Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Leaving aside Ulster Scots for the moment, is Scots a language?

The debate over Ulster Scots is often mired in controversy. Opinions vary on what it is; a language, a dialect, or someone speaking in a Ballymena accent. More times than not opinions are divided along political lines, with most support for Ulster Scots coming from Unionists and most opposition and derision coming from Nationalists.

Because of this a rational debate on the nature of Ulster Scots is almost impossible to have as it usually ends up as yet another chapter in the never-ending one-upmanship debate between the two communities in the North.

One way of taking the local politics out of debate on what exactly Ulster Scots is to look at its parent, Scots.

You may not realise it but you know a bit of Scots already – and have probably uttered a few words of it shortly after midnight on New Years Eve, when Auld Lang Syne is sung. The term Auld Lang Syne is known worldwide, but it's clearly not standard English. Even if it's 'translated' into English – Old Long Since, its meaning (roughly, 'a long time ago') still isn't clear.

When reading something written in Scots what at first looks like phonetic spelling of English turns out to have a long history. Scots has a literary tradition going back hundreds of years and can argue that its spelling is just as legitimate as that of standard English, which itself was only codified a few centuries ago.

There is no simple answer to whether Scots is a language, as its interaction with English means there is no clear dividing line between the two. If one takes the view that languages diverge along mutual intelligibility, then Scots is not a language from what I can tell. Have a listen to the examples on this website set up by the Scottish Government, I can understand all of the speakers, apart from one from Caithness, so overall Scots would fail the intelligibility test.

Indeed, while 85% of Scottish people say they can speak Scots, most of them do not believe it is a language, although whether this is a fact-based opinion or the result of centuries of being told it's 'bad English' is unknown.

Not all languages are divided on intelligibility, however. My brother who lives in Gothenburg informs me that the differences between Swedish, Norwegian and Danish are about the same as the differences between Ulster, Connacht and Munster Irish, while Slavic and Romance languages are mutually intelligible to varying degrees by all accounts.

Some 'languages' are purely political constructs with no basis in linguistics, such as Serbian, Croatian, Bosnian and Montenegrin, which were all known as Serbo-Croat twenty years ago. (There should be some craic in the EU Parliament's translation booths if all four countries become part of the EU).

Others, such as Arabic, have dialects which are not mutually intelligible.

If Scotland had remained independent Scots would probably have resisted assimilation by standard English and be recognized today as a language. Having hitched their wagon to England's star, however, Scotland's native languages were always going to come under pressure from its much larger partner in the Union. While Scots and English may have developed independently from Anglo-Saxon, what is now known as Scots was in fact called Inglis (ie English) until the late Middle Ages. In more recent times their similarity has led to Scots being gobbled up by its southern cousin.

Scots was brought to Ireland in the 16th and 17th centuries and later developed into Ulster Scots. If Scots' claim to be a language are not that strong, then Ulster Scots' is even less so. Despite numerous searches online I have never come across a recordings of Ulster Scots that would suggest it is anything other than a dialect of English.

Ulster Scots is certainly not just a Ballymena accent or a made up “DIY language for Orangemen.” It is a valuable part of Ireland's heritage and should be supported by the state in both parts of the island. It should not be used, however, merely as a means to stymie the progress of the Irish language. This has been attempted by the DUP's Nelson McCausland among others, whose argument as NI Minister for Culture was that Irish and Ulster Scots should be treated equally. However, if it's ok to treat Irish and English differently, there is no reason Irish and Ulster Scots can't be treated differently too.

The classification of Norwegian and Croatian (for example) as languages, is political, to boost those countries' claims to self-determination. The same thing may be happening with Scots.

In recent decades Scottish, Welsh and English identities have become more pronounced in the UK compared to the wider British identity. The rise of Ulster Scots may be the result of a desire to emphasise a regional identity in Northern Ireland which is not 'Irish'. This might explain the odd promotion of Scottish dancing, music, games and dress from the Gaelic-speaking Highlands as Ulster Scots culture, when the Ulster Scots people originated in Lowland Scotland.

