Thursday, 14 April 2011

Fair Play to Them — but what is it?

The Guardian reports on the sad fate of an indigenous Mexican language whose two remaining speakers do not get on, a reminder that many speech varieties are worse off than the Celtic languages, without the same user numbers, interest or resources.

Be that as it may, what the Blether Region found more interesting was the readers' comments section, a glance at which confirms that hard-line "utilitarian" views on language maintenance are by no means confined to Northern Ireland. What is different, however, is that, among educated Britons at least, such views serve to put one in a distinct minority. Nor are they — as is largely the case in Northern Ireland — the preserve of a discrete faith community.

In Scotland, whose nationalism is based mainly on institutions rather than language, there are also many individuals who do not "get" the value of Gaelic or Scots. And yet Scottish Gaelic — and, nowadays, Scots — is promoted nonetheless, with the enthusiastic backing of the Scottish Government, including in the public sphere.

What is the lesson for Northern Ireland? Well, one could simply back Irish according to demand. Since there is much more interest in Irish in Northern Ireland than there is in Scottish Gaelic in Scotland — evidenced, for example, in the number of learners — that would likely result in rather better provision. Or one could take into account the opposition of Unionists, do a quick sum, and halve the provision. Either way of thinking would probably lead to better treatment of Irish than is currently the case.

However, the problem with the second approach is that it lends credence to the zero-sum argument that promotion of Irish somehow disadvantages Unionists. If one accepts that, it is a small step to rejecting Irish provision entirely on the same argument — as in fact happened a few years ago when an attempt was made to introduce dual-language signs at Queen's University. Indeed, some people have even claimed that there should be no bilingual signage until the number of Irish-speakers has reached more than 50% of the Northern Ireland population (one could argue with the logic of that, since the starting point of monolingual English-language signage might well suggest monolingual Irish-language provision at that stage).

Bilingualism is, of course, always about the linguistic minority. Much has been made recently of the extent to which changes to the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement might help to alter the sectarian dynamic of Northern Ireland politics. At the moment vetoes exist in the Executive and, through "petitions of concern", in the Assembly. But why allow sectarianism to extend its sphere of influence into questions that have nothing to do with it? Why allow reform of the policy on grammar-school admissions, whose chief beneficiaries will be working-class Protestants, to be blocked as if it were an attempt to introduce official flag days for the tricolour? Should such extravagant claims not be subjected to a test?

Similarly, it is time to recognise that bilingualism disadvantages no one, something that any truly impartial arbiter — perhaps one of those educated Britons — would accept reflexively.

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