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10. Reviews

Taskforce on Public Funding for Gaelic: “Revitalising Gaelic – A National Asset” by FEL Campaigns Manager, Alasdair MacCaluim

This eagerly awaited report was released in September 2000. The taskforce was established by the Minister for Gaelic, Alasdair Morrison in December 1999 to “examine the arrangements and structures for the public support of the Gaelic organisations in Scotland, to advise Scottish Ministers on future arrangements.” A key option to be investigated by the Task Force was to be the possibility of creating a single Gaelic group in place of the existing Gaelic organisations.

This taskforce was controversial from the very beginning. Some Gaelic activists felt that there was no need for such a review and were of the opinion that the Taskforce was a device to take the attention of Gaelic speakers away from the campaign for legal (“secure”) status for the language. Some others such as the Gaelic newspaper “An Gaidheal Ùr”, however, were very much in favour of this review of Gaelic organisations.

Taskforce membership was also controversial. While members of the group had a wealth of skills in broadcasting, education, administration and business, many expressed surprise that nobody specialising in the revitalisation of minority languages was appointed: no university Celtic departments or experts in language planning were represented. The taskforce was also entirely composed of native Gaelic speakers, leading CLI, the organisation for new Gaelic speakers, to comment: “We are greatly disturbed that the working party includes none of the many Gaelic speakers who have learnt the language as an adult. Surely this is necessary if the group is to have the confidence of all the Gaelic community and its supporters throughout Scotland, not just that of the native speakers in the Western Isles.”

Unsurprisingly, the final recommendations of the taskforce have proved as controversial as the taskforce itself. These were that:

· there should be a “small Gaelic speaking Department of the Gaidhealtachd” within the Scottish Executive to advise Ministers on policy.

· a Gaelic Development Agency be established to produce an overall strategy for Gaelic and to formulate and implement plans for Gaelic and to facilitate the process of Secure Status for the language.

· the agency should receive £10M annually for Gaelic development and be the sole channel of Government funding for Gaelic.

· the agency should “subsume the strategic direction and activities and activities of the currently public-funded organisations. The number of existing organisations would be reduced and some or all of the remaining ones would become wholly-owned subsidiaries of the Agency”.

· the management of Gaelic activities should be concentrated in the “Gaelic heartland, with appropriate distribution to accommodate the “energy centres” and the language’s national disposition”.

Many of the findings have been widely welcomed, most notably the establishment of a national Gaelic Development Agency and the proposed great increase in finance for Gaelic. The fact that the agency would be involved in language planning and in drawing up an overall strategy for Gaelic would represent a major step forward. Such co-ordination and planning has been largely absent until recently and is widely seen as being vital to future development of the language.

The remainder of the recommendations have proved more controversial. The idea of a Scottish Executive “Department of the Gaidhealtachd” has been criticised on the grounds that most learners and almost half of Gaelic speakers live outside the Gaidhealtachd (Highlands). There is also a concern that if this department were to deal with other Gaidhealtachd related matters in addition to Gaelic that Gaelic would not be high on the department’s agenda. Many Gaelic activists are, therefore, calling for a Gaelic department.

The report also recommends that the Executive and Gaelic Agency should make a split between the “Gaelic Heartland”, “Rest of Gaidhealtachd” and “Rest of Scotland and Diaspora” when they are making policy for Gaelic. Many feel that such a split would be divisive and inappropriate. It has particularly been criticised on the grounds that Lowland Scotland would be placed in the same category as Gaelic speakers/learners abroad for the purposes of policy making. This is seen as inappropriate in that the Lowlands contain around 40% of all Gaelic speakers and a majority of Gaelic learners and also contain Greater Glasgow with 10,000 Gaelic speakers and Edinburgh & the Lothians with around 5,000 Gaelic speakers. Many Gaelic activists feel that the taskforce have not taken the views of learners and Lowland residents into account and that they have belittled the importance of the cities, the Lowlands and of the Gaelic learners.

This criticism has also been made of the recommendation that Gaelic development activities should be centralised in the Western Isles. While most, or all, Gaelic supporters are in favour of an expansion of Gaelic development employment and activities in the Western Isles, there is concern that a group based mainly in the Western Isles would not be able to properly understand or represent the Gaelic community in the Lowlands or Gaelic learners nationally. There is also a concern that the situation might continue where no national Gaelic agency has any office or representation in Edinburgh and where Gaelic groups have only minimal representation in Glasgow. Many are concerned with the prospect that Gaelic development work in Inverness might also be cut back. There have, therefore, been calls for a more decentralised structure with real power over Gaelic development being devolved throughout Scotland to ensure that Gaelic is represented not only in Island Gaelic communities, but also in Scotland’s main seats of power and population.

The ball is now in court of Alasdair Morrison MSP, Minister for Gaelic who now has to respond to the report’s recommendations.



