Am Bratach No. 222
April 2010

by Kevin Crowe
“In Praise of the Garrulous” by Allan Cameron. Vagabond Press, 2009. £8.00.

For many years, languages have been disappearing at an alarming rate and increasingly more and more discourse — whether written or oral — is being conducted in a small number of mainly European languages.

In this thought provoking, multi-disciplinary and wonderfully readable book, Allan Cameron argues the case for linguistic diversity. He uses philosophy, history, sociolinguistics, poetry, anthropology and empirical research to back up his arguments. He provides a history of language from the oral culture of hunter-gatherer societies to the prominence of the written word after the invention of the printing press right up to the implications of the computer age, and links the hegemony of particular languages to economic power, class and imperialism.

Cameron believes language to be “...almost everything we are: it governs our existence…” Language, he argues, helps define power structures, stores the knowledge of a society, catalogues and defines ownership, but is also much more: “…it is a form of caressing, it is an enjoyment in itself, it is a musical instrument.” As someone who works with words, I agree with him. Is it any wonder then that those who wish to dominate us attempt to control our access to language, whether through book burning, censorship or — as happened in the Highlands after Culloden — the banning of a whole language? Whether it be Thatcher banning “Spycatcher”, Iranian Ayatollahs issuing a fatwah against Salman Rushdie or big business threatening to sue scientists who produce findings they don’t like, censorship is almost always attempts by those with power and influence to prevent a discourse that threatens them. One of Cameron’s chapters is entitled: “Silence is the currency of the powerful.”

Cameron goes even further and suggests that the human body is designed for language and “its exercise is essential to our physical and psychological wellbeing…” and “…language is one of the principal or indeed the principal indicator of human nature.” He provides evidence to show that not only is it easier for young children to learn a language than it is for older children or adults (something many of us know from our own experience) but also that children who learn more than one language have a more rounded view of the world and perform better academically.

The way an English speaker sees the world is different from the way that, say, a Cantonese speaker sees the world. Those who can speak and think in both languages can see the world from different perspectives. To back this up, Cameron describes an experiment in which English and Indonesian speakers were shown three cards and were asked to put together the two they thought were a pair. The choice was dependent upon the language of the speaker. The researchers then formed a third group: those who could speak both English and Indonesian, and discovered the choice they made was dependent upon whether the interview was conducted in English or Indonesian. As he writes: “A child with three languages will view the world in three different ways, and will have less fear of contempt and difference.”

Later, when discussing one of Scotland’s greatest writers — Iain Crichton Smith — he suggests that the beauty and slightly unusual register of his English poetry and fiction was in part a result of his Gaelic upbringing.

He also provides evidence to show that children with more than one language do better academically: statistics from the “Times Educational Supplement” in 2007 show that children in Gaelic-medium schools and children from Chinese and Asian backgrounds generally outperform white children educated in single language schools. This again backs up the notion that children brought up in bi- or trilingual environments learn quicker and retain more of what they learn.
It is in this context, that Cameron argues that the trend away from linguistic diversity makes the whole of humanity, collectively and individually, all the poorer both emotionally and psychologically.

Interestingly, in view of the recent controversy over councillor Deidre Mackay’s objections to funding for Gaelic, Cameron produces statistics showing that 86% of people in Scotland believe in the maintenance of Gaelic.
He also quotes research that shows that many of those who oppose support for Gaelic come from the upper reaches of professional, business and public sector hierarchies.

I could go on, but the editor’s insistence on sticking to my word count means I cannot be as garrulous as I would like to be in my praise of this excellent book.


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