Gaels: Know your own culture so you can understand others

NYFG Many of you may have seen David Leask’s excellent commentary on the increasingly popular pastime of Gael bashing in Scotland (The Herald Scotland, March 25, 2015).

Still, for those of you who have not read this piece, it is well worth the few minutes it will take to gobble it up.

Especially for the Diasporrans in the crowd, do note Mr. Leask’s closing remark:

“More: know your own culture, and you’ll find it easier to know another (and vice-versa).”

The completeness with which our diasporic Gaelic heritage has been erased from our lives can make it difficult to see our modern American, Canadian, Australian selves as, in fact, ethnic Gaels. Yet we are just that and it is no meaningless thing.

A few days ago in the grocery store the produce man, a local Hispanic guy, saw a pal of his, another local Hispanic guy. These two friends greeted each other and launched into laughing conversation in their ethnic tongue – not the official language of America.  A few years ago I might well have found myself annoyed that these two guys were having a great old time in their own native language instead of English, even though their conversation was their own and none of my business.  I spoke English, I didn’t speak anything else, and I could not understand myself in terms of a person who enjoyed a minority and threatened ethnicity.

All of that changed when I resolved to learn Scots Gaelic. As a Gaelic learner, instead of annoyance I smiled and thought, with some envy, how fortunate the Hispanic people of the area where I live are to have that language bond with each other no matter where they are and no matter whether they meet an old friend or a new member of the Hispanic world.  I stood there by the potatoes wishing there were some Gaels around.  Of course, there are, they are everywhere, they just don’t know it.  Language and culture are inseparable and language is the hub of the cultural wheel.  When two people share an ancestral tongue you can bet they are sharing a whole lot more.

Jewish American linguist Joshua Fishman put It this way:

“The real question of modern life, and for reversing language shift, is how one can build a home that one can still call one’s own and by cultivating it find community, comfort, companionship and meaning in a world whose mainstreams are increasingly unable to provide these basic ingredients for their own members.”

It is not to America’s advantage to envision itself as “English only”.  As a practical “lingua franca” or language of convenience, English is and will continue to be a uniting thread across the continent.  But America is not and never has been an English nation to which immigrants arrived late in the game.  America began, grew and continues as a nation of immigrants and the English are only one part of that diverse crew.  Indeed, Anglo culture itself was quite a late visitor to North American shores even for western Europeans, trailing behind the Spanish and French.  It is also worth remembering that America was not predestined to be Anglo, despite the myth of Manifest Destiny.  For instance, had negotiations taken a slightly different turn in Paris in 1763 at the end of the French and Indian War, North America could easily have been home to French and Spanish communities living here together in some stasis with the native nations who preceded them.

In the end, things didn’t work out that way and the monoglot Anglophone tsunami submerged everything else including the ancient Scots Gaelic culture almost as soon as it landed on American soil.  Only a few pieces of cultural detritus have been allowed to remain floating at the surface of this nation.  Some of that detritus contained seeds and some of those seeds have taken root in America once again.  The Wampanoag and Mi’aamia languages native to the Ohio Valley, both once ‘extinct’ in that they had no living speakers, are being successfully reclaimed by members of those nations.  There are other examples here and in Australia where cultures formerly withering under the imperial thumb are re-flowering and enriching the overall larger national culture and pocket book with collateral benefits such as cultural tourism.

There are lessons to be learned by diasporic Gaels from native nations who have also suffered under British and American domination.  When a true account of history is made it becomes clear that the Gael shares much more in common with native nations that what is at first apparent.  When our cultures met on North American soil we occupied different locations on the continuum of Anglo domination and that disparity continues today.  Yet the Gaelic experience and the North American Native Nations experience relative to Anglo driven cultural extermination are remarkably similar plot lines played out in stories set centuries apart. The terminal result on the cultures has been frighteningly similar.

As soon as we begin to recognize, reclaim and celebrate that part of ourselves that houses our non-Anglo Gaelic heritage, we once again begin to understand what it actually means to be “not English”.  Do we not owe it to our ancestors and our young people to confront that truth?  Each of us has a wonderful obligation to help reclaim and reinvigorate our ancestral Gaelic culture and heritage.  Try it.  You’ll like it.

One thought on “Gaels: Know your own culture so you can understand others

  1. Trish MacNeil

    It would be different if Gaels had simply decided they didn’t want to speak Gaelic anymore and had made a choice to adopt English. However, that wasn’t the case. It was systematically targeted for removal by non-Gaels over an extended period of time and well within recent memory. Even here in Canada, the older folks of my grandparents’ generation can tell you stories of how they were punished in school for speaking Gaelic. I find it ludicrous for commenters on the Leask article or any other article to say that Gaelic isn’t important because only 1% of the population in Scotland now speaks it, with absolutely NO recognition of why that is and what the percentage used to be. In Canada, we recognize it as a travesty that First Nations were targeted in the same way, stripped of their culture and language and community and we support their effort to reclaim languages that are endangered. Gaels wherever the are need to do the same and work together to restore the language that was stolen from us, whether we are in Scotland, Canada, the U.S. or elsewhere. Suas leis a’ Ghàidhlig!


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