The Trouble With Counting

It’s really hard to count the number of languages in the world, and it’s just as hard to count the number of speakers of a language (sometimes even harder).

It is generally agreed among linguists that there are about 6000 – 7000 languages in the world.  At least, that’s according to the official count.   But even the experts who do the counting and the classifying are usually quick to point out that it’s more like a really good “best guess” than a hard fact.

Counting languages is tough because, really, how do you tell the difference between a language and a dialect?  It’s certainly not easy, as political, social, economic, and geographical factors all can influence the status of a language or dialect.  A country may declare a single language as its official language, but that “one language” may be spoken entirely differently by different communities within the country – to the point that they can’t understand each other.  Or two communities may each consider their speech to be a completely separate language, while they fully understand one another and have the exact same grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation.  Of course, the status of a language/dialect may change over time as well, so sometimes it’s a tough call – and that’s not even getting into what to do about different “accents” of pronunciation.

When it comes to Gaelic, most people seem to know at least two types: Scottish and Irish.  There is also Manx Gaelic, which can just be called “Manx”, just as Irish Gaelic is often referred to simply as “Irish”.  It’s funny that “Scottish” doesn’t work the same way, so you end up with a certain degree of confusion between the terms “Scottish” “Gaelic” “Scottish Gaelic” and even “Scots” (which is entirely different from Gaelic altogether).

Are the Gaelic languages separate languages? Or are they dialects? Accents? Magic pixie music?  Well, Irish, Manx, and Scottish Gaelic are considered three separate languages. Nova Scotia Gaelic is certainly a type of Scottish Gaelic, but I don’t know if it is considered a “dialect” yet or not.  At the rate it is expanding, and with the geographical separation, I would expect that, in time, the Gaelic of Nova Scotia will reach that rebellious stage where it will start experimenting, acting out, wearing inappropriate clothes, and staying out all night until it feels it has established itself as an autonomous dialect.  Maybe one day it will even grow up to be its very own language.

As for the number of speakers… hoo boy.  I have heard estimates of the number of Gaelic speakers in Nova Scotia to be anywhere from about 200 to 2000.  It’s anybody’s guess, at this point.  The trouble with counting speakers in any endangered language is that a lot of times the people who do speak those languages don’t want to admit they speak the language.  Because they are ashamed (so sad!), or because they are afraid (!!), or, these days, because they think they have forgotten it even though they used to speak it.  There may be speakers out there, but chances are a lot of them have simply become English speakers in their own minds for their own reasons.  In addition, there are people who will claim to be speakers, who actually don’t know very much at all. They may have heard their parents speaking the heritage language and learned a few words or phrases as a child, but their practical ability to use the language may be extremely limited, even though they identify themselves as a speaker.  And then there are learners – learners who are actually quite good and use the language frequently, but who say things like “oh, I’m not that good, really” or “I don’t know anything”, and thus they don’t consider themselves speakers of the language.

There really are usually very few opportunities for speakers of a heritage language to be counted.  There is the census, of course, in which people self-report their language abilities, and which serves as the “official” public record. Even those numbers need to be taken with a grain of salt though.  It will be interesting to see what kind of presence Gaelic will have in the results of the newest Canadian census.

I really don’t know how many speakers of Gaelic there are in Nova Scotia, and I haven’t a clue how anyone would go about counting them effectively, efficiently, or accurately.  Maybe there could be an open-source, online registry.  Maybe a door-to-door campaign, or a special contest like those “guess how many jelly beans are in the jar” games.   Maybe a special, secret bird could be trained to fly around the province and spy on people to see if they speak Gaelic. No, that’s a bad idea.

Anyway, I may not know how many Gaelic speakers there are in Nova Scotia, but I can tell you that it is WAY more than I ever expected there to be.  Add the learners to the mix, and it’s even more.  A promising sign of things to come, even if this linguist can’t count!

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1 Comment

Filed under Gaelic, Linguistics

One response to “The Trouble With Counting

  1. Very interesting post – I am glad I found you. I was researching the piece I am writing and Googled Gaelic and Linguistics, and there you were.

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