“The Ulster Scots Language future”

Former chairperson of the Ulster-Scots Agency and blogger, Mark Thompson has blagged (in July) an interesting one on the future of the Ulster-Scots language on his blag ‘Bloggin fae the ‘Burn‘.

It is a frank account of his views of the future of the Ulster-Scots language. Many would forcefully object to that discription of Ulster-Scots, I do not not have any objection but I believe from my own research that the numbers of speakers of Ulster-Scots as a language is probably no more than a few thousand, not the hundreds of thousands sometimes claimed, equating a rural Antrim accent with Ulster-Scots. This has done more harm than good.

Back to Marks views … “Deep breath. Devil’s Advocate time. Is there a future for Ulster-Scots language? The heritage stuff, the historical stuff, the cultural stuff, the light entertainment fluff – these have appeal and plenty of people involved or interested. But the language? Nah … From what I’ve observed over the past few years, hardly anyone cares enough about the language to give it a future. The way the media froth about it as an issue you’d think that it was a huge public concern. Aye right.”

First of all, I find that statement somewhat extraordinary from a former chairperson of the board, surely this reflect badly on the performance of the board, secondly, I would put forward the view that all is not lost if things are tackled properly.

“Meaning that by the time “peace” arrived in the mid 1990s and Ulster-Scots was getting attention for the first time in a generation, the pool of genuine Ulster-Scots language speakers to draw upon was already at an all-time low. And those speakers didn’t recognise the importance and value of their own speech … 10 years ago there was an opportunity to capture the natural Ulster-Scots speech of this older, pre-mass media generation. But half of those people are now dead – and unrecorded. There are maybe ten years left until all of them are dead. And then naturally-spoken Ulster-Scots will be gone. Apart from a few words and the odd expression here and there which survive as part of general Ulster English, it’ll be finished. Sheughs and oxters will continue to raise a smile, or a smirk, but that’s about all.”

I agree that in ten years, almost all Ulster-Scots speech will be lost, with only a residual accent and some words remaining. Then surely what is needed is for the Ulster-Scots agency to spend much more of their resources on the language and less on cds of Orange Order music? What is needed is a linguistic atlas, a recording project, a corpus project, dialect studies etc. etc. These are the materials necessary to preserve Ulster-Scots for the future, sure there is nothing overly exciting about it, but it has to be done. Will it be done?

“Ulster-Scots language will dwindle and remain the interest of the dedicated few who genuinely love it. And it’ll provide intellectual cud for the anoraks and academics, nostalgia for the luddites and fuel for the identity zealots. And perhaps it’ll be exploited by those who see the current gravy train as a way of building personal empires – but which will be light years removed from general public interest. Public sector signage, job adverts in the papers that tick some equality box will ultimately attract further public disdain and scorn – and thereby damage the overall Ulster-Scots momentum. Because in reality, to 99% of the population, Ulster-Scots language will be a fossil, an extinct Dodo. Unheard, unspoken, and book-learnt if learned at all.”

Then surely the Ulster-Scots agency will have to look at themselves? Perhaps taking someone who can actually speak Ulster-Scots on to the board would be a help? Maybe even a discussion on it would do no harm?

“I wrote an article for the News Letter about this general issue back in March 2007. No-one batted an eyelid. Because hardly anybody cares.”

Let me make a cheeky little prediction here, I believe that the people who will take the most interest in Scots in Ulster in language terms, and who will try and get the necessary preservation work done with it will most likely not be ‘Ulster-Scots’.