Language / Dialect Revival / Revitalisation 101
By Àdhamh MacLeòid, July 2018
This quick start guide begins as if the would-be revivalist / revitaliser knows absolutely nothing about the language / dialect the poor fortunes of which they are attempting to reverse, nor the processes through which this can be achieved. It also assumes that the target tongue is more or less moribund. It will set out a summary of what is necessary to reach the point at which a person can say that their target language / dialect is now “living”. It is by no means exhaustive and suggestions of additions shall be welcomed. Henceforth, we will use the term “the language” (L) for this component of the process. The article will continue as if the revivalist / revitaliser is being addressed directly.
- You must be clear about the purpose of what you are doing from the very first instance. This does not mean that you need know exactly how you are going to go about the process of the revival / revitalisation, but you must know in your own heart why you are prioritising this work as part of your life.
- These reasons can seem wooly when you first attempt to explain them to others. Do not tell anyone but your most trusted friends and family about what you are embarking upon. Be prepared for even their reactions to be any of the following: bewilderment; pleasant surprise; occasionally even hostility.
- Do not expect to be able to articulate what you feel in logical terms but know that the burning passion in your heart for the L and the deep sense of injustice at its demise is exactly the force necessary to maintain the struggle long term.
- Remember that you are embarking upon a long, hard, winding, narrow, over-grown road tended by a few (if any), often ageing people, sometimes with a lifetime of struggle and prejudice towards the L as the lion’s share of their experience. You must treat these people with reverential respect whilst not making them feel that they are under any pressure to indulge you and your mission. Their priorities can often seem out of kilter with your own sense of urgency, especially if there is an age gap between you. This does not mean that they do not care for the L.
- The very first practical thing you should do is to make use of the world wide web. Even if regular access is not possible, an initial stint of a couple of hours with a search engine is fundamental to beginning the process.
- Having searched the web, note down every single reference to the L. Read everything you can possibly set your eyes upon and begin to acquire an awareness of what is known and understood about the L.
- Make special note of any texts which make the slightest reference to the L and track them down. Be relentless in your acquisition of this knowledge.
- If you are lucky enough to come across a guide to the L which contains a breakdown of the linguistic make-up of the tongue and / or a history of its social circumstances, treat this as a sacred text. If the text contains specialist terminology or IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet), learn to read this as a matter of course. Be prepared to do anything to acquire knowledge of the L.
- If the L already has a dictionary, you are in great shape. If not, the process for the construction of this will be touched on later in the article, although we have only just managed to begin the construction of a dictionary for Dalriada Gaelic and so are very much at the beginning with this ourselves.
- Remember that if there are people who studied the L in the past and wrote about it, this does not make them uniquely qualified on the subject even if they learned to speak it fluently themselves. Linguists are incredibly useful allies, but their interest is often dispassionate. This is not what you are. This language is about to become a huge part of your life and one of the reasons for getting up in the morning if it is not already.
- Keep your texts – if you have them – close, but get to know them back to front in order that you can consign them to the shelf after a couple of years and become the living conduit the L needs to be truly revived / revitalised.
- Are there recordings of speakers of the L that have survived in collections? Can you get access to them? Go about this process with patience and respect.
- If so, even if you do not understand a word of what is being spoken at first, it is essential that you get to know every recorded minute of collected evidence for the L like the back of your hand. As you acquire knowledge of the vocabulary and grammar of the L, so the recordings that you have been listening to will begin to make more and more sense. A new world or knowledge, idiom and expression will open up to you.
- Treat any recordings you manage to acquire access to with total reverence. They are often your lifeline (especially if the L has passed entirely out of use) back to a time when people spoke the L with fluency and gusto and sometimes to a time when people preferred speaking the L to the dominant language of the area in which the L is / was native.
- You have done all that you can do from a remote position for the moment. The next step – if you do not already live in the area where the L is / was spoken – is to pay a visit and locate the aforementioned old people still living in the area and native to it and very respectfully ask for a little of their time. Even if they are not speakers themselves, they sometimes have superbly useful anecdotal evidence of use of the L, treatment of its speakers and collections of words and phrases remembered from childhood.
- Once arrived in the area where the L is / was found, visit someone a little younger initially; someone who will likely not be intimidated by a stranger showing up on their doorstep or in their place of work. The best people to visit in the first instance are people who work or operate in places with a high turnover of local older folks e.g. the post office, café or religious centre. Be humble, by all means inquisitive, but above all patient. The process of reviving the L may take half a lifetime (depending on the numbers of pre-existing speakers) to guide back into the land of the living.
