Wednesday, 17 February 2016

Divided We Fall

Whether it is the Daily Fail spewing its hateful diatribe and labelling it as news, or a misty-eyed romantic overlooking inconvenient facts that get in the way of their interpretation of a historical event, there will always be bias and one-sidedness when it comes to any kind of reporting of fact.

Right now my studies are plunging me into the fascinating history of Scotland and of the Gaelic Language and Culture. It's interesting to know a few facts about what has happened, and also more than a little depressing to see that, over the past few hundred years or so, the people who have mistreated the Scottish people the most have mainly been their fellow countrymen. The English are of course 'The Auld Enemy' despite the good ones (we'll ignore those), and the French are 'The Auld Alliance' as long as we gloss over the bits when the bad guys - 'The Auld Enemy' - were called upon to help rid Scotland of the French regent and stop all these pesky French blokes being appointed to high office. But as I say, we'll move on from such inconvenient facts to the present day.

Most people who know of Scottish Gaelic have also heard of 'Outlander', a series of fictional books dramatised for the screen by an American production company. As part of 'Outlander' is set in 18th Century Scotland, Gaelic is spoken. This has proved to be a massive boon for the Gaelic language, which is doing its very best to ride that wave and promote awareness.

One of the great challenges to face in the light of Outlander is to convince the curious that Gaelic is still very much a modern, living, breathing language. Many references to Gaelic link it to the past, as if it only serves a purpose in the interpretation of history and doesn't offer much for today or tomorrow.

It is not just the raising of Gaelic awareness and the demonstration that Gaelic is very much a living language today that are the battles many people fight on an almost daily basis.

One of the reasons I keep this blog is promote tolerance and understanding between those of us learning Gaelic, and those who speak it 'bho thùs' (native speakers). Us learners need to understand that, for many reasons and in many cases, you can't just normally bound up to a Gaelic speaker you don't know and expect them to speak Gaelic with you straight away. After a lifetime of only speaking Gaelic with close friends and family, this sudden surprise may come as quite a shock. Likewise, native speakers need to understand that most learners would be in seventh heaven to share a bit of craic with a native speaker - with the learner widening their vocabulary and improving fluency, and the native speaker maybe understanding a bit more about what motivates people to learn this beautiful and complex language, and helping encourage new speakers to keep Gaelic alive.

There are many, many other people who work tirelessly to promote Gaelic and spread the love whenever they can.

That is why I am absolutely fuming about the people who produce Outlander promoting their wares by launching a series of 'Speak Outlander' videos, to teach the viewers a word or two of Gaelic. In essence, it sounds like a good idea.

However, the picture above is a screen shot from the very first video. It says:

'Sassenach (sic) - Outlander or foreigner; more specifically an English person; usage generally derogatory'

Now, my understanding of 'Sassenach' (or even 'Sasannach') was actually that it simply meant somebody from England, none of this 'foreigner' or 'derogatory' business. So I asked a couple of respected folk in the Gaelic world - Adhamh o' Broin included - to ask where this 'derogatory' usage came from. And indeed, if the Gaelic word used to describe me is a derogatory one, then what is the non-derogatory Gaelic word for someone from England?

Of course, in modern context, 'Sasannach' isn't derogatory at all. Maybe it was back in the 18th Century, but it isn't today, at least not in Gaelic (although maybe in Scots).

It's a pity, then, that the first Gaelic word that many thousands of people are learning is actually being presented with its 18th century meaning and not its 21st century meaning. Is that made clear? Of course it isn't. After all, you should never let the facts get in the way of a bit of cheap promotion.

The irony is, this is in danger of turning more people against Gaelic than attracting them to it. There are enough obstacles for the learner to overcome as it is, and it is this kind of covert racism that has me wondering why I am bothering to learn Gaelic at all.


  1. I think you need to smile - sometimes it's impossible to shake of the 'outlander' sticker, but as a new speaker, you can give a new meaning to it, demonstrating there are many kinds of 'outlanders' and that you are one of a kind ;)
    And in times of doubt, remember that you are learning gaelic because it is useless, just like climbing an Munroe, reading Plato or eating chocolate ;)

    1. Sorry for the delay in commenting - only just seen your reply! You're right of course, but sometimes the distance-learner is in a lonely place, and what you really need is bonds rather than barricades. Sure, I'm as embarrassed as hell sometimes by the sayings and actions of some of my fellow countrymen - just as many of my Scottish friends can be! But there is a huge, huge difference between good-humoured banter between friends (which I enjoy) and teaching people separatism. We all know that it's all just a wee bit more complex than 'Scotland good, England bad.' I guess I'm upset because I love Scotland enough to learn its language, yet sometimes you get slapped by those you respect for your efforts.