It could also be that the Anglocentric forces suppressing Scots and Ulster Scots are simply getting weaker and that Scottish and Ulster Scots people have more confidence in their identity.

We should also remember that politicisation of languages is not a one way process used by marginalised groups to aid their cases for self-determination – languages are also politicised when they are suppressed by powerful groups who wish to deny subject peoples that same right, something seen in Tibet and Kurdistan at present.

Scots, Scottish Gaelic, Welsh and Irish were all suppressed or discouraged for political reasons, to make is easier to argue that as the nations in the UK shared the same language, English, and the attendant culture that comes with it, they should be part of the same political unit. It is no coincidence that Scots started to go into decline the moment Scotland united with England.

We might all be better off, whichever language or dialect we speak or cherish, to leave the politics out of it altogether.


  1. Ceann de na leagan is ansa liom den Triúr Manach ná an ceann a rinne Matthew Fitt in Albainis/Scots. Tá beocht is greann ann nach bhfuil sa leagan Béarla ar chor ar bith. Meas tú an mbeadh leagan in Ultais an-difriúil leis?

  2. Ní dhéarfainn é Dennis, rinne tú aistriúcháin ar tú féin, maith thú. Dála an scéil an bhfuil aon cur amach agat ar Leabhar Branach, táim ag iarraidh dán ann a aistriú go nua Gaeilge agus/nó Béarla?

  3. Níl, faraor. Shíl mé ar dtús gurbh é an Leabhar Breatnach = Historia Brittonum a bhí i gceist agat, ach níl aon dánta sa téacs sin.
    Ach níl mé dall ar fad ar an Nua-Ghaeilge Chlasaiceach. Céard é chéad líne an dáin?

  4. Leabhar Branach - cnuasach dánta faoi chlann Uí Bhroin i gCill Mhantáin a scríobhadh idir 1550 agus 1650, tá eolas ar anseo

    An dán atáim ag iarraidh aistriú ná "Dia libh a laochruidh Gaoidhiol!"

    Rinne mé googleáil ar ansin agus dealraíonn sé go bhfuil a leathanach Wikipedia féin aige fiú!

  5. Ní raibh mé in ann ach an chéad rann, atá sách éasca mar Ghaeilge, a fháil ar líne:

    Dia libh, a laochruidh Gaoidhiol!
    ná cluintior claoiteacht oraibh;
    riam níor thuilliobhair masla
    a n-am catha iná cogaidh.

    Ach b'fhéidir nach bhfuil na rannta eile chomh héasca sin?

  6. Tá an rud ar fad agam anseo, ní doígh liom go bhfuil sé ró-chasta, tuigim go leor de.

    Ag so duanaire Fhiachaidh Mhic Aodha

    Aonghus Mac Doighrí Í Dhálaigh

    Dia libh a laochruidh Gaoidhiol!
    ná cluintior claoiteacht oraibh;
    riamh níor thuilliobhair masla
    a n-am catha iná cogaidh

    Déntar libh coinghleic calma,
    a bhuidhion armghlan fhaoiltioch,
    fá cheann bhar bhfearuinn dúthchais,
    puirt úrghoirt innsi Gaoidhiol

    Madh áil libh agra Éirionn,
    a ghasruidh céimionn gcródha,
    ná seachnuidh écht ná iorghail
    ná catha mionca móra,

    Fearr bheith a mbarraibh fuairbheann
    a bhfeitheamh shuainghearr ghrinnmhear,
    ag seilg troda ar fhéin eachtrann
    'gá bhfuil fearann bhar sinnsear

    Mó as mall gur hagradh libh-si
    Magh Life ná lios Teamhra,
    ná Caisiol na sreabh nuaghlan,
    ná míonchlár Cruachna Meadhbha,

    Is díoth cuimhne, a chlann Míleadh,
    fonn réidh na ríghlios ndaithgheal,
    tug oirbh gan agra Tailtean,
    ná táth críoch maighrioch Maisdean.

