“Indigenous: Welsh, Gaelic, Scots, Cornish and More” was an evening event recently held at the British Library here in London. Three creators who work in some of Britain’s “other” languages took part. Is it realistic to redefine “Britishness” to include some of the oldest Brits of all? What does it mean to create in these languages? What are the challenges and rewards if you learn them and maybe even get good enough to become a poet, playwright or songwriter yourself? I was in the audience for this rich discussion and here’s my report.
Meet the creators
The chair was British Library translator-in-residence Rahul Bery. Like me, he had a grandfather who was a native Welsh speaker. He hasn’t learned the language but he now lives in Cardiff and his children are in Welsh-medium education. It was Bery’s interest in “the permanence and cultural importance of the Welsh language, and other non-English but indigenous languages of the UK” that led him to organise the event.
Marcas Mac an Tuairneir (Mark Spencer-Turner) earns his living as a playwright, poet and musician. He writes in Gaelic and in English. He read us his Gaelic poem “Outlander” in the original and then in translation then in English.
Christine De Luca is known for her poetry in English and in the Shetlandic dialect of lowland Scots. (Scots itself developed in parallel with its close English relative further south.) Scots was brought to the Shetland from the end of the fifteenth century where it was influenced by Norn, the extinct Scandinavian language that had previously dominated on the island.
De Luca first read us a poem about her parents. It sounded beautiful and there was certainly a flavour of the Scandinavian to it. Then came a second poem that she wrote while on a residency in Iceland: “This life is never enough”. You can hear her speaking Shetlandic on the Wikitongues YouTube channel:
Gwenno Saunders released her first solo album in 2015, the Welsh-language Y Dydd Olaf (The Last Day). A second album followed in 2018: Le Kov(The Place of Memory). That’s in Cornish.
Personal routes into creative activity in a minority language
Both Christine De Luca’s parents were Shetlanders and she grew up there feeling “very grounded” as a native speaker. As a girl she left her community go to school in distant Lerwick (the capital). There she experienced a lot of regional varieties of the language.
Mac an Tuairneir comes from Irish community in York. He had one grandparent on each side from Ireland. Neither spoke Irish (Gaelic) but the memory of what he called “native bilingualism” was in the family. One great grandmother came from County Clare and had spoken Irish. HIs parents are folkies, they played albums from bands like Clannad (Irish), Runrig (Scottish – sing in English and Gaelic) and Capercaillie (who preform traditional Gaelic songs and also sing in English).
At Aberdeen University he studied French and Spanish languages and also started learning Scottish Gaelic. He started writing poetry in the language to convey his experience as a gay, (newly) Gaelic-speaking man.
Gwenno Saunders was brought up in an area of Cardiff that has not had many Welsh speakers for over a century. Her parents had moved there and were both language campaigners. She spoke Welsh with her mum and Cornish with her dad. He also speaks Irish and got her into Irish dancing. As a 17-year-old she moved to Las Vegas as a dancer. Later, living in London, she had a “moment of rebellion” joined the “Pippettes”, a group into “the trashiest, most flippant” elements of Anglo-American culture. As Saunders got older she started to reconnect with Welsh. This culminated her first solo album.
“Tir Ha Mor”, the first track from An Kov, Gwenno Saunders’ Cornish-language album:
Different traditions and their relationship with the “modern”
Rahul Bery asked whether these were “bardic tongues”. Were the borders between poetry and music were more fluid than in English? Was it easier to move between genres?
Mac an Tuairneir said that in the Gaelic tradition “if a poem wasn’t sung, it wasn’t any good at all”. The purer literary tradition of Gaelic poetry is relatively new. It only really goes back to Sorley MacLean (1911-1996). Mac an Tuairneir said that he tries “to do both”.
Gaelic music always had a traditional basis. This is being carried forward and developed by contemporary musicians (he mentioned Alasdair Whyte and also Mary Ann Kennedy and her relatives in the Campbell family (“tradition bearers” as this report puts it)).
