Searching for New Stories and A Language to Live By: Reflections of a Gael in a Foreign Language (by Paul Meighan-Chiblow)

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Growing up, I read a lot. I have always been fascinated with otherworldly, ethereal, fantasy books. One of my favourites, a short story, is “A Dark Horn Blowing” by Dahlov Ipcar. I then developed a passion for researching clan histories, such as that of my own Gaelic clans Meighan (Miadhacháin) and MacGillivray (MhicGilleBhraith), and Scottish Kings and Queens. These things weren’t spoken about much, if at all, when I was in school.

Book cover of “A Dark Horn Blowing” by Dahlov Ipcar and Scottish Clan Map under Robert the Bruce (1316)

After some time trying to develop and further these interests, I began to feel discouraged. I wanted to find out more about the histories which involved the Scottish and Gaelic peoples, but, to me, much was left unexplained, simplistically recounted, or simply unspoken. Back in the days without internet and no computer, I tried hard to find more books from a local library in my neighbourhood in Glasgow, visited the town hall library to research their archives, but I still couldn’t find what I was looking for. It was then, around the age of 12, feeling jaded and fazed, that I stopped reading with much less of a passion for a while. Maybe the expression people would use to describe this is burn-out. 

Now, thinking back 25 years later, I think I’m starting to understand some of the reasons why I felt the way I did even though I’m still learning. It’s taken a while.

There was always something missing and it wasn’t easy to put a finger on it.

For me, it felt like the “official” histories of “reality” and versions of real-life events stopped short of telling the full story or were one-sided. The lessons I had in school felt void of meaning and mechanical. On the other hand, ironically, the other stories I loved to read were fantastical, not “real”, and served as an escapism from my day-to-day. In many ways, I feel dreaming and reading saved me from other things that were going on around me that I had no control over. I guess I was looking for something in those stories, histories, that could tell me more about myself, about my place in the world, the past. 

One of my teachers once wrote in one of my first secondary school report cards that, “Paul is a master of the waffle”. And the truth is I struggle to write about certain things, things of a personal nature and even using the word “I” at the beginning of a sentence in English feels strange, foreign, egocentric and self-important. I don’t mean for it to be that way. Learning more about my mother tongue, Gaelic, that I am in the process of reclaiming, makes me wonder if expressing myself in this language, as opposed to just English, might be easier.

For one, in Gàidhlig, the human subject of the sentence doesn’t come at the beginning. For example, “I am ready” is translated as tha mi deiseil. Of course, if you read a language learning book they tend to leave it at that. A non-literal, surface translation. However, what tha mi deiseil actually literally breaks down as is “is me ready”. Another is tha gaol agam ort, “I love you”, which piece-by-piece translates as “is love at me on you”. The verb comes before the subject in the sentence. Other examples include: tha Gàidhlig agam (“is Gaelic at me”) to mean “I speak Gaelic”, or is ann le mo bhràthair a tha an cù (“is with my brother that the dog is”) to mean “my brother has/owns a dog”.

In this brief snippet from the little I’ve learnt so far, the human person comes afterwards in a linguistic “empathy hierarchy” (Goatly, 2018) which emphasizes the action of love, of being ready, of language, or the position where something or someone is. It’s nice to know feelings and entities can be represented and given agency in this way, framing the “doing” or “being” part as opposed to the “I”. 

That’s not all, though. 

Lifting the peat from the surface, I came across in readings that deiseil actually means “sunwise” (MacKinnon & Brannon, 2012). In Gàidhlig and to the Gàidheal (Gael), the sun was a point of reference and the sun to the Northern and Islander Gàidheal would generally appear in the South. In cultar na Gàidhlig (Gaelic culture), the sun was traditionally venerated and there is a custom of only turning boats “sunwise” for good fortune and wellbeing in a venture. As the 19th century Scottish folklorist John Gregorson Campbell mentions, following the course of the sun was “the most important of all observances” (Black et al., 2008, p. 125). For example, in many ancient day-to-day practices, which continue to this day, instruction is made to go deiseil or “sunwise”, such as in hunting, fishing, and sowing the seed (MacKinnon & Brannon, 2012). This is how “I am ready” is translated in Gàidhlig: tha mi deiseil, or “is me sunwise”. This literal, culturally and environmentally responsive translation resonates with me because there is land, history, customs, traditional knowledge of the territory, all encapsulated in one short phrase of language.

The Polochar Standing Stone in Uibhist a Deas

To me, much is lost in language and translation if we ignore the culture, land, and practices of the ancestors. In Gàidhlig, I am learning there is an ancient word to emphasize clan community and wellbeing, heritage, tradition, ancestral rights and a sense of belonging to the land: dùthchas (MacInnes, 2006). And, I think, that is what I was and am looking for. I grew up in Glasgow, a city. And I love Glasgow. At the same time, I used to feel awkward and out of place. Then, when I would go to visit my mother’s beautiful homeland island Uibhist a Deas (South Uist), I sometimes felt something was missing there, too.

