Sunday, 7 October 2012

Why Wasn't Irish There?

Still seething (relatively) with righteous indignation following the latest correspondence from the Switchover Help Scheme, the Blether Region has been researching what languages are actually spoken in the United Kingdom. Its main gripe with the Help Scheme so far has been that the calculation to determine what languages should be available for download from the organisation's website has not been updated on a rolling basis in line with the actual timetable for switchover.

So it is that, because a lot of people speak certain languages in England, overwhelmingly the most populous part of the United Kingdom, those are the languages available for download from the Help Scheme website, despite the fact that everywhere in England has already completed the digital switchover.

One month after the digital switchover in a given region, the Help Scheme refuses all requests for help. The only English region where the switchover took place less than one month ago is Tyne-Tees.

The upshot of this is that, although 13 languages are available for download from the website, Irish and (Ulster) Scots are not among them — while certain other languages likely to have only a few hundred speakers in Northern Ireland remain.

This set the Blether Region thinking. According the Wikipedia page linked to above, Tamil, Gujurati and Kashmiri — at numbers ten, 11 and 12 on the list of most popular UK languages — have fewer speakers than Irish. Indeed, Tamil and Kashmiri aren't on the Help Scheme's list. But Gujurati is, despite having only 140,000 speakers. And two of the languages on the list are Hindi and Urdu, which, like Scots and Ulster Scots, are pretty much the same tongue spelt differently (albeit with traditional orthographies rather than invented ones).

Yet, according to the 2001 Census of Northern Ireland, 167,000 people have some facility in Irish. That figure is certain to rise this time around. And there are also certain to be many tens of thousands of Irish-speakers living in Great Britain.

It seems that Irish-speakers are being penalised not because there aren't enough of them but for the fact that they also speak English.

Of course, one could argue — and the Help Scheme probably would — that it is about communication rather than supporting minority languages. But the United Kingdom Government implicitly distanced itself from that jaded utilitarian philosophy when it signed the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages back in 1999. "Wait a minute!" the Help Scheme might say. "The stipulations for Irish were territorially defined and applied only to Northern Ireland". Indeed, and that is just what the Blether Region is asking for — something territorial that (like the Help Scheme itself nowadays) applies only to Northern Ireland.

Ethnic minority people living in the UK have a right to information in their own language if they would otherwise be unable to access a service. By disregarding the regional disparities in the UK, the Help Scheme is not only condemning autochthonous languages to further decline but welching on its duties to immigrant communities. Where, for example, are Portuguese, Lithuanian and Romanian on the download list, all languages with substantial numbers of speakers in Northern Ireland?

Nowhere, because London says so.

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