Myths: 5. Public signs in Gaelic or Scots are a waste of money
by Paul Kavanagh
There are two common objections to street signs and information signs in minority languages in public places. In Scotland these objections generally only surface in relation to Gaelic because Scots currently has little of this kind of public presence, but the arguments apply to Scots as much as to Gaelic.
It’s often said that it is a waste of public money to translate place name signs and other information into a language whose speakers already speak English. This argument is also used against providing government forms, documents and publications in lesser used languages. The argument is that since all Gaelic and Scots speakers speak and read English, Gaelic or Scots versions of public information signs and official documents are not necessary to ensure that speakers have access to information or services they would otherwise be denied. This is quite different from, say, health information leaflets or driving licence application forms in Chinese or Urdu. These languages are the languages of minority communities which have been relatively recently established in this country. Many community members are first generation migrants who grew up in a non-English speaking environment. A significant number of community members, especially the elderly, may very well have difficulties in communicating in English.
In general the onus of bilingualism is placed on migrant communities, they are expected to adapt themselves to the language or languages of the wider society in which they have come to live. The rest of us don’t bother to learn Urdu. However the wider society must recognise in return that not all members of migrant communities have the opportunity to acquire a high standard of English, and so to ensure that people are not discriminated against it is right and proper for government to produce information in minority community languages.
However the purpose of signs, notices and official documents in Gaelic or Scots is not to ensure that people with a poor command of English are not discriminated against. Other than very young children, Scottish Gaelic or Lowland Scots speakers who do not speak English probably no longer exist. The issue here is quite different, it’s about language choice and about the right of a language to occupy a public space.
In modern life we all have important dealings with the state and agencies of the state. We cannot avoid them if we want to stay on the right side of the law. If we recognise that Gaelic and Scots are national languages of Scotland, then we should also recognise that citizens of Scotland have the right to use these languages in every aspect of their daily lives, and especially in their dealings with the state. When the state does not produce say, a tax rebate form in Gaelic, then citizens are forced to use English. The state has then imposed a linguistic choice upon the citizen.
The lack of provision becomes a self-reinforcing cycle. Since forms and information in Gaelic or Scots do not exist, citizens do not request them. Government then comes to believe that there is no demand for forms and information in Gaelic and Scots because no one has asked for them. The perception then spreads amongst the general population that there is no demand for these things, so asking for them would not be reasonable. In turn this creates the circumstances where it never occurs to people in the first place that there ought to be forms and public information in Scots and Gaelic, so they become even less likely to request them.
The only way to break the cycle is to start asking.
Minoritised languages like Gaelic or Scots have become minoritised because they were driven out of the public sphere. Speakers came to restrict their use of the languages to private use amongst family and close acquaintances. In no small measure this happened because of the attitude of the state and state agencies to Gaelic and Scots. As a result Gaelic and Scots speakers are inhibited from using their languages in non-familiar surroundings and circumstances. This in turn makes it harder for other people to acquire the languages since they are no longer being heard and used in public places. It reinforces the perception that the languages are useless, since those who do not speak them never encounter them. The languages become invisible.
Information signs in Gaelic and Scots are not there in order to provide Gaelic and Scots speakers with information they don’t know. All Gaelic speakers already know that Glaschu Sràid Bàn-Righ means ‘Glasgow Queen Street’, they understand the sign in English perfectly well. Signs in public places make the minoritised language visible, they are making a statement that this is a public place where the use of Gaelic or Scots is encouraged and supported. This is absolutely vital in order to overcome the inhibitions that Gaelic and Scots speakers have developed against using their languages outside of “safe” social spheres. It’s only by overcoming these inhibitions that Gaelic and Scots have any chance of survival.
Public signs in Scots or Gaelic also serve the invaluable purpose of reminding English monoglot Scots that they do not have sole linguistic rights in this country – Scotland is not and never has been a nation where we all speak just one language. I once encountered an individual who claimed his objection to the public signs in Gaelic was that he felt uncomfortable that a language he did not understand was being used in public. Even though bilingual signs are by definition bilingual, and carry the same information in both languages, he still claimed that it was unsettling to see Gaelic versions because as a non-Gaelic speaker he couldn’t be certain that the Gaelic really was an exact translation of the English.
I’m not sure what he imagined really, perhaps he thought that a sign in a railway station that said “Glasgow Queen Street” in English was actually translated into Gaelic as “See that guy at the end of platform 3 who moans about Gaelic signs, he’s a plonker”. Sometimes logical arguments are hopeless. The only rational response to such individuals is to tell them that if they are really that worried about not understanding the Gaelic, then perhaps they ought to go and enroll in a Gaelic class instead of demanding that public policy is decided on the basis of their personal emotional insecurities.
Public documents should be available in Gaelic or Scots for similar reasons. They are not meant to give Gaelic or Scots speakers access to information that they wouldn’t otherwise understand, but to give Scottish citizens freedom of language choice when dealing with the state or state agencies. Currently freedom of linguistic choice does not exist in Scotland. Most often Gaelic and Scots speakers have no option but to use English in order to communicate with government agencies. The state and state agencies effectively impose English and encourage, albeit unwittingly, to the extinction of Gaelic and Scots.
Naturally there are cost implications to all of this. It costs money to print forms and documents. It costs money to train the staff to process them. In our increasingly electronic age, the cost implications are much reduced, but there is still a burden on the public purse. It is perfectly legitimate to debate how much we are prepared to spend on Scottish languages, and how exactly we wish to spend these limited funds.
Indeed, this is the debate we ought to be having, instead the English-language supremacism embodied in the Union and its bastard offspring the Scottish Cultural Cringe have marginalised Scottish languages to the point where many people no longer see any value in keeping them or using them outside certain strictly defined traditional spheres such as poetry or comedic writing. The cry is raised that it’s a pointless waste of time and effort. People even make this complaint when they’re being offered something for free and it has no cost impact upon them, witness some of the objections to the use of Scots as a language of news reporting in this publication. From the perspective of a Gaelic or Scots speaker, this is breathtaking selfishness.
As far as our linguistic heritage is concerned, such people know the price of everything but the value of nothing.
However these self-same people would not object in principle to government funds being used to protect and promote other aspects of Scottish cultural heritage. It is only because of government funding that we have national museums, art galleries, the Scottish National Opera and other institutions which protect and promote our collective heritage and history. Our languages are no different, they are an essential part of what makes us Scottish. Losing them would be a tragedy of unimaginable proportions.