Language, as the anthropologists say, is culture. And although many unaware of the finer points of British colonial history may not recall, the Hebrides are home to distinct languages and dialects all their own, including Scottish Gaelic, just one of two languages remaining within its linguistic family.
Efforts to restore Gaelic as a living language in the Hebrides proceeds well enough, but today’s Gaelic speakers of the highest fluency would be hard-pressed to recognize the language spoken by their forebears. The spread of the Dál Riata empire meant the spread of Gaelic language, but Fergus the Great himself likely spoke what is now known as Primitive Irish, the connection between the old Godelic languages of the first centuries CE and Gaelic. Generations down the line, however, were speaking Old Irish.
From the 1000s to the 1200s, the Hebrides were essentially neatly divided on linguistic lines, with the Inner Hebrides speaking Middle Irish and the Outer Hebrides a bilingual culture in which Old Norse was also spoken (and ultimately influential on subsequent languages). By around 1300, however, the dominant Middle English was evolving into three syntactically distinctive major dialects, i.e. languages: Modern Irish, Scottish Gaelic and Manx.
Each of these continued its separate path as is the wont of living languages until the rise of the British Empire. Infamous for using language as a weapon, the British were nearly successful in eliminating the major native languages of its neighbors. Indeed, Manx may now be “credited” with the status as a language of whom the last native speaker’s identity is known.
After foundation of the United Kingdom in 1707, linguistic colonization in red coats and headmaster’s garb swept the Hebrides as the clan system was stripped of power and the English language established as boss within a generation.
According to a UNESCO statement of 2009, “languages in danger” may be classified as those with 1,000 to 10,000 speakers. Endangered languages are those which are spoken by 1,000 or fewer. UNESCO’s estimates place one-quarter of the world’s 6,900-plus languages in each category; any language of under 10,000 speakers is also considered in danger of extinction within 100 years (or four to five generations).
The three Gaelic languages, in the wake of suppression by the British, today land on different areas of this spectrum: Manx was called “extinct” in 1974 when its last native speaker died. Irish, meanwhile, is today an official language of the European Union; a national census showed that nearly 20,600 now speak Irish as a first language while another 53,200 or so use Irish daily. Whether or not present-day Irish revitalization efforts are effective or not is a matter of opinion: The aforementioned numbers mean that just 1.55% speak Irish daily, but in the 21st century every student in Ireland gets some instruction in Irish and the truth is that more people speak Irish today than since the 19th century.
As for a revival of Scottish Gaelic, good news and bad news abound. In general, educational efforts in Scotland are not as efficacious as in Ireland. An official census of 2011 showed that just 57,375 Scots could speak Scottish Gaelic at all and only about 29,000 were fluent; not only is the former number a scant 1.1% of Scotland’s population, it’s a drop of over 1,000 speakers from the survey taken 10 years prior.
The situation is better for Scottish Gaelic in the Hebrides, however. In fact, given the rather poor outcome of efforts in Scotland, the Outer Hebrides may yet become the last bastion of Scottish Gaelic speakers. An estimated 20% of Hebrideans are reasonably fluent in Scottish Gaelic. Incredibly, over 1,000 in the Outer Hebrides are employed in Scottish Gaelic-based services – or 3.9% of the Outer Hebrides population.
Thus, the ratio of Scottish Gaelic speakers who are Hebridean is over 17%. Therefore, if you’d like to hear some true, living Scottish Gaelic outside the classroom, head for the Hebrides!
Naturally, our favourite professor Dr. YouTube has lots to say on the subject of Scots Gaelic, and the video-sharing site is certainly a modern milieu for language restoration efforts. Get into this beautiful tongue with the following.
First up, here are pair of lassies with incredible accents who are “aboot to show ye some usefil phrasis thit ye kin yoose in ev’reedee life.” Come on, you know you want to know the Gaellic for “friend request.” (“Hashtag” is still “hashtag,” though.)
This one, meanwhile, may make you as hungry for some tasty salmon as much as for knowledge of this great language. Unless you’ve got a serious jump on the language already, you have to enjoy this clip for the culture and cadences, because you won’t get tons of instruction here.
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