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?