Lecture for Sabhal Mor Ostaig- ENG.
 Graduation day.
6 October, 2006.


The Sounds of Europe.

If you want to change your point of view about Europe, one of the more interesting points of departure is the wonderful history of World War Two by historian Modris Ekstein, Walking Since Daybreak. To share this walk from his native Latvia  is to shift your point of vantage on what that the history of the last century has meant . But most of all it is to see through the eyes of the author how history and happenstance dealt with that vast swathe between the German and the  Russian empires. In some strange ways it is a book that reminds one of Alasdair Mc Leod’s rich Canadian telling of the culture of this place where we stand. The concerns of Ekstein are to paint his world  beginning with his flaxen- haired great grandmother, and ending with the story of his own life- also in Canada , where his family found a hard-won freedom.

His  was the land of the Letts and Livs and Balts and Ests, of all the people who did not encounter Christianity until the Teutonic Knights rode their battle steeds their way in the early middle ages. I visited this general territory exactly a year ago, moving through the flat lands of Estonia where Setu and Voru and other ancient languages are spoken, and where the fate of the Coastal Swedes- the Vikings who went East when some of our ancestors cane along the western sea routes- is still mourned. As the Germans moved East and the Soviets moved west, these lands somehow disappeared from view, swallowed up by surrounding empires and their ambitions. Like submerged islands when the flood recedes, they are reappearing into view and reclaiming their public  place in the patrimony of Europe. Sitting alongside the international languages of choice is the freedom to speak in their own voices, creating a rich multilingual tapestry. But will this rich tapestry survive in a Europe, where the greatest dilemma in language terms is to make the official ‘mother tongue plus two’ philosophy work in reality. Where a world language- English- is sweeping the boards. Where to be multilingual may be an ideal but is none the less not the norm , but the preserve of the male, the urban and the well- educated. Where even smaller state languages are beginning to feel endangered.

I was reminded of this might mean to culture and understanding while reading the most recent issue of the Irish Art Review. An eminent journal, it was looking at the career of Jerome Connor, a man who became an important sculptor in the USA at the beginning of the last century. He was commissioned to execute significant public momuments, and showed what the author described as a ‘rare empathy’ with the native American. In an interesting and perceptive remark the reviewer noted that this empathy might well have come from the fact that Connor was born a native Irish speaker. He was in fact born in the Dingle Peninsula of Kerry, in a valley called Com Dubh  in the closing decades of the nineteenth century and having emigrated , discovered his artistic talent and developed  under the influence of William Morris and his movement in upstate New York.

I was moved by the comment. For some years ago while on working for a time as a historical geographer  in the American Midwest, one of the strongest reactions I had to the landscape – where the native American presence hung in the air- was to feel a profound sense of loss for both my own language and theirs. I would walk this landscape and try to picture the past. There were some places that were particularly evocative. One was called Wyalusing, a high, tree- covered bluff whose cliffs overlooked the confluence of the Wisconsin and the Mississippi rivers; where a peaceful tribe of settled of settled agriculturalists had been annihilated by the forces unleashed by the dual advance of the leadmining and agricultural frontiers.

What had their voices sounded like? How had the world looked to them? What would the present be if they were still there? We cannot say, though there are now ways of preserving and recalling language that if used in earlier times, might have left windows more open on their history and culture. Which brings us to what reclaiming and preserving language is about- reclaiming memory, understanding, compassion. Being richer than we were before. Being humbler, perhaps. Being better able to hear ‘the still sad music of humanity’.  Are we travelling the right road?

Right now, the EU Commission through the DG Education and Culture is putting an emphasis on linguistic networks to further linguistic diversity in the EU.   In the teeth of the challenges- and they are very big ones- of globalisation, migration, the pursuit of economic development and the knowledge economy, there are attempts to ensure that the tapestry of language remains varied.  But the fact is that the pressures on our smaller autochtonous languages are growing, and the gap between them and the larger world languages is widening at an ever- faster pace. The presence of regional and minority languages in the education system drops off rapidly as we leave the junior cycle and  barely exists at the third level. As graduands today, you are among the privileged. These languages remain at the mercy of diverse state policies, some quite negative about an inclusive linguistic diversity.

