To the ‘Underwear Crowd’: What gives you the right to question other people’s existence?

A bilingual sign- often the impetus for diatribes against Gaelic in the press

Today’s blog post comes from the editor, Dr. Cassie Smith-Christmas, associate fellow for the Scottish Gaelic language research network Soillse. Cassie is currently on an Irish Research Council-funded fellowship ‘The Challenges of Minority Language Maintenance:  Family Language Policy in Scotland and Ireland’ at the National University of Ireland, Galway, and is also a principal investigator on the project ‘The Intersection of Language and Community in Corca Dhuibhne’ with the Smithsonian’s SMiLE (Sustaining Minoritized Languages in Europe) initiative.

As most of us who work with endangered languages know, every once and a while there are just those days.  Those days where you just can’t believe that someone would say that about a language and its speakers.

Last month it was one of those days for Scottish Gaelic—the language I’ve had the privilege of working on and speaking for nearly a decade now—with an article  describing the language as ‘“sounding like someone gargling with Irn Bru’” and referring to a sign in Gaelic as ‘nice for tourists to think they’ve arrived in Brigadoon.’

Now, anti-Gaelic articles in mainstream papers are nothing new.  This time, however, the backlash to the article was something I had never before witnessed, with some excellent counter-posts, letters to the editor, and the hashtag #ismiseGàidhlig, circulating. Then another inflammatory article was written (which seemed to be inflammatory simply for the sake of being inflammatory), and which was similarly rebutted by poet Marcas Mac an Tuairneir, among others. (But, to the first columnist’s credit, he actually attempted to understand the original backlash by interviewing Professor Wilson McLeod of the University of Edinburgh in another article).

I have taken great interest in reading the many excellent responses and in reflecting on how to explain the value of minoritised languages to people who just don’t understand.  I suppose in a way this a long comeback to the times I have been interrogated on the value of minority language revitalisation and was initially blindsided, because to me, it felt like having to explain that the sky was blue.

The first time this happened I was in an interview for funding.  I don’t remember exactly what I said in relation to the question ‘why would someone want to preserve a language like Gaelic?’ (or the approximate thereof) but whatever it was, one of the panel members suddenly thought of her husband’s underwear and quipped, ‘But my husband’s underwear are old, should we hang onto those?’

(Note:  I have said a lot of things I later regretted in the heat of an interview, but I know I didn’t just say ‘because it’s old’ in my previous answer.  I think my response was something like, ‘well, it’s like anything of cultural heritage, we want to preserve it.’  Perhaps I threw in ‘old building’ instead of the saying ‘listed building’ as I should have.  I don’t know.  But whatever it was, it somehow evoked images of this woman’s husband’s underwear).

After the underwear comment, I said, ‘Pardon me, but I think that any Gaelic speaker would take grave offense at having their language compared to your husband’s old underwear.’

Needless to say, I didn’t get the funding. But this question has come up time and time again in my professional and personal life, and like the newspaper articles mentioned beforehand, is always along the lines of the underwear comment.  So this is what I would like to say to the ‘underwear crowd’:

When you tell someone (either explicitly or implicitly) not to speak their language, you are passing judgment on them. In a Sapir-Whorf sense, you are telling them that the very shapes of their thoughts are wrong.  You are telling them that the way they put their being into the concrete form of words is wrong.  In essence, you are telling them that their existence is undeserved.

And that is exactly what is implied by  trotting out ‘only 1% of the population speak the language’ and the mention of ‘Brigadoon’—that these people shouldn’t exist.  Indeed, as anyone working in endangered language revitalisation will know, for most of these language communities, hegemonising forces have tried their upmost to ensure that these people don’t exist, and perhaps the 1% is still a thorn in the side of polities with a long history of imperialism in its various guises.  In the Gaelic case, these are the people who were once cleared off the land, who have had a constant struggle to stay in the place where they and their families are from—even today.  But thankfully they still exist, and as my colleague from on the Isle of Lewis puts it, ‘I don’t see why I have to justify my identity to anyone.’

So know this, underwear crowd: when you lay into the value of minority languages, you are perpetuating imperialism, again and again. And so, the next time you question the value of minority languages, I will respond with:

What gives you the right to question another human being’s existence in this world?  Why should their existence be questioned and yours remain indubitably beyond reproach?

Austerity and Resistance in Ireland’s Gaeltacht 2008-18 by Ben Ó Ceallaigh

A small section of the 6,000+ strong crowd united under the Dearg le Fearg slogan at the first of several large marches that took place in 2014

Today’s FEL blog post, written by Ben Ó Ceallaigh, a final year PhD student in the University of Edinburgh, looks at the connections between economics, language vitality, and resistance efforts. Ben’s thesis is provisionally titled ‘Language shift and neoliberalism: The Irish economic crisis and the sociolinguistic vitality of Gaeltacht regions 2008-2018’. He is also the national secretary for radical activist group Misneach.

