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A New Breath of Life for Gaelic?

Aug 2014

Language ,


Of Scotland’s 5.3 million residents around 57,600 speak Gaelic, according to the 2011 census. That’s a little over 1%. If you go back a century, that number increases five-fold. Another century earlier and that number was almost twenty times higher.

Despite Gaelic being so ingrained in the history of Scotland, it was only nine years ago in 2005 that the Scottish Parliament granted the language official recognition. As part of the Gaelic Language Act 2005, the Parliament tasked the Gaelic Language Board with “securing the status of the Gaelic language as an official language of Scotland commanding equal respect to the English language.”

Scottish politics has obviously come quite some way from the brutal linguistic incursions of the nineteenth century. Even with 142 years to recover, the language is still reeling from the destruction of its communities and its institutional smothering caused by the Highland Clearances  and Education (Scotland) Act 1872 respectively.

The damage of two and a half centuries’ decline is hard to undo and for Gaelic to command equal respect to English will require substantial time and work.

For example, the place of a traditional language in Scotland’s national identity is far weaker than in neighbouring Celtic countries like Wales and Ireland. What it is to be Scottish has far less to do with Gaelic than Welsh to Cymraeg. In a recent poll, over a third of respondents considered Gaelic “unimportant” or “very unimportant” to their sense of national identity.

For the past 200 years, every national census has shown a decline in people speaking Gaelic. Now, with only a handful of speakers remaining, that trend looks like it may finally be ready to reverse itself.

Between 1991 and 2001, the number of Gaelic speakers fell by 11%. Between 2001 and 2011, the decline was a mere 1.2%. While it’s not cause for champagne and celebration, it is a much more welcome figure than the double digit plummets we have become used to.

While speakers of the language are still decreasing, Robert Dunbar of University of Edinburgh claims the figures in the latest census are cause for “guarded optimism.”

“It amounts to a stop in the decline,” says Dunbar. “Also, the number of young Gaelic speakers under the age of 20 had inched up by 0.1 per cent.”

The small rise in younger speakers owes a lot to the cities. The big cities, which were some of the first places to replace Gaelic, are seeing a rebirth of the language. Schools providing Gaelic medium education (GME), a system where pupils are taught primarily through Gaelic, are now common throughout Glasgow, Edinburgh, and the Highlands and Islands. With a new generation finally being immersed in Gaelic from a young age, this could be the turning point.

If this modern rebirth continues, Gaelic will join a large brace of other languages spoken in an increasingly multilingual Scotland. The last census reported that the nation contained 56,000 Scots speakers, 54,000 Polish speakers, 13,000 British Sign Language users and 230,000 speakers of assorted other languages.

This polylingual is landscape fascinating and the future of the traditional language is incredibly intriguing. Is there a new mainstream future for Gaelic? We’re not sure. One thing’s for sure though, we’ll be watching with bated breath, beady eyes and open ears.

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