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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!

Macaroni: Rich Linguistic Fare

Back from Pistoia nearly two weeks ago now, but Italian food is still playing on my mind in the shape of a particular kind of pasta very familiar to Scots: macaroni. But this is macaroni with a twist – linguistic macaroni, or “macaronic language” as Wikipedia has it.

The seemingly seismic nature of the recent Scottish elections, in which the SNP achieved what was supposed to be impossible for any one party – an overall parliamentary majority –  has been remarked upon in countless fora and media. But I’m particularly impressed by this commentary from an old Facebook friend, Ryno Morrison, who has kindly allowed me to reproduce it here.

Dàn an Taghaidh 2011

by Ryno Morrison on Tuesday, 10 May 2011 at 22:56

Diardaoin , gu tràth sa mhadainn, I started thinking of my votes
Gu dearbh cha robh e furasta, so I started taking notes
Bha paipear bhòtaidh lilac ann, with prospective MSP’s
Is iad seo a bhios dh’ ur riochdachadh, in your con-stituency

Bha fear le dath na piodse, your region’s list of choice
Gu roinneil ‘s ann bhios seachdnar ann, to give you all a voice
Agus an uairsin pàipear eile, with Yes or No for the AV
Loma làn de roghainnean, for your choices one, two, three.

Ailig beag na Nàiseantaich, is really keen to be
A Chiad Mhinisteir a rithist, he’s got more to do says he
Lion e an t’àit le poilis, he stopped charging for our pills
‘S bidh na h-oileanaich cho beartach, they won’t have any bills

Annabal nan Tòraidhean, she is sensible and prim
Ged is caol tha teans’ a Phartaidh aic, of being ever voted in
Cha bhi h-uile rud an asgaidh, we’ll need to pay our way
Tha seo reusanta is fìrinneach and brave for her to say

Tha Tavish air shàrachadh, with the marriage of ConDems
‘S tric e ‘g innse nach do chòrd e ris, the pact of us and them
Ma gheibh e steach don Riaghaltas, public spending he will trim
Cha bhi drochaid an Dùn Èideann and the trams will get the bin

Nise, Iain Grey na Labaraich, a timid man is he
An uair chaidh fear a’ bhruidhinn ris, to a pie-shop he did flee
Ma gheibh e steach don Riaghaltas, he’ll put Scotland back to on top
Bi taighean don an òigridh ann and Big Bonuses will stop

Ach tha Alba nis air bhòtadh – the peoples’ choice is SNP
Tha mhor-chuid aig na Nàiseantaich, to govern as they please
Bi Fil-ò-ro anns na h-Eileanan, the Western Isles will be all go
Le Bursday Pàrtaidh Alist’r Allan, ‘s e a nis am BIG Four-Ò

It’s great to see the macaronic tradition, which, as Wikipedia informs us, has a long lineage stretching back to Roman times, if not beyond, is still alive and kicking in the twenty-first century. ‘S math a rinn thu, Ryno! Often looked down on, particularly by those with a standardisation agenda, for me it has a true demotic, irreverent spirit, echoing in verse the natural humour and vigour evidenced in the everyday code-switching and/or mixing behaviour of fluent bilinguals like Norman Maclean. Vulgar indeed in a very Latin sense, and none the worse for that!

(PS. Why stop with bilingualism, by the way? If that was a macaronic poem, then is this a macaronic video? Never mind the quality – feel the width!)

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?

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