I approached a stranger a few days ago. My intentions were good – to compliment them on their achievements and express my interest in their work. Neither I nor the other party had met before, though I was aware of their work from afar.
What happened next really took me aback and has been playing on my mind since. I introduced myself, stated the organisations name this individual represented and was immediately critiqued for not using the Gaelic version of the name instead. Our conversation was happening in English and I had been informed by them almost immediately that they spoke next to no Gaelic. Or, rather, enough Gaelic to ‘fool a bus load of tourists’ (a deeply troubling attitude in itself).
The conversation continued; I questioned why the English name was used at all if the Gaelic name was truly preferred (an honest query as much as me playing devil’s advocate). In doing so I was further critiqued for my incorrect pronunciation of the placename (in Gaelic) and for not having the appropriate regional accent. Again, I was taken aback. Immediately after our interaction I started questioning myself – who has the right to make such comments? Does anyone? Was this person actually entirely valid in questioning my useage despite me saying I was a Gaelic speaker? Should I be more militant in my usage? If I am, am I happy to inevitably alienate people as a result? Am I prepared to explain to people – all the time – what it is that I’m saying or what that word is that I’ve just used means?
Why am I even questioning myself over this? Objectively, I know the answers. I ought to be more persistant (though I think I am relatively anyway). I ought not to worry about alienating people. Normalisation of the language is key. I should be prepared to – and not tire of – telling people about the language I use, in whatever capacity.
But the honest truth is, it’s exhausting. I live and work in Edinburgh. Of the 500,000 people living here, there is a healthy and active Gaelic community, but that community is not part of my daily life. Day to day I am surrounded largely by people who do not speak the language and who would regularly require the explanations that are so tiring. Fundamentally, I live in an English world – the predominant language of Edinburgh is English and it requires active effort, thought and consideration every minute of the day not to just ‘go for the easy option’ and solely use English. It is exhausting.
I say normalisation is key – and it is. The day I started writing this post Alex Salmond used the word bùrach during a speech in Westminster. Perhaps that could be used as an example of normalisation happening right this minute – that a non-speaker from central Scotland use a Gaelic word in London to a national audience. I’ve been chastising myself for not using Gaelic during that conversation the other day, but also being annoyed at myself for not having a better response to ‘why didn’t you use the Gaelic?’.
In my flummoxed state, I took to twitter to ask these same questions. I received a number of responses from both non-Gaelic speakers and speakers alike, all of which said what I know deep-down already: of course this person was wrong to criticise me; there is already too much linguistic judgement among speakers. We should be celebrating and encouraging each other to use what we can, when we can, and create an atmosphere of positivity that enables speakers of all abilities to feel like they have a place with the language. There is a good Gaelic phrase that not everyone agrees with, but one that I strongly believe in: Is fheàrr Gàidhlig bhriste na Gàidhlig sa chiste; better broken Gaelic, than Gaelic in a coffin. I wonder if the person I spoke to thinks the same.