Posts Tagged ‘language schooling genocide’

Folk music, folk language

August 6, 2017

So – again – long time no speak, loyal readers! Plenty of things going on behind the scenes, but it seems to be a period of reflection, re-evaluation, re-alignment etc. with not much emerging resolved enough for me to want to show off in public.

For now I just wanted to share one of the few things I’ve discovered worth watching on TV, the Transatlantic Sessions folk music series, where folk musicians from the British Isles (mainly Scotland, Wales & Ireland) team up with counterparts in the various folk & country music scenes in America. You can’t watch them on the BBC website any more, but I found the full episodes up on youtube – here’s the first episode from back in 1995 and you can click around from there if you like what you see. The songs they choose are a bit hit & miss to my mind, but there’s no denying the amazing musical talent and the friendly warmth and generous, congenial atmosphere in the room when they play together. Here’s a stand-out tune which will appeal to rewilding sensibilities:

Cha b’ e sneachda ‘s an reòthadh bho thuath,
Cha b’ e ‘n crannadh geur fuar bho ‘n ear,
Cha b’ e ‘n t-uisge ‘s an gaillionn bho ‘n iar,
Ach an galair a bhlean bho ‘n deas
Blàth duilleach is stoc agus freumh
Cànan mo threubh ‘s mo shluaidh.

(It was not the snow and frost from the north,
nor the acute cold withering from the east,
it wasn’t the rain or the storms from the west,
but the sickness from the south
that has faded the bloom, foliage, stock and root
of the language of my race and my people.)

Seisd:
Thig thugainn, thig cò-rium gu siar
Gus an cluinn sinn ann cànan nam Féinn,
Thig thugainn, thig cò-rium gu siar
Gus an cluinn sinn ann cànan nan Gàidheal.

(Chorus:
Come, come on, come with me westwards
until we hear the language of the Fein;
Come, come on, come with me westwards
until we hear the language of the Gaels.)

Uair chìte fear-féilidh ‘sa ghleann
Bu chinnteach gur gàidhlig a chainnt
Ach spion iad a fhreumh as an fhonn
‘N àite gàidhlig tha cànan a Ghoill
‘S a Ghàidhealtachd creadhal-nan-sonn
‘S tir-mhajors is cholonels ‘n diugh th’ innt’.

(Once, if a kilted man were seen in the valley
it would be certain that Gaelic was his language;
but they have torn his roots from the ground,
in the place of Gaelic is the foreigner’s language,
and the Gaeltachd, cradle of heroes,
today it is a land of majors and colonels.)

Far a nuas dhuinn na coinnleirean òir
‘S annt’ caraibh coinnlean geal céir
Lasaibh suas iad an seòmair bhròin
Tìgh-‘aire seann chànan a’ Ghàel
‘S sud o chionn fhad’ thuirt a nàmh
Ach fhathast tha beò cànan a’ Ghàel.

(Pass over to us the golden candlesticks
and put in them white waxen candles.
Light them up in a grief-filled room
in the wake-house of the Gael’s old language.
That’s what its enemy has long been saying
but the language of the Gael is alive yet.)

Ged theich i le beath’ as na glinn
Ged ‘s gann an diugh chluinntear i ni’s mó
O Dhùthaich MhicAoidh fada tuath
Gu ruig thu Druim-Uachdar nam bó
Gigheal, dhi ‘na h-Eileanan Siar
Bi na claimheamh ‘s na sgiath’n ud dhòirn.

(Although it has fled, along with life, from the valleys,
although it’s rare today that it’s heard any more
from Strathnaver in the far north
right down to Drumochter where the cattle are,
nevertheless, for it in its Western Isles
the swords and shields there are taken in hand.)

Lyrics and translation borrowed from this page, which provides some explanation and background, along with the rest of the verses in the original poem. It was composed by Murdo MacFarlane (Murchadh MacPharlain) probably ‘some time between 1970 and 1975’. The man had an interesting life, becoming highly influential to musicians in the Gaelic revival who continue to perform his songs in their own various styles. ‘Cànan nan Gàidheal’ is even taught in schools it seems, judging by footage in this BBC Alba documentary, which is well worth watching for its insights into the history and culture of the Scottish islands (MacFarlane came from the isle of Lewis):

Some choice quotes:

I was never ashamed that I couldn’t speak fluent English. I would be if I wasn’t able to speak fluent Gaelic, because English is not my mother tongue, but Gaelic is. So why find fault with me?

[…]

There’s my father and mother. They couldn’t talk English, with the result that their Gaelic was richer, of course. My mother, when she’d see a traveller coming down the brae, she’d close the door for the simple reason that, ‘Well if he comes inside he’ll be talking to me in English, and I can’t talk English, so the best thing I can do is close the door.’

[…]

How I envy you people here, who are not faced with my problem. Just imagine if you were going home tonight, and you were saying to yourself “The language I’m speaking will be dead in another sixty years.” Just imagine yourselves in my position. And, you see, it’s so discouraging. But still we sing and still we make songs, in spite of everything.

If you’re struggling to see the connection with rewilding, perhaps here would be a good place to mention the Terra Lingua / WWF study that found ‘a very significant overlap of the biodiversity-richest areas of the world with high concentrations of distinct cultures’:

Traditional peoples have accumulated vast amounts of ecological knowledge in their long history of managing the environment; and such knowledge is embodied in languages. With language extinctions, associated traditional ecological knowledge is lost as well, especially since in most traditional cultures this knowledge is not recorded and is only passed on to other groups or new generations orally. The loss of local languages means the loss of the main means of knowledge transmission.

