Language is thoughts, feelings and poetry, not just meaning

25th February 2011 at 00:00
Much would be lost in translation if we neglected to preserve Scots in schools

In The TESS of 11 February, Alasdair Clarkson wrote with sadness of the "inches dedicated to the revival of the Scots language" and claimed that Scots is a set of regional dialects that have no place in our schools. The core of the counter-argument was made for me in Alan Bennett's play The History Boys, which I saw performed in Aberdeen the following day. "Oh, no sir. With respect, can I stop you?" one of the boys interrupts a teacher trying to paraphrase Kipling. "We can never say `in other words'. If it is a work of art there are no other words."

Language is more than a means of communication, a vehicle for thoughts and feelings that can just as readily be expressed in English, French or Mandarin. Language is the raw material of art. It is the painter's palette, the sculptor's stone.

Recent evidence from a research team led by Professor Mahzarin Banaji in Massachusetts supports an idea attributed to Benjamin Lee Whorf in the 1930s, that the language we use guides our thoughts; it shapes our feelings. We think differently when we do so in Scots or English or Swahili.

If a language is lost, a set of unique thoughts, feelings and perspectives vanishes. Why should teachers in Scottish schools allow this to happen?

I know of no evidence for Mr Clarkson's assertion that speaking one language promotes harmony. In Latin, the western world once had a language as global as English is now. The world was no more peaceful then. Conflict is seldom caused by misunderstandings across languages.

Mr Clarkson believes "the promotion of Scots reinforces and creates division within the United Kingdom". This is an assertion with no possible evidence to support it, because Scots has never been promoted in our schools. Any youngster using the "uncouth dialect" of the playground was until recently subject to ridicule, even punishment.

Mr Clarkson concludes that we should "preserve the primacy of standard English. orthodox spelling and grammar and universally-accessible speech".

Scotland's teachers have always done that. The only change now is that a little time might be spent studying our own language and literature, in classrooms that once suppressed them.

On a recent trip to the European Parliament in Strasbourg, where business is often conducted in English, I suggested to a party of young scholars that global English would benefit the world. They vigorously rejected the idea, and one girl captured the case for the opposition even more succinctly than Bennett.

"You would lose far more than you gained," she said. "You can never translate a poem."

Douglas Blane, Writer and teacher.

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