Gaelic doomed as speakers die out

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The Independent Online

It is one of the oldest languages in Europe and a symbol of Scottish nationhood, but the millions spent keeping Gaelic alive have been wasted according to a new study. By the end of the century, Gaelic will be extinct.

It is one of the oldest languages in Europe and a symbol of Scottish nationhood, but the millions spent keeping Gaelic alive have been wasted according to a new study. By the end of the century, Gaelic will be extinct.

Researchers at Max Planck Institute in Holland, who have conducted a comprehensive survey of Europe's minor languages, have found that none can survive with fewer than 100,000 speakers. Gaelic has only half that number.

Around £12.5m a year is spent supporting the language, but the subsidy has nothalted an apparently terminal decline which has seen the number of speakers fall from 79,000 in 1981 to just over 50,000 today.

"It is reasonable to think within 100 years Gaelic won't be around," said Dr Nigel Duffield, a Gaelic expert at the institute. "As soon as children stop speaking it as their mother tongue, a language is effectively dead. If people move out of the community and they don't speak it any more and they bring up their children speaking English, it doesn't matter what money has been invested."

His claim will anger London's liberal establishment and Scottish nationalists, who want millions more to be spent on trying to revive Gaelic.

Last week the Scottish National Party unveiled plans to give the language equal status with English. Every Scottish child would have the right to learn it at school and defendants in court would be given the right to have their cases heard in Gaelic.

Last night Lord Bragg, who is presenting the radio programme Roots of English, said of the attempts to protect and re-establish the language: "I am one of these people who believe every effort should be made. Hebrew is a very good example of a language that was brought back to life. I am all for going as far as you can."

Gaelic, which was last dominant north of the border almost 1,000 years ago, has joined a growing list of endangered languages across Europe drawn up by the EU-funded European Bureau for Lesser Used Languages.

It is not yet in the league of Cornish - just 200 speakers - or Tsakonian, a language with roots in ancient Sparta, now spoken by about 300 shepherds in central Greece. But it is on a par with Sorbian, a Slavic language spoken in eastern Germany which is also under increasing threat.

It is estimated that for every child born into a Gaelic speaking family, four speakers die.

Nationalists point to the revival of Welsh as an inspiration, but opponents of more spending say money has little to do with it. They point out that the Welsh Language Board, responsible for promoting Welsh, received only £5.9m last year in a country of more than half a million Welsh-speakers.

But while Welsh is the dominant local language in its principality, Gaelic is marginalised, spoken today only in the Western Isles and parts of the western mainland. Worse, it is faced with competition from Scots, the language of Robert Burns, which is spoken by an estimated 1.5 million people but which is so closely related to English that detractors see it as nothing more than a dialect.

"The language energy in Scotland is dissipated but it has never been in Wales," said Professor David Crystal, a linguistics expert whose book Language Death, published last week, examines the prospects for 3,000 endangered languages. "You can't save a language unless everything is going for it."

The SNP proposals have been branded "unhelpful" by Scottish Conservatives. Iain Whyte, Tory spokesman on Gaelic, said they smacked of the "tartanising" of Scotland. "We would be concerned if it became a statutory [language] and lots of extra money was spent on [Gaelic] road signs that didn't actually increase the number of speakers," he said.

Mike Russell, the SNP's Gaelic spokesman, said: "The situation is pretty desperate. Vast amounts are spent preserving endangered wildlife. A language is equally special and just to let it go strikes me as the height of irresponsibility."

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