A complex and difficult word, Sasainn

We recently returned from a weekend trip to Stornoway and, staying in Sandwick, one of our priority ports of call was the memorial to the men lost on HMY Iolaire, which went down nearby on 1 January 1919 in the process of bringing home some of those from Lewis who had survived the First World War.

It is almost impossible to imagine the scale of the loss involved. This remains one of Britain’s worst maritime disasters: in peacetime for the rest of the UK; while war memorials on Lewis and Harris are the only ones to list the dates of the First World War as between 1914 and 1919 so as to encompass the loss of HMY Iolaire. Nearly 200 islanders perished on it, on top of the 1,000 men who had died (out of 6,000 called up: one in two Lewis men, of whom one in six never made it home) during the War itself. Yet, few outside the islands know of the tragedy. We might surmise some of the reasons for that, but these would include a shameful desire to hush things up in the interests of morale among the wider public, not least amidst the substantially reticent results of the Naval Court of Inquiry run by the Admiralty in private and which were not released into the public domain until 1970 (there was also a public inquiry, whose outcomes did have greater impact, held in Stornoway). Despite the tragedy taking place just yards from the shore, the bodies of some 64 of those who died – nearly one in three – were never found: heavy naval uniforms and a surging swell, and a lack of life-saving equipment due to the boat being vastly overcrowded, being among the factors of blame. It is also impossible not to be both touched by the scale of the tragedy and angry about these things as well as that the loss of the Iolaire is not more widely known.

Erected in 1960, and in spite of some local opposition, the memorial overlooking the site of the wreck is a fairly simple granite affair, added to which there is a stone cairn; the impact of both being undermined – of course temporarily – on our visit by the construction of a new DDA-compliant access path and, more long-term, by a line of small-scale wind turbines located perhaps rather too close at hand. And, indeed, by those who, on the day, had somewhat thoughtlessly chosen that spot from which to attempt to fish (the campaign to have the site of the wreck of HMY Iolaire designated as a war grave seems long overdue).

In the centre of Stornoway itself, there is also a recently-constructed tribute designed by students of the Nicolson Institute whose touching idea it was to collect stones from each of the home villages of those who were lost – and including, therefore, some from typical port and naval towns both in mainland Scotland and from England since the crew of the yacht, which had been commandeered into naval service during the war, were substantially English (but also included some men from Cardiff). The last three stones were collected by Angus MacNeil MP from the Thames, representing men from London (and nearby) who were lost and are among the 18 on the south face of the cairn (adjacent to the left on this view) listed as from ‘Sasainn’.

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I should be absolutely clear at this point that ‘Sasainn’ is simply the word which is commonly used today in Gàidhlig (and, indeed, similarly in Irish) for ‘England’. There is no attempt to denigrate – this is, not least, a memorial; and high school students have been closely involved.

Yet the word itself is complex, and difficult: most people will know of the term ‘Sassenach’ (used pejoratively to denote the English); while the derivation of the term itself is originally a very broad way of denoting anyone who came from outside Gàidhlig-speaking areas (and thus includes lowland Scots) and where, in some respects, it might be seen as the counterpart of the similarly pejorative ‘teuchter’, the lowland word for those from such areas (= ‘bumpkin’ or ‘yokel’). ‘Sasainn’ itself originally referred to ‘Saxon’. Perhaps oddly, ‘Sasainn’ also bears absolutely no relation to the Gàidhlig for the English language (= ‘Beurla’).

There is thus something of the concept of ‘outsider’ contained in the continued use of ‘Sasainn’ to mean ‘England’, which is problematic both in itself as well as in the context of the islands (and the language) opening up to outside influence. This is not at all a criticism of islanders themselves (at least, the large majority of them who are outside the influence of the shockingly rabid right-wing irrelevancies of the type set out here by the Free Church of Scotland (Continuing)) – and, indeed, I did visit the still pristinely-painted mosque in the centre of Stornoway. The islanders I’ve met have been without exception warm, open and hugely welcoming – and which in itself says quite a bit about the ways in which language can change meaning over time and used as it evolves without regard to the historical precedents. And, perhaps, it ultimately says more about my perceptions of myself as an English-origin outsider than about others’ perceptions of me.

But I do wonder whether Gàidhlig needs another word for ‘England’ which conveys, at least to this outsider, a rather less apparently loaded set of meanings.

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Learning Gàidhlig: a small PS

While I was drafting my post yesterday, a lengthy defence of the use of Gàidhlig was simultaneously being prepared by Pavel Iosad, a linguistics lecturer at the University of Edinburgh, and in response to a piece by Magnus Linklater in Monday’s Times. If I had been aware of it a few hours earlier, I would have linked to it – but the beauty of Twitter is that I came across it at all.

Iosad has already done an extensive job deconstructing Linklater’s arguments and I’m not going to have another bash at it other than to observe that, from Iosad’s quotes, the sophistication of Linklater’s arguments seemed to run no higher than the 18C establishment belief that people speaking minority languages are likely to be serial plotters. (Besides, Linklater’s contribution is behind the Times‘s firewall and The Digger and his cronies get neither my money nor my data.)

