Saturday, 2 April 2011

A Grumphie's Gub

Irish-speakers across Northern Ireland have been wrestling with the question of whether to fill out their census form in English or to stick to their principles and do so in Irish, thus risking a hefty fine.

Some readers will no doubt have assumed that there is no such dilemma. After all, Irish and Ulster-Scots versions of the form are available on request. However, those are merely "shadow" forms, ostensibly intended to aid comprehension (on the same basis as Polish, Punjabi and Urdu forms). Indeed, the Blether Region even heard of one Irish-speaker being offered an interpreter to help her fill out the English questionnaire.

Irish-speakers are of course bilingual and perfectly capable of filling out the form provided. But they believe it to be their human right to do it in Irish. As completing the census questionnaire is for the most part a matter of ticking boxes and inserting numbers, with the forms read by computer, and as the form has already been translated, they have something of a point.

Speakers of Scottish Gaelic and Welsh are spared the soul-searching, since their right to fill out versions of their census form in their respective Celtic language is officially recognised, regardless of their assumed degree of proficiency in English. It is, after all, an axiom of practical linguistics that, when it comes to speaking a language, it is often a matter of "use it or lose it".

Nor is that the only double standard, since the Scots and the Welsh have bilingual signs on the roads, at train stations, and on ferries, simultaneous translation in their elected assemblies, and publicly funded radio and television stations. They also have legislation to protect their languages, with public bodies required to produce plans on how they intend to promote them.

One wag in last month's edition of An tUltach offered the following opinion on the matter.

"tuigeann madraí na sráide gur mó an seans atá ag práta i mbéal muice ná Acht na Gaeilge tacaíocht an Aire Chultúir, Nelson McCausland, a fháil."

Or as we might say in Scots:

"the dugs in the street unnerstaunds that a tattie haes mair chance in a grumphie's gub nor the Cultur Meenister, Nelson McCausland, haes o haudin haund tae an Erse Leid Act."

Nelson McCausland may or may not be on the way out, but the question of how to resolve the considerable disjuncture in the treatment of indigenous Celtic languages between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom remains.

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