Magazine article The Spectator

Swamped by Riverdance

Magazine article The Spectator

Swamped by Riverdance

Article excerpt

LANGUAGE, as Norman Tebbit likes to remind us, is the essence of nationhood. It always has been. Proponents of the nationstate throughout history - Herder, Mazzini, Kossuth - have thought overwhelmingly in terms of linguistic units. In the early 19th century, poets and lexicographers scoured rural communities for the authentic vocabulary of their people. The first act of many independent European states was to codify and standardise a national tongue.

Ireland was no exception. A hundred years ago, conscientious Republican parents would send their children to remote Gaelic-speaking villages, sometimes accessible only by coracle, to pick up the language of their forebears. Now Gaelic is compulsory in Irish schools and required for many government jobs. Even in Northern Ireland, it is generously subsidised by the British taxpayer.

It is nationalism's dependence on language that should provoke more than a passing interest in the publication of the first grammar of Ulster-Scots, the idiom carried to Ireland by the earliest Scottish planters. The country areas of Antrim, north-east Down and east Donegal have long been known to dialectologists as a rich source of Scotch vocabulary. Words can be heard there that are almost extinct in Scotland: blate (shy), gunk (disappointment), fomenst (opposite), hain (to save something up). Perhaps 100,000 people understand Ulster-Scots, known to most of its speakers as 'Scotch' or `Braid Scotch', with some 15,000 using it in preference to English.

Until now Ulster-Scots has been seen as a dialect, albeit with some unusually colourful expressions. But setting rules of grammar and syntax is a conscious bid for status as a separate language. UlsterScots: A Grammar of the Traditional Written and Spoken Language, by Philip Robinson, is intended as a text for teachers and a guide in which native speakers can find standard written forms. It is laid out like the grammar of a completely foreign language, with detailed sections on verb endings, subordinate clauses and the use of prepositions. According to the author, an English phrase rendered in Ulster-Scots should contain not just different vocabulary, but a wholly different sentence structure. `The floor needs cleaning today' should become not `Thon flare needs cleaned the day,' but `Dae wi a guid clean, thon flare, sae it cud.'

There is no doubting Philip Robinson's scholarship. He has trawled expertly through old texts and poems, and studied contemporary spoken forms exhaustively. Yet it is difficult to shake off the feeling that the whole exercise is faintly Ruritanian. How strange to watch Ulster Protestants, famous for their pragmatism and understatement, engaged in reinventing archaic spellings. What could be driving the good, plain people of Ulster (or 'guid plen fowk o Ulster') into this enthusiasm for antique lays and ballads?

The answer, in short, is the `peace process'. Unionists know that the Republican tradition sees them as misguided Irish Protestants. (At least, the main Republican tradition does; there is another brand of Republicanism that regards them as settlers to be ethnically cleansed.) They now suspect that the British government is working with Dublin to cure them of their supposed false consciousness. …

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