The Gàidhlig Questions

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[Written by John Tinneny (he/him)]
[Photo by v2osk on Unsplash]

Gàidhlig is a language that has arguably found itself at somewhat of a crossroads. One can point to reports, such as a recent study carried out in the Hebrides which warned that the language could die out within the decade, and that the future looks bleak. Taking a more optimistic view, you could concentrate on various cultural events like the annual Mòd. The
language’s newfound success on apps like Duolingo and its continued communal use, even over lockdown and through innovative means, proves that there are still reasons to be hopeful. With all this information, this is still a remote appraisal of the situation; what do people from Scotland think about the Gàidhlig, and its future, on a personal level? To try and get a better idea of individual attitudes towards the language, I interviewed Emma (she/her), Euan (he/him), Katie (she/her) and Viktor (he/him) about their relationship with it, its status in Scottish culture, and its future, and here is what they told me.

What is your experience with Gàidhlig? (e.g. native speaker, new learner, etc.)

Euan: I am a Gaelic learner.

Viktor: I am still a new learner, having spent only the past three years with the language, but in the past year and a half I have gotten more and more involved in the Gàidhlig world. I have had nothing but positive experiences in it, whether it is with other learners from all over the world. native speakers both in Glasgow, where I live, or out in the Western Isles.

Emma: I have little to no experience with Gàidhlig from growing up in the central belt. When you (rarely) find a Gàidhlig speaker, it is usually someone who has had the opportunity to go to Gàidhlig language schools in the larger cities and so our language skills tend to be reduced to just set phrases like “Slàinte mhath” and little more.

Katie: I didn’t properly start learning Gaelic until 1st year of university when I took it as an extra course (I came to do French and Maths); now my degree is in French and Celtic Studies. I did have some contact with Gaelic in primary school (in the highlands on the northwest coast) andthen in my first two years of high school when it was mandatory. However, my interest wasn’t piqued until I became involved in the traditional music scene in the latter end of high school (aged 16-17ish). 

How important do you think the language is in Scotland?

E: I think the cultural importance of Gaelic is integral to Scottish identity. For me specifically, it plays a huge role in the music I play, the way I act and dress, how I speak (in English) and the traditions I follow and celebrate.

V: I think the language is one of the great treasures of the country. It is Scotland’s only indigenous language and its culture – whether that is in the form of stories, names, poetry, song, history, religion, or dress – is rich, nuanced and profoundly underappreciated. It is no exaggeration to say that learning, speaking, and engaging with the language and its complicated place in history has changed my view on the world a lot.

Em: It definitely feels like an important part of Scotland, and one that people are hesitant to let disappear any time soon. Saying that, I would say Scots is given more importance nowadays than Scottish Gaelic since it is a recognised language still spoken by most of us and much easier to keep alive. The boost that has been given to Scots authors and language in schools has been fantastic and one that we can hopefully give to Gaelic too.

K: I think the language is so important to Scotland’s history, it is so integral to our heritage and culture – particularly in the Highlands. I think, whether we know it or not, Gaelic provides so much of Scotland with its distinctive identity from our place-names to the ways in which we speak (e.g. “smashing” (as in good) comes from Gaelic ” ‘s math sin” meaning “that’s good”). I think it is something we should treasure in a world that is becoming so quickly Anglophone and globalised. 

How do you see Gàidhlig developing in the future?

E: Gaelic is certainly gaining more and more traction. The key, in my opinion, is inspiring young people’s curiosity about their cultural identity. I feel one way that I am heavily involved in, will be through music. As more and more young people are exposed to events like Piping Live, Fèis festivals, Ceilidhs and even smaller sessions, these traditions will become more popular and engage more people. As a linguist, I feel you can gain an enormous amount of cultural understanding through engaging with traditions through their native language(s), even in a small way.

V: I am very worried for the future of Gàidhlig in Scotland. If the weakening and decline of the Gaels as a group continues the way it has for the last few hundred years, then we will lose our last remaining Gaelic vernacular communities within the next decade or two. No language has survived for more than a few generations without a territorial base, and it is almost unheard of for a minority language to reclaim territory from a majority language – once it is gone, it is gone for good. I am very worried that, without radical change, Gàidhlig will be among the roughly half of all languages that will go extinct within our lifetimes. That would be a great crime, not just against Gàidhlig and the Gaels, but against all of us – because languages and cultures comprise an important part of our collective inherited wealth.

Em: I think the future of Gàidhlig all depends on where the government decides to set its priorities. The issue at the moment is how few native speakers we have left, and for Gàidhlig to be given the chance to survive we need to make huge changes in its accessibility. For now the language is reserved to communities in the Highlands and Islands and a handful of Gàidhlig speaking schools around the country. If we could make Gàdhlig learning accessible to everyone from a young age, we just might be lucky enough to begin a revival similar to the rise in Welsh speakers in Wales.

K: I would love to see Gaelic moving in a positive direction towards a larger percentage of the population knowing and using the language but at this stage, it is hard to not become disheartened about its status. It is not too challenging to find Gaelic being spoken in professional domains (e.g. BBC ALBA), but in a domestic situation, it is a disappointing sight, to say the least. The lack of language transmission between generations and the lack of use outwith the professional domains is definitely part of the problem. At this point, all we can do is try our best to learn the language and potentially use it in the future. However, it is encouraging to see a new generation of Gaelic speakers becoming proud of their language since the “Dè an t-ainm a th’ort?” campaign/trend on Facebook. There has definitely been an increase in Gaelic language Instagram accounts entering the scene, this is good not only for the language but my own personal practice!


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