Stuart Kelly: Language in words few take on board

Philosophy, political activism and sci-fi have all spawned new forms of communication of doubtful usefulness

THE idea of what a language actually is used to be a simple proposition. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary definition is the most succinct: “the words, their pronunciation and the methods of combining them as used and understood by a community.” More sardonically, a language was once said to be “a dialect with an army and navy”.

Languages evolved, but unconsciously – no-one sat down and set out to create a language. But over the past 100 years, and with increasing speed and sophistication in the past 30 years, those woolly certainties have been undermined and made problematic to a staggering extent. A combination of French philosophy, political activism, American sci-fi and literary experimentation has radically changed what we mean by “language”. Above all, the internet has made it easier than ever for researchers to see exactly which words and languages are being used, while at the same time changing how those words and languages are used.

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A new book, edited by Michael Adams and published by Oxford University Press, unfortunately called From Elvish To Klingon: Exploring Invented Languages, is far less geekish than the title might suggest. Although the Scots language is relegated to Appendix VII, the book ought to be read by anyone with an interest in the future of Scots, Gaelic – and even English.

Linguists used to categorise languages as “natural” (like French, or Swahili), “dead” (like Latin and Anglo-Saxon) and “invented” – at the time, these invented languages, creations such as Volapük and Esperanto, were sometimes described as “auxiliary” languages, whose Utopian premise was that if European leaders could use a mutual tongue, they wouldn’t go to war as swiftly. At the same time, the possibility of another category was raised: “revitalised” languages. Hebrew, which had ceased to be a spoken language around 200 CE, was promoted as part of early Zionist activity by the scholar Eliezer Ben-Yehuda. Nationalist movements looked to their lost languages in Macedonia, Norway, Brittany, Cornwall and Scotland. But where did “revitalising” end and plain “inventing” begin?

It’s well known that Hugh MacDiarmid, the genius poet who did more than anyone to resurrect Scots as a literary language, was not picky about where his Scots came from. A poem might mix Doric with Borders, and the very name he gave to it – “synthetic Scots” – contains both the idea of synthesis and the idea of artificiality. For Eliezer Ben-Yehuda the question was even more vexed. The Torah, the Talmud and the Midrash, the great texts of Jewish Scripture, did not have much use for saying “spoon” or “coffee” or “sugar”. Hebrew now has over 100,000 new “word forms”, despite their being only 8,198 word forms in Biblical Hebrew and around 20,000 in Rabbinical Hebrew. Israeli newspapers would run competitions to create new words – a process also undertaken in Scotland. If memory serves me correctly, someone came up with the lovely coinage “stoorsooker” for “vacuum cleaner”.

No-one is born speaking anything – despite the attempts of the Pharaoh Psamtik I, the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II and King James IV of Scotland to have children brought up by deaf-mutes to see what language they “naturally” spoke. With all the old definitions of language, it seems as if even the most fictional of invented languages have more credence than suspected. Klingon was invented for the film franchise and television series Star Trek, and now has more speakers world-wide than Cornish. “Leet”, an online typography used by scammers and gamers, has changed from a kind of calligraphy (leet would be written |337; language is |4|\|6|_|463) to creating its own specific vocabulary, as any n00b who’s been pwned will know.

A standard test of whether or not something was a language used to be “mutual unintelligibility”. Put simply, a French speaker with no German cannot communicate to a German speaker with no French. But increasingly, we are seeing “asymmetric intelligibility”. For example, Susan Boyle is subtitled when she appears on Fox in the States; but Justin Bieber isn’t on BBC Scotland.

But the situation is even more complex. As English becomes a global language of trade, it spawns variants (Chinglish, a kind of English inflected by Chinese, being the most common). A British English speaker could probably manage a conversation with a Chinglish speaker, or with a speaker of Naijalingo (a Nigerian-English pidgin language). But could the Chinglish speaker speak to the Naijalingo speaker? And could either communicate with a speaker of Polari, the secret homosexual English of the early 20th century?

It seems like a state of affairs that MacDiarmid would relish, since he prophesied it – as he said English was “suffering from a kind of Imperial elephanititis… the future of English – otherwise than as a kind of esperanto for mere commercial and industrial use – is in the melting pot”.

The African writer, Ngugi wa Thiong’o (who spent time in Scotland before returning to Kenya and committing to only using his native language, Gikuyu) is more optimistic, seeing English as a “meta-language” that allows minorities formerly oppressed by English-speakers to communicate.

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For the future of the Scots and Gaelic languages, it would seem that finally eradicating the idea of “natural” and “invented” languages should lay to rest some of the more tiresome debates about “authenticity”. But there is also a cautionary aspect to the new findings.

The census this year included a question about the Scots language, and amongst Scots language advocates, it is hoped that a positive result will provide a mandate for an “official status” of some sort. Among other languages, the acquisition of such a position has been as much a stumbling block as a blessing.

Hawaiian has been an official language since 1978, and the Maori “Warrior Sons” helped to make Maori an official language in 1987. Both – like Klingon and Hebrew – now have academic establishments whose decisions affect those that use the language, whether across the dinner table or from the despatch box. It can become bizarre.

Maori has a term “waea” for telephone, derived from the English “wire”, which has been in use since the colonial period. Activists want to change this to “kawe reo”, literally “carry language”, a move opposed by many of the oldest speakers. A similar situation is ongoing with Breton, over the same word: Breton borrowed “téléphone” from French, but “neo-Bretons” insist on “pellgomz” (“speak from afar”). Hawaiian speakers who grew up with the (colonial) translation of the Bible into Hawaiian resent the fact that the academicians now insist on changing that text because of the earliest translators’ lack of knowledge about it. Sometimes, it seems like a surreal play from the 1960s. The welcome mat in the Camborne county offices in Cornwall in 2004 become an unwelcome site of contention, when one half of the Cornish language revival insisted on it reading “dynnargh” and the other “dynargh”.

As Suzanne Romaine writes “newly standardised versions… which are essentially class-based, may eventually replace traditional varieties, but until they do their authenticity will be contested. The quest for purity and authenticity, on one hand, and school-based transmission, on the other, inevitably bring about more division, as the goals of authenticity and unification often conflict”.

Indeed, the quotation about a dialect with an army came from Max Weinreich, who was opposing Hebrew’s attempts to distance itself from traditional Yiddish – a debate he lost.

Where does this leave Scots and Gaelic? Firstly, different kinds of language require different care. There is no catch-all solution for both languages. For Gaelic, a hard look at the Polynesian languages might be fruitful, at least to avoid their worst internecine squabbles. Scots has thrived and diversified, as living language should, and the idea of recognition meaning standardisation would be a death-knell greater than the ruler-rapped knuckles of schoolchildren told it was slang. As the old joke poster of Tom Leonard’s had it: “MAKARS’ SOCIETY GRAN’ MEETIN’ THE NICHT TAE DECIDE THE SPELLIN’ O’ THIS POSTER”. And I for one look forward to hearing the first MSP swear the oath of allegiance in guid, braid Klingon.