on Gaelic tattoos, the biases of the American academy, socio-linguistics, and more…
(1) Tell us a little about your background, and how Gaelic fits into that picture.
I’m a Gàidheal ùr, or “new speaker” in sociolinguistic terms. I’m originally from Chicago and first started learning Gaelic at the age of 19. Our Gaelic heritage was not mentioned at all in our family. So it was a case of “Mom, Dad, I’m Gaelic.”
(2) How and why did you get an interest in learning Gaelic? What motivated you to get so engaged?
I heard “’S Fliuch an Oidhche” by Catherine-Ann MacPhee and from that moment I instantly wanted to learn Gaelic. I can’t explain it other than to say that it was the most beautiful thing I’d ever heard. I was fortunate to find a Gaelic-speaking professor at the University of Illinois, and joined a small group who were engaged in self-study with his help.
However, I think it’s misleading to think in terms of anyone having a single motivation for learning Gaelic because your original motivation can change and develop as you discover the reality of the language and culture and engage further with it in rewarding ways.
I was fortunate to be able to study abroad at University of Aberdeen, and managed to work it out to take all Gaelic language and Celtic history and culture courses during that year. I was not one of the wealthy Americans who could afford to do an entire Celtic degree there, but I made the most of my time. I joined the university Celtic Society, helped organized student ceilidhs, and attended all the pub nights. That makes it sound like it went in a smooth, straight line, but it didn’t. I actually went over in September 1990, but my dad was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer and I had to withdraw and go home in November and my dad passed away in December of that year. The staff of both universities were so kind to me and I was able to have a “do-over” in 1991-92. As you can imagine this intensified the experience.
After graduating from university, I went back to Scotland on a temporary 6-month work permit through BUNAC, hoping I could find a situation that would allow me to stay long-term. I found a temp job in Glasgow and did as many Gaelic activities as I could (there were no evening courses for adults in Glasgow in 1993!). But I was not able to find either a permanent position or partner, and didn’t have the money to pursue a Celtic Studies graduate degree in Scotland, so sadly I had to come back to the U.S.
I then took a job teaching English in Japan, not only to earn a living but also to see whether my interest in Gaelic would lessen. It did not. Applying to graduate school programs from Japan (in the pre-internet days!), I gained entry to the University of Chicago Ph.D. program in anthropology. I did a year of fieldwork in 1999-2000 split between a Gaelic organization in Inverness and communities in Benbecula and North and South Uist, and finished my dissertation in 2003.
(3) What is the focus of your scholarship about Gaelic? What is the relevance of it to Scotland and the diaspora in the past, present and future?
I was trained as a linguistic anthropologist and most of my research on Gaelic has been focused on processes of language shift and revitalization efforts in Scotland. That is sometimes difficult for people outside of academia to understand. When you say you focus on Gaelic, people assume that you are teaching the language, and/or studying the literature. I’m not a grammar expert; I specialize in studying people’s social behaviour (including language use) and ideologies.
The most popular aspect of my research has been the role of emotions in socializing learners into enacting language shift in Gaelic-speaking areas. I think it has been popular because it looks at something that “everyone knows,” the friction that can be found between native Gaelic speakers and adult Gaelic learners, and it tries to explain rationally why it happens and what we might be able to do about it. I’ve also done research on discourses of language death and revitalization, and the impact of neoliberalism on Gaelic language shift in Scotland.
(4) Does Gaelic culture offer something special to North Americans outside of Nova Scotia? Where do you see interest coming from? What do you think the relationship might be between Nova Scotia and other parts of the continent where people with Gaelic heritage live? How would you like to see these developments evolving in the future?
I believe that it can offer something special, if North Americans are cautious to avoid the stereotypes of tartan and Highland Games and to approach Gaelic culture on its own terms. I do see a lot of interest coming from people’s interest in their own heritage and potentially coming from fans of Outlander. I think the latter is a great opportunity that hasn’t fully been utilized yet.
As far as a relationship between Nova Scotia and other parts of North America, I do think that our musicians and Gaelic specialists are vastly under appreciated here in Nova Scotia, and are actually more likely to be appreciated elsewhere on the continent. I think that inviting them to teach is actually helping to support the economy and Gaelic community here in Nova Scotia. That’s a Nova Scotia-centric take on the situation of course!
I wish it was easier to get to and from Nova Scotia, but between the high airfares and the provincial government’s Yarmouth ferry debacle that doesn’t look like it will get easier any time soon!
For New Englanders it’s a bit easier to get to Nova Scotia, but from where I used to live in Chicago, it was always cheaper and easier to get to Scotland than it was to get to Nova Scotia, and I never came here until the Scottish Gaelic Studies conference was finally hosted at St. Francis Xavier University in 2008. It was a life-changing experience for me.
