The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.
Scottish Gaelic is spoken by roughly 50,000 people who reside almost exclusively in Scotland. UNESCO has classified the language as “definitely endangered” and predicts that soon it will completely die at the local community level. Today, there isn’t anyone who speaks Scottish Gaelic that doesn’t also speak English.
Before coming to university I’d never been to Scotland and, according to 23andMe, I don’t have any Scottish ancestors. When people hear I have an almost 1000-day streak in Scottish Gaelic on Duolingo (that started before I even considered coming to St Andrews) they usually laugh—and I get it. If the purpose of a language is to communicate, why learn one that is on the verge of extinction?
The Ancient Greeks didn’t have a word for the colour blue. Homer described the sky as iron and bronze and both the ocean and blood as wine. Some falsely interpreted this to mean Greeks were colourblind. In my high school psychology class we learned Berlin and Kay’s Color Theory, which states that as languages develop, they develop names for colours in a certain order. First light, dark, and red, then yellow and green. Blue, a relatively rare colour in nature, is almost always one of the last colours distinguished. In Homer’s time, blue had simply not been named yet, but Homer’s use of words proves something deeper about language; language can change our actual perception and experience of reality. Homer experienced the sky and ocean in colours he knew and could name instead of a colour he only knew by “dark” or “light”.
When it comes to Scottish Gaelic, this perception goes beyond colour. When describing sadness in English, I would say “I am sad”. The sadness is a part of my identity as if it’s equivalent to me. Sadness suddenly has the same value as my name or my physical being or personality. Emotions have the same permanence as enduring identifying traits. But in Scottish Gaelic, I’d say “sadness is upon me”. Sadness becomes a temporary and momentary experience. Sadness is like a bad thunderstorm—scary in the moment, but something that will blow over in an hour to reveal the sun again. Instead of emotions being fixed, a part of you like your lungs or fingers, emotions are fluid. By learning Scottish Gaelic, I am changing my mindset and perception of my own emotions, leading to personal stability and balance. This is a change I’ve actively noticed, especially during heated arguments or conflicts.
But this is also some of what is lost when a language dies. The United Nations expect 50% of global languages to die by 2100 from a combination of factors caused by colonisation and globalisation. Those languages won’t be English or French, but instead Picard, Walloon, Languedocian, and thousands of others. Culture and history will be lost—songs, stories, and mindsets. Songs, folklore, and traditional knowledge of the natural environment. But also a key weakening of cultural identity and community bonds occurs with the death of a language, creating a disconnect with an individual between their heritage, ancestors, and future generations—this goes to illustrate that language loss broadly erases contributions and the history of groups of people.
What is especially heartbreaking is that the destruction of languages was an intentional method of colonisation and/or control. Scottish Gaelic specifically was cracked down on after the Jacobite Revolution in order to make Scotland easier to control. Less than a century ago, children were still being beaten in Scottish schools if they spoke Scottish instead of English. However, this goes beyond the British Isles. Before Europeans landed there were an estimated 300 different native languages across the modern-day United States (according to PBS). Up until the mid-1900s, Native American children were forcibly taken from their communities and sent to abusive boarding schools with the goal to “kill the Indian, save the man.” The idea was these schools could “save” Native children from their own culture and, almost most importantly, their cultural language. Even across mainland Europe, smaller regional languages have existed for centuries. While you may have learned French, like me, in school, France is also a native home to languages like Alsatian, Breton, Corsican and Occitan. In Francisco Franco’s Spain, he worked to kill any language other than Spanish. Languages like Basque became illegal in education, publishing and official discussion—some provinces even saw fines if Basque was used in public. Babies couldn’t be registered with Basque names and even tombstones in Basque were removed. Today, these regional languages are all but forgotten except usually by older individuals who are the last generation in their family to speak the language their bloodline has spoken for hundreds of years.
In Texas, where I am from, it is not uncommon for products, signs, paperwork, etc. to be offered in both English and Spanish. This is largely due to the fact that, according to the Census Bureau, 30% of Texans speak Spanish at home. This is why I found it fascinating that on a recent trip to the Isle of Skye for Reading Week with friends, signage and labels were offered dually in Scottish Gaelic and English similar to the English and Spanish I was always familiar with. As it turns out, in the 1970s a man named Iain Noble set this shift into motion. The Inverness County Council were looking to build a new road to Portree and hoped to purchase land from Noble. Noble insisted as a condition to selling his land that signs on the land would be bilingual in English and Scottish Gaelic, which was eventually a successful negotiation that spread across the Highlands and many parts of Scotland. It is efforts like these that are helping languages like Scottish Gaelic regrow and repopulate native areas, even in a world with the increasing effects of English as a globalized language.
Just as the absence of a word for blue led to Homer experiencing the world differently, languages can change how we see our world and ourselves. Just because a voice is more quiet does not mean that voice is less valuable, and through Scottish Gaelic, I have learned to listen for and learn from these quietly beautiful voices. Besides, have you seen Duolingo TikTok? I would do anything for that green owl.