There is a problem though, said Mac an Tuairneir. Enchanting though this music is, there is a “complete disconnect” to the worlds of many children from non-Gaelic speaking homes who now receive Gaelic-medium education. They need to see a connection. There needs to be more diversity. People involved in Gaelic do admire Welsh pop as there has been nothing like it in Gaelic.
Gwenno Saunders contrasted the current on-line world with the situation in the 1960s and ’70s. Then there was a hard-fought campaigns for a Welsh television channel (culminating in the creation of S4C in 1981). Now TV was much less relevant. Although S4C is investing in on-line content, the internet is a “sea” and you cannot control what children are engaging with. Yet this the medium today for “normalising the minoritised experience”.
Creators in a minority language: added responsibility and opportunity?
Rahul Bery said that when he writes poetry his only concern was that very poetry. Perhaps artists in these languages create “on behalf” of the culture in a different way?
Mac an Tuairneir said that when he was studying modern languages at Aberdeen University, there was indeed a special atmosphere in the the Gaelic lessons; a real sense that students were being given a gift to carry forward.
If Scottish Gaelic was to survive, it was important to have as many forms of media as possible. He felt that he was contributing to “keeping Gaelic poetry going”. There is no celebrity culture in Gaelic but poets are the “rock stars” of the language in the sense that they can open the lid on taboo subjects like the LGBT experience.
Saunders said that she enjoyed the innovation that is possible in Cornish, given the two hundred or so year gap in its development.
Welsh groups of the 1990s like Gorkys Zygotic Mynci, Super Furry Animals, Yr Anrhefn had rejected the idea of responsibility for the language. Welsh language pop and rock music had always been very politicised, but maybe the “tsunami” of the end of Communism had meant the end of idealism….
No escape from English?
Bery noted that Gaelic novelist Angus Peter Campbell insists on writing a weekly Gaelic column without a translation. What then is the role of English, if any? Is English a “crutch that you have to have” with bilingual editions and a translation of lyrics?
De Luca said English was a “bridge” not a crutch. She has published editions of her work in French Norwegian, Danish and Icelandic. This had only been possible through an intermediary English version. There just aren’t translators who know Gaelic and such other languages. She could always annotate an English translation to explain those “untranslatable” Shetlandic words for English readers or for translators into a third language.
Gwenno Saunders said that with music it was easier to bypass English. Even if you can’t understand the lyrics, you can “feel”. Film can do this too. She had recently watched a Basque film with sub-titles in Italian. Another way forward was performing poetry in the original with screen of moving images.
She noted that unfortunate tendency in Wales for direct translation from English officialese instead of “reimagining” in Welsh. In my experience, this is certainly a problem but, as Mac an Tuairneir pointed out, sometimes the issue isn’t bad translation. It’s that the reader have just hasn’t had the opportunity to learn to the specialist vocab and register. We don’t criticise complex English as a medium just because many native speakers won’t fully understand medical or legal texts. We need higher education in the languages as well, Mac an Tuairneir said. Saunders agreed.
The politics of “minoritised” languages
When Welsh, Cornish are mentioned at all, said Bery, it is often in a mocking tone: laughing at the Welsh word “ambiwlans” (ambulance) or the trope about going into a pub and the locals switching from English into Welsh to exclude “us”. The underlying allegation is that people are being difficult only to annoy.
Bery called for the political meaning of “Britishness” to be extended, not only in terms of more recent migration but also of communities that existed before English. All too often Britishness just means English and anything else is suspicious.
Throughout the evening, Gwenno Saunders described these as “minoritised” rather than as “minority” languages. That’s what I do on this site, too, because none of the communities that speak them ended up marginalised by accident. Even if linguistic shift follows predictable patterns, it is not a “natural” process. These communities are where they are because of the effects of unfavourable patterns of power.
