James Eglinton: Why Gaelic speakers talk about God in English
At present, the Gaelic language is both blossoming and vulnerable. The number of young and new Gaelic speakers is increasing, although this upturn is overshadowed by the declining number of elderly speakers.
In its commitment to grow the number of fluent speakers, the Scottish Government continues to support Gaelic in education and the media.
In 2017, Gaelic is doing fairly well as a language of education, media and entertainment: it is heard in news broadcasts, spoken in classrooms across the country, and enjoyed by children in the form of cartoons like Peppa and Charlie is Lola. Against this backdrop the Scottish Bible Society has unveiled a new translation of the New Testament in modern Scottish Gaelic.
Why is this new rendering of the New Testament important to Gaelic’s place in modern Scotland? As Gaelic struggles for its own future, the production of the New Testament in readable modern Gaelic has the power to embolden Gaelic language and culture in a way that neither high quality current affairs reporting (Eòrpa) nor Hebridean drama (Bannan) can.
Across history, the Bible has been a culturally empowering text. Because it was originally written in three languages – Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek – it has always been a text in translation, and never privileged any single cultural group. This means that the Bible belongs to all cultures, without being the exclusive possession of any. This has set the course of the Bible’s history across the world, where it has been translated into hundreds of languages.
In the act of translation, a foreign set of cultures, figures and events – centred on Jesus of Nazareth as Scripture’s most foreign figure – are presented in a familiar tongue.
For many in Scotland’s Gaelic community, however, Biblical Gaelic – from the original 1801 edition – has been an unfamiliar tongue for some time. Gaelic is a living language that continues to develop, and that has changed to the point that fluency in modern Gaelic no longer guarantees the 1801 Gaelic Bible will be an easy read. Even in areas where Gaelic is widely spoken, attendance at Gaelic language church services is in decline. Many younger Gaelic speakers read the Bible in English and attend English language church services, simply because it is easier to understand modern English than early 19th century Gaelic.
For new Gaelic speakers, the old Gaelic Bible is similarly hard to access.
In the absence of a readable modern Gaelic Bible, Gaelic risks becoming a secularised language – one that has children’s programmes like Tree Fu Tom and news shows such as An Là, but that also lacks the texts and vocabulary necessary to consider life’s greatest questions.
That cultural disempowerment leaves Gaelic a living but limited language.
A hackneyed and ignorant anti-Gaelic sentiment is that it lacks modern vocabulary: every Gael has been told, at least once, that “there is no Gaelic word for helicopter”.
Far more threatening is the prospect of a new generation of Gaels who must ask “Who is God?” and “Why do I exist?” in English.
The production of a modern Gaelic New Testament is a great step forward in strengthening Gaelic as a language for all of life – the spiritual life included. Bible translation reminds a community of the dignity of its language, emboldening speakers and inspiring more literature in their beautiful tongue. May Gaelic be no exception.
Dr James Eglinton is theologian at Edinburgh University