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Monthly Archives: June 2011

Gaelic – To Save or Not to Save

The Highlanders are generally quite proud of their heritage, their traditions, and their uniqueness. I know, because I’m engaged to one. From their faithfulness to Scottish football, to their pride in adorning the kilt and embracing Céilidh dances and the traditional events of the Highland games, one could say that a typical Highlander is in no doubt about his/her identity, and keen to show that to the world. So you can imagine my surprise when I met not just one but five Highlanders who all expressed annoyance at talks about saving Gaelic by encouraging children to study it at school and the introduction of Gaelic into bilingual road signs (see above picture). They unanimously argued that Gaelic is a dying language and that it is useless and impractical for their children to spend their time on – time which was presumably better spent on learning languages like Spanish or Mandarin. The bilingual road signs, they insisted, were the product of a profit-making scheme by the government to attract tourists to Scotland – tourists who might find Gaelic exotic and exciting.

While more than 6000 languages exist today, Swerdlow (1999) predicted that by the year 2100, the number of languages on our planet could fall to 3000. Schaefer and Ebokhare (1999) who investigated the loss of African languages in southern Nigeria concluded that English is giving rise to the abandonment of indigenous, minority languages. But this phenomenon of the global spread of English giving rise to the extinction of indigenous languages is not a new one. We in the UK need to look no further than Scotland and Ireland to see how English has not only taken over the local languages, but perhaps also their culture. If one believes in the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis that we see the world through the tinted lenses of the language we speak, then despite attempts to keep out the English, whether it be by historical wars waged by William Wallace or wearing ABE (Anyone but England) T-shirts at the World Cup, the Highlanders are already allowing the imperialism of their culture and their view of the world by taking on the English language.

In response to my passionate plea, these North-Eastern Highlanders claimed that Gaelic was not only unrepresentative of their identity, but that it was spoken mainly by people from the Western Isles such as those in the Inner and Outer Hebrides, and that those in the East originally spoke Norwegian dialects. They then jokingly stated that if the government had wanted to preserve their historical roots, the road signs should have been in Norwegian. I found all this quite interesting, but a little hard to believe, so I decided to go ahead and do my own research on the origins of Gaelic.

While my friends are right about the fact that Gaelic is now seen as a regional language spoken largely on islands like Skye, Harris and Lewis, historically, it was actually the language spoken by the majority of Scotland. It is not clear how old Gaelic is but there is written evidence of the language dating back to as far as the 5th Century. Gaelic flourished for many centuries and even replaced Pictish as the main language of Scotland north of the River Forth in Edinburgh. It only began to suffer a decline in status as a national language in parts of mainland Scotland in the 13th Century, gradually being displaced by English. Ngugi (1986) describes how colonial powers devalue the culture of the local people and try to replace their language with that of the colonizer, and, in this way, control the way the people perceive themselves and the world, thus dominating and colonizing their minds. Yet, the Highlanders stubbornly resisted and the language survived.

The highland-lowland line emerged and Highland Gaelic, or what we know as Scottish Gaelic today, eventually became one that distinguished the Highlanders from the Lowlanders, who had their own brand of Lowland Gaelic, a dialect that is now completely defunct. Having been the language of the bardic culture of the Highland clans for many years, Scottish Gaelic preserves knowledge of pre-feudal ‘tribal’ laws and customs and was representative of the Highlanders and their traditions. These traditions, alongside the language, were unfortunately persecuted during the Battle of Culloden in 1746 where the Jacobites, made up of an army of mostly Highlanders, failed at their attempts to overthrow the reigning House of Hanover.

The Highlanders and their language were further tyrannised during the Highland Clearances of the 18th and 19th centuries, where masses of Highlanders were forced to emigrate to make way for agricultural reforms of the then British government.Waves of mass emigration to North America and Australasia meant that these immigrants had to learn the lingua francas of the countries they immigrated to, i.e. English, and subtractive bilingualism occurred.

Even in the 20th century, despite the council fiercely resisting continuous attempts to allow for bilingual road signs, it was not until 1973, when this was finally allowed. However, today, many with Scottish ancestry fail to realise that they belong to a culture that has its own language and take for granted the new rights they now have to celebrate this language. It’s a bit like the generations of women who have campaigned for the right to vote, only to have lots of women, decades later, not even bothering to head to the polls on election day. We humans do have a propensity of taking things for granted, things that generations have fought to have.

Most Scots would be pleased to have organisations like Historic Scotland to look after, to preserve, and to show off their amazing irreplaceable heritage. Places like Skara Brae on the Orkney Islands are older than the Pyramids of Egypt and tell a story of the history of a people, a story of where we come from and what we were, and places like this need to be conserved and studied with care.

Yet, many do not seem to see a parallel between these places and a complex language like Gaelic, which is filled with historical clues to the beginnings of the Scots. Perhaps an organisation like Historic Scotland could be accused of being formed for the profit-making, tourist-attracting schemes of the government, more so than the use of Gaelic on road signs. But no one would ever think that. It is, after all, not difficult to see the connection between historical monuments and the history and culture of a people. It is much more difficult to see that connection between a language and one’s culture, perhaps because language infiltrates every part of our everyday life and, therefore, is much more easily overlooked.

So, no, if we don’t believe in taking a wrecking ball to Eilean Donan Castle, then let’s not let Gaelic die.

Bibliography

Ngugi, W.T. (1986) Decolonizing the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Schaefer, R.P. and F.O. Egbokhare (1999) ‘English and the pace of endangerment in Nigeria.’ World Englishes 18/3:381-91.

Swerdlow, J.L. (1999) ‘Global Village’, National Geographic 196/2:2-6.

