Edinburgh Companion to Twentieth-Century Scottish Literature

By Ian Brown; Alan Riach | Go to book overview

CHAPTER FOURTEEN
Language and Identity in
Modern Gaelic Verse

Michelle Macleod

Sociolinguists and (linguistic) anthropologists have long believed that language is one of the key factors in determining a person’s identity. One eminent scholar, Joshua Fishman, states in the Introduction to his Handbook of Language and Ethnic Identity (1999) that

although language has rarely been equated with the totality of ethnicity, it has,
in certain historical, regional and disciplinary contexts been accorded priority
within that totality […] How and when the link between language and ethnic-
ity comes about, its saliency and potency, its waxing and waning, its inevitabil-
ity and the possibility of its sundering, all need to be examined.1

Fishman also believes that when one’s ‘ethnically associated language is restricted or denigrated, the users who identify with it are more likely to use it among themselves (and to organise in order to have it accepted and recognized by others) than if no grievance existed’.2 It is perhaps not surprising, therefore, that issues relating to language – language loyalty, language death, language shift and the relationship between language and identity and language and location – are common in modern Gaelic poetry. At a time of increasing linguistic fragility, Gaelic writers and poets have often been fierce defenders of the language and have perhaps contemplated more than most the consequences to one’s identity should the language be lost. Perhaps in some way their writing is equivalent to Fishman’s ‘organisation’ to improve status as well as embodying their own examination of the link between language and ethnicity.

This chapter will concentrate on the works of George Campbell Hay (1915–84), a poet in many languages, a nationalist and keen supporter of the Gaelic language, and Derick Thomson (1921–), possibly the twentieth century’s most prolific Gaelic scholar and poet and also a Scottish Nationalist. It will also discuss how other poets have referred to the issue of language, and by way of contrast with the ‘senior’ poets, the issue will be considered in the works of subsequent generations with examples from poets for whom

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