fhuamhaire agus dhan dràgon, Loriana Pauli – “Ban-rìgh na h-Eilbheis” – a thug puirt ùra dhuinn, gun ghuth air an obair bhidio is audio a chaidh a chur ris….  Tha liosta fhada ann.

Cha robh mi fhèin ach nam “second farmer” – ach tha fhios gur e promotion a tha sineach bho “third spear-carrier”, an triob mu dheireadh a bha mi air an àrd-ùrlar leis na Sinodun Players ann an Camelot air ais ann an 1973 – mas math mo chuimhne…

Abair na th’ ann de thàlant ann an coimhearsnachd bheag dhùthchail. Tha rudeigin sònraichte againn an seo. Agus  ’s e a’ Ghàidhlig as coireach, tha mi cinnteach. No, ga chur ann an dòigh eile, leis gu bheil dà chànan againn sa choimhearsnachd seo, tha beairteas culturach a bharrachd againn. Agus tha sin a’ tarraing dhaoine ealanta eile ann, a tha ag iarraidh a bhith a’ fuireach ann an àrainneachd a tha taiceil dha na tàlantan aca fhèin.

Cò na h-àiteachan eile ann am Breatainn far am faiceadh tu an leithid?

Ich bin ein Uibhisteach

I wouldn’t normally feature the same video simultaneously both here and on the Island Voices site. But I confess to a special weakness for this one – certainly not for its technical merits, shot on an ageing hand-held mini-DV camera with a grumbling motor – but I love the content. So many smiling faces, and of all ages! The Uist community at its very best that night. What a delight to see familiar faces in less familiar surroundings, and all contributing of their own talents to give everyone a good time. And what a privilege to be able to record it.

Animals last month, and now children – learning English, singing Gaelic, teaching Russian, oh, and also speaking Polish…. Inspirational stuff, but everyone was a star, including the incoming music students gelling with local youth (and the not quite so youthful…) to provide the perfect soundtrack for a great community event. A real sense of vindication for the work “ris a’ bhruthaich” back in the early years of FE/HE development here in Uist.

Is there a better place to be on a midsummer’s night than Uibhist fhèin?

Tormod is Amitabh

In case of confusion I should stress that my title here is in Gaelic, not English – “Norman and Amitabh”. I seek to link these two Living Legends, not fuse them into a single identity. The parallels are interesting. Although in numerical terms Gaelic and Hindi fall off opposite ends of the speaker population scale, each of these men, whatever the ups and downs in his life, may be considered a unique iconic figure in his own linguistic and cultural environment.

People take different views of the project to make Hindi the de facto as well as de jure “official language of India”, an act of linguistic self-assertiveness that followed Independence, but surely few would contest the major role Hindi cinema has played in spreading mass exposure to Hindi speech throughout the country and beyond. And there’s still no bigger Bollywood name than Amitabh Bachchan, or should I say अमिताभ बच्चन.

Gaelic can now also claim some quasi-constitutional status and protection in Scotland. How that affects its longterm future remains to be seen. But to the extent that cultural “product” (television, stand-up comedy, traditional music, contemporary literature) has any role in revitalising the language, then the multi-talented Norman Maclean (Tormod MacGill-Eain) can look back on a lifetime of creativity, and surely reflect that he’s put in as good a shift as any.

Heroes of post-imperial language struggles, then? Well indeed, maybe so, particularly if you like a lot of eggs in your polemical pudding. But let’s not simply construe this as a battle to repel English language hegemony. In a war over your preferred monolingualism there can only be one winner, whereas these guys are multicompetent, both artistically and linguistically.

To the point then. Followers of the Island Voices project may already be aware of this piece recorded last year – Norman speaking to Archie Mackay about his arrival back in Uist, after a low point in his life.

The transcript with translation is available via this link. I labelled it a “Gaelic interview”, but perhaps I might have called it bilingual, given the amount of English in there too.

Now take a look at this “Hindi interview” lifted from zoomdekho’s YouTube channel – Amitabh talking to Karan Johar about his recovery from severe injury after a filming accident.

An edited transcript with translation is available via this link, concentrating on the exchanges between the two principals. Once again the base language of the interview is peppered throughout with English language words, phrases, and complete sentences.

What’s my point? Well, both these figures have put in a lifetime’s work as highly prominent real world exponents of their respective mother tongues. To take a disparaging view of their very natural code-switching in conversation with other bilinguals is actually to miss out on the expanded creative and communicative options that bilingualism has brought them. Too often this kind of language mixing is negatively described as some kind of grammar-free shapeless mishmash, whereas a bit of careful analysis shows that it is indeed rule-governed and capable of enhanced creative effect and power. What Hindi does with English verbs is a model of simple, elegant productivity. And it’s a worldwide phenomenon. François Grosjean gives plenty more examples in his Psychology Today blog, including literary ones.

