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Why Bother? A Defence Of A Dying Language

My grandmother grew up in the highlands with her family, who almost exclusively spoke Gaelic. To her, the language was synonymous with home. The stories they would relay around the fireplace weren’t only in Gaelic but derived from the language itself. Its complexity and heritage are linked to Scottish meaning and culture so intrinsically that it's hard to articulate in English, but it is nonetheless present. Speak to any Scottish person (a challenge in St. Andrews, I know) and you’ll hear them say ‘aye’ and names like Eilidh and Rhona are hardly uncommon. So exactly why is it that we are letting a core part of our identities get away from us so easily?

Dying languages are steeped in a history of erasure and classism. When it came time for my own grandmother to go to school, she was ordered to conduct herself in English. Growing up with a sense of shame around her childhood tongue, she eventually lost it and with it a vital sense of connection to her family and culture. This story isn’t uncommon. Scottish Gaelic and a whole host of regional tongues were regularly seen as languages that should stay at home and not enter the professional world. They were labelled as outdated and confusing and, as such, were treated with distaste and routinely seen as indicators of the undignified and uneducated. Eventually, parents stopped bothering to pass on their language out of fear it was not only useless but that it may serve to disadvantage their child. Scot’s English, another native dialect, has survived almost entirely on a perception of it as a lesser version of English and of its speakers as brash and uneducated caricatures. We’re living in a world that profits on us all fitting into predetermined tick boxes and the act of speaking dying languages is seen as pointless and, worst of all, shameful.

Now, speaking as someone with a confusing Irish Gaelic name whose familiar with all the accompanying fun of explaining it every two seconds, you would think I’d get the hatred. And I do to some extent. Productivity culture conditions us to hate the concept of using two words when one would do. Or speaking a language known by thousands instead of millions. It constrains us into expecting that our knowledge and skills are to be inherently marketable as if they belong to more than simply ourselves. It’s not surprising, therefore, that speaking in a language considered endangered or dying, seems like a wasted commitment. But I think there’s a reason that culture is significant, and it goes beyond the superficial. Native languages carry meanings that don’t survive translation and they are an innate component of communities that we cannot let go of. In our globalised world, it’s often too easy to forget the importance of diverse outlooks and it’s because of this that dying languages should be embraced and protected, not shied away from.

We’re facing a scarily tartan-clad revival of Scottish nationalism. And in St Andrews, we couldn’t be better placed to talk about the lure of Scottish scenery and tradition. For many, St Andrews is a chance to buy a one-way ticket to and reinvent themselves in Europe – specifically, that is, the east coast of Scotland. There is a specific reason why they don’t go to Dundee or Stirling, though, isn’t there? St Andrews is the epitome of a glamorised Scotland and it’s supposedly anything you could ever want. But the beautiful scenery and architecture do little to make up for the fact that it’s often not considered to be a genuinely Scottish place. Locals are vastly outnumbered by students and you can go for days without hearing a Scottish accent. If we don’t base our love for St. Andrews on a genuine appreciation for and understanding of its roots and culture, then how well do we really know it?

Recent efforts to revive Scottish cultures have done little in placing heritage at the forefront. Edinburgh’s only Gaelic school is on Bonington Road, and I fear that it’s all too inaccessible a choice. This may not be the case for your organic Morningside parents wanting their little Cosmo to learn Gaelic, but it certainly is for families facing generational shame over their origins. I may have learned to list the six wives of Henry VIII growing up, but we never once delved into the history of highlanders or ran through basic Gaelic vocabulary. There are still kids growing up speaking dying languages and it’s wrong to force them through a system that doesn’t embrace that difference. Realistically, if we want dying languages to live on, we must move the discussion from the realms of the upper classes to our daily lives. Reclaiming a dying language can be massively empowering; can connect someone to generations of cultural significance and communities; and beyond that, be an incredibly productive pursuit.

I think there’s something beautifully unique about learning something just for the sake of learning it. Let’s face it, no one’s going to get a career out of learning Gaelic, but people do it anyway. It serves to remind us that we are more than just cogs in a wheel and our minds are ours to control. It helps us to strengthen our memory, thinking skills and creativity, and best of all leads us to a greater connection to our countries and the vibrant communities that exist there.

It’s easy to become sad when you reflect on the loss of languages to an increasingly modernised and detached world. It’s an issue that speaks to the parts of us craving connection and meaning. But I suggest we lean into those feelings. It’s time to pave a more reflective future – and that comes with embracing our past. This isn’t some nationalistic suggestion that we should all dig out our kilts and learn Gaelic on Duolingo. But I do think it’s time to stop treating Gaelic as ‘strange’ or ‘out of the ordinary. Because if our native language doesn’t belong here, then where does it?

Illustration: Lucy Westernberger

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