Spelling out Gaelic’s reach

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William Scott (letters, July 11) asserts that “Gaelic was only ever spoken by a tiny minority of Scots as it was unknown beyond the sparsely-populated Hebrides and Western Highlands”.

He is instantly contradicted by his local Lothian coastline – on Fidra, where Tarbet is for tairbeart, an isthmus or portage.

In The History of the Celtic Place Names of Scotland, Professor W. J. Watson wrote: “Malcolm, son of Kenneth, routed the Northumbrians in the great and decisive Battle of Carham in AD1018… It was during this period, probably from about 960 onwards, that Gaelic came to be current in Lothian; there is some evidence that it extended beyond the present boundary of Scotland.”

Gaelic-derived place names in Lothian have been attributed to “the presence of a land-owning Gaelic-speaking aristocracy and their followers for something like 150-200 years.” (W. F. H. Nicolaisen: Scottish Place Names).

Gaelic was the majority speech in Scotland until circa 1450-1500 AD. By then, the northern (Northumbrian/Lothian) variety of Middle English (Inglis) had displaced Gaelic from most of the Lowlands, including much of the eastern seaboard. Inglis speakers then adopted the name Scottis (Scots) for their own language, the term which they had formerly used to refer to Gaelic. They went on to call Gaelic “Erse” (Irish).

Gaelic’s high tide was probably during the early 12th century. It became well established in Peeblesshire. Innerleithen, on the Tweed, is for Inbhir Leitheann – the mouth of the Leithen. Gaelic became dominant throughout most of the Lowlands. West of Lothian, it replaced Welsh; in the north, it took over from Pictish.

There is no soundly-principled linguistic stick with which to beat Gaelic for arriving or changing. Every language ever spoken in Scotland has been introduced at some point and evolved over time – including the comparatively-recent form of “standard” English which has greatly eroded the evolved Inglis that has become modern Scots.

There are no universally-accepted criteria for distinguishing languages from dialects.

There is, however, wisdom in the old saw: “A language is a dialect with an army” to which one might add: “…and the apparatus of a state and a media industry.”

I share Mr Scott’s view that the learning of foreign languages is to be encouraged. Bilinguals are generally better at learning additional languages, which can be to their own and their community’s economic benefit.

The money Mr Scott resents being spent on Gaelic road signs is tiny in comparison to that spent on the propagation of “English” signs which are merely corruptions of the original and continuing language of the first people whom history calls Scots.

They proclaim that its speakers are not strangers and aliens in their own land and that – as historian Alistair Moffat has put it – “Scotland” is English for Alba.

Donald Gunn