Mother Tongue

If you aren’t interested in the Olympics, the choice of British television to watch has become even more restricted. Fortunately, last weekend, BBC Alba was showing live sets from the Belladrum music festival. There was one point where one of the organisers explained something along the lines of Belladrum hosting all kinds of music: rock, indie, folk and soul. That reminded me of “both kinds of music: country and western”, but actually, it was OK with me. Rock, indie, folk and soul is fine.

BBC Alba is the Scottish Gaelic service, but parts of the programme were in English (such as interviews with English artists or other foreigners), and most of the rest was subtitled in English. The Gaelic sounds very like Irish to me, and I’m curious how intelligible it would be to a fluent Irish speaker who didn’t otherwise know the language. I only have a little Irish (Cad é mar a tá tú? Póg mo thóin!) but I’m sure I picked up the occasional word.

It’s no accident if Scottish Gaelic is like Irish, or rather, it is: historic accidents. The language originated with settlers and colonists from Ireland in the early Medieval period, when the kingdom of Dál Riata held territories on both sides of the sea. Over the next few hundred years, the colloqial language developed separately from Irish, but at the same time, “classical” Irish was the literary language, and therefore the guide of how to talk proper. Modern Gaelic supposedly still shows this later Irish flavouring.

It’s a wry twist that the other language in Scotland in the early modern period, Scots, also suffered damage from its southern cousin, English in that case. Scots had developed independently from English, from an Anglo-Saxon dialect, Anglian (rather than the West Saxon that forms the core of English), but its use in high society was eroded by English influence in the royal court and nobility.

ulster-scotsScots, unfortunately, is dead, although it has been nailed to its perch in Northern Ireland, where both Irish and Ulster Scots have official support. (It seems that some fans of Irish are in favour of public funding for Ulster Scots so that their own hobby gets a quid pro quo.) There certainly is still a rich heritage of Scots words in use (in fact, a quare wheen of them) but little trace of a distinct grammar.

belfast irishIrish is definitely still a living language, and a historic and culturally important one. But in no sense is it the aboriginal language of our ancestors. Like English, it arrived from over the sea as the property of an economic elite, and gradually displaced the language previously spoken. Archaeology shows that the first Celtic culture arrived in Ireland by the fourth century BC, presumably bringing the language with it.

But the process of replacement took hundreds of years, and doesn’t seem to have been complete even by early Christian times, when the Érainn, Laigin and Cruthin were considered to be “non-Irish” peoples. Though nobody knows what language or languages were spoken prior to Irish. I imagine that Basque might give a hint: an old, unique language with no historical link to anything else.

On the genetic front though, things are much clearer, and quite different. Rather than a diverse matrix as in languages, the genetic makeup of Europe is surprisingly uniform. You might have heard that genetic traces can be detected, of, say, the Anglo-Saxons arriving in Britain, or Viking settlement along the Atlantic coasts. But that is misleading.

Those are only slight statistical differences on top of a broad level of similarity. In fact, the prevailing scientific theory is that our ancestry was mainly laid down in a single historical process: the repopulation of Europe after the end of the last Ice Age. A single group gradually spread west and north, beginning to populate Ireland by about 8000 BC.

So it seems that cultural evolution is much, much faster than biological evolution. Even though Europeans are genetically uniform, a wide diversity of language and cultural practices has emerged over a few thousand years, although maybe the internet and modern communications will put a stop to that.


2 thoughts on “Mother Tongue

  1. Whereas other Celtic nations already had existing folk music cultures before the end of the 1960s this was less true in Cornwall and the Isle of Man , which were also relatively small in population and more integrated into English culture and (in the case of Cornwall) the British State. As a result there was relatively little impact from the initial wave of folk electrification in the 1970s. However, the pan-Celtic movement, with its musical and cultural festivals helped foster some reflections in Cornwall where a few bands from the 1980s onwards utilised the traditions of Cornish music with rock, including Moondragon and its successor Lordryk. More recently the bands Sacred Turf, Skwardya and Krena, have been performing in the Cornish language .

  2. and was popularized in the catchphrase Beidh ceol, caint agus craic againn (“We’ll have music, chat and craic”), used by Seán Bán Breathnach for his Irish-language chatshow SBB ina Shuí , broadcast on RTÉ from 1976 to 1982.

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