Who rules words?

Words and language are two things that are fundamental to the way in which we as humans and societies get across our feelings, thoughts and intentions and it’s strange to think that what we take for granted as a very basic facility of ourselves is a man-made construct.  As with all constructs, our languages need to be controlled and governed, and as free as language may appear at times – you’d be surprised by how much what we write and speak has been moulded by rules and conventions.

In Gaelic there is GOC, the Gaelic Orthographic Conventions, which standardise different dialects into a style of writing that we can all understand and use as well as ensuring that the language’s written form stays current.  Perhaps GOC’s most influential change is of course the change from hard ‘d’s to ‘t’s in words, to better reflect the mouth movements used in harsher sounds such as in words like ‘furasta’.  These conventions are produced by the SQA (Scottish Qualifications Authority) who have no real official jurisdiction over the language other than for secondary school qualifications.  This is a concrete example of the sort of non-system that lies around Gaelic governance on the linguistic level.

DASG, the Digital Archive of Scottish Gaelic, completed its first phase this week to bring online a searchable database covering 10 million words.  The project is the combined work of 5 universities (Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Strathclyde & UHI) and is concentrated on digitising existing texts in the language and extracting the lexicon from it.  The more important derivative of DASG will be Faclair na Gàidhlig, which will finally produce a definitive Gaelic dictionary that functions as both a current word-sleuthing tool and a historical archive of the language’s lexicon.  Having to consult Dwelly’s or MacLennan’s or Watson’s or the Stòr Data when you want a word is a tiresome effort, and it’s laughable that there isn’t one sole source – even online – for one looking for Gaelic words.

It should be one of Bòrd na Gàidhlig’s duties as de facto rulers of the language to ensure that the actual words and grammar of Gaelic stay as up-to-date as the plans to develop its’ use.  They should be the organisation responsible for making sure it is easy as possible for speakers and learners of the language to find the right words to use.  Devolving the process solely to universities is somewhat of a cop-out; as although they have the ability to develop resource and research new ways of dealing with new words, they do not have the authority and language-wide influence that the Bòrd do.

It’s a tough job staying current with modern trends, but I think it’s important for Gaelic to do its best to quickly standardise new words so that there’s a language-wide understanding of them and to stop people from falling back to English out of convenience.  Coming to a consensus on translating new words might be difficult, and would need to include both language experts and the common speakers of the language, but I believe that the process of developing new words for the language can only be good for its vitality – and could even be a cause for creating more descriptive terms that aid people’s understanding in comparison to the English equivalent.  Faclair na Pàrlamaid is a relatively modern example of a list of terms that is incredibly useful in the language in providing words for discussion of politics.  Sabhal Mòr Ostaig lists a large number of other such resources, although it does so on a rather un-user-friendly website.  These are important to those of us who want to use Gaelic in specific ways and without it then slipping into English is a crime that most won’t feel too guilty about committing.

For a language in such a desperate need to be as accessible and easy to pick-up to new learners as possible, Gaelic doesn’t do itself any favours with the mis-organisation surrounding the language’s lexicon and grammar.  To move with the times and adapt to what is still a fluid and expanding vocabulary, Bòrd na Gàidhlig need to step up to the plate as Gaelic’s primary legislators and provide for a good set of resources for speakers to consult.  To ignore this issue means ignoring the basics, and all the language-base development in the world won’t help us if we do.

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