I have a feeling this post is bound to offend someone, so I hasten to put in an early disclaimer – it is not intended to be disrespectful, nor to step on anyone’s sacred cows or national pride or pet prejudices. It is merely an expression of my customary wide-eyed ignorance.
North Berwick station
Yesterday I took the train into
Edinburgh. When I got to my local station,
which is North Berwick, in the county of East Lothian, I was greeted by a very
smart and friendly sign, welcoming me (well – welcoming visitors, really) to
the little town in two languages. For information, it’s Gaelic name is Bearaig-a-Tuath.
That’s all fine, then –
Scotland has it’s own Parliament
(sort of), and is officially bilingual.
Well - just a minute. According to the 2001 Census, a little over 93,000 people in
have any understanding of Gaelic. That doesn’t mean that all of those use it to
converse – some of these people just have some knowledge of it. Even so, this
represents, I understand, 1.8% of the population of Scotland. Coverage is not even, of
course – in the Western Isles and the Highlands a great many people have the
Gaelic, and I am especially enthusiastic about traditions like that being
preserved, but I doubt if more than one or two residents of North
Berwick have any knowledge of it – insignificant in comparison to
the number who speak Polish, for example.
North Berwick, like most of East Lothian, is much closer both in culture and surroundings to the rural parts of Northumberland, for example, than it is to “proper” Highland
Scotland (as featured in Walt
Disney or on shortbread tins). It’s name comes from the Old English word bere, barley, and means a barley farm,
or a settlement where they grew barley. The word North was added to distinguish
it from the much larger, sporadically English town of Berwick
upon Tweed, which is 38 miles from here (and
is, now that I’ve mentioned it, where a surprising proportion of my post and
mail-order deliveries are sent). The Gaelic name is fundamentally a phonetic
derivative of an English word. Again, this is all fine – there are a great many
place names in Scotland which are Anglicised forms of Gaelic names – but it
does leave me wondering who it is that is supposed to call it by this authentic
new Scots name. Not the locals – that’s for sure – and I doubt if very many
Highlanders coming here would be interested either.
So it’s a political correctness thing, then? That’s OK too, but I do wonder what sort of person decided this particular sign was necessary. I also wonder who came up with the Scotified name, and who asked them to do it, and what their job title is. And how much do they get paid?
I used to have a friend named George, who lived near Bala, in
North Wales. George had terrible blood
pressure, lived on gallons of instant coffee, stayed up all night reading, and
used to rant on at huge length about almost exactly this subject. George is –
maybe not surprisingly – now dead, but he lived and died a fiercely patriotic
and proud Welshman – a North Welshman, no less, and a fluent Welsh speaker. Wales, like Scotland, has a measure of
devolution, and is bilingual. The big difference in Wales is that the proportion of
Welsh people who use their language is high – especially in the North – and the
country really does need to be bilingual. It has been for centuries. What made
George furious was that they had made this official policy in a moronically
completist way. The Welsh parliament had appointed a committee of scholars (presumably
expensive scholars) to ensure that all English words had a Welsh equivalent. It
would be a poor show indeed, you will agree, if there was not a proud Welsh
word to display on the official signs – and it should be recognisably distinct from
the English word in a proud, Welsh sort of way.
Just as well they translated that...
I emphasise here that I am not opposed to bilingualism – I’m all for it. I am just nervous about the way in which it works, and about the thought-processes that get us there. George was furious that the committee had come up with its own word – rhyngrwyd – for the Internet. Was it needed? Did it help? Are there any other nations which insist on their own word for Internet? – almost certainly the Scots, though I haven’t checked. George felt that this kind of over-fussy fetishism actually made the Welsh language – or more particularly the bodies who proscribed it – look rather foolish. Since it was his language, I will pay him the respect of refraining from having an opinion on the matter, but he might have had a point. Maybe he was right – maybe it was a waste of money, of effort, of emphasis. Maybe the people who were distracted about the future and the integrity of the Welsh language would have been better employed to direct some of their attention to some other specific need which
Wales has? The Welsh language is
not going to be threatened by people referring to the Internet by its
American-English name. What is the point? George would have suggested that if
people’s pride in being Welsh manifested itself in minutiae of this nature,
they would be better starting again from basic principles.
Doesn't always work - the Welsh version says
"look left" - this wasn't an attempt to kill
non-Welsh pedestrians, surely?
I wouldn’t know. If you disagree with this, or feel strongly about it, then you are probably right. There must be a chance for all the Manx and Cornish speakers out there to stand up and be counted, and God bless you all. I am aware that if the North Berwick station sign appeared in English and German, for example, then a great many of us would get very heated about it, and probably rightly so, but on a given day – even in Winter – there will be many more German speakers in the town than Gaelic speakers.
Very odd, really.