From the perspective of his New Town residence, I suspect Linklater has (notwithstanding his Orcadian roots) essentially little desire to understand why people persist with minority languages. Yet it is another apparently metropolitan journalist, Madeleine Bunting, who has the soundest arguments I’ve ever read about the importance of Gàidhlig: pp. 220-227 of Love of Country offer a clear defence of the importance of language not just in preserving another way of seeing the world but in linking people directly with their places of habitation: words coming from the skills required to survive and thrive in harsh circumstances; a range of colour descriptors which fine-tune what is found in a particular locality; and concepts which are not fully translateable into other languages but by which people understand and emphasise their relationships: a view of the land as community-owned rather than subject to an alien system of individual property rights.

There may (or actually there may not) be fifty words for snow but, however many there are, while many of them may make little sense to townies, such a range exists to give meaning to those living in a place and who need to understand the nuances. We’re all the richer for that diversity – as long as we choose to engage with it, that is. Bunting has spent time out here on the Western Isles specifically to understand the significance of the use of Gàidhlig; and that is the crucial difference. And, conversely, we’re all the poorer when opinion-formers make ill-informed, judgmental attempts to put minority languages back in the box; and, indeed, speakers of minority languages may regard that as oppressive. When even the World Economic Forum is hosting a debate on the importance of learning ‘dialect’ (ouch) rather than a ‘global language’, the need for sound policies to ensure that minority languages may flourish and that people do not feel uncomfortable for speaking their language has never been clearer.

Learning the Gàidhlig

Saturday saw me and around a dozen others embark on the first of five Saturday morning lessons in Gàidhlig, run by the estimable Ceòlas organisation. This is not, I’m afraid to report, my first attempt to learn some Gàidhlig, having attended courses last year in which, despite the best attempts of a notable and patient teacher, aided by a few catch-up viewings of BBC Alba’s 1990s Speaking Our Language, I must confess that little sank in long-term (practise does make perfect and, of course, the reverse is also true). Indeed, for most of us present, this was at least a second go.

The Western Isles generally is a stronghold of the language, and we learned that Uist is currently regarded as holding the gold standard for how to speak it properly (like anywhere else, Gàidhlig has dialects and different accents). With some 52% of the population of the islands still using it as a native language, you can hear Gàidhlig spoken just about everywhere other, of course, than where you are yourself: islanders use it with each other but tend to switch to English if they don’t know who you are (there is little that is sinister about this; it comes more from a desire not to cause embarrassment). So, chances to practise can be fairly rare unless you are assertive; and, like learning any other language, while knowing what to ask is one thing, understanding the reply that you get is another thing entirely. Our teacher this week, Liam, a young US-Canadian probably in his late 20s, arrived in Scotland in 2008, finding his way to the islands sometime later, learned Gàidhlig by immersion and is profoundly knowledgeable about the language and about its scholarship. I can see the attraction: with immersion, you don’t get to rely on your English or have others rely on it for you – and sink or swim is always a good way of learning how to do more than just keep your head above the water.

The difficulties of learning any language vary from one to another. The Gàidhlig alphabet has only 18 letters (no ‘j’, no ‘k’, no ‘q’ and nothing beyond a ‘u’), leading to a variety of interesting ways to combine different consonants; and, although it uses the Latin alphabet, it seems best not to rely on familiarities for how they should sound but to see them in their own context. Gàidhlig has a verb-subject-object word order, in contrast to the English (and French) subject-verb-object; and, while it shares with a lot of European languages both cases and nouns being either masculine or feminine, this is not predictable (‘morning’ (madainn) and ‘night’ (oidhche) are feminine whereas ‘afternoon’/’evening’ (feasgar) is masculine; whereas in French ‘matin’, ‘jour’ and ‘soir’ are all masculine while ‘nuit’ is feminine). Beware of false friends. Indeed, my strategy this time around is to try and learn how phrases sound and learn them by rote, not to try and learn them by reading them out. And don’t get me started on the complexities of lenition.

After five weeks I’ll be hoping that a few more words and phrases stick than asking people what their names are and how they are; and ‘Turned out windy again’. Indeed, they already have, with two more ways to ask ‘how are you’ than the standard, one of which translates as ‘how’s your trim?’ a phrase originating in seafaring which ought (and may well do) have some localised English equivalents (English does of course have an expression about dis/liking the cut of someone’s jib). Perhaps there is indeed more in common than divides us.

Repairing to the Polochar Inn afterwards for a spot of lunch, the young woman who served us was (of course) bilingual and happy to reward our attempts to use our Gàidhlig. She grew up largely speaking English to her mum (who was from Edinburgh) and largely Gàidhlig to her father (an islander); and was learning French and hoping to study Italian. Much depends on the individual, of course – but what a start in learning, and in understanding others, comes when you grow up in the home with two ways of asking others what they know, and of intrepreting their answers.