Gaelic's master of grammar

10th January 1997 at 00:00
Cathair O Dochartaigh, the new professor of Celtic languages at Glasgow University, has firm views on the state of Gaelic education, stemming from a belief that Scots Gaelic, like Irish, is dying on its feet.

Professor O Dochartaigh insists that Scots Gaelic is spoken on an everyday basis by no more than 20,000 people.

"We have to look at the situation of Gaelic realistically," he insists. "Far too much of the Scottish approach relies on what I call 'songs without words'. That is the sort of thing you see at the Mod, where many performers sing or recite Gaelic, not actually understanding one word of the language. We have to change that."

Derry born and a student of Queen's University, Belfast, Professor O Dochartaigh, who shares his name with the last chieftain of his clan to submit to the English in Donegal in the 17th century, is no stranger to Scotland or the Scottish education system. His first job out of university was on the 1967-69 linguistic survey of Scottish Gaelic, and he lectured at Aberdeen University from 1969 to 1982.

From his new chair at Glasgow, he sees the products of the Scottish school system, plus a few students from his native Northern Ireland, struggling with university-level Scots and Irish Gaelic. Their problem is a lack of formal teaching of grammar in schools.

"You need formal grammar to study to this level. I don't think the new Gaelic Higher, under Higher Still, will address this issue," he says. "And Gaelic-medium primary schools are fine up to a point, but the reality is that few pupils get the opportunity to go on to secondaries where everything is taught in Gaelic."

He welcomes the expansion in Gaelic-medium broadcasting, but it may be at the eventual expense of teaching and learning in Gaelic. "Many of the more able Celtic and Gaelic students are snapped up by the media," he explains. "These are exactly the sort of well qualified and enthusiastic young people that we need to go into Gaelic language teaching. They are a great loss to the classroom."

Also on his agenda is updating Gaelic books: the best Gaelic dictionary was last updated in 1912, with a last revision of the standard Gaelic grammar in 1926. He speaks with authority because in his last post at the University of Wales in Bangor, he instigated the publishing of the first Welsh language computer spellchecker.

"If the language is to live, we have to be alive to bringing it right into the computer age. Welsh is the model we should aim for," Professor O Dochartaigh says.

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