Tuesday, 3 November 2009

When is a Debate not a Debate?


One formulation commonly heard regarding Ulster Scots is that there is a "debate" on its status, the specific question being whether it is a language or a dialect. The notion that Ulster Scots is a language is sustained by two areas of popular confusion, the first being the various meanings accorded to the word "language" with and without the article, hence the bad English — and good politics — of references to "the Ulster-Scots language and culture".

The second area of uncertainty — one clarified with regrettable infrequency — concerns the crucial issue of whether its putative status as an independent language is with regard to Standard English or Lowland Scots in Scotland. If it is the former, then Ulster Scots has exactly the same case as Scots as a whole, i.e. even if the answer is currently a qualified "no", an arguable case can be made, and an official declaration, while changing nothing linguistic in itself, is the logical first step in making language status an objective reality.

Those who claim that Ulster Scots is a language independent of Scots in Scotland rightly point out that the difference between language and dialect is a sliding scale with no universally accepted cut-off point. However, that sidesteps the question of whether Ulster Scots displays a degree of differentiation vis-à-vis Scots in Scotland that would situate it in the zone of reasonable doubt. For example, teenagers may exhibit characteristics of both children and adults, but that does not mean that babies are not clearly the former and pensioners clearly the latter.

Any genuine debate on according language status to Ulster Scots in contradistinction to Scots in Scotland would have to fulfil three criteria:

First, the epistemological basis of the debate would have to be clarified, i.e. both sides would have to agree that it would take place using exclusively linguistic criteria rather than, for example, admitting the validity of external declarations or covenants, whether political, bureaucratic or religious.

Secondly, the question would have to be debatable, i.e. the weight of evidence could not fall so overwhelmingly on one side of the argument as to preclude doubt.

Thirdly, the two sides, or the arbiters of the debate (currently the UK Government), would have to be open-minded enough to be persuaded by convincing argument rather than make decisions based on instinct, triangulation or expediency.

Positing the existence of a contemporary "debate" with regard to the status of Ulster Scots vis-à-vis Scots fails on all three counts. It is fundamentally not a neutral description of what is occurring in Northern Ireland.

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