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This afternoon, I dropped by the Toronto Reference Library to browse its shelves. As one would expect, Toronto's central library has a very large collection of materials in languages other than English, ready for lenders to pick up. Out of curiosity, I stopped by to see what the Scots Gaelic collection looked like.

The Scots Gaelic shelf at the Toronto Reference Library


There were two shelves of Frisian-language materials above the shelf of Gaelic books, and the Frisian shelves were packed.

This is a sort of afterthought to the death of Gaelic as a living language in Canada. I grew up in the Maritimes, in the province of Prince Edward Island. In that province, now overwhelmingly populated by speakers of English, Canadian Gaelic was once very widely spoken. It was even the main language of, among others, my maternal grandmother’s family. She did not speak the language, though, her parents choosing not to teach it to her. They said that they did not want their many children to learn their neighbourhood gossip.



(The Matheson family lived in the east of what this map calls Eilean Eòin.)

Canadian Gaelic did not persist, not even in the Atlantic Canadian territories where it had been most successfully transplanted, even though it was a (distant) third among European languages spoken in Canada. My feeling is that the speakers of the language did not value it. Part of this may have had to do with the very different statuses of the French and Gaelic languages internationally. French was a high-status language that was a prestigious and credible rival to English, while Gaelic was a much more obscure language looked down upon by almost everyone--including many speakers of Gaelic--with at most hundreds of thousands of speakers. Canada’s Francophone minorities did face oppression, but their language and their community’s existence was something their Anglophone neighbours could more easily accept as legitimate, and that Francophones themselves accepted as legitimate.

This leads to the tendency of speakers of Canadian Gaelic were not committed to the survival of their language. I mentioned above that my maternal grandmother’s parents decided not to transmit the language to their children. In this, occurring soon after the turn of the 20th century, they were far from alone. Speakers of Canadian Gaelic were generally quick to discard this language for an English that was seen as more useful. The survival of the language was not seen as especially important: For a Gaelic-speaking Protestant, for instance, the bond of Protestantism that united them with an Anglophone Protestant was more important than the bond of language that united them with a Gaelic-speaking Catholic. In Gaelic Canada, there was just nothing at all like the push for survivance across the spectrum in French Canada that helped Canadian Francophones survive in a wider country that was--at best--disinterested in the survival of its largest minority.

Fragmented, without any elite interested in preserving the language and its associated culture or a general population likely to support such an elite, the Canadian Gaelic community was bound to go under. And so, in the course of the 20th century, it did, the smaller and more isolated communities going before the larger ones. There are still, I am told, native speakers of Gaelic in Cape Breton, long the heartland of Gaelic Canada, and there is a substantial push to revive the language’s teaching and use in public life in Nova Scotia. I fear this is too little, too late. The time for that was a century ago, likely earlier. If that incentive to give Gaelic official status and a role in public life had been active in the mid-19th century, who knows what might have come of this?

(For further reading on the history of Gaelic in Prince Edward Island, I strongly recommend Dr. Michael Kennedy’s preface (PDF format) to John Shaw’s 1987 recordings of the last creators of Gaelic on Prince Edward Island.)

Was the death of Gaelic as a widely-spoken language in Canada inevitable? Or, was there any possibility of a revival movement, of a renewed valorization of Scots Gaelic? I have wondered in the past if having Cape Breton remain a province separate from Nova Scotia, thus creating a polity populated mainly by Gaelic speakers, might create some kind of incentive for Gaelic to be politically useful.

Thoughts?

(Crossposted to alternatehistory.com.)
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In the shadow of Charlottetown's St. Dunstan's Basilica on Great George Street stands a statue of Angus Bernard MacEachern, the Scottish immigrant to early British Prince Edward Island who brought Roman Catholicism to the territory.

Statue, Angus Bernard MacEachern #pei #charlottetown #greatgeorgestreet #statue #romancatholicism #latergram #stdunstans


Of note is the multilingualism of the plaque explaining MacEachern's life and works, in English, French, Gaelic and Mi'kmaq.

MacEachern's multilingualism #pei #charlottetown #greatgeorgestreet #statue #romancatholicism #latergram #stdunstans #english #français #gàidhlig #mikmaq


St. Dunstan's stands above it all.

St. Dunstan's in the evening #pei #charlottetown #greatgeorgestreet #statue #romancatholicism #latergram #stdunstans
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The Halifax Chronicle-Herald's John Demont describes the scale of the Scots Gaelic revival in Nova Scotia's Cape Breton. I'm inclined to think it much too late--had it been this time last century, when there were tens of thousands of Gaelic-speakers living and passing on their language to their children, the irreversible shift to English wouldn't have happened. Still, if locals want to keep Scots Gaelic as a garnish, perhaps a badge of identity, why not?

Last week, proof of Gaelic’s reflowering was on full display on the grounds of the provincial legislature.

There, youthful members of the Gaelic College’s Young Heroes immersion program sang old Gaelic tunes and helped raise the flag marking Gaelic Awareness Month across Nova Scotia.

If he were a little younger, MacKenzie — whose mother comes from a well-known Mabou bag-piping clan and whose father is a Gaelic speaker and teacher from South Uist, Scotland — could have been right there with them.

Like his two brothers, the acclaimed fiddler and piper also speaks fluent Gaelic.

Increasingly, he’s got company.

