Friday, 9 October 2009


Over the summer I came across an interesting letter in a Canadian newspaper, The Globe and Mail (3 August 2009), which is published in Vancouver, British Columbia.  The writer was Professor Tom Priestly, who is professor emeritus of Slavic linguistics at the University of Alberta, and he was commenting on the use of the words language and dialect.  I quote his letter in full:

In his letter Linguistic Clarification (Aug 1) Dan Calinescu makes the non-linguists’ error of referring to the Romanian and Moldovan ‘languages’ as if they could be defined in non-political terms.  Perhaps he doesn’t know the decades-old-saying, ‘A language is a dialect with an army and a navy’.  The word ‘language’ has multiple meanings and when it refers to standard languages (English, Romanian etc.) it has to be used in the real-world political sense.

Serbian, Croatian and Bosnian are now separate but still similar enough to be taught as one language at some universities; not long ago, they all belonged to a single ‘language’ with local variants that were about as different as British and American English.  Danish and Norwegian are distinct ‘languages,’ but most people consider the difference smaller than the ones just cited.  (One must be deliberately inexact: No one has devised an acceptable measure of linguistic difference.)

And Moldovan was indeed created, inexpertly, by Soviet bureaucrats; while the country was and is independent, its ‘language’ is what its officials say it is.  The fact that it is now virtually identical to Romanian is beside the point.

Here in Northern Ireland a number of people have set themselves up as experts and have argued that the Ulster-Scots language is merely a dialect.  I would suggest to them that they note carefully the comments of Professor Priestly.

First of all Professor Priestly states that, ‘One must be deliberately inexact: No one has devised an acceptable measure of linguistic difference.’  Such honesty is truly refreshing.

Secondly he says that Moldovan is ‘what its officials say it is’.  In the case of Ulster-Scots the government of the United Kingdom has said that it is a regional or minority language in Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom.  That was made clear when the United Kingdom government ratified the Council of Europe Charter for Regional or Minority Languages.  It recognised Ulster-Scots as a regional or minority language and there the matter rests.

On the basis of official recognition and in the absence of any ‘acceptable measure of linguistic difference’ the matter is well and truly settled.


  1. Moldovan was written in the Cyrillic alphabet,but where are the books and writings in Ulster-Scots?
    There is a version of the Bible written in Scottish English but beyond that and a bit of poetry not much is written hence it is a dialect.

  2. So why is this article not written in "Ulster Scots".And if it was would any Irishman or indeed Englishman NOT understand it? Ultach Eireannach.

  3. Saying that "Ulster Scots" is a language 'because we say it is' is a circular argument with no basis in fact or reality. Priestly above is proferring a flawed and dubious analysis.

  4. The key phrase here is "while the country was and is independent, its ‘language’ is what its officials say it is". Moldova is not the same state as Romania, and so it has an absolute right to exercise "national preference" in favour of its citizens in a way that would not be acceptable within a single pan-Romanian state.

    Northern Ireland and Scotland, on the other hand, are currently in the same state, and regardless of what the coming years may bring, will probably both remain in the European Union in some form. Overwhelming linguistic consensus agrees that Ulster Scots is a dialect of Scots, just as Moldovan is a dialect of Romanian. Indeed, the editor of the Concise Ulster Dictionary has gone as far as to say that Ulster Scots is a subdialect of Central Scots rather than a main dialect in its own right.

    Advertising jobs and services as being relevant to speakers of "Ulster Scots" is indirectly discriminatory and therefore, in my view, illegal, since it discourages Scots-born Scots-speakers in the same way as it would if one advertised jobs and services for speakers of "Ulster English" or "Austrian German", which differ to a similar extent from neighbouring varieties.

    The UK Government, and the EU, have accepted that they have a duty not to discriminate on ethnic grounds. No bureaucratic declaration that Ulster Scots is not Scots would withstand a challenge on the grounds of indirect discrimination; it would simply be declared illegal.

    The Minister's arguments are political rather than linguistic, display a relativism that in other contexts would be considered risible or dubious, and, in the final analysis, are grossly sophistical.

  5. Manfarang - You suggest that because 'not much is written' in a language it is a dialect. This is imply untrue. There are still languages around the world that do not have any written texts at all and yet are spoken languages.

  6. Scots Anorak - I was simply noting a comment by a respected Canadian linguist and applying it to a situation in Northern Ireland. Professor Priestly stated that, 'No one has devised an acceptable measure of linguistic difference.' You may disagree with that statement but if it is true then the decision as to whether Ulster-Scots is a language moves out of the linguistic field. If then it cannot be determined on a linguistic basis, since 'no one has devised an acceptable measure of linguistic difference', then it must be determined in another way. In this case the United Kingdom government, when it signed and ratified the European Charter, recognised Scots as a minority language in Scotland and Ulster-Scots as a minority language in Northern Ireland.