Thursday, 3 June 2010

The Ulster Museum controversy (9)

In Northern Ireland we have two indigenous or autocthonous minority languages, Irish and Ulster-Scots.  They are part of our linguistic heritage and both of them have contributed to our placenames and to the Ulster dialect that most of us use every day.  An awareness of the influence of both languages in Ulster can contribute to better understanding, good relations and a shared future.

However in the section of the Ulster Museum entitled 'Plantation to Power Sharing' there is a marked difference in the treatment of the two languages.  At one point the relationship between the Gaelic language of Scotland and the Gaelic language of Ireland is highlighted and there is an opportunity to hear Gaelic being spoken.  Unfortunately there is no corresponding acknowledgement of the influence of the Scots language in Ulster and no opportunity to hear Ulster-Scots being spoken. 

The Ulster-Scots language has been excluded and I really do not understand why it was decided to accommodate one minority language in this way and yet exclude the other.  What possible reason or explanation could there be?

The United Kingdom government, including the Northern Ireland Executive, is committed to implement the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages.  In Northern Ireland the two recongised minority languages are Irish and Ulster-Scots and under Part 2 of the charter there is a requirement to 'take resolute action to promote' the languages.  Indeed my department chairs the Interdepartmental Charter Implementation Group on the implementation of the charter. 

Surely the exclusion of the Ulster-Scots language from this exhibition is a breach of the obligation to 'take resolute action'?


  1. Is it possible that the Ulster Scots Language/Ullans is losing out because perhaps within its 'own communnity' it is being scorned.

  2. Many of those linguists who have time and again pointed out that Ulster Scots and Scots are the same language — and urged policy-makers to acknowledge that fact — would relish the idea of giving museum visitors the opportunity to contrast and compare varieties of the leid on the two sides of the Sheuch.

  3. Certainly the Ulster-Scots language is not being treated with the respect and equality promised in the Belfast Agreement, or with that required under the European Charter.

    It is nearly 10 years since these promises were also made by DCAL in its 'Ulster-Scots Future Search programme', and reinforced by the commitments made by both governments at all critical stages in the current peace process.

    The transfer of Policing and Justice powers was not the last part of the process to be completed - the outstanding commitments to Ulster-Scots language development are.

    The museum treatment is just a small symptom of the more difficult problem of changing the hostility and scorn with which it is treated throughout the political and cultural establishment.

    10 years ago DCAL accepted that there was a community perception of 'endemic prejudice' against Ulster-Scots in government departments, and undertook to take the lead in a major 'culture shift and awareness training' programme.

    The Ulster-Scots community has good reason to believe that the situation has in fact worsened and continues to deteriorate

  4. Charlie - There is certainly a need for a coherent strategy for the Ulster-Scots language and one element in that must be to address the problem that you identify.

  5. Does speaking slang words in a Ballymena farmer's accent count as a language?

    Surely more of a dialect than a language, derived from the early Scottish planters. Some bright wee prod realised that the fenians were getting EU money for speaking Gaelic and decided they wanted a piece of the cake too.

  6. The problem with that "Scots Anorak" is that if they are indeed the same, how could the Ulster Scots variety be indigenous to this Island?

    Can you let us know who these linguists actually are?

  7. A small question for the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure:

    Why were you and Mr. Dodds paying your respects at the funeral of an ex-UVF/RHC member? Yes I know, I know Minister, things have moved on blah, blah - but I would genuinely like to hear your justifications other than the afore-mentioned.

  8. shroompicker23 - You describe Ulster-Scots as 'speaking slang in a Ballymena farmer's accent'. I would suggest that you read some of the standard works on the subject such as The Hamely Tongue by James Fenton or the grammar of Ulster-Scots by Dr Philip Robinson. You might also read the chapter on Ulster-Scots in the Edinburgh Hhistory of the Scots Language. It would also be helpful if you got an English dictionary and looked up the meaning of the word 'slang'. After that you might be in a better position to comment although information does not necessarily deal with prejudice.

    On the issue of language and dialect, that is something I have touched on in the past on several occasions.

    Finally, as regards the murder of Bobby Moffett I do not understand what you mean by 'other than then afore-mentioned'. I think the message from the Shankill last week was very clear and it was that murder is wrong. Is that not a good message?

  9. I'm all for the promotion of Ulster Scots but I think Charlie has a fair point. Surely the promotion of Ulster Scots has to come from the will of the public to learn and speak the language. The Irish language has been embraced by many in the North as seen by the number of Irish language schools. There is a willingness among communities in N. Ireland to actually learn and embrace the Irish language.