My curiosity and musings have led me to learning languages such as Spanish, French, Italian, and Japanese, travelling and working in diverse countries across the globe, and now looking for dùthchas. My Mum would say to me often, “remember who you are”, which reminds me of this Gàidhlig expression: cuimhnichibh air na daoine on tàinig sibh, or “remember the people you came from”. I never understood what she meant and why she said it to me. It also bothered me back then. Maybe because it felt like something of a reproach, or a responsibility.

It makes more sense now. And, I’d like to think that it will continue to make more sense as I learn more Gàidhlig

Writing this blog piece made me want to look up the inspiration behind “A Dark Horn Blowing” and I found out that it’s based on Norse and Scottish folklore. It makes a little more sense why it’s one of my childhood favourites. Also, my Irish Gaelic surname Miadhacháin is anglicized as Meighan, which never said much to me. However, the actual meaning in Gaeilge literally translates as “the honourable one”. Apparently, this was the name given to a younger son of Fiachaidh Muillethan, son of Eoghan Mor, first King of Munster, in the 3rd century. Similarly, my mother’s surname MhicGilleBhraith is anglicized as MacGillivray. Yet, the literal translation, “son of the servant of judgment”, tells me more about what my ancestors did in the courtroom of the Lords of the Isles who ruled over the Viking-Gael Island kingdom in the North and West of Scotland from the 9th to the 16th centuries.

I think I’m on a journey to remembering. Remembering the practices of my ancestors. And a huge part of that remembering is knowing my language and the stories within. I’d like to think we can all feel more connected by learning more about our mother tongues and also about the evolution of the languages we now speak. 

English, for example, can be stripped of meaning and history, and instead packaged as a useful neoliberal commodity, or the “magic formula” (Ngũgĩ, 1985, p. 115) to “success”, which ignores its colonial legacy of cognitive and linguistic imperialism across the globe (Phillipson & Skutnabb-Kangas, 2018). It would be nice to think, as Stibbe (2015) mentions, that we can look for “new stories to live by” in our languages, including English, as opposed to “myths we live by” (Midgley, 2011). Perhaps, in this way, we can envisage a future which is rooted in truth in order to build better relationships with our fellow beings, human and nonhuman, and our local environments. To my mind, one way we could do this is by making all languages – Indigenous, minoritized, ancestral or heritage – available to our learners in addition to English or other dominant languages. We can learn more about covert ideologies, assumptions, mental models taken as “commonsense” in dominant languages (e.g., cognitive, cultural and linguistic imperialism) from seeing the world through a different lens, belief system or language (Goatly, 2018). We could also honour the literal meanings, the deep-rooted historical, ecological and sociocultural insights these languages transmit, as much as we possibly can when we attempt to translate words or phrases in English. 

There are so many inspiring and nurturing stories that already exist that could inform the language(s) we speak, relate to, and live by. As opposed to being an abstract code for transactional communication, language can be healing. As Okri (1996) notes, “stories are the secret reservoir of values: change the stories that individuals or nations live by and you change the individuals and nations themselves” (p. 21). 

Instead of saying, “I’m ready” in English, how about “I’m sunwise”? Wouldn’t that be the start of a story…

References

Black, R. (Ed.) (2008). The Gaelic otherworld. Birlinn.

Goatly, A. (2018). Lexicogrammar and ecolinguistics. In A. Fill & H. Penz (Eds.), The Routledge handbook of ecolinguistics (pp. 227-249). London: Routledge.

MacKinnon, I., & Brennan, R. (2012). Dùthchas na mara/Belonging to the sea: Exploring the cultural roots of maritime conflict on Gaelic speaking islands in Scotland and Ireland. Colmcille: Eirinn is Alba/SAMS/Scottish Crofting Federation. DOI: 10.31230/osf.io/6nemq. Retrieved Mar 26, 2020 from https://marxiv.org/6nemq/

MacInnes, J. (2006). Dùthchas nan Gaidheal. Birlinn.

Midgley, M. (2011). The myths we live by. New York: Routledge.

Ngũgĩ, T. (1986). Decolonising the mind. London: Heinemann.

Okri, B. (1996). Birds of heaven. London: Phoenix.

Stibbe, A. (2018). Positive discourse analysis: Rethinking human ecological relationships. In A. Fill & H. Penz (Eds.), The Routledge handbook of ecolinguistics (pp. 165-178). London: Routledge.

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