June 05, 2006

Keeping Gaelic Alive

Although the most common language in Scotland today is English, the oldest language still spoken there is Scottish Gaelic. It is one of the few surviving Celtic languages. Gaelic has existed in the British Isles far longer than English, and is the source of numerous English words. It is closely related to Irish and Manx, and more distantly to Welsh, Cornish and Breton. Gaelic is at the core of the culture and history of Scotland.

It is unknown exactly when Gaelic began to be spoken in Scotland, but placename evidence shows that the language was spoken in the Rhins of Galloway (a hammer-head peninsula off the southwest coast of Scotland) by the 5th century AD. However, the traditional language of the Gaels who lived in the Highlands, Islands and southwest, is now spoken by only 1.2 per cent of the population. No community in Scotland is entirely fluent - even the Western Isles, which has been the major stronghold for the language, has an approximate fluency rate of only 60 per cent. The language is dying as the largely elderly Gaelic-speaking population pass away.

Gaelic is often described as a language stuck in the past, with no way to discuss modern ideas and culture which is one of the reasons it has failed to take hold in this generation of young people. In order for the language to survive, it needs to be spoken by young people who will pass it on to future generations, and for this to happen something fairly drastic must be done. An important step forward for Gaelic was taken a while back as 2000 new words were added to the language, and a purpose-built Gaelic primary school is currently under construction in Inverness.

In 2003, the SaveGaelic.org project was developed with the purpose of preserving Scottish Gaelic and promoting its use. It is an online forum for the Gaelic community which collects news and provides a rudimentary Gaelic lesson, advice on further learning resources, a history of the language, and other related information. Their website is an excellent resource for anyone interested in Gaelic.

Although I only speak a tiny bit of Gaelic myself (and I'm hoping to learn more), I hope the language and it's heritage can be preserved. Much of my ancestry lies in the beautiful land of Ayreshire - I am a direct descendant of the Burns family. Though Gaelic does not flow fluently from my tongue, it runs in my blood.

Perhaps one day I can go visit my favorite Scottish lass MissusEss and take a crash course! After all, there's no better way to learn a language than to submerse yourself in it (though there's a distinct risk that I'd never come back). :)

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