Wednesday, 13 October 2010
In 1996 the Coen brothers made a very wonderful film called Fargo, which happens to be set in their home state of Minnesota, an area of the United States historically settled by Swedes. The DVD version contains the usual making-of documentary, in part of which the film-makers discuss the movie's "dialect" content. Anyone who has seen it will know that it contains little or no dialect; what some of its characters do exhibit is a slight accent and a distinctive intonation or lilt. The degree to which this differs from a mainstream American accent, its uniqueness and distribution are evidenced by a recent comment by an American impressionist, who described the former vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin as being "so Minnesota". Mrs. Palin is from Alaska.
Why the Coen brothers might have conflated accent and dialect is, of course, easily explained: in the United States there is simply much less of the latter.
This brings us to some conflations closer to home, some of which have positively beset public discourse about Ulster Scots.
"Translator" and "Interpreter"
Commentators often rail against the notion of Scots translators by pointing out that everyone can understand the dialect perfectly well. With linguistic accommodation, this may very well be true on a face-to-face (i.e. spoken) basis. That does not alter the fact that considerable linguistic skill is necessary to use Scots (or, indeed, many of England's traditional dialects) productively in written form, including if one is asking someone to produce a translation. The fact that many "Ulster-Scots" translations are so bad merely proves the point.
"Translator" and "Transcriber"
Some readers will remember the furore surrounding the appointment of an Ulster-Scots "translator" to the Northern Ireland Assembly in 1999. In fact, there was no translation involved; the successful candidate was to be called on to transcribe any Scots spoken in the Assembly for the Official Report — on top of the full workload of an English transcriber, and for no additional pecuniary benefit.
"Language" in General and Particular
That some Ulster-Scots activists have actively exploited the differing meanings of language with and without the article should by now be obvious. Of course Ulster Scots is language, but it is not and has no potential to be a language.
"Language" vis-à-vis English and "language" vis-à-vis Scots
Almost universally, commentators fail to distinguish between the notion of Ulster Scots as a language separate from English and that of its being a language separate from Scots, at times acting as if the former were as ridiculous as the latter. True, in the present day the claim that Scots is not currently subordinate to an overall English system may be doubtful. One can at least debate it, however, and even if the answer is "no", it is a "no" subject to considerable qualification. On the other hand, the norie that Ulster Scots is not Scots is, where not an example of ignorance, sophistry or downright lies, a faith-based position and, as such, not amenable to reasoned debate.