For almost one hundred years now, the Irish state has afforded special protection to those areas in which the county’s first, but minoritised, language remains the everyday community language. Despite this, the Irish language is still seriously endangered in these Irish-speaking communities, collectively known as “the Gaeltacht”. In 2007, a large scale report demonstrated that Irish was unlikely to remain the dominant community language in even the strongest Gaeltacht areas for more than 15-20 years if radical action was not taken.

The timing of the 2008 economic crisis and the enormous cuts to state spending it caused was, then, devastating for the Gaeltacht, with such peripheral areas being in no small part dependent on the state support which was cut so heavily during the crisis.

Having lived in a Gaeltacht community where Irish is now effectively moribund throughout most of the recession, and subsequently spent the last several years doing a PhD on the effects of this period on the Gaeltacht, I have seen many examples of how this large-scale international event has effected language vitality at the community level.

The examples are many, but perhaps the starkest illustration of the effects of the crisis is to be seen in the extent to which state provision for the Gaeltacht has been drastically reduced over the last decade. For example, the Gaeltacht development authority, Údaras na Gaeltachta, had its budget cut by 73.7% between 2018-15 and in a classic example of the neoliberal “rolling-back” of the state, the Gaeltacht Act, 2012 saw much of the responsibility for language planning transferred to voluntary community groups which are operating with only minimal resources.

The consequences of these cuts and other effects of the crisis for language use may be inferred from the 2016 census, which showed a dramatic drop of 11.2% in the number of daily Irish speakers in the Gaeltacht since 2011. As well as significant reductions to language support schemes, many Gaeltacht areas suffered large-scale emigration during this time.

These challenges to Gaeltacht life have not gone unopposed, however. Since 2009 several groups and campaigns have emerged in opposition to state policy and budgetary decisions regarding the Gaeltacht.

Guth na Gaeltachta Publicity material

In 2009 the campaign group Guth na Gaeltachta (“voice of the Gaeltacht”) was founded in Donegal and became one of the most important Gaeltacht-based mobilisations since the Gaeltacht Civil Rights Movement of the 1970s. While the group had wound down by 2013, amidst threats of legal action against its spokespeople by the state, it laid important ground work and helped politicise Irish speakers, who, like much of Irish society, had been largely de-politicised during the “Celtic Tiger” boom years. While relatively short-lived, Guth na Gaeltachta served as an important inspiration for other campaigns which have emerged over recent years.

During my PhD fieldwork I had the opportunity to witness and take part in several of these campaigns. While my research topic was oftentimes depressing (as work in the area of language endangerment and loss so often is), on a personal, level these grassroots efforts provided me with an enormous source of inspiration and hope.

In 2014 Irish speakers from both within and outside the Gaeltacht mobilised to resist the proposed amalgamation of the Language Commissioner’s office with that of the state Ombudsman. This was to take place as part of a much wider process of public service rationalisation, reforms which themselves have been deeply neoliberal. The ensuing Dearg le Fearg (“red with anger”) movement saw a number of marches take place in Dublin, Belfast and in the rural Galway Gaeltacht. Well over ten thousand Irish speakers took part in these protests, with the government ultimately abandoning the proposed merger as a result.

Taking many of their cues from the 2014 movement, An Dream Dearg (“the red group”) have run a vibrant campaign over the last year and a half demanding a language act for the North of Ireland. Unionist opposition to such an act is a key obstacle to the reinstatement of power-sharing in Belfast – creating a very unusual case whereby minority language policy is responsible for a government’s collapse!

Aran Islanders and their supporters protesting to defend their islands’ air service

In 2015 the inhabitants of the Aran Islands in Galway organised a vocal campaign to oppose a proposal to replace islands’ aeroplane service from a nearby airstrip with a less reliable and less suitable helicopter service from a much further away airport. Many–including, I was told, the former minister for the Gaeltacht who supported the campaign–felt that this change was being proposed to open the way for discontinuing the air service altogether at a later date. Such was the scale and sustained nature of the community’s resistance efforts, however, that the recommendation became politically impossible and was eventually shelved by the government.

More radically still, several of the communities in which I conducted fieldwork physically blockaded their areas against the police and agents of Irish Water, the semi-state body which was charged with installing water meters throughout the country. These meters were widely understood as paving the way for later privatisation of the sort the International Monetary Fund had recommended while directing Irish state finances from 2010-13. One informant from a strongly Irish-speaking area in west Galway who I met on an anti-water charges protest in Dublin in 2015 stated that the frustration he felt at being forced to leave his home to search for work in Dublin had boiled over at a previous protest and prompted him to lead a spontaneous sit-down blockade of a main road in Dublin city centre. Faced with such acts of civil disobedience throughout the country, the government has since abandoned the proposed water charges.