    This seems to be lacking as regards to Ulster Scots. Sometimes it seems that money is being spent on initiatives that the community don't seem to want. Are there any figures indicating the number of people actually actively learning Ulster Scots over the past 5-10 years? Is the figure rising? Are there figures indicating interest in actually learning it?

    Ulster Scots should be promoted but not if not wanted. that is simply wasting money to make a point or to ensure some sort of cultural equality. What expense is cultural equality going to come at?

  10. My comments may be interpreted as facetious but I am certainly not prejudiced, Mr McCausland - so please don't rush to a default stance, language is a bit more nuanced than that. Seems I am not allowed to legitimately question your attempts to raise a quaint dialect to status of distinct language. James Fenton and Dr. Philip Robinson are Ulster-Scots enthusiasts and not linguists as far as I can establish...

    I'd like to be convinced Mr McCausland, I really would, but I keep coming back to the same conclusion: Ulster-Scots is not a language distinct from Scots, which itself has insecure status.

    It’s all seen as an attempt to stymie the Irish Language Act – by both sides of our
    Community I would add.

    I did look up ‘slang’ at your suggestion:

    1. very informal usage in vocabulary and idiom that is characteristically more metaphorical, playful, elliptical, vivid, and ephemeral than ordinary language.

    2. speech and writing characterized by the use of vulgar and socially taboo vocabulary and idiomatic expressions.

    3. to assail with abusive language.

    So, I am no further along.

    Listen, I totally respect everyone’s right to their heritage and culture but to try and apply cultural relativism as you are seemingly trying to do with setting Irish Language against Ulster-Scots is going to lead nowhere and end up divisive.

    Re Bobby Moffett

    What I meant by ‘afore-mentioned’ was other than ‘things have moved on’ earlier in my sentence.

    My issue is if there are further such incidents as this will there be a grading-scale applied of former loyalist paramilitaries when deciding on whether to attend a funeral or not, let’s say from Greysteel Massacre Gang down to membership of a proscribed organisation or will you be applying relativism here too?

  11. The Chapter on Ulster-Scots in the 'Edinburgh History of the Scots Language' was written by Professors R Gregg and M Montgomery - both highly respected linguists.

    Further recommended reading might include the indispensable volume of academic essays in 'The Academic Study of Ulster-Scots: essays by and for Professor R J Gregg' published by the NMGNI.

    I personally have never heard anyone describe Ulster-Scots as linguistically separate from the Scots or English languages. It is a European Regional Minority language with the same distinct status and recognition as that separately afforded to East and West Frisian, and Irish and Scots Gaelic, and recently to Welsh and Cornish Celtic.

  12. Philip Robinson said:

    "I personally have never heard anyone describe Ulster-Scots as linguistically separate from the Scots or English languages. It is a European Regional Minority language with the same distinct status and recognition as that separately afforded to East and West Frisian, and Irish and Scots Gaelic, and recently to Welsh and Cornish Celtic."

    The inference that I draw from this is that Dr. Robinson believes Irish and Scottish Gaelic to be two dialects of the same language, but that has not been the case in the written language since the seventeenth century (the spoken languages started to diverge much earlier), and the last linking dialects have now died out. Mutual intelligibility is not even as good as between Italian and Spanish.

    Scots has a main dialect called "Central Scots". The Ulster dialect is so close to Central Scots that the language of the Ulster "weaver" poetry is in many cases literally indistinguishable from it. In Scotland itself, on the other hand, some 30% of users speak dialects that are *more* different from Central Scots than Ulster Scots is.

    If one were to split dialects away based on linguistic arguments, one would not start with Ulster Scots but with Insular Scots (Orkney and Shetland), followed by Northern Scots (Doric).

    However, in Scotland the notion of splitting an already weak minoritised language into ever smaller units would be unlikely to find much support. Why has it done so in Northern Ireland?

  13. It might clarify the discussion to remind ourselves that a major standard language can, and does, qualify as a protected minority language when it is spoken in countries other than its main habitat. For example, German is recognised as a protected minority language in the South Jutland (Sønderjylland) area of Denmark. Danish is recognised as a protected minority language in the Schleswig-Holstein region of Germany. Therefore, the contention that Ulster -Scots is, or is not, a dialect of Scots does not affect its eligibility for protection under the European Charter. Dia leis an obair!


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