No surprise, then, that the loss of languages across the world mirrors the shocking obliteration of species and decimation of wildlife populations we’ve talked about on these pages so many times before. According to a report by UNESCO in 2003 (pdf), an estimated 90% of the 6-7,000 languages then recognised were expected to go extinct by 2050:

About 97% of the world’s people speak about 4% of the world’s languages; and conversely, about 96% of the world’s languages are spoken by about 3% of the world’s people […] Most of the world’s language heterogeneity, then, is under the stewardship of a very small number of people. Even languages with many thousands of speakers are no longer being acquired by children; at least 50% of the world’s more than six thousand languages are losing speakers. We estimate that, in most world regions, about 90% of the languages may be replaced by dominant languages by the end of the 21st century. (p.2)

They too note that ‘The extinction of each language results in the irrecoverable loss of unique cultural, historical, and ecological knowledge’, pointing to the internal and external factors driving this loss. Mostly it appears as direct and indirect forms of genocide perpetrated by surrounding expansionist societies. This is reasonably well understood in the context of, for example, aboriginal Australia where a ‘stolen generation’ of indigenous children were taken away from their families and put in boarding schools with the deliberate intention being to ‘breed out the black’, or the similar ‘residential schools‘ forced upon the native people in Canada. In both cases there was special emphasis on forbidding the use of the native mother tongue or performing any kind of ancestral ritual or tradition. Not so well-known is the fact that the same abuses were visited on the ‘internal colonies’ of the British Isles before the English-dominated empire culture then visited the same techniques on other indigenous peoples across the globe. Alastair McIntosh tells the story in Soil and Soul:

But it was Article VI of the Statutes [of Iona] that probably caused the greatest cultural dismemberment. This decreed that the traditional leadership had to have their eldest sons educated in the English language. This, of course, meant sending those who would inherit away to England or the Lowlands. The effect was to alienate them from their own culture. Following a MadDonald rebellion in 1616, a further education act made the policy of cultural genocide against the Celtic world quite explicit. [King] James decreed that traditional leaders were to send all children, not just the first-born, away to English-language schools at the tender age of nine. Nobody in the Isles unable to speak, read and write in English was to be allowed to inherit property or to tenant Crown Lands. The Act required that

… the true [Protestant] religion be advanced and established in all parts of this kingdom, and that all his Majesty’s subjects, especially the youth, be exercised and trained up in civility, godliness, knowledge and learning, that the vulgar English tongue be universally planted, and the Irish [i.e. Gaelic] language, which is one of the chief and principal causes of the continuance of barbarity and incivility among the inhabitants of the Isles and the Highlands, may be abolished and removed … [thus] in every parish … a school shall be established.

[…]

The process of modernisation of the Scottish Highlands rolled on relentlessly for three hundred years. Finally, in 1872, it reached a symbolic zenith with the passing of the national Education Act. This made a de-Gaelicised education compulsory for all children. The ‘Scots Enlightenment’ ideas of [Adam] Smith and a few other elite thinkers were now canonised and taught as our mainstream Protestant heritage. Religious instruction and collective daily acts of worship were made compulsory in schools. Corporal punishment — which had had little place in traditional ‘ceilidh-house’ education — became routine, continuing in state schools right through into the 1980s, when it was abolished under pressure from European human-rights legislation.

[…]

‘Do you see that school?’ repeats Torcuil MacRath […] Torcuil had been a pupil in that school between the two world wars. He was left-handed. To force him into the uniformity of using his right hand, the teacher would physically tie down the left to the desk with string.

It was commonplace in those days for children to be punished for speaking Gaelic in the playground. In some schools they had to hang a spoon round their neck. This could only be got rid of by informing on some other poor kid, who in turn inherited it. Whoever had the spoon at the end of the day got sent home with a thrashing. […] ‘That school…’ said this man, voice trembling with emotion now; this man who had one faced Hitler’s forces in the Royal Navy and risked his life fighting for freedom. ‘That school … was a concentration camp!’ (pp.56-7)

People in the Gaelic regions of Britain thus have a clear path in their rewilding journey, already being taken up by the language revival which has made significant progress in Scotland, Wales & Ireland where people once again take pride in speaking their ancestral languages. This will maintain a connection for them back to previous ways of living which, while not perfect (references in ‘Cànan nan Gàidheal’ to battlefields, swords and shields, even cattle are all hallmarks of civilisation, thus undermining claims to true indigeneity – the Celts were Iron Age immigrants, if not conquerors, in these lands too after all) still settle them deeply into the body of the land they inhabit, the language providing the means of relating with keen sensitivity to the surrounding animals, plants and elements in a way denied to people speaking an alien language.

What about people in England? Where can they find aspects of their own cultural traditions untainted by the land-hunger and brutality of imperialism? (Not in the national anthem for one thing – ‘rebellious Scots to crush’ and all that!) A further problem, which even MacFarlane might not have envied: what if you’re a second-generation immigrant with parents from two different foreign countries – where then are you supposed to find and maintain your cultural roots? Do you go looking to those different motherlands with the consequent alienation to the place where you were born and raised, or do you abandon all of that and bury the roots of your newly-transplanted self into the soil of the culture you found yourself in? Or do you have to create something new, bastardised from the two approaches to the best of your abilities and then try to hand that down to those who follow you? It’s a tough one… I’ve been mostly playing it by ear when it comes to music, which means I accept songs from all over the world and try to adapt them to my own playing style. Here’s one I might work on, which the Anglarchists should be happy with. It’s written in the Dorset dialect but the melody was written only a few miles away from my current residence:

And some essential reading to finish with from a recent favourite of mine Chris Wood, writing about ‘Music and Loss‘, the ‘English Diaspora’ and what prevents the English from opening the ‘treasure chest’ of their own ancestral traditions. I won’t give a taster quote because it’s all gold – go read it and then listen to everything he’s ever sung!