Those llllanguages

31. Juli 2012 § Hinterlasse einen Kommentar

I’ve nearly forgotten the ultimate goal of this journey, that is, to traverse as many of Europe’s language regions as possible. My count, when I researched the issue, came to about 80 languages including minority languages, but not dialects. When I now, on the ferry between Britain and Brittany, tally up the score so far, I’m unsure both of what counts as a language and to what extent I can claim I traversed anything palpable, or rather, hearable.
For on this leg of the trip, which I call the Celtic Arc, I didn’t hear a word of any of the Celtic languages spoken except for station announcements in Welsh (always preceding the English equivalent and thereby unnerving most travellers) and quaint TV serials on dedicated minority channels.
I made three attempts to dig into the issue. Once, on the island of Mull, I asked an elderly lady (woollen hat, pink fleece, a couple of teeth missing) whether Gaelic was spoken at all on the island. Yes, she said, old people speak it sometimes. She herself used to use it, but it wasn’t meant for the minister’s ear. On the other hand, at church, they had to pray and chant in Gaelic. Once the young ones only pretended to, moving their lips in mimicry. The elders noticed, and punished them with the withdrawal of sweets.
In the centre of Ireland (Leitrim) I brought the subject up with the landlord of the Old Rectory, a lovely B&B in a carefully renovated mansion. His father, he said, spoke Irish at home, but the children didn’t want to. It was neither cool nor useful. His two daughters, he said with a barely audible sigh of relief, were exempt from the subject at school because they are both dyslexic. However, at breakfast the next day, the conversation revolved around the importance of languages, especially in tourism. And this time it was for the mother to heave a sigh: if only the girls did better at French.
A few days later, I chance upon a mobile library lorry and pay a visit as it is ostensibly underused at this time of year. I ask what they stock in Gaelic and the librarian corrects me: you mean Irish? She shows me a hand’s breadth of books, perhaps a thousandth of the total of colourful tomes. From what she explains to me it’s a national and political cause. And it serves to include and exclude: if you take Irish in secondary school, you get more points, allowing easier entry into university programmes. There are Irish-medium schools which draw in the more ambitious pupils from the region. If it sounds a bit like the role that Latin played in earlier times (and still does, in some places), it’s not far-fetched to claim new barriers and cartels are erected. The librarian also had to pass a difficult Irish exam to be able to enter the profession.
In Wales, the old language is more present in the linguistic landscape of signage. But if space is limited, as on some road signposts, the Welsh is dropped regularly. And on the privatised trains that run cross-country, you don’t hear a word of Celtic from the PA system (as opposed to those which circulate within Wales). It would have been interesting to hear how the long delays would be explained in Welsh as an equivalent to the emphatically regretful „we are very sorry about the delay“ – incidentally, I’m not sure if the apology, being played from a prerecorded text device, can pragmalinguistically count as sincere at all.
As for Scots, that variety spoken by older inhabitants of Scotland and Northern Ireland and considered by proud patriots as a language of its own, I’m not sure if I should count it in. To postpone the decision, I bought a teatowel with a list of Scots words and will duly ponder the issue. Of course, I would then also need to reconsider my decision not to count Swiss German, which is at least as different from standard German as Scots is from English, both in terms of grammar and phonology, let alone vocabulary.
Let me now conclude the issue with the embarrassing admission that I just didn’t want to take the linguistic torch this summer and shine it under every unturned stone to discover signs of Celtic life. No one can deny that , I have cycled through regions where theoretically P and Q-Celtic languages were or are potentially spoken, just not when I looked.
As I write this, I’ve landed in Roscoff, and I’m curious to check out the situation here.
The language regions I’ve cycled through so far, this year and last:
1 German
2 Romansh
3 Italian
4 Ladin
5 Cymbrian
6 Friulian
7 Slovenian
8 Croatian
9 Bosnian
10 Serbian
11 Latvian
12 Lithuanian
13 Russian
14 Polish
15 English
16 Scots
17 Scottish Gaelic
18 Irish Gaelic
19 Welsh
20 Bretonic
21 French

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