Missing, presumed deid

missingThe day before the Census figures were released, showing that Scots was remarkably alive, commentator Gerry Hassan published a thought-provoking piece called Scotland’s comforting stories and the missing voices of public life.

He writes “There has been historically and to this day a burgeoning chasm in how culture in Scotland is represented and reflected back to us in the media and in particular, broadcasters. I am thinking of culture in the widest sense as an all-encompassing term which covers much of what it is to be Scottish and know what it means to be Scottish: our histories, traditions, voices and languages“. Thus “the diverse, fascinating and challenging world of Scotland culturally just doesn’t gain adequate coverage, representation or time on BBC Scotland or STV“. Incomplete, skewed self-representation has a psychological consequence according to Gerry Hassan, alienation; a ‘sense of disconnection’, and ‘learned helplessness’.

Michael Hance, Director of the Scots Language Centre made an interesting blog response The missing pointing out that there were one and a half million Scots speakers ‘the missing’, and the NRS cover-up simply perpetuates their voicelessness. He wrote “A member of the Scots Language Centre’s facebook group described it (I think correctly) as, ‘one of the most important stories in modern Scottish cultural history’”. I think that was me, BTW! He continues”But more than just suppressing good news and interesting data the NRS has quietly given Scots speakers and the wider community a message. And the message is this: ignore the responses to the census, they don’t prove anything, the people who said they were speakers are not to be trusted; they didn’t understand the question, they don’t know themselves well enough to answer it correctly, Scots is just English, it doesn’t exist.”

The mechanism of suppression is then elaborated. “In this, NRS follows an established pattern with which Scots speakers are familiar. If the state and its agencies pretend Scots doesn’t exist, somehow or other it will just go away. This is how schools treated Scots for over a century, Scots wasn’t banned in the classroom like Catalan was in Franco’s Spain, it wasn’t named and legislated against. Instead Scots was simply treated as if it wasn’t there.”  He continues “the tactic used in Scotland, of ignoring the local language or treating it as a mangled and fixable version of something else (‘proper English’) was and continues to be disempowering and shaming“.

This deeply-engrained prejudice is evident the NRS suppression “The notion that Scots and English are just the same thing is so pervasive in our culture that even when a question designed to elicit data about incidence of speakers reveals the widespread use of the language, the first inclination of those who gathered the information is to claim that Scots in the minds of those who answered the question is ‘interchangeable’ with English“.

So what Michael Hance argues here is that the systematic silencing of Scots voices is a form of soft oppression, a form of oppression that the middle class Scottish establishment (here represented by the hapless NRS) can make with a clear conscious. Back in Hassan’s original article the author laments “a long Scots tradition of middle class society presenting a caricatured version of the working class“. A caricatured class, a caricatured culture, a caricatured tongue; all forms of control. This is why Scots is for me personally Scots is so important, as Michael Hance puts it “We are 1.5 million and we will be heard“.

Image: http://www.flickr.com/photos/alkalinezoo/1386344718/ by robpatrick

Was the NRS right to spike Scots?

Q16As we have seen, the consequences of the NRS cleansing the News release of the astonishing data of Scots was profound, hiding Scots (again) from public debate. So, was this action at all justified?

The first thing to do is agree with NRS that Scots remains a contested linguistic entity; it means different things to different people. Is that contestation reason enough to continue to suppress it (as NRS seem to imply), or is that contestation a consequence of its continued suppression? The Census data was a once-in-a-generation opportunity to open the debate, to propel the discussion of Scots into the public arena. But NRS decided unilaterally that it was not to be. Let’s examine their reasoning then in more detail, and pick up the counter argument by the Scots Language Centre, published the same day (SLC Analysis of Census 2011 for Scots).

In the Release 2A Statistical Bulletin – PDF the NRS wrote “The census data on language skills in Scots needs to be carefully qualified. The question on language skills in the census questionnaire was relatively poorly answered. For example, a significant number of respondents provided information on their skills in Scots but did not indicate any corresponding abilities in relation to English, perhaps suggesting they considered Scots and English as inter-changeable in this context.” This seems to refer to the problematic inconsistency between answers to Question 16 “Which of these can you do? [language skills]” and  Question 18 “Do you use a language other than English at home?” – respondents had to write in an answer. (Question 17 was “How well can you speak English?”). The original questions are here. There were 1,537,626 speakers recorded for Question 18 but only 55,817 wrote ‘Scots’ for Question 18. So did the respondents to this question actually consider ” Scots and English as inter-changeable”.

As SLC point out there is quite a plausible alternative explanation “The question immediately predisposes people in their mind to think in terms of the English language on one hand, and perhaps a foreign (non-Scottish) language on the other“. The choices ware English only, Sign Language and other (remember they had to write in an alternative) so ” it is quite understandable if many people simply assumed the difference being asked was between knowing and using English (and therefore excluding a foreign choice) and a foreign language. After all, they had already been asked about Scots, and may have assumed this was only about English“. The immediately previous question 17 was of course “How well can you speak English?”.

