Language in Northern Ireland: Indifference & Obsession
Language in Northern Ireland is Shakespearean in more ways than one. Archaic expressions that went out of fashion in England long ago linger on, at least among the postwar generation; while the drama concerning Irish and Ulster Scots could be likened to a boisterous Elizabethan play.
It is a drama that mystifies language teachers, language graduates and business owners who are aware of the marked indifference towards languages in this country: the number of pupils learning languages at GCSE level declined by 19% between 2010 and 2018; languages are no longer compulsory at Key Stage Four; Ulster University has closed its School of Modern languages; students have to travel outside Northern Ireland to study German at tertiary level; and it is often necessary to recruit economic immigrants to redress workplace language requirements.
Scientists worldwide have proven time and again that language acquisition has a positive effect on brain development, but we tell our students to learn STEM subjects and not languages; possibly so that they can come to this conclusion. Few realise the benefits that languages bring to STEM: how easy it is for a language student to pick up any language, including programming languages and scientific vocabulary, once those skills are acquired. We are also desperately short of good communicators willing to stand up in front of a room and speak fluently as language students are trained to do.
Meanwhile, our dismissal of English language learning, specifically grammar, leaves our fellow country men and women perpetually in a pickle over verb conjugations and tenses. The good old Ulster expression “I done my homework, Miss!” is so widespread that it could be deemed both a misuse of tense and correct application of dialect. Confusion surrounding subjects, objects and personal pronouns, and the promotion of “I” beyond its purpose means that many live in fear of the words ‘me’ and ‘my.’
To understand the obsession with language, let’s begin with Ulster Scots. Apart from a handful of politicians who bang the drum in favour of it and a scattering of academics who take a serious view of it, unionists, nationalists and neithers at “social media level” appear united in the common belief that Ulster Scots is not a language, dialect or thing.
Certainty reigns with regard to the occurrence of the seventeenth century Ulster Plantation, and we hear about it often, so it seems that the Scots-speaking folk who came to Ulster in their droves in the 1600s left their tongues at home; a concept reminiscent (reversely) of the old Breton legend in which the Welsh settlers of Brittany cut off the tongues of native women to ensure the language of the invading Britons’ prevailed.
Any accidental merging of Elizabethan English, Gaelic and Scots to create something we would one day call Ulster Scots is inconceivable; presumably due to the widely held belief that languages can’t evolve or be given new names like Java, C#, Python, Visual Basic or English. Even those who grew up with Ulster Scots can’t quite believe that Ulster Scots is a language/dialect/thing because they received so many lashes for “bad English” that they’re too scundered to speak it. Besides, it can’t be a language because it’s too like English.
As to Scots, the tossing of rotten cabbages onto the stage of linguistic discourse seems less apparent, perhaps because Rab C. Nesbitt and Trainspotting require subtitles in some quarters. Or, maybe there is a general acceptance that Scots and English are part of the Germanic language family, that they originated in the fifth century Angles invasions and that they flourished into their own language/dialect/thing in much the same way that Dutch and German did; that the Golden Age of Scots was from around 1450 to 1700 and that the problem surrounding Ulster Scots hinges on the word Ulster.
Irish, like English, is accepted as a language by everyone. It’s less confusing on account of the fact that it’s more confusing. It looks and sounds incomprehensible: therefore, it’s a language. Even those who take to the streets to campaign against an Irish Language Act are wholeheartedly on board with the fact that it’s a language, albeit one they don’t want on their streets, in their courts or in their civil service; and whilst some see this as no less severe than the cutting of tongues of the native Irish by modern day Northern Ireland Brits, others want all Northern Ireland pounds to be diverted to the emergency situation in the NHS, and strictly not to the Irish language, or any other language for that matter.
This puts the Irish language up there with the arts in Northern Ireland, including literature and theatre, with hecklers on all sides seemingly unaware of the benefits of language on the health of the nation. And so here we are at the dawn of 2020, both indifferent about and obsessed by language, firing rotten cabbages onto the stage even when we haven’t done our homework.