- Aim to meet your first speaker of the L face to face rather than over the phone. We all know how many krank calls people receive these days and one more person phoning up out of the blue will rarely be welcome. When visiting an older speaker who has been recommended by someone who knows the local area, make your first stop a very short one, unless the person who opens their door to you is clearly very gregarious by nature. The best possible outcome of this first meeting is that the person realises that you are not in the business of trying to scam them out of anything or that you have any vested interest outside of the subject at hand. As stated earlier, they may not understand your motivations or seem to appreciate how precarious the state of the L is. Often, their entire life experience has taught them that to adhere to their native tongue is to invite trauma, so be prepared for the tables to be turned and for you to be treated as the curiosity.
- Try to bear in mind that the best thing you will receive during the course of your relationship with this new acquaintance is their friendship. The acquisition of the mindset of people native to an area as evidenced by the way they speak / spoke is every single bit as important as the words / phrases themselves. As you learn the L and begin to allow your thoughts to be dictated by it, you will find that the mannerisms of the native people with whom you spend your time will begin to take root in you. This is when you begin to become a true advocate for the L as you have acquired the insider knowledge needed to make sure that your future students are learning the real thing. As the words give voice to the mindset, so the mindset gives order to the words.
- More importantly than anything else, no matter what you have read / acquired in the run-up to meeting any native speaker of the L: do not assume expert ability of any kind, nor command of what you believe are the facts. If you wish to encourage the person who may or may not become an active sponsor of what you do to share their words, point of view and their living room with you, you must defer at all times to their knowledge of their tongue. Do not involve yourself in political, philosophical or ethical discussions with them in these early days; sometimes their perspective on these things can seem in diametric opposition to what you believe to be in line with being a speaker of the L. The experience of your sponsor is what it is and it is not your place to judge them when your own perspective may be gleaned from a very different range of experiences to theirs despite the common ground that is the L.
- During examination of texts and recordings, you must find a neat, practical and very importantly sustainable way to note information that is new to you. If this is just a notebook and pencil, be aware that at some stage down the line you will probably have to think about digitising everything you have written. If you have access to a tablet or laptop, perhaps consider an Excel sheet or notebook tool of some kind. Ensure that this format will be transferable to other media as you never know where the future might take you. You will start so small and yet years later may look back and wish that you had maintained the same information collection format since the beginning, rather than having to rake through dozens of notebooks and documents when compiling a dictionary.
- During your conversations with speakers, making sound recordings like the ones you may have been lucky enough to listen to, is essential. You must take your time, potentially over a matter of days or even weeks if you are managing to visit your (hopefully growing) speaker base regularly, before bringing up the concept of their being recorded. Of course if you do not have any speakers you can consult, or even people with anecdotal knowledge, these steps will not rear their heads and you will be reliant on archive recordings alone. If there are no recordings, you may have to rely on recordings of neighbouring dialects / languages to supply you with a framework into which to patch your growing knowledge of the L.
- Every word, phrase, idiom, proverb, story and song that you acquire during the process of your collection are the tools of your reclamation. Treat every syllable of everything you acquire as absolutely sacred. If you do this, the material will not let you down as it once belonged to an integrated system of communication which functioned to perfection within the world of the supporting culture of the L. It once contained – and may still contain – everything you need.
- Do not be disheartened if you think you have scraped a particular barrel and yet are still not at the point where you feel the L is anywhere near complete in terms of lexicon or idiomatic expression. You will most likely be collecting for the rest of your life as speakers, documents and recordings come to light.
- If you feel after a number of years that you have scraped every possible barrel and yet still have not recreated what you know to be a complete language, do not dispair. You have come further than anyone else on planet earth was prepared to come in restoring honour and upholding justice in service of the L. You can only make use of what evidence and people are in existence. A person missing a leg is no less a human being for the lack of it. Likewise, the L may be able to make use of new technology and ideas in the future which will allow it to function again on its own terms.
- The next stage in the life of the L is in the passing of it to new speakers, whether your own children or passionate people wishing to get closer to their ancestry. Sometimes the L is just part of a culture towards which they feel a respect or draw. All reasons for wishing to acquire the L must be treated as equal, but only if the desire and application of the student is equal to the task at hand.
- There are often no manuals for the L or sometimes only manuals for the dominant dialects of it. Students will have to maintain a dogged dedication to the acquisition of those languages which are moribund, on the verge of it, or have little in the way of supplementary material; despite your best efforts so far, you will have to be willing to answer a lot of mechanically-oriented questions from your students about the why and the why not. Remember you were once where they were, but they now have a guide!
