Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Deny a shared language, deny a shared history, deny a shared culture…deny who you are

A guest post by Edward Freeman

I feel I must chime in on the subject of Scots language deniers, who are, I think, usually in that group of people we can call “proud Scots but”. I am a trained United Nations translator, with degrees in languages, linguistics and whatnot (especially whatnot). I am now retired, but I routinely translated into English from Russian, French, Spanish, and Portuguese, and I can cope with Dutch and German (having lived in the Netherlands, Germany and Austria). There are various others in the Romance and Slavic groups that I can cope with too. Shove in Latin and ancient Greek as well - I had a peculiar education. It is certainly true that the more languages you learn, the easier it gets. It is also true that language is the thing that distinguishes humans from other animals, and is probably our supreme intellectual achievement as a species.

I also spent years in Kenya, where English and Swahili are the official languages, though English is preferred for official business and Swahili is more widely used for interethnic communication, except with us wazungu. There are 47 tribes in Kenya, a few of them very small - and not counting the wazungu - and basically they all have their own languages, though languages shared between different tribes bring the total down to about 42. (I'm keeping this as simple as I can.)

Swahili has many native speakers, though not as many as in neighbouring Tanzania, where it is - or rather, was - the sole official language. In origin, Swahili is a creole between a Bantu substrate and the Arabic used by the Arab traders and slavers who travelled up and down the African east coast in sync with the monsoon winds. Its pre-eminence as a trading language allowed it to penetrate far into the interior, as far as modern-day Rwanda and even the eastern DRC.

It is probably worth pointing out that the Europeans did not exactly “discover” Africa; the locals knew it was there all the time, and other outsiders frequently “discovered” it before Europeans ever did.

English, obviously, is a much later linguistic add-on, but it is actively kept up because it is so useful, internationally, and for the formal (as opposed to the traditional) legal system, because it is based on English common law. English is also used in education and general official business, of course.

There is a distinctive form of Kenyan / East African English - which I really enjoy, frankly - an example would be "the cahs clashed buttock to buttock" = the cars reversed into each each other at speed. It remains English, though, as English as American and Indian and Downton Abbey English. And, of course, Scottish English.

Most of the tribal, home-grown languages are Bantu-based, including Swahili, which has many native speakers - down on the Coast in particular - whereas the others are Nilotic, except, of course, English. The Bantu-based ones maintain varying degrees of intercomprehensibility - Kikamba and Kikuyu are pretty close, for example, and contiguous geographically, and as people in those tribes / groups live in such close proximity to each other (not to mention intermarriage), there's a high degree of interoperability, if you can call it that. If I do mention intermarriage, it will be to say only that exogamy is very widespread, and the UK's Royals should probably have done a bit more of it.

There is a great deal of harmless amusement derived from people's varying accents in Swahili and so on, depending on their own native languages, and the funny ways they speak the closely related Bantu languages. Kisii and Embu come to mind in that respect (Embu has front rounded vowels, like French (3) – or Glaswegian (1) – unless I’m confusing Embu with Meru).

If you want to get a better idea of the complexity involved in all this, have a look at this short article in Wikipedia. If you look at the table on the right of that page, you will see the language “Gikuyu”. This is Kikuyu, and the reason for the G is because the language is currently undergoing an active process of dissimilation. I know about this because I gave one of my colleagues at the UN in Nairobi, a native speaker of Luganda (Buganda), the majority (Bantu) language of Uganda, some assistance with her linguistics MA dissertation – she ran her English-language examples by me, and explained what she was up to with the rest of her dissertation in return.

The Nilotic group of languages are a different kettle of fish entirely. Completely different, and rather difficult to get one's head around, for me, anyway. I am most familiar with Maa, as spoken by the Maasai, though one of my foster sons is Luo.

The Nilotic group and the Bantu group are in different categories of language entirely, like Arabic and English. English - Kiingereza in Swahili - is in a completely different language group from either. Swahili is a creole of Bantu and Arabic, as I said, and the Bantu languages and Arabic again are in two completely different language groups. English and Russian, in contrast, are in the same, Indo-European group, as are Greek, Hindi, and Farsi (Persian/Iranian). That’s right, I said “in the same” language group. As is Gaelic.

So, my "houseboy" Ntosho (Alex) Ole Kisaika, a Maasai (as is obvious from his name), grew up speaking Maa and Swahili and English, all three of them refined at school – primary school only - picked up more Kikuyu when he came to live in Nairobi, and could communicate with my Kamba guy Augustine in English, Swahili and Kikuyu. Meanwhile, Augustine was cheerfully picking up more Kikuyu himself, and some Maa from Alex and my Maasai foster son Lekishon.