(5) What was your experience trying to study Gaelic and aspects related to it in American academia? Why is support for it so low? What do you think could be done to improve the visibility of Gaelic in the academy and what effect might that have for the language and culture in North America and Scotland?
It has been extremely difficult trying to study Gaelic in my field, which is linguistic anthropology. Anthropology has had a strong bias against studying Western European and white North American cultures, which were seen as mainly the preserve of sociology, history, and political science. It wasn’t impossible, of course, but there was subtle discouragement as well as a lack of equivalent funding opportunities, including area-based research grants and graduate student teaching opportunities.
Even in regard to European studies, it was far easier for Eastern Europeanists to get research grant funding than for Western Europeanists, due to the place of the Cold War and postsocialism in the geopolitical priorities of the U.S. government. There was no grant funding (or coursework!) available for my pre-dissertation language training, and so that portion of my studies was self-funded through student loans and part-time jobs. Even when my classmates could take courses during the school year for Quechua, Yoruba, etc. and then get FLAS grants to take intensive summer programs at other U.S. universities as well! There was and is none of that for Gaelic.
Not all of my advisory committee members could get past their own stereotypes about Scotland to fully understand my work on Gaelic (and I continue to find that with peer review of my anthropology journal article manuscript submissions). During a pre-dissertation field research trip, a senior anthropologist in Scotland tried to discourage me from studying Gaelic revitalization since he felt it had all been done before and there was nothing new to say about it (a fellow anthropologist from Harvard had just done his Ph.D. fieldwork at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig).
Eventually I was able to get Nancy Dorian as an external member of my committee and she has been a wonderful mentor to me over the years. I discussed the difficulties of doing field research in and on Gaelic-speaking areas in my review chapter “Sociolinguistic Ethnography of Gaelic Communities”. I could say a great deal more, but I’ll just summarize: it’s very, very difficult to be a North American-based scholar of Gaelic. Very difficult.
(6) How might an organization like GaelicUSA fit into this picture, if such a group could offer tangible support for efforts like your own?
Summer research grants to North American scholars could be of some help. Grants for research on endangered languages are few in number and the competition for them is very high (the sources are the Foundation for Endangered Languages and the Endangered Language Foundation). I have never been able to win one for my research on Scottish Gaelic, because, ironically, Gaelic is considered to be too well documented and not endangered enough!
It could also be helpful to support the research of independent, unemployed and underemployed scholars in particular. Scholars who are employed in tenured or tenure-track positions can usually access faculty small grants, of up to $2000-$3000, in my experience, although every university is different. However, these grants are unavailable to under-employed (part-time) professors and independent scholars. A grant like that can make all the difference between a research project being able to move ahead or not, particularly if the grant not only covers the research expenses themselves, but also allows the researcher to draw modest pay. For example, I have abandoned my project of a comprehensive survey of Gaelic users in Nova Scotia for this reason, and I don’t foresee being able to do any more field-based research on Gaelic, or even attend academic conferences, in the absence of financial and institutional support.
(7) What are you working on right now?
I write the Gaelic Revitalization blog, which I started with a eye towards making some of my previous research findings and insights more accessible to the general public. Academic knowledge is too often locked up in journals and I felt it was important to get more high-quality information about Gaelic out there for popular consumption. So much of the information about Gaelic on the internet is wrong (not least Google Translate for Scottish Gaelic!).
Last year I saw popular social media posts about bad Chinese and Hebrew tattoos and had the idea to look for bad Gaelic tattoos. As one might expect, they are out there! I wrote two blog posts, one featuring real-life Gaelic tattoos gone wrong, and a second one with constructive suggestions for how to get a good Gaelic tattoo. These have been my two most popular blog posts so far, with a total of over 26,000 page views in the past year. So I decided to write a book on the topic, hoping to use this tremendous interest in tattoos to reach even more people with factual information about Scottish Gaelic language and culture. The book is titled The Scottish Gaelic Tattoo Handbook and it launches on May 31, 2016 at the Halifax Central Library as part of Gaelic Awareness Month in the province of Nova Scotia.
I have also started a new publishing company, Bradan Press, which focuses on Scottish Gaelic language and culture. Our first book is the tattoo handbook of course, but our second book will be a volume of Gaelic poetry by Marcas Mac an Tuairneir titled Lus na Tùise [Lavender]. It’s coming out in October 2016. After that, there are a few other projects in the pipeline and of course I welcome proposals for new books in or about Gaelic language and culture!