 Current trends toward having Language Acts have been examined here at Sabhal Mór Ostaig in June of this year in EBLUL’s  Partnership for Diversity conference.The broad conclusions were that while providing a framework for progress, they do not in themselves assure the future of a language.The Acts only work if the people are willing to use them and if there are synergies in key areas. That means having an education policy that complements certain other types of public service provision; no use having bilingual forms at your local council office if they are in language so densely packed with newly- coined words that they are inaccessible to the ordinary consumer. It means having access to media in our languages.

It means capturing the wealth of philosophy, of meaning, of real world view that these languages have contained as well as the ability to express in one language what may just as easily be expressed in another. It means capturing the imagination. This is never going to be the task of Europe; it is a task for each language community.  TG4 in Ireland has had success in forging an individual identity; significantly it placed its’ finger on the pulse of what was needed right from the start. With its’ motto of  ‘Súil Eile’  it has captured the imagination and opened the eyes of the majority community as well .

 It also means addressing the lack of an adequate presence across the educational spectrum, and particularly in higher education of all kinds. In Finland, there has been a conscious effort to try to have at least a small cohort of professionals such as doctors to provide service to people in the second official language of their country, Swedish. It is not an entirely representative language in the context of the very small minority languages, since of course there are available materials in Swedish at that level, but the approach is important in itself. Aged patients and the very young in particular benefit greatly from service in their own languages.

One of the greatest changes- and it is both a threat and an opportunity- is the sheer speed of change in our societies now. The new accession states have placed the English language even more firmly in the vanguard of ‘most desirable to acquire’. The consequence is that the most sophisticated tools are available in it and a few other major languages; right across the EU, the gap between the smaller and bigger languages grows apace. We need to eliminate the gaps that exist in areas like speech therapy in these languages- an area where the lack of provision of services for children often means that parents feel pressured into leaving a minority language behind to ‘protect’ a childs’ progress.

As historians of culture have delved into the ‘mentalité’ of the past to understand how people truly thought, so we need this access to not just the words but the thought processes of the languages our forbears spoke. Proper approaches to synthesis  that allows the re-creation of dialect , nuance, inflection is now well within reach. Specialists in the linguistic field dealing with the smaller languages feel his type of investment needs to be pursued with all speed, to complement the other activities that we are currently being undertaken in the language area. The scale of loss has to be matched with the scale of recording to create the core archive.

Some interesting experiments- among them here in Scotland- have shown that using the smaller autochtonous languages as means of community -building leads to very positive results. Sharing the local language with immigrants is well- established in Catalonia in a ‘volunteers for language’ initiative.  This involves people from all walks of life, from grandparents and retirees generally who have some free time, to teenagers who may share with youngsters of their own age. The experiment is also being repeated with Basque. The benefits of sharing may include exchanges of language, where foreign immigrant language may be shared in reverse. This of course breaks down the social barriers between one type of community and another, and is a welcome and innovative addition to other strategies

The networking now envisaged holds considerable promise, but it will have a significant effect only if the networks are focussed on the correct subject matter, and most importantly of all include the widest possible spectrum of end -users in the dissemination phase. There is plenty of evidence of the best of practise that does not reach the end user. Many solutions while interesting are place -specific, and not entirely transferable without adaptation. Nor can we assume that all age -groups are amenable to being reached through cyber space. We therefore need a strong presence of a wide spectrum of organisations- especially those representative of smaller language communities- in these linguistic networks.

As here we stand today, in Sabhal Mór Ostaig, in an environment where you are dedicated to the ideal of celebrating and strengthening your own unique culture, I hope that you will achieve the goals you have set for yourselves. I hope that you will find your own ways to ensure the sounds of Europe remain linguistically diverse, and that as a community of teachers and scholars and broadcasters you will keep a close and critical eye on the developments currently taking place.  We have all been ‘walking since daybreak’; there are miles to go and promises to keep….