The report is issued by the Scottish Executive, ISBN 1-84268-025-0, and available from The Stationery Office Bookshop, 71 Lothian Road, Edinburgh EH3 9AZ Scotland. (tel +44-870-606-5566).

Nettle, David & Suzanne Romaine — Vanishing Voices: the Extinction of the World’s Languages. Oxford University Press 2000.

Reviewed by Chris Hadfield

If the loss of language is a naturally occurring phenomenon then we should not complain that language is metamorphosing and relinquishing a whole host of new dialects and languages which will in turn form new languages. The problem with this statement is that this is precisely what is not happening. We are slowly creating a unified ‘global’ lingua franca. The predominance of English is in many respects a natural phenomenon; just like that distant language, named Proto Indo-European, from which a large chunk of the world’s languages derive. English (or Global Business English G.B.E.) is usurping the last pretender to the world-dominating linguistic throne.

Many languages have had stabs at this position: Latin, French, Russian and others. Some even say that Spanish is fast becoming a world language. Let’s take Latin as an example. Latin, unlike English, can be said to have had a beneficial effect on languages. Vulgar Latin gave light to, and nurtured a manifold of phyla mother languages, and of now complete languages: French, Catalan, Romanian and Portuguese to name a few of the survivors. Others like Rhaeto-Romance, Galician and Corsican have had a tougher time imposing themselves on the world. However, languages like Langue d’oc, Langue d’oil or Provençal are dead or moribund. Whatever! The outcome is a vast and varied collection of tongues. If English is half as fructuous then we can rest easier that languages will continue to evolve. But only time will tell. So far English has only spawned pidgins and creoles.

So why do we bemoan the passing of a language? In Darwinian terms – which the authors of this book lean towards when they compare language with species – evolution is the ‘survival of the fittest’. Indeed the authors intersperse their tame invective with environmental metaphors whenever they can. The answer to why we ought to care is beautifully embedded within the pages of this book and if you were unsure before you will be certain beyond a shadow of a doubt after.

The writing is not unacademic but finds that fine line between scholarly and laic in the presentation of a deeply disturbing fact that seems to pass by without the least attention being paid to it. Both the authors have distinct voices expounding their own personalities, but both voices share a common goal: that of underlining the dangers of losing languages. If Manx had been a sperm whale we would have had organizations, foundations and charitable societies chaired by a princess or duke with film stars shooting their mouths off about saving it … but lamentably it was not. Manx died with its last speaker in 1974. The authors quite rightly prick our consciences by continually referring to environmental issues or biodiversity. When a language dies so does the culture and way of thinking and inhabiting the world. As Sapir and Whorf explained, language can alter the way we view the world. We are informed of species and subcategories of fish in Hawaiian which are no longer used; fish hooks from Micronesian societies that Captain Cook thought better than Western methods, and in Dyirbal, hundreds of names of plants are disappearing because nobody can be bothered learning them. Indeed the wonderful ergativity of Dyirbal may be under threat.

There are times when reading this book that we might think we are reading some environmental or political pamphlet, or perhaps an anthropology article. This only goes to show that language is integral in society, and if Western methods of agriculture have been introduced into Balinese society to detrimental effects then it is not only the Western methods that are wrong, but also the way of thinking and acting from a Western perspective.

The book gives a holistic approach to language preservation, and no matter how diplomatic we may think we are, this book will unsettle us and perhaps even make us that bit angry. This is no bad thing and at least the book does what others have failed to do – that is put the plight of language loss firmly in front of us. The loss is inescapable but the lessons will hopefully be learned and the tide will change. Another favourable point in the book is its highlighting of how languages are lost; whether through colonialism, agronomy, mass immigration or widespread diseases.

At one point in the book we are informed of an American scholar who visited Finland. He found the language too complicated and suggested scrapping it in favour of English; yet a few pages on we are shown this is precisely what the Finns did to the Sami speakers. Who is guilty of language loss? I guess we all are.

Studies in Minority Languages, ed. Kazuto Matsumura.

Published (March 2000) by Dept. Asian and Pacific Linguistics, Institute of Cros-Cultural Studies, Graduate School of Humanities and Sociology, University of Tokyo, 7-3-1- Hongo, Bunkyo-ku, Tokyo 113-0033 Japan.

Reviewed by Nicholas Ostler

This is a collection of brief grammatical studies on 11 smaller languages: Wolaitta (SW. Ethiopia), Basque (W. Europe), Pwo Karen and Lisu (SE. Asia), Jiongnai (Guangxi, China), Bantik and Sumbawan (Indonesia), Sedeq or Seediq (Taiwan), Itelmen (E. Siberia), Iñupiaq (Alaska) and Quechua (S. America).

The work was undertaken by graduate students who have receivied Mitsubishi Trust Yamamuro scholarships. Since all papers are 3- 5 pages long, the work is at best an introduction to these various languages. They are in general clearly written and well set out, and the odd detail may be useful to other researchers.