    Ní tacha lúidh ná lámhaigh
    tug oruibh, ágbhaidh Banbha,
    beith díbh urramach umhal
    do mhearshluagh gusmhar ghallda

    Acht nách deóin le Dia, a Éire,
    sibh le chéile do chongnamh,
    ní bheith bhar mbuadh a n-éinfheacht
    ag sluagh críoch léidmheach Lonndan

    Crádh liom eachtruinn dá bhfógra,
    ríoghradh Fhódhla 's a n-oireacht,
    's nách goirthior dhíobh 'na ndúthcus
    acht ceithearn chúthail choilleach.

    Siad féin a ngleanntaibh garbha,
    laoich Banbha, beag dá leatrom,
    's fonn mín an Chláir-si Críomhthuin
    ag feadhain fhíochmhar eachtronn

    Gach rún fill dá bhfuil chuca,
    buidhion fhial churadh gcogthach
    's a liacht námha ar tí a ngona
    do-bheir orm codladh corrach.

    An tráth bheirid laoich Laighion,
    cinn daighfhear Chláir na gCuradh,
    buaidh eachtrann an Chraoi Cuinn-se,
    bídh m'aigne suilbhir subhach.

    Dubhach bhím-se uair eile,
    mar bheirid buaidh na saoirfhear
    na Goill-si tig tar tonnmhuir
    do chomhloit gasradh Gaoidhiol

    Líon gleóidh do laochraidh lannghuirm,
    Gabhal Raghnuill, Dia a ndídean;
    méd a nguaisi san ghleann-so
    do chuir mo mheanma a míneart.

    Dia leó ag luighe 's ag éirighe,
    tréinfhir as treisi a ttacher;
    Dia 'na seasamh 's 'na luighe
    leó 's a ttráth curtha an chatha

  7. Seo aistriúchán luath go Béarla. Tá súil agam go gcabhróidh sé leat.

    God be with you, hero Gaels!
    Let no weakness be attributed to you;
    you never earned opprobrium
    in time of battle or war.

    Contend stalwartly,
    o joyous clean-armed band,
    for the sake of your native land,
    the green fields of the Gaelic isles.

    If you support Ireland's cause,
    o brave bright-stepping youths,
    avoid not brave deeds nor combat
    nor great and frequent battles.

    Better to be at the top of cold peaks
    in wakeful waiting and keen fervour,
    seeking a fight with the foreign force
    that holds the land of your fathers.

    It is slow indeed you have claimed
    the Liffy Plain nor the fort of Tara,
    nor Cashel of the fresh clean streams,
    nor the fine expanse of Maeve's Cruachan.

    It is want of memory, children of Mil,
    the smooth ground of the bright-coloured royal forts,
    that caused you not to claim Tailtiu,
    nor the region of the royal plain of Maisdean.

    It's not the lack of lead or weapons-skill
    that made you, warriors (?) of Ireland,
    be submissive and respectful
    to a lively pack of upstart English.

    But that it is not God's will, o Ireland,
    to keep you all together.
    As one you will not be defeated
    by the bold throng of London's land.

    It pains me for foreigners to claim
    the kingdom of Ireland and her territory,
    and they known in their native place
    as backwards timid kerns.

    They themselves in rough valleys,
    the heroes of Ireland, _______(?)
    and the gentle earth of Clár Críomhthuin
    in the hands of a wild foreign band.

    Every treacherous intention they have;
    a generous troop of warlike champions
    and so many enemies ready to harm them
    give me fitful sleep.

    When the warriors of Leinster,
    some of the good men of Clár na gCuradh,
    defeat the foreigners of Cró Cuinn (= Ireland)
    my mind will be cheerful and glad.

    I am gloomy one more time,
    for they defeat the noble men:
    the outlanders who come as a tidal wave
    to destroy the young warrior Gaels.

    The fighting numbers of blue-bladed warriors,
    Gabhal Raghnuill, God their protection;
    their many dangers in this valley
    has sapped the strength of my mind.

    God be with them lying down and rising,
    brave men who are strong in battle;
    God in their standing and their lying
    be with them, and when battle is joined.

  8. Tá sé sin go hiontach Dennis, bail ó Dhia ort.