For more information, see http://www.savegaelic.org/


Systemic Functional Grammar – Part 4 (The Textual Metafunction & Conclusion)

In this final part of my exploration of SFG, I look at the Textual Metafunction, a part of SFG that is used in EFL teaching more than the other metafunctions, and often related to cohesion and coherence. Following that, I will briefly outline my views on the implications that SFG should be having on our teaching and conclude this 4-part thread on SFG.

Aptly named ‘Clause as Message’ (Halliday and Matthiessen, 2004), the textual metafunction helps organise the message within and between clauses, and is closely linked to theories of cohesion. I will only be looking at textual organisation within the clause.

Thematic Structure

The Theme is the departure point the speaker has chosen for his/her text. In English, the Theme, on which the clause depends for its orientation within the context (ibid), takes initial position in the clause. Theme^Rheme makes up the thematic structure of a clause.

Theme and Rheme

Chia bought some curry yesterday.
Theme Rheme…. 
Paul was bought some curry yesterday.
Theme Rheme…

Multiple Themes

Well, surely, Ken, grammar is your forte.
Textual Theme Interpersonal Theme Interpersonal Theme Topical Theme Rheme
Textual Adjunct Mood Adjunct Vocative Subject Finite Complement

Textual (discourse markers, conjunctives) or interpersonal (vocatives, Mood Adjuncts) Themes can combine to create multiple Themes, but it is the topical Theme, the first word carrying meaning in an experiential sense, realised by a Participant, Process or Circumstance, that is incorporated in every clause and anchors the starting point of the message (Bloor and Bloor, 2004). In an unmarked sentence, the topical Theme is the Subject of the interpersonal metafunction.

The most common marked Themes utilize adverbial groups or prepositional phrases serving as Circumstantial Adjuncts. More highly marked are Themes realized by nominal groups that are not Subjects, as seen in many informal spoken conversations e.g. ‘My reading, I’m done with it.’ Syntactical structures are highly neglected in EFL, as most grammar work focuses on tenses. Students use sentences like ‘Mario, yesterday, I gave the book to him,’ without intending to have a highly-marked Theme. It is perhaps useful to teach students basic unmarked structures, especially at lower levels.

Information structure

The Theme-and-Rheme theory was first conceived in The Prague School, where Themes were associated to the Given unit of information, and Rheme to the New (ibid). While ‘Given’ refers to the previously-mentioned, or the un-newsworthy, ‘New’ reveals new information or what is deemed newsworthy, and is often indicated by the placement of the tonic nucleus. Given+New makes up the information structure of the clause. I have chosen to use ‘+’ over ‘^’ because, for Halliday, Given units are not always thematized. In unmarked imperatives, the Theme is assumed to be ‘you’ (ibid). In marked declaratives, New could occur anywhere, especially in spoken English, where contrastive stress is shown through intonation change, e.g. ‘Derren has three brothers, not me.

Thematic and information structures occur across languages but may succumb to different rules. In Latin-based languages, the inflected nature of words allows positional flexibility, and results in interference errors such as ‘Today, happened something.’  In Japanese, Themes are signalled by the particle ‘wa’, while in Chinese, ‘ba’ is added to Complements when highlighting the Process as New (Halliday and Matthiessen, 2004). However, because we cannot say ‘I the food disposed’ in English, separable phrasal verbs have evolved to allow the Process to be the New, as in ‘I threw the food away’ (ibid). Information organisation through thematic and information structure principles can enable students to construct full texts with appropriate attention to the desired details and overall message.

Implications in Teaching

SFG attempts a ‘view from above’ (ibid), and the description of how each metafunction is realised in their systems and structures is best applied to the observation of authentic language use. Authentic texts can be analysed for structures related to the three metafunctions, encouraging students to spot patterns within the needed genres, e.g. the thematic progression of discursive essays tends to follow certain patterns (Bloor and Bloor, 2004), and EAP students or those preparing for language exams like IELTS can use this framework to develop their essay-writing skills.

Besides a deeper knowledge of how language is used to create meaning, teachers can gain a better understanding of how language use has affected its evolution, how English differs in its functional lexico-grammatical structures, and how to better enable students to use these structures effectively. The slot-filling approach of SFG allows students to practise recognising the types of words/groups that fit into different parts of sentences, making the task of sentence construction more manageable. Assessment of student production also becomes less arbitrary, and instead of vague feedback like ‘be clearer,’ or ‘wrong register’, teachers can analyse students’ use of structures within the three metafunctions in comparison to well-produced texts, and precisely identify how they can improve their communicative skills (ibid).

However, the use of SFG in the classroom is not without problems. Being a descriptive grammar, its extensiveness could intimidate both teachers and students, who might prefer simpler rules that are easily applicable. Thompson (2004) admits that analysis of authentic texts could prove tiring and may not be as feasible as it is useful. The huge number of technical terms needed to describe language in SFG is another obstacle. Butt et al (2000) claims that we can narrow the selection of terms to teach students, yet argues that such metalanguage is necessary in making the finer distinctions in language, and does not suggest which metalanguage to teach. Currently, many ESP coursebooks have taken to teaching cohesion and textual organisation in the spirit of SFG, but it remains to be seen if the rest of SFG would make it into EFL syllabuses.

Conclusion

SFG offers a view where the purpose of language is to mean, and meaning could refer to our stance regarding a proposition or proposal (interpersonal), the representation of our experience or consciousness (experiential) or the relevance of its organisation in the surrounding context (textual).  Each of these different dimensions offers choices within a system, where meaning is realised in a variety of potential structures. As language continues to evolve to cater to new meanings that need representation in communication, the application of SFG to the language classroom can help teachers and students understand the overall picture and enable them to become better communicators through an understanding of how language works.

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