Languages for survival

I was young and fancy-free when I went to Denmark in 1974. One of the first and most off-putting things said to me, by the son of an eminent Danish MP and author, was that I should not bother learning Danish. He said that, as only five million people in the world spoke it, it was simply not worthwhile.

Thankfully Danish is still a living language, unlike Scottish Gaelic, which has long been seriously endangered. In common with all the Celtic tongues, it is hard to see how much longer it can survive. Manx and Cornish have already died, although there are spirited efforts to bring them back, Breton is imploding, Irish is fighting for its life, and even Welsh is only used by around 20% of those living in Wales. This rich family of languages which were once spoken from Spain to Turkey is down to less than a million native speakers in all.

Scottish Gaelic has had its problems. The crofters who speak it daily on Lewis and Harris see theirs as a different language from that taught and championed in the classrooms of SMO on Skye, and theirs is a different world again from the intelligentsia writing Gaelic literature in the South. Those whose Gaelic is overwhelmingly oral, and above all used within the family, would sooner see their language die than be taken over by the new ‘total immersion’ courses running on Skye.

When Scotland should have been nation-building in preparation for its proposed independence, the thorny issues of Gaelic and Scots English had to be suppressed for fear of splitting the Yes vote. Unlike other nations which have achieved independence in the last century or so, the decision hinged on largely political and economic rather than cultural grounds.

Yet it is in the interest of every human on this planet that Scottish Gaelic, the Celtic family of languages, and the thousands of other endangered languages are not just preserved like organs in a pathology museum, but as the living heart of their respective cultures.

As we lose more and more of the 8,000 or so languages that exist worldwide, so our culture inevitably becomes more uniform. We are already slipping dangerous towards a global monoculture, in which the same stores and institutions, the same arts and entertainments, the same language, and the same social problems, are everywhere.

Our cultural diversity is like a rich gene pool. Once the gene pool shrinks, and diversity falls, the risk of the species succumbing to disaster rises greatly. This is not something that you can preserve by decree or statute – we need to celebrate, develop, and enjoy our cultural and linguistic diversity, because they are and will be key to the survival of our species.