Image from the recent protests by the Toraigh Islanders

More recently there have been a number of protests against the replacement of the ferry to Toraigh Island in the Donegal Gaeltacht with a much older and less seaworthy craft. In February 2018 the islanders and supporters of their cause organised a series of pickets outside state buildings to voice their anger at the way in which they, one of the strongest remaining Irish-speaking areas, are being treated by a state which is ostensibly committed to the maintenance of the Gaeltacht. They have publically stated they will blockade their pier and prevent what they deem as a potentially dangerous boat landing on their island, and are looking for support in doing so when the new service begins in early April.

While, then, the economic and political turmoil of the last ten years has had significant detrimental effects for the vitality of Irish and the communities that speak it, state policies entrenching neoliberalism have met with significant resistance. Although there is certainly much cause for concern regarding the language’s future, recent grassroots mobilisations of Irish speakers contains much that is both encouraging and inspiring to those interested in maintaining linguistic diversity. Although the Leviathan-like forces amassed against minoritised languages can often seem overwhelming, they are not undefeatable. These examples from the Gaeltacht show that these forces can be challenged and that, as in other areas of social justice campaigning, people power can prevail in favour of endangered language revitalisation efforts.

Doing Fieldwork Without Doing Damage to Endangered Languages by Nancy C. Dorian

 (Photos Courtesy of the Author)

We at FEL are deeply honoured to have our inaugural blog post written by Nancy C. Dorian,  Emeritus Professor of Linguistics at Bryn Mawr College, USA, whose work has been formative in shaping endangered language research for decades,
and which serves as an inspiration for so many of us as we begin and/or continue our own work in endangered language communities.

In today’s research environment, there are some important requirements built into research proposals that are meant to safeguard the people whom the researcher is studying. For linguistic fieldwork, this means following certain ethical guidelines and offering evidence that the people whose language is under study agree to the presence of the researcher(s). Linguists who choose to go into the field to work on endangered languages sometimes make that choice with the welfare of the language and its speakers in mind. Certainly most would wish to do no damage, and some become activist advocates for the language they study. More and more often now, field researchers express a wish to do some service for the speaker population, for example by helping devise or improve an orthography; creating an archive; creating user-friendly written materials; or encouraging local speakers to preserve traditional material digitally, on film or in books. Since all of these positive developments seem to be growing more prevalent, why raise the issue of doing damage?

There are actually certain potential hazards built into the fieldwork undertaking, some more obvious, some less so. Deciding on  which speakers become “sources” (if there are enough speakers to allow a choice, that is) sets up many opportunities for provoking rivalries of one sort or another. If we settle on one or two excellent speakers to work with, are we enhancing their status and leaving other fine speakers feeling diminished? Favoring only the most elderly, or the most traditional, or only speakers with 100% local parentage, or even – as I found in my own fieldwork– one spouse over the other (she was reliably local, he was subverted by Bible literacy), can cause ill-feeling. If there are already opposing camps within the speaker group, more serious factionalism may appear, with one group belittling information given by another or undermining any maintenance or revitalization efforts that the other group supports.

Dialect differences pose a related problem. Speakers in one location are often acutely aware – even hyperaware –  of differences between elements of their own speech and corresponding elements in the speech of people in another location very nearby, whether in phonology, morphology, or syntax. Ideally, researchers would like to recognize clear-cut forms that represent local consensus. But they may instead have to decide to what extent they will acknowledge the linguistic untidiness that often surfaces.

Deciding to work in just one among a string of villages or hamlets with very closely related but locally distinct speech forms (from the local populations’ point of view, that is) may be a matter of practical necessity because of limited time or money. It may be advisable, too, because one location is more accessible than others or because the fieldworker has a certain entrée in one location but not the others (thanks for example to a dissertation adviser or colleague who knows the area and can provide some introductions).  But dialect differences as a marker of local identity are so potent that any strategies that can reduce the sense of exclusion among other villages’ populations are worth adopting, to avoid the possibility that people from the “excluded” villages will resist orthographies, dictionaries, storybooks, or any other maintenance and revitalization initiatives that feel alien to them.

There is also the issue of the observer vs. the observed. The linguist or linguistic team comes to the fieldwork setting with a certain expertise that may or may not be recognized by the local speaker population, and once there asks people from a culture not their own to allow their speech (and usually some of its context as well) to be observed and recorded. Even if the request is formally granted, the uses to which specialists like linguists and anthropologists put the recorded materials are usually obscure to people who have no experience with scholarly literature. This very fundamental problem strikes at the heart of the “informed consent” issue, since it’s hardly possible to consider the consent “informed” if the outcomes are obscure to the people “consenting”. In East Sutherland, I found that simple unfamiliarity with the publication process led to an unforeseen problem. One of the sources who had agreed to be recorded for an oral history I was preparing asked for, and got, removal of one or two sensitive matters from a draft of the book’s manuscript. After publication, when it was no longer possible to remove anything from the book, she urgently wished to have two more matters removed.

