An industrial landscape on the outskirts of Montreal: above, blue sky; below, blue water, in between, towers, motorways, bridges, cranes, tanks.

Outriders: Talking Languages

Outriders, Uncategorized


I’m on a train from Montréal to Toronto, watching big fields, big skies and small stations pass by. This is the journey starting properly: we’re about to take a two-day train from Toronto to Winnipeg. One without WiFi, by the way, so you won’t hear from me a bit. I’m planning to be off-grid in the “panorama car”, which sounds wonderful. We’ve been seen off on our way by a pair of big, rambling conversations across food and drink: last night with Natasha Kanapé Fontaine, an Innu poet who appeared at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in 2015, and this morning with Jonathan Lamy, a multi-disciplinary poet based in Montréal, and Rachel McCrum, poet and promoter formerly of Edinburgh and now living and working in Montréal too. We talked about language, politics, journeys, poetry, colonialism, and language, language, language.

English is the ground against which we’re talking, often. It’s the dominant language of globalisation, the language of the majority of the internet — as Jonathan says, “If people have English as a first language, they don’t think they have to learn another.” English has a colonising effect on indigenous languages (and on many languages worldwide) — as it asserts dominance, and it’s a language that eats languages — a linguaphage — incorporating parts of them into its body and discarding the rest. In Québec, French is dominant, but there’s a conscious resistance to English and necessary promotion of French to maintain this. Natasha and Katherena discuss how this defensiveness of French can make it harder for other minority and marginalised languages to survive.

I think about the erasure of dialect and language variety in the British Isles, both the deliberate education, cultural and socioeconomic policies that attacked the Celtic languages, and the standardisation processes which marginalise and extinguish class and regional variants. It’s a question that’s devilled the Scots language movement: although there have been various attempts at standardising Scots, at reconciling the huge gulf between Shetlandic and Glaswegian into one language, and although most of the tools are in place, we still don’t have one accepted standard, and the current dominant position is to teach Scots as a non-standardised language. Whether that’s to its benefit or not I just don’t know. It’s an experiment, to have a national language without a standard. Some of the same questions, Katherena says, are arising in different ways in indigenous language movements: Anishinaabemowin has many dialects with a common orthography, and can be taught differently in different places

When you look at the history of language standardisation in Europe, you start to see that it can’t be pulled apart from the process of settler-colonisation: whether it’s the English of London or the French of Paris, having a powerful version of the language that is “right” and “proper” is part of creating an identity that’s “best” and so has a right to dominate, to take. I wonder aloud, “Maybe the best thing for English would be the end of the UK and USA, so there’s no longer a state that needs a standard language. Then everyone could just speak bad English as the lingua franca, English as a second language, and maybe linguistic diversity would flourish again.” I rethink, “That’s not the most important reason to end the UK and USA, but–” “–it is a fun one!” says Katherena.


Katherena, Natasha and I (left to right) chatting by candlelight in a bar in Montréal: Else’s, founded by an elderly Norwegian punk.

Rachel talks about what it’s like to be learning to live in French. She says it’s humbling in a good way, to be in a social situation and not necessarily be good at the language. You have to concentrate, to work at it all the time. I’ve been fumbling my way through with my Standard Grade French for the last 24 hours, mumbling “merci” and “pardon” and attempting a broken French that has everyone switching to English is response. I think, too, about what it’s been like to relearn Orcadian: I have to dig back through layers of English and southern Scots to get to the language I was surrounded with when I was a child. All the words, structures and sounds are there, but I have to work to get back to them; they flow out fairly easily when I’m in Orkney, but when I’m away it’s hard to find them and hold on. The words slip away (I start to say “trousers” instead of “breeks”), then the sounds (“she” instead of “sheu”), then the grammar (“I have” instead of “A’m got”). But with digging it comes back.

At some point, when you learn a language, whether for the first time or relearning, your brain seems to switch over: you can talk and write and think without having to internally translate and interpret all the time. You have a new way of thinking. Sometimes this has radical differences to it: Anishinaabemowin is highly focussed on action and happening, using verbs with temporal inflections where English would often use adjectives. Gaelic only uses possessive determiners for inalieable possessions, like body parts, meaning that “my father” and “my book” have very different grammatical meanings. I’ve been watching and reading a lot of sci fi recently (for research, honest), and this idea is often taken to extremes there. In the recent film Arrival (SPOILERS), learning an alien language with circular expressions brings with it the ability to perceive time differently and, crudely, to see into the future. In Suzanne Elgin’s Native Tongue, attempting to learn non-humanoid alien languages causes infants to (gruesomely) self-destruct, while women creating their own language leads to a revolution into a new reality. These effects happen to readers to: in Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time, the only personal pronoun is “per” (no “him” or “her”), which makes you see characters gendered very differently in your mind, just as gender has changed dramatically in the future. Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice does something related, putting you in the mind of a lead character whose culture has no gender distinctions, rendered in English by using “her” for every character in every culture, however they are gendered.

Like many older languages, Orcadian has a number of grammatical distinctions lacking in English. We have “yin” as well as “this” and “that”, to indicate something that’s over there (like the Scots and Old English “thon”); we have a distinction between the gerund and the present participle, so that “A’m washan me washeen” rather than “washing my washing”. (Except, I’m told, in South Ronaldsay, because even somewhere as small as Orkney can have, or had, big distinctions between island dialects.) The modern standardised languages of European nation-states often smoothed over or simplified these distinctions over time. On an island you really need a pronoun for “all the way over there”; do you need it in a city? Will the internet give rise to new pronouns for “the thing on the other side of the world that I just saw”? And new ways of thinking to go with the grammar? Or will English keep simplifying into Globlish? I think, again, about sci fi: how common a trope it is for a planet, or even a whole species, just to have one language, which surely makes no sense on a planetary or galactic scale. Maybe all we’re getting is the simplified global Klingon and there’s actually all sorts of variation planetside. Or maybe the language future is staler than we might hope.

As I walk around Montréal, I also notice how different cities and cultures have their own languages of design, and thus different bodily ways of thinking. Sometimes it’s the same: a gentrifying block of flats looks the same even if it’s called a block of condos. Sometimes there are direct cognates: the recycling bin colours are different. Sometimes there are bigger changes in thinking and doing: at home, at crossroads, the pedestrian crossings mostly turn green at once, so that you can (if you’re quick) cut diagonally across; here, as in Europe, the vertical and horizontal crosswalks alternate, and cars can turn right on a red, slowing pedestrains right down. And sometimes the idea is untranslatable, like trying to explain to your body an American town where every shop has a car park and you can’t walk anywhere, especially when you’re from an island you can (and do) walk across in an hour or two.

These design languages have historical and political meanings: how cities grew is written in their street patterns. Hiroshima’s grid pattern remembers, and so does London’s maze. In Berlin, the cultural architecture of the city is in constant commemoration of both the Third Reich and the Wall. But in Britain, we barely see, or are in denial, of the things our streetnames, buildings and statues remember: slavery, imperialism, theft. Many towns in North America have a Colonial Road (or Rue). What would it be like to rewrite the city so that we stopped persistently forgetting? Rachel and I talk about how Scotland and Northern Ireland have, in recent years, got better at remembering our own histories: when I was at school we barely knew what the Clearances were, but younger folk I speak to now definitely do. But still, our stories tend to stop there: we know the Highlands were cleared, but we don’t talk about what happened next, and the clearing that cleared folk undertook in the Americas. New and old languages both need remembering, and remembering needs both new and old languages.