steepholm (steepholm) wrote,

In which I prove that English has been a dead language since 1536

As mentioned in my previous post, I've been watching some of David Mitchell's Soapbox rants on Youtube. Now, I'm a Mitchell fan, even though I worry that he's getting far too much media exposure at the moment. (Remember Tony Slattery!) But it's in the nature of his business that he's going to be involved in a few duds (he's even written a sketch about it) - and so this proved, in terms of its mixed quality. I very much liked his piece on the phrase "rape and pillage", for example, but there were a few too many "men are from Mars, women are from Venus" rants for my taste.

Also, he touched a raw nerve in his piece arguing that there was no point in trying to preserve Scottish Gaelic at all costs. It's not that I feel Scottish Gaelic necessarily should be preserved at all costs. It's not even that, for some reason, he forgot to put any jokes in. It's the fact that he used the following analogy:

The exinction of an animal in the modern world is almost never because of natural selection; it's because of the actions of man. The extinction of a language, however, still is natural selection.

This reminds me of an argument I've had regularly with my mother over the years. My mother, born and bred in Wrexham but never a Welsh speaker, has often maintained (in complaining about the use of bilingual signs) that once a language requires special protective laws then it's essentially dead. By that logic, as I've equally often countered, English has been a dead language - at least in Wales - since 1536. In that year Parliament passed what's now known as the Act of Union, partly motivated by the frightening observation that "the people of [Wales] have and do daily use a speche nothing like ne consonant to the naturall mother tonge used within this Realme." Amongst the Act's provisions was that only English could be used in public business, including in the courts: "from henceforth no Person or Persons that use the Welsh Speech or Language, shall have or enjoy any manner Office or Fees within this Realm of England, Wales, or other the King's Dominion, upon Pain of forfeiting the same Offices or Fees, unless he or they use and exercise the English Speech or Language." I'd say that was a law protecting English, wouldn't you? Ergo, English died in 1536, QED, RIP.

I don't know much about the history of Scottish Gaelic, but I doubt it's had it much easier than Welsh, or that it and English have been allowed to compete for their ecological niches free of any "actions of man". The phrase "Highland Clearances" springs to mind, for example. That was a human action, and I'm pretty sure it had a large effect on the viability of Gaelic as a living language. Indeed, how Mitchell thinks that languages can compete without any involvement from human beings is beyond me.

Whether or not the twitching body of Gaelic can be resuscitated at this point I've no idea, but let's not pretend that we found it lying on the verge, and parked our juggernaut to rush to its assistance. If it dies, it will be one more example of linguistic roadkill.
Tags: language, links

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