Some people wonder what the value is in learning Gaelic. “Nobody uses it anymore,” they say, “so what’s the point?” For those of us who do understand the value of Gaelic, “what’s the point?” can be a really, really tough question to answer in a way that doesn’t end up with one or both parties resorting to fisticuffs. Generally, both sides have their minds already made up, and it can be a challenge to effectively articulate the kind of passion that comes with being an avid supporter of Gaelic. Here’s my attempt:
The English language is like McDonald’s food. It’s bland, boring, and nearly impossible to trace back to it’s origins. Sure, those french fries may have been in the same room as a potato at some point, but it’s a long journey from a farmer’s field to your paper take-out bag, and a lot of changes happen along the way. So it is with English — so many bits and pieces borrowed from so many other places over the centuries come together to form a language that ultimately lacks authenticity. And like McDonald’s, English is wildly popular and available just about everywhere (with some regional variations, of course).
Gaelic, on the other hand, is like grandma’s homemade cooking. Simple, original, and full of personality. Using limited amounts of basic ingredients, grandmas can make wonderful, flavourful meals, even if it’s only homemade bread and butter, and they do it with love and attention. So too Gaelic creates beautiful language and song and poetry from an inventory of simple, logical, tried and tested components, and the people who speak it do so with affection. And just like homemade meals, Gaelic isn’t as common as it used to be.
There is a historical aspect shared here as well. When a grandmother makes meals or bakes treats, she likely has a wealth of knowledge about the ingredients and the food that was passed on to her from her own mother and grandmother. It’s more than just following the same recipes for generations, it’s knowing how to harvest the crops and work with what’s available, learning the nuances and techniques and secret ingredients, which eggs are the best eggs, and how not to handle the dough. The entire context is what makes the difference. A grandmother’s cooking ties you back to your family, ancestors, traditions, history, culture, and maybe even your land. This is exactly what the Gaelic language does for people of Gaelic descent; it is the connection to the past, to the ancestors, history, culture, tradition and yes, even land.
It is nearly impossible to remove the Gaelic language from the culture it represents (or to remove the culture from the language, I suppose). Learning Gaelic is not just about learning how to say English things in another language. (In fact, it’s probably easier to learn Gaelic if you try to ignore as much of your English as you can.) Gaelic has an intricate context that surrounds it, and by learning the language, you also learn about the Gaelic culture – the way of life, the traditions, the history and the different ways of thinking about the world that are embedded in the language. That’s why learning Gaelic in the context of living it is so important… imagine trying to recreate Grandma’s Famous Christmas Dinner for the whole family just by following a recipe book! Not an easy task, and it likely won’t get you the results you were hoping for. You really need to be there and share the experience with the chef to get a sense of how it’s really done.
Now, I’m not trying to say that one way is better than the other – that we should all go back to making home-cooked meals and/or speaking Gaelic all the time, or that everyone should give in to the dominance of modern times and speak English and eat burgers forever more. Balance is good, and I think we can have both without inconveniencing too many people. The trick is going to be getting to the point that people feel comfortable with and are willing to adopt a positive attitude towards the fact that people still value the Gaelic language and culture so much that they are using it in their everyday lives. For some reason, when someone says they are learning Gaelic, the reaction is likely to be “Why? What’s the point?” from many people. But if someone shows up at a party with homemade goodies instead of store-bought, fresh-from-the-freezer pie, people are impressed. “Oh wow, you MADE that? That’s wonderful! I wish *I* knew how to cook!” You see? Gaelic is like the homemade chocolate chip cookies at the party!
People generally understand the value of home-cooked meals, even though it is also a difficult thing to articulate. There is a certain sense of nostalgia, a memory, associated with it, and it’s the same for Gaelic speakers. People might crave their grandmother’s chicken soup their entire lives, even though the recipe might be long gone. Gaelic speakers in Nova Scotia are fortunate to still have grandmothers and grandfathers around to pass on their language, knowledge, customs, and traditions to new generations, and they don’t want to lose them!
Well, that’s just my take on things, and I’m not sure that the whole “food metaphor” would really hold up in one of those heated discussions with a group of doubters, but I hope it manages to get the point across anyway. There really is value in Gaelic, and people who don’t know it are just jealous because they don’t know how to cook. No, wait, that’s not right. You know what I mean. Is anyone else hungry now?
As a linguistic aside, I just want to mention that Gaelic is not the only language in this situation – far from it. It is generally agreed that of the approximately 6,000 languages in the world, half or more are on their way out within the next couple of generations, mainly the heritage languages of minority cultures around the world. Three THOUSAND languages, all going the way of the home-cooked meal, so to speak. Except the difference is that people generally see the value of home-cooked meals these days, where they don’t always see the value in saving a language. So sad to see all those metaphorical homemade cookies going unappreciated!