The 2011 Canadian census showed that 1,275 Nova Scotians — the bulk in Cape Breton — identified themselves as Gaelic speakers.

On one hand, that’s a thin sliver of the 24,303 Gaelic speakers identified in the 1931 census.

On the other hand, it’s nearly triple the level of a decade ago.

What’s more, that number doesn’t include all 2,000 folks enrolled in Gaelic language programs around the province.

Or the thousands more people who may only speak a few words of the language but share a deepening connection to the Gaelic culture and ethos.
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Al Jazeera's Peter Geoghegan describes the somewhat unlikely spread of Irish Gaelic among Protestants in Northern Ireland. Apparently building on ancestral traditions of Scots Gaelic and close cultural connections between Ireland and Scotland, apparently knowledge of Irish Gaelic is starting to pick up.

Seomra ranga - "classroom", in Ireland's indigenous language - reads a cardboard sign tacked onto a door. A little further down the hall, a leabharlann is filled with books. It is a very Irish scene, but in a very unlikely place: East Belfast Mission on Newtownards Road.

Across the street, a mural commemorates the Protestant paramilitary Ulster Volunteer Force. Union Jack flags fly from lampposts in the shadow of the shipyards that built the Titanic.

In Northern Ireland, the Irish Gaelic language has traditionally been a largely Catholic pursuit. The overwhelming majority of the 5,000 children in Irish-language education hail from nationalist areas.

But this might be about to change. The Turas Centre in the East Belfast Mission - turas means "journey" in Irish Gaelic - hosts 10 Irish-language classes a week. About 90 percent of those filing in and out of the seomra ranga and reading textbooks in the leabherlann are Protestant.

"The Irish language is part of our culture. It belongs to everyone," said Linda Ervine, an Irish language development officer at the East Belfast Mission.

Ervine is the closest East Belfast comes to royalty: loyalist leader David Ervine was her brother-in-law; her husband, Brian, is like his late brother David, a former leader of the Progressive Unionist Party.

Linda Ervine's soft voice and gentle manner bely a formidable passion for the Irish language - and for why Northern Ireland's Protestant community should take it up.

"There is every reason why Protestants should be learning Irish," she said. "Ninety-five percent of our place names come from Gaelic… We are using words in our language every day that come from the Gaelic language. We are steeped in it."

On a nearby wall hangs a map of Britain and Ireland turned on its side, showing the ancient Gaelic-speaking kingdom of Dalriada, which spread across the north coast of Ireland and the western isles of Scotland in the late sixth and early seventh centuries.
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Imagine a world where Canada had three official languages.

* * *

Alistair MacDiarmid's new Language Revitalization in Cape Breton (Press of the University of Cape Breton: Sydney, 2008), is a thin paperbook book at only132 pages, but befitting his status as the sociological giant of Canada's Scottish Gaelic-speaking community it's quite a good one. First providing a brief survey of the evolution of the Gaelophone community of Scotland, he then turns his eye to Canada. He identifies the Cape Breton's retention of its independence from Nova Scotia as a key event in the evolution of Canadian Gaelic inasmuch as the existence of a province with a Gaelic majority forced the colonial government to communicate with the majority population of unilingual or poorly bilingual Gaelophones, this in turn having a ripple effect elsewhere in Canada. The end result? There are several times as many Gaelophones in Canada as in Scotland, and twice as many Gaelophones in Cape Breton than in Scotland's Western Isles.

MadDiarmid's not an optimist. What, he asks his readers, prevents Canadian Gaelic from going the same way as Newfoundland Irish? The rates of language shift in non-Cape Breton Gaelophone communities are well-known, and even in Cape Breton things are difficult, with Gaelophones surely to lose their majority status as of the next census and the "Town Gaelic" produced in Sydney by the industrial immigrations of the early 20th century starting to show itself as an intermediate stage to full Anglicization. What is there to be done? In brief, he recommends that Cape Breton adopt Québec's full suit of language laws, including mandatory Gaelic-dominant signage and public education. (I'm sure that the Acadians of Arichat, Isle Madame, and Chéticamp would love that.)

MacDiarmid's hope blinds him to the realities facing the language, I fear. Québécois might be a minority in Canada but their an integral member of a worldwide francophonie, a cultural community that can provide essential resources (human, economic, and otherwise) for a traditionally isolated community. Gaelophones can sadly claim no such wider language community. Just as importantly, without any taboos against intermarriage or social intercourse, the community is bound to lose members--my grandparents on Prince Edward Island my mother's side spoke Gaelic to each other, but didn't pass the language on to her, judging it unhelpful in the world and wanting to preserve it as a language for gossip besides. I took my mandatory Basic Gaelic in high school but I can only manage a few words an gàidhlig, mainly--I admit--because I judged French to be a much more useful language. These factors, in top of the fact that cohort fertility is just as low for Gaelophones as for Anglophones, ensure the eventual death of the language--not now, but perhaps in a half-century's time.

His hope aside, I'd still recommend Language Revitalization in Cape Breton. People interested in language dynamics and language policy will love it, as it is not only a case study of minoritized languages but a guide to Canada's language politics. If only, I suppose, things were different, but how could they have been? Canadian Gaelic was lucky as things stand now. In my opinion, the task facing specialists in the language now should probably be to archive as much of the culture as they can before it's took late.
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