Thursday, March 26, 2015

Restoring the Language of Our Roots

'Insular, parochial and narrowly nationalist: Scotland's anti-Gaelic bigots' -  this Herald Scotland article is a wee bit ‘over the top’ (the trademark of too much British journalism these days), but I am well aware of the loss of cultural identity that came from the forced Anglicization of the Empire – my grandmother was a Gaelic and a Doric speaker, but she hadn’t spoken Gaelic for 40 years when I discovered her abilities. She did however keep some of the Doric Scots phraseology through her long adult years in Edinburgh. North of her origin on the Black Isle, Norn (a dialect of Norse origin in Caithness) was spoken till the mid to late C19th, but that has truly gone from this earth. I recall that Lowland Scots (Lallans) is an official minority language of the EU but just what support that entitles it I’ve no idea. There is now one school on Mann teaching in the Manx Gaelic of this piece of the old Lordship of the Isles, but that version of the language of the Gaels remains so far without EU recognition.


On my shelf I have Kenneth MacKinnon’s 1991 book ‘Gaelic, A Past & Future Prospect’ in which he strongly argues for the value of bilingualism and avers that we monolinguals are culturally impoverished. Certainly many parents in non-francophone areas of Canada seem to agree with that idea when they send their kids to French immersion schools. I recall when staying on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia in 1971 hearing Gaelic spoken on the street, where now that would be a whole lot less likely. However those coal-mining Cape Bretoners are significantly better off today than they were then, at least partly because their mentality and aspirations are now more closely aligned with the national norm.

My sense is that the restoration of interest in minority languages and dialects, including our Canadian aboriginal languages, is of value in that it helps each of us better understand our own special cultural heritage, and rounds out our sense of who we really are. Arguments for the restoration of bilingualism where the second language is not the language of commerce, science and government, troubles those of us for whom foreign language acquisition is hard work (perhaps most people). My goal is to have my Gaelic again be about as good as my French and Latin – i.e. enough to get a sense of how the language is lived and used, and appreciate its songs and even literature, but I am not willing to pursue a spoken fluency of which I could make little use. Years ago when my Gaelic was better than it is today, I had acquired enough to navigate the signage of the villages and byways of the Connemara Gaeltacht for a week, and that still seems about right.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Look Up at a Clear Night in the Countryside, and Dream

As I enter my seventh decade, I realize I recall the whole of man’s long drawn-out and often halting romance with getting off-planet. I was around for Sputnik and Telstar satellites, Yuri Gagarin, Mariner 2 to Venus as the first successful spacecraft, the launches of Voyagers 1 and the amazing Voyager 2 that flew past Neptune and is still transmitting at 37 years out, the Apollo program and the moon landing, the Space Shuttles, the International Space Station, and Philae landing on Comet 67P last year.

Travelling off-planet is the great human adventure of our age, but it has yet to seem as important to much of our population as the sea voyages to the New World became to our ancestors. Each time we identify new frontiers to travel across, we underestimate the technical difficulties we will face. Yet as a species, we yearn to keep moving outwards, and likely always will until we are extinct. Our adventures beyond our atmosphere, while taking much longer than pundits thought when I was a young man, are our security against that extinction occurring. Voyaging to new lands out in the vastness of the galaxy may well be our best option for continuing to evolve. Yet so many of us are no longer looking up at the night sky with longing and awe.

Part of the problem is our lighting up the night as we strive to be productive 24 hours in each day. When my kids were teenagers, we would lie on the beach outside a rental cabin at the northeast corner of Lake Superior looking up at the night sky. On a clear night, the whole Milky Way was in view above that vast and remote lake and landscape. Its thousands of twinkling stars formed a wondrously detailed panorama that most never see today. Somewhere across that sky, a summer meteor fell every minute or two and, even that long ago, several human-launched satellites could be seen at any one time as tiny but sharp dots moving evenly and quickly through near space.

'V for Varoufakis' or 'The Highway to Hellas'

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

The Loser Edit

The concept of the 'Loser Edit'- the compilation of evidence that a person deserves to be 'put off the island' - started on reality TV shows, from where it has spread to encompass the lives of the rest of us in this constantly monitored real world in which we now live: "The footage of your loser edit is out there...., waiting. Taken from the surveillance camera of the gas station where you bought a lottery ticket like a chump. From the A.T.M. that recorded you taking out money for the romantic evening that went bust. From inside the black domes on the ceiling of the train station, the lenses that captured your slow walk up the platform stairs after the doomed excursion. From all the cameras on all the street corners, entryways and strangers’ cellphones, building the digital dossier of your days. Maybe we can’t clearly make out your face in every shot, but everyone knows it’s you. We know you like to slump. Our entire lives as B-roll, shot and stored away to be re-cut and reviewed at a moment’s notice when the plot changes: the divorce, the layoff, the lawsuit."

"The loser edit is not just the narrative arc of a contestant about to be chopped, or voted off the island, whatever the catchphrase. It is the plausible argument of failure" to be used against us when the time comes. At the top of the pyramid of 'loser' content is the online oversight that our own country's spymasters now perform on us, farther down is all the things we say and 'like' on social media, and at the wide base is all the things our colleagues and acquaintances have heard us say or write that may come back to haunt us when circumstances are right.