Towards a Holistic National Language Policy for Scotland

By McConville, Mark | Scottish Language, Annual 2015 | Go to article overview

Towards a Holistic National Language Policy for Scotland


McConville, Mark, Scottish Language


The classical model of language planning holds that national language policy is motivated by the desire to 'minimise internal differences and maximise external ones' (Haugen 1966: 927). In order to minimise internal differences, the 'ideal' national language policy aims to have all citizens of the nation speaking the same language. On the other hand, maximising external differences would ideally involve having only citizens of the nation speak the language. In other words, speaking the national language becomes both a necessary and a sufficient condition for identifying citizens of the nation.

This notion of an optimal national language was the driving force behind the language policy in many of the new nations created during the heyday of European nation-building in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (e.g. Norway, Iceland, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Yugoslavia, Greece, Germany, Italy). However, in some nations, the pre-existing language ecology was so complex that some kind of sub-optimal national language policy was required, for example in bilingual nations such as Belgium, Switzerland and Finland, or in a nation like Ireland where the Irish language was too weak demographically to function as an optimal national language (despite early nationalist ideals).

For the last half century or so, Scotland has been involved in an (ongoing) process of reasserting its nationhood after 300 years of political union with England, a transition which has been accompanied by a number of interesting language-political developments. Scotland has always been a multilingual nation (MacKinnon 1991), and currently has three languages which are officially recognised in some way. The Gaelic Language Act 2005 recognises both English and (Scottish) Gaelic as official languages of Scotland which are to be treated with 'equal respect' by public authorities (McLeod 2006). In addition, there is another language, generally known simply as 'Scots', which has a semi-protected status in Scotland, under the terms of the Council of Europe's European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, as ratified by the government of the United Kingdom and implemented by the devolved Scottish government (Millar 2006). There are a number of different names for this language and its varieties--Lowland Scots, Lallans, Doric, Braid, Shaetlan--but none appears to be accepted by everyone. At the risk of causing offence, I will follow the European Charter ratification document and refer to this language as 'Scots' throughout the rest of this paper.

I will attempt to answer the following question: What kind of national language policy would best reflect the underlying dynamics of the multilingual language ecology of contemporary Scotland, taking into account the aspirations of its three main, overlapping language communities? In particular, given the competing claims of two indigenous languages (Gaelic and Scots) and one exogenous language (English), how should Scottish language policy-makers go about formulating a coherent, holistic national language policy, which assigns an appropriate role to all three national languages?

1. SOME TECHNICAL BACKGROUND

Ferguson (1966) distinguishes a number of different types of language based on the roles they are equipped to play in multilingual language ecologies. The three main types are:

(a) vernacular languages-everyday spoken languages used in families and local communities (in terms of Fishman's (1991) 'Graded Intergenerational Disruption Scale', intergenerational transmission of these languages has not yet ceased, or has been re-attained).

(b) standard languages--vernacular languages which have been augmented with a standardised written form.

(c) classical languages--standard languages which have died out as spoken vernaculars.

In other words, vernacular and standard languages are living, spoken, intergenerationally transmitted languages, whereas classical languages are not. …

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