The second argument the NRS make is that “research carried out prior to the census also suggests that people vary considerably in their interpretation of what is meant by “Scots” as a language, resulting in the potential for inconsistencies in the data collected“. The SLC provided a forcefully brief response “This claim reveals that because the NRS is itself unfamiliar with the language it makes the assumption that speakers must also be unfamiliar with it and don’t understand. We cannot see that this is based on any scientific rationale and, in fact, linguistic prejudices are being allowed to cloud the interpretation of data that could not be more consistent and clear“. Remember the in preparation for the census, the SLC participated in what they considered a successful  informational and promotional campaign to raise awareness of what Scots is.

Personally I think there is an ambiguity about how people perceive Scots, but that is no reason to suppress interesting data. However it is the last strand of SLC’s argument that is by far the most convincing. Two surveys, fifteen years apart and using very different collection methods found almost exactly the same data and distribution. The fact these two data sets triangulate against the general distribution most Scots specialists would expect, only reinforces the bizarreness of the idea that the Census data is in any way bizarre.

The earlier survey was by the General Register Office for Scotland (GROS), the body from which the National Records of Scotland was partly created. In 1996 the GROS conducted a Cognitive Survey of Scots, touring the country, together with a panel of advisors, interviewing groups around the country. The survey was discussed in an earlier post Who speaks Scots? The 1996 survey revisited. The GROS concluded in its report that an estimated 1.5 million people spoke Scots. The 2011 figure is, remember, 1,541,693. The correspondence between the two data sets is truly remarkable!

I think therefore we can say with quite a lot of confidence that 1.5 million people self-identify with the Scots language. What their interpretation of Scots is is another question but to imply all these people are just a bit confused, as the NRS effectively does, is simply inexcusable.

How to kill a story

gaelicThe Census data was released yesterday on the European Day o Languages, and we found out that Scots has many more speakers than Welsh, Icelandic, Breton, Basque, Estonian, Corsican, Sardinian, Frisian. Michael Hance captured the euphoria “an affa emotional day for me the day. Canna believe it’s raelly happent.”

However the this positive feeling was not to last. The deliberate cleansing of the Scots data from the NRS News release meant that one of the most important cultural stories of modern Scottish history, was completely missed by the Scottish and UK press and TV.

As Colin Wilson put it “Reporting Scotland the nicht hid a nae bad piece aboot the figures for Gaelic, even a cuttie interview wi an activist, bit said naething avaw aboot Scots, nae even that the figures hid been gaither’t for the first time.”

The only BBC News story Census shows decline in Gaelic speakers ‘slowed’ exemplifies the low-key media approach. Although there is a quote from Michael Hance, later the piece focuses on Gaelic (about 60% of the text). An excerpt follows to show the balance.

A decline in the overall number of Gaelic speakers in Scotland has “slowed”, according to the latest results from the 2011 Census. The previous Census results recorded an 11% drop in speakers, while the new figures suggest a 1.2% fall from 59,000 to 58,000. The latest results also show a 0.1% increase in Gaelic speakers aged under 20. The Scottish government said the results were encouraging. The results also include detail on what languages are used in Scottish homes. They suggest that 93% of people aged three and over reported that they used only English at home. About 1.5 million people reported that they regularly spoke Scots. The figures also show 1% of the population – 54,000 people – used Polish at home, while 13,000 people reported using British Sign Language. Alasdair Allan, minister for Scotland’s languages, said: “While the census shows a slight fall overall, we can take real encouragement from the growth in Gaelic speakers under the age of 20“.

The really ‘important’ news story was about Gaelic, the ‘only English’ data (which will be discussed elsewhere) was used as a spoiler for the Scots data and Polish and Sign Language were given equal status to Scots. This is how a story is killed .

The British press showed no interest, only the Guardian story Where in Scotland do people feel the most Scottish? covered the Census at all, and focused on the (admittedly interesting) identity question. The BBC picked this aspect up too, Census suggests most Scots ‘feel only Scottish‘.

Not surprisingly there was no international interest. Even the normally reliable Eurolang NGO followed the NRS line. This was their version; “Decline in numbers of Gaelic speakers has slowed with the census showing a 1.2% drop from 59,000 speakers to 58.000 speakers, far better than the 11% drop ten years ago. The Scottish Government says the figures are encouraging and may show that Gaelic could be about to turn the corner and gradually increase the number of speakers. Comments from all the Gaelic experts here welcome. It certainly looks like the revitalisation effort is beginning to pay off. Mixed messages about Scots though. (my emphasis)”

Michael Hance summed up the treatment of Scots in despair “Aye weel, that wis Scots speakers cleansed fae the telly the streen an near on naethin on the radio bar a report on Radio Shetland. I did get a e-mail tho fae a quine I’m workin wi on anither project. In it she tellt me she’d heard on the news – dinna ken whit station – that jist 1% o fowk spoke Scots. That’s the vairsion that wis gien in the NRS’s ain unscientific an linguistically ignorant interpretation o the data. It means, for example, that o the 8000 fowk in Shetland that said they spoke Scots, jist 80 o them speak the language in the hoose. Sorry, NRS, but that’s keech an we’re nae pittin up wi it“.

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