It is far more common, worldwide, to be at least bilingual than it is to be a monoglot. Of course, it is far easier when you grow up with it. Many Scots are at least to some degree bilingual between Scottish English and Scots, but because it comes naturally to them, they don't even realize it. Bilingualism is very good for the brain - all the studies show it. Multilingualism is even better, in my view. Monoglots, alas, even the ones who only think they are monoglots, are the only ones who do not recognize this, because they simply do not know from experience, or do not realize that they do. Doubting Thomases! Take my word for it, you monoglots, or call me a liar!

Nairobi urban dialect is known as Sheng, a composite of Swahili and English favoured by smart young things who want, like all young people, to bamboozle their fuddy-duddy old parents. Of course, all my guys could use that as well. Example: "sasa" in Swahili means "now". Spoken with extended first vowel, short second, and rising intonation, accompanied by quickly raising the chin, in Sheng it is a greeting which I gloss as "Wassup?" Sheng is not a creole, or a pidgin; I don't think it ever can be, actually, not least because in order to use it you have to be heading towards bilingualism already, so you don’t actually need to put together a new language to communicate.

Note to readers - this is from Wikipedia: "Creoles also differ from pidgins in that, while a pidgin has a highly simplified linguistic structure that develops as a means of establishing communication between two or more disparate language groups, a creole language is more complex, used for day-to-day purposes in a community, and acquired by children as a native language. Creole languages, therefore, have a fully developed vocabulary and system of grammar."

The exception to the rule of multilingualism in Kenya is - you guessed it - the native English speakers among the white tribe. One of the reasons I got to be so well liked among the non-wazungu was because at least I tried! So, monoglots, next time you hear someone furren not getting their English quite right, do please think before you sneer?

My guy Alex never spoke English with a native speaker until he was well into his 20s, Augustine a bit earlier. Both are very smart cookies. I am proud that we can call each other friends. Rafiki.

Remember: Maa, Swahili, English - are in three different, unrelated language groups entirely, with Swahili partially composed of a fourth - like English, Chinese, and Arabic, with a bit of an admixture of Algonquian into one of them. My guys spoke all three of those, and learned them without the aid of bilingual dictionaries, because such things are rare, not very good at all, or far too expensive for poor Kenyans living in rural areas. Or they simply do not exist, because no one has ever compiled them. Pretty amazing, eh, to learn another language when the only book you have in common is the Bible, originally translated more and less badly or well by non-native-speaking European missionaries?

And yes - Scots IS a separate but closely related language to English. I just wish I were more fluent in it.

49 comments:

  1. Is-math sin. Lovely thought provoking piece.

    Also interesting to note, that those slang "spraffing" (to borrow a word from a modern urban colloquial dialect of scots, ;) ) scottish lawyers as late as the 18 century conducted and recorded scots legal discourse, in scots. The historic Scots-Law legal record is full of it.

    Just waiting for someone to tell me that Scots-Law isn't real ;)

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  2. Thank you for that. I was reading this very morning about Lord Monboddo.

    I had to look up Nilotic though. And me a "native" English speaker.....

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  3. The attempt by Britnats to eradicate Scottish identity including our language is entirely political.
    I can tell e.g. more or less,the difference between a Canadian and someone from the USA even though they share a common root in the English language.
    Doubt you will find many Canadians however that would use this as a reason to have their country's government in Washigton DC.
    TV and it's Coca Cola message dominated by American culture has been responsible for the dumbing down of local dialects and culture and has left us all much impoverished as a result.

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    1. The attempt by Britnats to eradicate Scottish identity including our language is entirely political.

      Is this some kind of Illuminati thing? You're talking about thousands of people (tens of thousands, realistically) over hundreds of years.

      Or is it more of a sinister, immortal hive-mind that spans generations?

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  4. You could try living with the natives in the former burgh of Camlachie for a wee while and observe the variations in accent...and how they etch a living.

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    1. I know you are no need to declare it.

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    2. What a good little operative you are.

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  5. As a person who grew up in Glasgow and never spoke either Scots or Gaelic, it is not 'who I am'. It is not 'common' or 'shared' either. It is simply another means by which the SNP government can make Scotland feel different from the rest of the UK - and is being pushed artificially on that basis.

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    1. The cringe is strong in this one...

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    2. So what are you advocating for those of us who know Scots and enjoy using it - just shut up or speak English for fear of being different from the rest of the UK?

