The Edinburgh Companion to the Gaelic Language

Fully aware that I could be accused of doing Gaelic harm, while safe in the knowledge that the language will thrive or wither regardless of a blog written in central Europe, I must admit the book was a huge disappointment to me.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t insist it is wrong per se. I do claim it is wrongly presented. For example, the Cothrom interview (issue 65) states ‘it will be of interest to students, teachers, university staff and the ordinary reader who is interested in Gaelic’. The book’s back cover itself claims ‘The book has been written accessibly with a non-specialist audience in mind.’

Nothing could be further from the truth. (Unless, of course, by non-specialist audience they meant ‘linguists not specialized in Gaelic’.) Although there are a few readable chapters (Colm Ó Baoill: A History of Gaelic to 1800 an Ronald Black: Gaelic Orthography: The Drunk Man’s Broad Road among them), nobody will likely convince me that for example Seosamh Watson’s Hebridean and Mainland Dialects was written with an ‘ordinary reader’ in mind. In fact, I stopped reading that chapter after this camel’s-back-breaking straw:

In clusters which show a vibrant this is not subject to palatalisation, but a following element may or may not be and, with SGDS reporting palatalised stops at Harris points as against retroflex in Lewis, the isogloss boundary there reported by Borgstrøm (1940:236) is validated in this case.

Not that Watson is the only contributor writing like this. As I was saying, the essay may well be worth reading – but hardly for somebody with only high-school knowledge of linguistics. And there are a few articles whose worthiness I doubt even so. Emily McEwan-Fujita’s Sociolinguistic Ethnography of Gaelic Communities possibly has some general message, but I failed to find it. To me it read as a mere random heaping of facts, as if the author was just showing off her own erudition. (Which suspision was not weakened by finding out at the end of the 30-page essay a 10-page bibliography.)

I quit reading for good at the very last chapter, when in the course of putting such interesting questions as ‘Why can we cleft prepositional phrases using the relative proclitic a, but in a relative clause we find the dependent marking proclitic an? Why can we cleft aspectual phrases or finite clauses at all [….], since we don’t appear to be able to construct corresponding relative clauses?’ (the correct answer to which is, of course, ‘I couldn’t care less’), states that

Note that unlike in English, the phrase which the question word precedes must contain the definite article [so you cannot say]:
*Dè leabhar (a) leughas Calum?

Even my TYG sports sentences like Dè seòrsa latha a bha ann? or Dè phrìs a tha iad?

In short, I am afraid my opinion about the usefulness of the book was best summarized by Woody Allen commenting on a book by Kirkegaard:

“Such a relation which relates itself to its own self (that is to say, a self) must either have constituted itself or have been constituted by another.” [….] True, the passage was totally incomprehensible to me, but what of it as long as Kirkegaard was having fun?

Trouble is, I am not certain that in the current economic(al) climate a book like this does not give some credibility to the idea that there are areas where cuts can be fairly harmlessly made, as some people are simply having fun for public money. No, that’s not fair. Possibly true, certainly not fair. Some others are simply having fun and costing the taxpayer miles more.



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