Chapter 8: Contemporary Sociolinguistic Profile of Gaelic in Language Planning and Policy Context: Relevance of Management Models


8.1 Introduction

This study primarily offers a diagnosis of the crisis of vernacular Gaelic in the Western Isles, and Staffin (Skye) and Tiree. It offers, in addition, a general framework for engaging with this diagnosis to initially develop a new agenda to seek to address this challenge. In Chapter 9, we set out the initial framework. The present chapter examines how models of language planning or management relate to the current Gaelic-speaking group. This discussion offers a critique of the relevance of planning models to highly-threatened minority languages and sets out the context for a new model of engagement with the vernacular group. The new model is presented in greater detail in Chapter 9.

As this research has demonstrated, Gaelic has been supplanted as the primary language of family and community practice in the Western Isles, the last remaining vernacular context for the language. The picture emerging from this research is that the threat to the Gaelic vernacular is so severe that under current circumstances even marginal vestiges of Gaelic’s communal presence will be soon lost. The pending loss of the Gaelic-practicing elderly social networks from these communities will mark the final stage. In essence, the various IGRP modules show that there is almost no cross-generational communal practice of Gaelic within the younger generations in the remaining indigenous community. MacKinnon (2011c) has referred to the trajectory that has given rise to this situation as ‘runaway language shift’. If the Gaelic language is to survive at some level of communal practice within the next generation of speakers, then addressing the forces driving the current trajectory of decline is an obvious starting point. The critical issue to the sustainability of Gaelic centres on efforts to place intergenerational mother tongue transmission at the heart of any agreed agenda to reverse the decline (see discussion of EGIDS in section 8.2.2).

In the broader context of Gaelic public policy in Scotland, it is important to recognise the different requirements of the two main Gaelic constituencies, i.e. the indigenous Gaelic community on the one hand, and other networks outside the Western Isles on the other. The marginal demolinguistic aspect of Gaelic’s social reality everywhere in Scotland suggests that both constituencies require each other to survive or prosper. Without a viable indigenous Gaelic community, which is the well-spring of Gaelic cultural and linguistic heritage, the learner groups may not only struggle to acquire Gaelic, but may also lose their ethnolinguistic raison d’être, finding themselves in a linguistic and cultural vacuum. As analysed in Chapter 2, the ongoing economic and demographic challenges in the Western Isles and other island groups exacerbate matters. The retention of young people and young families willing to contribute to community vitality will be central to any credible strategy of revitalisation.

8.1.1 Historical socio-economic disadvantage

Dorian (1981) examines Gaelic-speaking and its association with socio-economic disadvantage, resulting in the marginalisation of the group both locally and nationally. Gaelic became ‘a stigmatized and stigmatizing language in the national setting’ (1981: 67). With regards to East Sutherland, she found:

… as the Highlanders stood to English-speaking Britain (including the Lowlands of Scotland), so the fisherfolk stood to the non-fishing population of East Sutherland. In each case, an entire subpopulation was stigmatized, paying severe social and economic penalties. Distinctive linguistic behaviour was a feature of the stigmatization in each case. It is not too much to say that both were cases of culture conflict. (Dorian 1981: 19–20)

The stigmatising discourse is evidenced in the use of derogatory terms such as ‘maw’ (Lewis), ‘nattie’ or ‘slicer’ (Benbecula) to refer to Gaelic speakers, or to those who live outwith the settlements of Stornoway in Lewis and outwith Balivanich in Benbecula. More broadly, Dorian depicts the Highlands as having many of the characteristics of an internal colony as depicted by Hechter (1975: 30–34):

Certainly many of the characteristics of the internal colony … are true of the Highlands in general … recruitment of commercial and financial managers from the core rather than locally within the periphery; exploitation of, and discrimination against, a peripheral population distinguished by language or religion or other cultural markers. (Dorian 1981: 19–20)

The current advanced state of acculturation in the islands has presumably reduced a sense of stigmatisation among those undergoing acculturation. On the other hand, the Gaelic-loyal group is demographically more isolated and weaker than ever before. The difficult unremitting choice and challenge left to the remaining Gaelic-loyal group is to acquiesce with English dominance or struggle against it (cf. 5.7.4).

It has been noted that, in the face of majority-language assimilative pressures, minoritised language cultures tend to rely on language policies which are focused on an institutionalisation of minority-language practice, rather than on communal and networked activity (e.g. Crystal 2000; Fishman 1991; and in the Irish context Ó Giollagáin 2002). The three island communities surveyed in the CSS, STS, and much of the RA, however, possess little of the institutional apparatus to engage in this form of resistance to language shift: no local schools, small church congregations, and few employers or workplaces, Gaelic-dominant or otherwise. Broadly, there is inconsistent and limited institutional provision to counter the weakened societal transmission of Gaelic and the associated difficulties discernible in the educational sector.

8.2 An overview of theoretical approaches to language planning

8.2.1 Introduction

Language planning as a reflexively recognised intellectual category has gone through many phases of development since the initial efforts by Einar Haugen (1959) to set out the academic parameters of language planning within the discipline of linguistics, although it should be remembered that language planning and ‘linguicide’ were pursued long before these terms were coined, including much successful anti-Gaelic planning, e.g. the Education (Scotland) Act, 1872 (cf. Pollock 2007: 40–41). In framing the concept of language planning primarily within a linguistic framework, Haugen aligned the discipline’s focus on language planning with the scrutiny and elaboration of the corpus planning requirements for target languages. From this linguistic perspective, scholars tended to view language planning as a