      Happy to use English around people who can't understand Scots, but don't see any reason why I shouldn't use it around those who do.

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    3. P.S. it's not being pushed artificially - it's decades of ignoring it despite the large base of speakers which was, in your words, 'artificial'

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    4. Thats fine Anon but you don't as a result get to deny it to others.

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    5. if you have taken your Scottish English (the existence of which you may indeed even deny) ouwith the Scottish context, you may get a few surprises; I have seen papers marked down in higher education for constructions such as " one can but (laugh, dream etc), acceptable in Scottish usage, as " not English!, and one of my own university exam papers came back with the comment that " you write in some form of bush language with which I am not familiar". This last came from a lecturer from an Oxbridge college who found the natives a bit difficult when he came north and speedily departed (with some encouragement) back whence he came.

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    6. No, I don't get to deny it to others - but I do get to take issue with the assertion that it is something we all share and part of 'who I am'. It clearly isn't either of those things. I also get to take issue with state promotion of the language, in schools, using taxpayers' money (my money).

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    7. Never, ever spoken Scots in your life? What a shame! Do you speak any other European languages, or is it only the Scottish ones that you object to?

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    8. Different anon here, replying to anon!
      I don't feel that language should be a political issue. Look at the progress made in Wales in preserving and indeed reviving their language and Wales is much more "pro union" than Scotland.

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    9. Amazing that someone grew up in Glasgow and never spoke Scots. Must have been difficult in the school playground.

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  6. Fascinating article, very enjoyable.

    Henceforth, I will be ditching "white settlers" and "proud Scots but" - I think wazungu will do nicely. Not strictly true of course, but, if they look it up, it won't half upset them.

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  7. But, but, but.... Scots is just a slang version of English!

    [Extracts tongue from cheek...]

    Thank you for this. I'm no linguist but I found this article and WGD's rather similar one very interesting indeed.

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    1. Yes, WGD is generally right on the money when it comes to language. Actually, I can't think of an exception to that rule. His explanation of the difference between independentista and nacionalista in Spanish is well worth taking to heart - I was corrected on that one myself many years ago now, in Barcelona not long after Franco died. The memory is reinforced by the sight of the many parties of Guardia Civil guys in the funny hats walking around the Ramblas in threes looking paranoid - and clasping their machine guns tightly.

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  8. The study of Scots has only emboldened me to look in to the Languages of our Nordic/Scandinavian Neighbours which in turn has encouraged my Learning to speak a little and be able to Read some Norwegian/Swedish and Danish. From small acorns.

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    1. Seemingly impenetrable scandi languages aren't so impenetrable when approached with a scots language mindset, as so many scandi words are still in common use within the scots cannon.



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    2. From a Childhood Education point of view I believe the promotion and Teaching of Scots(irrelative of whether a Person believes it a Language or Dialect)can only enhance the Learners possibility of Branching out in to other Languages. Start the Journey with the words spoken on the streets.

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    3. I applaud your intellectual curiosity about other languages, but if I might offer a suggestion, you should Probably try and Stop capitalising Random words in Your Sentences.

      it looks Weird.

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  9. Tha trì canain againn anns na h-Alba: Gàidhlig, Scots agus Beurla.

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  10. Tha mi nam Shasannach but I don't like the "colonial' attitude of decrying other people's cultures.

    A linguist once said that a language is a dialect without an army.

    Whilst I've taken every care in my nearly 40 years in Scotland to learn to understand Scots in its different forms- many English incomers resent that things are different north of the border.

    I get particularly annoyed by incorrect pronunciation of place names. E.g. 'Lockarber'. Try going sooth and saying their places names wrong!

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    1. Tha mi nam Shasannach cuideachd! And while nothing would ever induce me to go back to England, it wouldn't occur to me to complain about the invisible r or the pronunciation of Happisburgh.

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    2. I'm particularly thinking of media people-like weather forecasters-who say for instance Locharber or worse Lockarber. Even some Scots are doing this because they copy the dominant southern English dialect. Northern english dont do this and they maintainn their own pronouciation. Gary, an elgin loon has been known to say Glarsgow!

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  11. Sorry I meant a language is a dialect with an army! Or you can put itbthe other way round.

