Friday, 29 August 2008

Lesser used languages may be key to self-esteem

Published in the John O'Groat Journal

Friday, 29 August 2008

MATTHEW Fitt, author of Butt and Ben A Go-Go, science fiction in broad Scots, was one of the panellists in my Festival of Politics slot last Friday.

We were joined in a packed Committee Room 3 in the Parliament by Neasa Ní Chinnéide, president of the European Bureau for Lesser Used Languages, Billy Kay, broadcaster and author of The Mither Tongue and Neil Mitchison from the European Commission. We discussed the prospects for minority languages in our own country in the context of the European Year of Intercultural Dialogue.

From the floor we heard from Swiss, German and Finnish audience members as well as several Scots who want to see Gaelic and Scots well-supported and given equal status alongside English, where appropriate in our multilingual nation.

A teacher of English asked the panel if Scots is really a language. She said she found no difficulty in teaching Burns poems and the like in her English lessons. The reply was that there are richer and weaker dialects of Scots from Shetland, Orkney through Caithness, Moray and all the way through Scotland to Ulster; however the panellists showed that Scots derives from an older strand of English than modern English and has developed separately. Despite persecution as slang it has a literature of over 600 years and, while weakened by monolingual school teaching, the Doric or Lallans or broad Scots survives as the daily speech of around one and a half million of us today.

Matthew Fitt is also a co-author of many publications for kids by Itchy Coo Books. He has been encouraging school children in over 500 classrooms across Scotland to have fun getting their mouths round the guid Scots tongue. This week he is in Thurso and Wick.

Most countries in Europe speak several languages daily and often look after them better than Britain has done. So Matthew's school visit in Caithness should be unremarkable. But this is Scotland where speaking anything other than correct English in school has long overshadowed young lives. Speaking Scots in Caithness classrooms comes at an interesting juncture. The controversy among some as to the role of Gaelic in the county begs some related questions. Should the richness of Caithness dialect have equal status in spoken and written forms with English?

In my view a Gaelic proverb helps us answer this. It says "Tìr gun chànain, Tìr gun anam", namely "a land without a language is a land without a soul". So when Scottish people were or are denied the right to speak their preferred tongue, be it Scots, English, Gaelic, Urdu or whatever, it is no way to bolster their self-esteem. I look forward to reactions to Matthew's impact on Caithness school children and their parents, for self-esteem is a key ingredient in a confident society.

Energy resources here in the Far North could deliver us cheaper electricity in the long term, if investment in renewables is seen as a national priority. Guess which government values the energy potential of the Pentland Firth? Certainly not the UK Government. Last week they stamped down hard on tidal and other renewable projects in the North and on our islands by refusing to allow lower grid connection charges than the punitive rates set by OFGEM.

Last year Malcolm Wicks, the UK energy minister, assured the Caithness Regeneration Conference of his support for future clean-power plans. David Cairns from the Scotland Office in Whitehall said the same. Now we know they don't really go the distance. Now we know that Scotland needs to forge ahead and make partnerships with our North Sea neighbours to build a super grid, which incidentally Gordon Brown's Government also disapproves of when they criticised direct contacts being made with the Norwegian Government by Jim Mather, our energy minister in Alex Salmond's team.

The lesson is straightforward, energy security in Scotland will have to be organised by Scots with our neighbours on agreed terms. These neighbours should include England, Wales and Ireland, so we need to demand an equal say for the Scottish Government with the others involved. Anything less will leave us at the mercy of London ministers with other ideas.

Hard-hit electricity and gas customers know full well that while we pay through the nose, shareholders enjoy huge profits made by supply companies. Investing for the future does not mean going to the ends of the earth. We want investment right here. A couple of weeks back EDF, Electricity de France, a nationalised company, was about to take over British Energy but did not like the asking price.

Meanwhile Norway and other energy rich countries have not allowed their residents to suffer as we do here. Norway's national oil company Statoil oversees a whole range of energy developments, on and offshore, and works in partnership with the oil majors. That national interest has been lacking in free-market Britain and now we reap the whirlwind. We have to demand much more than windfall profits to cushion oil and gas price hikes. As politicians and public down south get in a lather, our needs in the colder north are even more urgent. That's why the Scottish Government needs full control over energy development so that price reductions can become a reality and investment gives us real energy security.

Meanwhile a YouGov poll in Scotland showing that 74 per cent agreed that the UK Government should introduce a windfall tax on the energy companies was mirrored across the UK.

About 700,000 Scottish households are already living in fuel poverty and Energywatch are warning that the latest price rise could increase that figure to 1,000,000 by the end of 2008. The SNP has constantly called on the London Government to bring forward measures to boost the economy and protect people facing fuel poverty. Will Gordon Brown take decisive action to help? Your guess is as good as mine.


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