'He Brought Home the English': A Language and its Culture Besieged on the Isle of Skye, Scotland

Cassandra Ashling Smith-Christmas, Dick Smakman

Virginia, USA, Universiteit Leiden, The Netherlands


As linguistic superpowers such as English threaten the world’s linguistic diversity, so too do they threaten the cultural integrity of these minority languages’ speakers. This paper analyzes the language loss of a community of Gaelic speakers on the Isle of Skye, Scotland and the cultural repercussions of this language loss. The twenty-three speakers, twenty of which comprise one extended family by marriage, were categorized according to generations and studied to ascertain the extent and domains of their language use.

Quantitative results reveal that considerable variation occurs in the three generations’ use of the language to discuss both national and local affairs. In Dorian’s 1981 study, she, using Fishman’s (1967) terms, noted that her respondents used Gaelic to discuss both (H)igh (ie government, education, media) and (L)ow functions (ie home, local affairs). However, in this study, it has been found that second and third generation speakers do not view Gaelic as a viable language for either H functions nor for use within the community. This suggests that Gaelic is being limited to the household sphere; however, even in the domain of the home, the situation remains tenuous, as quantitative results show that second and third generation speakers are significantly less likely to use Gaelic with grandparents, older siblings, spouses, and household pets. Close observation of one Gaelic-speaking family revealed that second generation siblings use English when speaking to each other, because, as they later explained, not only English had been their peer group language in school and throughout their adult lives, but also because they feel it better reflects the modern society in which they live.

This generational stratification of language use has two main ramifications for the Gaelic community on Skye. First, qualitative findings indicate that there is a loss of Gaelic cultural knowledge, such as naming practices, among younger speakers. For example, one former Gaelic medium teacher recalled that pupils no longer associated ‘Mac’ with meaning ‘son of’ as in the name ‘MacDonald.’ Quantitative findings corroborate the qualitative findings, as second and third generation speakers are less likely to know words associated with cultural-specific items, such as crofting and gathering peat. Secondly, the limited domains of language use for second and third generation speakers reflect the language attitudes of the hegemon Anglophone culture and therefore perpetuate the anglicization of the Gaelic community. Thus, the shift in language use shows a shift in culture, as the minority culture adapts to the hegemon culture.

Session: POSTERS: Focus on variation, migration, minority languages
Thursday, April 3, 2008, 12:45-15:45
room: foyer