- In our experience it is absolutely crucial to establish a domestic heart for the language. This may be a local café, the house of a particularly hospitable and sociable local person, or it could be a historic location where speakers of the language once lived and which still provides the potential for domestic use. The establishment of a protected spot, where the pressures of the dominant culture of the area can be controlled, will prove extremely beneficial to the mental state of teachers and learners alike.
- It is also very useful, especially for those who do not have an obvious ethnic and/or cultural and/or spiritual structure already in place for their language to slot back into, to establish a place of quiet which holds special significance for the L or once played host to the ritual activity of the ancestors. In order to build up the stamina required to help the L survive into the millenia ahead, there must be a place in your mind, your spirit and your country into which you can disappear, unmolested by the expectations of the dominant culture.
- The idea of reviving the L is not to provide just another way for you to interface with global western culture. The concept of doing all of this work, preparation and investigation is to provide an antedote to the lack of community you may witness, the lack of cultural meaning you may feel exists in your life, and perhaps the lack of something which belongs to you and which you can employ to transport you back through the vertical carrying stream of your people or the people you wish to support by learning their language.
- If you raise children, raise them as speakers of the L first, and citizens of the world second. They must feel that the only way to reach deep within themselves is through the L. They may use the dominant language of their area to communicate with the rest of the planet, go to school, or access world literature, but raise them with the L at the heart of their spiritual, cultural and family lives. Raise warriors for the L.
- Assume an identity which is in keeping with the traditions of the L and stick to it like glue. If you can easily translate your name, do so. If not, be on the look-out for names which fit with your journey and might allow you to take a sidestep out of the dominant mindset and into one befitting of your language. Remember also that names can often not be simply picked up and used; a name may have to be given to you. If you have them, make sure your native sponsors understand that it is important to you to redefine who you are in line with the L. You never know, you might just end up being given a name far more special than one you could have picked for yourself.
- Do not be afraid to make use of all of the cultural tools available. These may include music, crafts and clothing. As long as you are not making use of things which do not belong to you or your people or things to which you have not yet respectfully gained access, there is no reason to be embarrassed about the use of traditional cultural emblems. Be meticulous in your research of them and acquire knowledge of their correct use / practice / delivery with care, always deferring to native knowledge.
- Finally… we may not know your language, but we know that it deserves your devotion and that of your (future) students and without 100% dedication, it will simply slip off back into the decline from which you rested it in the first place. BELIEVE, because it can be done. Only determiation lies between you and success.
FROM THE AUTHOR:
Gáilig Dhail Riada is a dialect of Scottish Gaelic which began the 20th century as the dominant means of communication within the central portion of Argyle, a county of Scotland. Despite being alluded to in academic texts and recorded fitfully throughout that century, it had no name. Its decline during the years after WWII was dramatic – as with all other Gaelic dialects – and it began the 21stcentury with a small handful of semi-speakers, none of whom were able to do much more than discuss the most basic everyday subjects.
In 2009, I returned to the area for the first time in ten years, having grown up there as a child and visited regularly as a young adult and began research into and collection of the dialect using the means described above. Its current situation is that we have one elderly semi-speaker whose dialect is somewhat mixed (deceased 2021) and one fluent adult learner being myself. I have raised my youngest three children with the dialect since birth and they are now fiercely proud of their language and think of themselves implicitly as Gaels (the ethno-linguistic grouping of the peoples of Highland Scotland, Ireland and the Isle of Man).
We have collected words for everything we can for what is found in nature from a variety of sources and are intimately familiar with every text and recording which features the dialect. In 2017, we staged our first immersion weekend at Auchindrain Township, the domestic home of our language and have run another since, this spring. We have an integrated spiritual and cultural outlook which places the language at the ritual centre of our lives and have instituted a coming of age ceremony for native children and learners alike who are deemed to have reached ability to think, laugh, love, fight and learn through the language and who will be capable of raising – or teaching – new speakers. It is much, much more than a language to us and we hope that our example can be used as a template for others throughout the world.
Most importantly for the purposes of this document and therefore your quest: keep in mind that I did not have the first clue what I was doing when I began this work. I couldn’t be sure that it would be a success with no road map to reference. I just kept my eyes on the next available horizon as I walked and allowed my ambition to grow with each mountain top conquered. Once you have moved past the initial stages, look back on what you have achieved so far and remember that you once knew nothing. Do not focus constantly on what you still have to do. It will only be achieved via small and often irregular increments.
We would very much like to be in touch with anyone who is in – or is considering entering – a similar programme of reclamation. We would be thrilled to compare notes and hope that our experience is useful.
Follow our work on Twitter & FB @DalriadaGaelic and visit us at dalriada.scot
Beannachd leibh air an àm,
Àdhamh, Caoimhe, Lachann & Saorsa