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  12. Thanks for the post. It is disappointing that expressions of Scots culture and identity can arouse such hateful reactions now. Perhaps this is an inevitable result of the polarisation caused by the independence debate: but there's no real reason why one can't be proud of Scots culture and also unionist (such at least is the on-the-face-of-it claim of Better Together)

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    1. Interestingly, in Northern Ireland, its the unionist community who are fighting to have (Ulster) Scots recognised as a language

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  13. @Cairnallochy: 'One can but…' is very English. I was brought up on it in the literature and conversation around me, post war, by an English family in London. I'm shocked!

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  14. Thanks for this info - wd have been useful to me many years ago, when challenged over this as translation of French "on ne peut que.....".

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  15. A tour de force.

    A keeper and one to be shared widely (have already started doing so and shall go on doing so including with my multi-ethnic student body at an American university branch campus here in Tokyo. Trust this severely pisses off pseudo monoglots with AngloBrit comprador pretentions like GWC2 of the singular or plural cringe identity/identities).

    Is GWC2 that Oxbridge faux scholar deliciously referred to above who trotted off with his or her academic tail between his or her legs from Alba back to mongrel Beurla Engerlund with its fur coat and no knickers RP and ""High" RP taught pretensions which continue to serve them so ill within the body of the kirk of global humanity?

    That mongrel "Eden" wherein the aforesaid dialects have replaced the Norman come later Anglo Norman variants superimposed on earlier linguistic sub-strata as stranglingly articulated by the Anglo "keigo" (Germano-Greek-catch all artificial court lingo currently perceived as de rigueur by the "contemporary", self-styled think tank wallahs - I would not buy a basic cup of tea from them never mind buy in to their verbal diaorrhea as served up by the establishment propaganda outlets variegated but boasting of homogeneity).

    An outstanding guest piece, James. And thank you so much, Edward (dinna fash about the cur-like, feral comments).

    What a splendid innovation to your blog, James, much as I revere it for your traditional scientific analysis of polling.

    Cracking stuff, gentlemen.

    Kindest
    David/Dauvit/Daibhidh

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    1. Kultyur is a shared Uk British entity. Boozing and wife beating...Language is a communication between people and one tax subsidised language is sufficient. Anything else is a hobby.

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  16. PS Agus post scriptum, chaps/loons: Hamish/James/Jaime avec et agus Edouard/Eduardo/Edward named cross-culturally and linguistically in all your JACOB'S COAT rainbow hues singularly human: Trust you have your own blog-spot/site, Edward?

    If not, you should as you have a moral and scientific duty to publish one (just as James does in picking up the gauntlet of free-thinking, scientific enquiry mandated to be shared against the flat-earther odds).

    Trust James Bey will keep us updated apropos your outlet, Edward Pasha.

    Encore, fantastique
    DAVIDO (as per standard Japanese pronunciation - wonderful stuff this thing that is human communication)

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    1. You do write well and tell a good story David. However real life does go on out there in the country. Inspite of your writing you are a narrowback nat si and will not influence future politics. You have the same flaw as all nat sis have worldwide, you think you are special...Up yer kilt auld yin

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    2. We are special. Vote Yes next time to join the club.

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    3. WATP FTP GSTQ that's real kulcha for ye

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    4. Bishop Wishart you are a fud. Your club is bunch of pale faced religious fascist nonentities.... GIRUY

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    5. Thanks for that, David! I have become unbearably smug as a result. I think I've managed to reply to everybody now - I wrote the one about not being able to handle the technology first. It still keeps demanding that I prove I'm not a robot and accusing me of making suspicious moves and making me identify road signs, but - success!

      Japanese - now there's a difficult one. Is it really a language isolate? I know very little at all about Asiatic languages.

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  17. It's weel-seen whit's needit is a Scots language act tae be brocht in at Holyrood. Aw the recent fash ower whuther Scots is a leid in its aim richt wis pit tae bed therty year ago whan it wis declared a lesser yaised language bi the EU. The time is ripe for the auld tung tae see the licht of day. Ower tae the Scots pairliament cultur commatee.

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    1. I didn't know about the EU "less used" language status - if that's what it is in English - it seems a bit odd, given that there are many more Scots speakers than there are Gaelic speakers.

      I just wish I could write Scots with any degree of fluency at all.

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  18. I'm writing to thank James for posting my screed, and for your encouraging comments. As you may have guessed, languages are my thing...

    I do believe I'm going to try again to set up my own blog, and this time not let the technology defeat me! That's the same technology that I was not able to get my head round well enough to reply individually to your kind posts and comments.

    I particularly appreciate the ill-informed and ill-mannered mouthings of the trollish contingent. I seem to have touched a nerve, proving that I am on the right track. I take such abuse as a badge of honour, so thank you!

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