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Gaelic Language

The future of Scottish English depends on the degree to which Scots go on using their version of an international language. The future of Gaelic, Scotland's second language, depends purely on whether people speak it or not. It is a completely separate tongue, with its unique vocabulary and grammar, as different from English as are Greek or Polish. But it is in trouble, despite a recent revival in interest. What was a thousand years ago the speech of Scotland's kings has now dwindled to the extent that less than 2 percent of the nation's inhabitants speak it.

The stronghold of Scottish Gaelic--which is closely related to, but quite distinct from, Irish Gaelic--is in the northwest Highlands and in the Western Isles, although large numbers of native speakers live in the Central Belt, especially in Glasgow (over ten thousand). The highest concentration of all occurs on the island of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides. The largest town there, Stornoway, is the base for the civic authority, the Western Isles Council (Comhiairle nan Eilean in Gaelic) and the true capital of the Scottish Gaelic-speaking world. Stornoway is the only town where you are likely to hear the language spoken regularly in the street. But even in the rural hinterland, one person in ten has no fluency in it.

Gaelic (pronounced "Gallic" by English-speaking Scots) is taught in schools in the area, and many children still learn it from their parents. But as Donald Maciver, Gaelic-speaking editor of the Western Isles' weekly newspaper, admitted in 1987, the steady decline in the number of speakers has not been halted: "The reality of it is that the kids in the village who once spoke Gaelic don't nowadays. English is the language of the playground."

Gaelic survives as a literary language, thanks to poets like Sorley MacLean, Derick Thomson and lain Crichton Smith. But efforts to bring it into the world of commerce, politics and technology are painfully difficult. Mr. Maciver's paper, the Stornoway Gazette, is published almost entirely in English. The council conducts its debates in English because there are always a few members who can't manage Gaelic. What steps the council has taken--changing all the name signs for towns and villages to Gaelic spelling, for example--often seem to run into obstacles. "Barvas" may be "Barabhas" on the new sign, but it's still Barvas on every available map.

Envious eyes are cast southward to the United Kingdom's other Celtic state-within-a-state, Wales. The Welsh, with hundreds of thousands of native speakers, have their own TV channel. Some Highlanders and Islanders believe more Gaelic TV, beyond the few programs now broad-cast, would be just the tonic needed to give the language credibility among the young.

All Scots are familiar with scraps of Gaelic. Some words and phrases have passed into Scottish English, like slainte-mhath, a drinking toast, and ceilidh, a Highland-style evening of music, dance and drink. Besides, virtually every hill, mountain, river and loch north of the Central Belt has a Gaelic name. Translating these wild-sounding, hard-to-pronounce names into English can make the ancient Gaels less remote to us: They did no more to make themselves feel at home than the early American settlers who christened Little Rock and Salt Lake City. Beinn Dearg, for instance, means Red Mountain; Drumochter, where the main road between Perth and Inverness crosses a high pass, should really be Druimuachdair, meaning Summit Ridge; Loch an Eilean is Island Loch.

But as far as global English is concerned, Gaelic has contributed just one common word by which it can be remembered, particularly in the advertising agencies and campaign offices of the world: "slogan," originally sluagh ghairm, the war cry of the Highland clans.

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