I’m going to resist the temptation to conclude with some thumpingly worthy message on what should or shouldn’t be done for the healthy growth of language X or Y. This piece is about revelling in real life language behaviour and creativity. I’m just pleased with the language choices I’ve made in my life, and thankful to have had the opportunity to appreciate all three featured here. Nach mi bha lucky! Benbecula to Bollywood, in the company of Tormod and Amitabh. Any volunteers to do that backwards – उल्टा दौड़के?

Trilingual Tricks

Man met Machine Translation (as well as, though not to be confused with, Machine Transliteration) the other day. A Facebook-facilitated re-encounter with one of my Hindi teachers from nearly thirty years ago finally prompted me to figure out how to write in proper Hindi script (Devanagari) on the computer. I figured it had to be doable in this day and age, and so it soon proved as the previous post shows, using Google IME, an easy to use transliteration system. You type in the Hindi word as you would “write” it using the Latin alphabet, and the program figures out the proper Hindi spelling in Devanagari. Magic.

Suitably impressed and enthused I started writing – Word, e-mail, WordPress, and then Facebook. Here’s the FB string. (Click on the image to enlarge.)

The responses have been interesting. Isobel starts in English in complimentary fashion, but switches to Gaelic to ask what it is. Michael replies to identify the language, and then goes on to explain, very accurately, what I’ve just been writing. I happen to know he’s multilingual, but hadn’t figured on Hindi being on his language list. Then Bill and Isobel write back to me – in Hindi! (OK, the grammar’s not perfect, but the message is clear if contradictory – one inviting me to stop, while the other asks why…) Anyway, I’m impressed, and say so, whereupon my neighbour Nick breaks in with his own somewhat bookish and Sanskritic expression of wonderment, and asks, in Hindi, how it’s all done. Things eventually go quiet when I invite him round to the house so that we can continue our conversation – in Hindi… A surreal exchange, but great fun.

So what kind of language behaviour is it when the writer “writes” something without the aid of any human third party intervention that they can neither read nor say? And what motivates them to do it, anyway? There’s probably a PhD thesis in there for someone, but I think fun has got to have something to do with it – that and some kind of sense of adventure, a willingness to try out something new (I suspect Google Translate in this case, unless my friends have been keeping a secret from me) just because you know you can.

The moral of the story? Not sure, but maybe a couple – one general, one particular. Firstly, playing with language(s) is fun. We all do it, even if we only have one.  मगर जब हमें सिर्फ एक ही भाषा से और भी आती हैं जिन के साथ और जिन के बीच हम खेल सकते हैं, तो और भी मज़ा आता है. (Hah, let’s see how Google Translate deals with multiple embeddings in subordinate clauses!) And secondly, it’s no small thing to get the bilingual genie back into its bottle once it’s come out to play – an inherently self-restrictive act. Tha còir aig luchd-ionnsachaidh na Gàidhlig gu sònraichte a bhith mothachail gu bheil dà chànan (aig a’ char as lugha) aig na fileantaich, agus gur e rud mòr a th’ ann a bhith ag iarraidh orra dìreach aonan a-mhàin a chleachdadh nuair a bhios sinn fhèin a’ bruidhinn riutha. Catch fichead ’s a trì?

European Award for Languages: a perspective on “community languages”

So, the news is out, and now the Island Voices/Guthan nan Eilean prize has finally been collected – hebridean-language-project-awarded-european-accolade. The occasion was formal without being grandiose, and a useful opportunity to meet other people doing interesting things in the language teaching field. The speeches were generally kept brief – which didn’t necessarily exclude the chance to make some challenging points. Lots of people are exercised by the shrinking take-up of languages in UK schools.

Heartening for me was the high profile given to various Community Language initiatives – with prizes also going to a primary Tamil project, and a teacher training course taking in Arabic, Mandarin, Punjabi, and Urdu. Those of us living in an Anglophone world may consider ourselves lucky to have instant access to a language with the all-pervasive and international reach of English, but there’s a less welcome flipside to that coin. For starters, in a world in which everyone speaks English where’s the advantage in speaking ONLY English? Yet “English only” is probably what most “native” English speakers speak. I’m afraid the Anglophone world generally has a pretty monolingual notion of what language competence entails. It’s when you engage with the other language communities in the UK – for example Gaelic or Hindi/Urdu/Punjabi in my own experience – that you begin to appreciate the wider communicative horizons that bilingualism naturally offers.

Integral to bilingual competence is the exercise of extended choice. Every bilingual has a choice of linguistic codes on which to draw, and code-switching and code-mixing  are perfectly natural and productive responses to that choice. That there are pockets of working bilingualism still existing in the wider monolingual Anglophone environment means that there are alternative and liberating models of language competence close at hand. To the extent that wider society is open-minded enough to acknowledge, accept, and learn from this happy situation then there remain grounds for hope that native English language skills can become a springboard to an extended language competence, rather than a recipe for complacency and a needlessly restricted communicative range. “Aye, dream on”, some might say. It’s certainly a big ask and I wouldn’t want to underestimate the scale of the task, but recognising through awards like this the potential contribution that community languages have to make is probably a useful first step.

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,

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