Gaelic dialects disappearing as ‘mid-Minch’ spreads

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Dr William Lamb, of the School of Celtic and Scottish Studies of Edinburgh University has warned that Gaelic dialects are in danger of disappearing.

Previously, in the 1950s, over 200 dialects of Gaelic were spoken but Dr Lamb believes only the Lewis and South Uist versions are currently strong enough to survive within their communities, and even those are under threat from a broader more general form of Gaelic dubbed “mid-Minch Gaelic” which is used by broadcasters and learned by children in schools.

Dr Lamb says schools are having a major impact on how Gaelic is and fears the rather indistinct “mid-Minch Gaelic” is invading and homogenising the various dialects of Gaelic to the point that there will be no more local dialects, leaving a less varied, less rich landscape of language. 

The academic said: “Mid-Minch Gaelic is similar to the Queen’s English in that it dulls distinctive dialectal features to increase comprehension and it is used in schools by teachers and by broadcasters.  You cannot identify exactly where the mid-Minch speaker is from.”

According to Dr Lamb’s research, in Gaelic medium units throughout Scotland  including the Western Isles – 21% of teachers use the non-dialectal “mid-Minch Gaelic”; 25% spoke the Lewis dialect; 17.5% spoke Gaelic from South Uist; 9% of Scotland’s Gaelic-medium teachers spoke Skye Gaelic, while 8% spoke North Uist and 7% spoke Barra.

Dr Lamb cited an example of this homogenising of Gaelic using a girl with Harris parents in a mainland Gaelic school with a Lewis teacher: “When in Lewis they said she sounds like she’s from Harris and when she’s in Harris, they say she sounds like she’s from Lewis.”

He explained: “Much of this is due to an increase in co-mingling within communities.  A hundred years ago, people rarely left the islands and the communities were tight and cohesive.  Now with more intermarrying and the influx of so-called ‘White Settlers’, it’s become a much more complex situation.”

However, Dr Lamb acknowledges that the Gaelic-medium schools can also be the language’s saviour and said: “We are dependent on schools today because Gaelic is so weak in the community.”

But he added: “I think it is important to have this debate right now about how we keep the language strong in its native communities.”