De Luca contrasted the fate of Shetlandic language in the twentieth century with what happened was happening around 1900 in Norway. There, a political decision was taken to standardise and develop the Nynorsk (New Norwegian) language.
The same could have happened in Shetland, but didn’t. The Faroese linguist Jakob Jakobson did fieldwork on Shetland in the 1890s and published a massive “Dictionary of the Norn Language in Shetland”. There was another discussion around standardisation in the 1950s but there was “no appetite” for the project.
Since then, there has been a lot of language attrition on Shetland. Much of the vocabulary was related to the local economy and, De Luca explained, the decline of fishing, peat cutting and other traditional activities has led to words going out of regular use.
The “death knell” for Shetlandic, she said, was the oil boom that started in the 1970s. Schools were “flooded with southerners”. Parents stopped talking to their children in Shetlandic. The local council did not tackle the problem and even today is still “halfhearted” about the language.
De Luca goes round schools and put on free events and provide resources. “We are the stewards. We need to help children feel good about it”, she said. She was “fine” with English in schools, so long as it does not demean Shetlandic.
Gwenno Saunders contrasted the state funding for the Welsh language with the situation in Cornish, where the revival is “entirely grass roots”. The availability of state funding in Wales maybe encouraged Wales’ culture of interminable committees. In Cornwall, in contrast, people just “get things done”.
Saunders saw the potential for much more of a network between the indigenous languages “so that we can all learn from each other to create sustainability and a new dynamic”. Part of the problem, she suggested, is that all the languages are on the geographical peripheries of a a very centralised UK. “The UK isn’t working. It cannot deal with other cultures besides the dominant one”, she said.
De Luca said that in Scotland there were strange counter-currents; a “retro thing” going on, with people writing in archaic Scots.
Depending on definitions, Scotland is home to between 100,000 and one million passive Scots speakers of Scots. Nevertheless, the language hasn’t been spoken in formal situations for a couple of hundred years. De Luca appeared sceptical of some attempts to revive – or create – a modern standard Scots. She said that she would rather the language creatively in new contexts than try to “go back in time”.
She saw a risk that Scots became “a self-indulgence”. The language, she said, “shouldn’t be a plaything for the sophisticate”. Here she took a swipe at the new Arts and Humanities “Delocalising Dialect” research network which, the internet tells me, “explores how dialect may be untethered from geographical location to generate new distinct critical and creative meaning”.
An “open” family affair?
During questions and answers at the end of the evening, the discussion returned to question of roots and the wider appeal of that the indigenous languages need if they are to grow.
Gwenno Saunders pointed out that the communities were really quite open and fluid. Her her parents had grown up in England. She also feels a strong connection with the multicultural community that she grew up with in Cardiff (including the UK’s oldest Somali community). She said that she also felt a strong connection with the community in Cornish, through the internet.
Saunders still stressed the sense in which language is about “community and closeness”. It “ties you in”. That’s the answer, she said, to those who are against Welsh and who ask, with hostility, “why can’t people learn Mandarin instead?”. I’d say that Saunder’s message was that people do still want an identity and language can be a big part of this.
Mac an Tuairneir said that people came from all over the world to study Gaelic at the Gaelic College on the Island of Skye and his links with that institution had given him international a network of friends.
“Interest, commitment and respect are what you need. Family connections are a bonus”, said De Luca.
So, family connections or not, don’t be shy of starting to learn an indigenous or “lesser-used” language. Check out some of my other articles on Welsh and Gaelic (links below) and my posts on Basque (see the articles tab at the top of the site). Even if you’re not going to learn, there’s a whole culture out there you can explore and – depending on the medium – you might even get by without a translation.
Related posts: Ten reasons to learn Welsh ; Ten ways to support Welsh, even if you don’t speak the language ; How to remember the gender of Welsh nouns and when it matters ; Dr Popkins Method? Getting fluent in Welsh ;The visibility of Scottish Gaelic: a signage safari ;