Most fundamentally of all, linguistic fieldwork as a scholarly undertaking calls for a degree of detachment that is mostly absent in other protracted and intense social interactions. When local people have done months of close work with linguists or other fieldworkers, sharing their special knowledge and giving hours of their time, how fathomable can it be to them if the researcher(s) one day tell them that the time has come – from the scholars’ point of view, that is – to leave for good, possibly to take up the same sort of work in another place with speakers of a different language? Successful fieldwork relationships often have elements of friendship, and this is not the way friends treat friends. Especially if the fieldwork has been done with great intensity and apparently avid interest, perhaps by a team of researchers and nowadays almost invariably with a good deal of visibly expensive high-tech equipment, there’s likely to be a sense of shock and even betrayal on the part of speakers who have been reliable and cooperative sources and who consciously or unconsciously imagined a more ongoing connection.

This does not exhaust the possibilities for causing some sort of damage while doing well-intentioned linguistic fieldwork, but being aware of potential problems like these may help avoid them, or at least reduce the researcher’s surprise if they do crop up. Much of the advice and instruction available to prospective fieldworkers deals with how to get good information. But how to get good information without causing discomfort or inconvenience to our sources, and without causing social rifts within the speaker population, is worth special consideration.

What can we do to do better, then?

If the researcher is going to need a good deal of multisource information, it can help to make it known from the start that the kind of study being planned involves working with a number of sources. Forewarning the first source or two that the researcher will be interviewing other sources as well can avoid raising expectations that that those first sources are to be the only, or the favored, source of information.

We may be able to describe the speech form in question linguistically with only limited input from any larger group of speakers (dissertations have been written relying on one or two speakers who act as sources for a university class or project). But a grasp of how that speech form is used and the shapes it takes in a variety of different circumstances goes well beyond analyzing how it expresses the plural or the past tense (if it does). Recognizing that consensus is not always available in speech forms without a history of codification, and that individual renditions of what is offered in response to the same question or stimulus may vary systematically or unsystematically according to gender, or degree of acquaintance, or age, or style, may lengthen the time needed for the work but do the language (and other scholars) more service.

In the case of an endangered language, it can be especially important to learn how older people respond to any aberrations or simplifications that are in use among younger people. Finding out what differences the oldest and most fluent speakers take exception to, and how strongly, can suggest what the chances are that younger speakers will try to carry the language forward or will instead give up using it because older and more conservative speakers criticize the way they speak.

Researchers who aim to represent the language under study with the greatest degree of accuracy and depth have their best chance of achieving this if they make an effort to learn the local language, or so I would suggest based on one instance in which I learned to speak the local language and another in which I didn’t. Assuming that the researcher is received with something short of a deliberately distancing cautiousness or hostility, showing interest in acquiring the local language offers a degree of validation that nothing else quite matches. The researcher’s results may not be impressive in terms of reproducing native speaker models accurately, but as even tourists know, the effort is often appreciated. (A sense of humor helps, of course, for surviving local speakers’ enjoyment of our inevitable mistakes.) Whether or not the researcher is trying to learn the local language, fieldwork results can benefit a great deal from a researcher’s expressions of interest and appreciation as more of the local language’s structure and expressive potential comes to light.

The discipline and restraint needed to take the age and physical condition of potential sources into consideration can be hard for zealous fieldworkers to muster. Pressing for just a few more examples or just a little more explanation, a common temptation for all intense and eager fieldworkers, can have an element of bullying. If we’re lucky and are allowed to carry on working in spite of our failings, we usually find that older and less robust sources respond better to an interviewer who shows patience along with interest. Very elderly sources who are less exhausted are also more likely to be willing to agree to more sessions.

If they become well-wishers, linguists who describe often also advise, something that’s harder to do than linguistic analysis. In this connection we need to remember first and foremost that the language belongs to the community in which it’s spoken. As linguistic researchers we come, go, and to some extent participate, in so far as local speakers are willing to let us. But those local speakers (and often non-speaking but aspiring members of the ethnic group) are the ones who are in charge of the future their language will have, and the essential decisions that will impact their linguistic future are always theirs.

Welcome to the FEL blog

Welcome to our blog.  The aim of FEL is to support, enable and assist the documentation, protection and promotion of endangered languages. We envision this site as a dynamic space where those involved in endangered language research and activism can share ideas and experiences.  Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments sections.  If you have an idea for a blog post, feel free to contact Cassie Smith-Christmas at