Connecting with Song to Revitalize Languages and Communities

How do you breathe the spark of life into a language which has been marginalized, if not destroyed, by a legacy of colonization and stigmatization? Can we regrow the bonds of community by rejoicing in the vibrant musical traditions of the past? Do we lose something of the authentic center of a culture if we translate modern pop songs into a native language in order to attract today’s youth into our ranks? How do we acknowledge and mourn the losses of the past while still holding out hope for the future?

Those are some of the questions that emerged when I was in Cape Breton, Canada, last week to join a small host of passionate activists revitalizing their languages and communities through the use of song and music at a symposium entitled A’ Chànain Cheòlmhor: Language Revitalization through Music (which was hosted by the Language in Lyrics – Gaelic Songs of Nova Scotia project). Although the majority who came are engaged in Scottish Gaelic (in both Scotland and Nova Scotia), we also shared common visions and enthusiasm with people involved in Irish, Cornish, Apache, Cherokee, Basque and Jèrriais.

Singing Gaelic songs (òrain luaidh) around the milling table.

It was an extremely enjoyable and inspiring event, not least because we actually practiced what we preach: we sang a song together in one of these endangered languages at the start of every session, and then sang and danced at céilidhs after the end of the formal program until the wee morning hours. Colaisde na Gàidhlig / The Gaelic College in Nova Scotia was an ideal setting for this event, as we could draw from the talents and experiences of the surrounding Mi’kmaq, Acadian, and Gaelic communities.

Once you get involved in language and culture revitalization, and connect to other people doing the same work in other communities, you quickly realize that the issues and challenges are nearly identical, despite whatever incidental differences may seem to divide us: geography, skin colour, religion and so on. A common, unifying experience, it seems to me, is that the integrity and self-determination of communities with endangered languages has been undermined, often brutally, through dispossession, colonization, empire, and subjugation, and that the trauma of that dislocation – in geographical, cultural, linguistic, and spiritual terms – echoes through the generations. It is not natural for people living on their own territory to stop using their native language with one another: it is always the indication of some kind of hostile hegemonic force inserting itself between members and generations of that community.

Lodaidh MacFhionghain (Gaelic poet and CEO of the Nova Scotia Office of Gaelic Affairs) and myself at the conference.

The speakers at the conference displayed an impressive range of skills and creative approaches to reintroducing the linguistic and musical heritage of communities to their natural heirs and reinvigorating them with new practices and materials.

Although the speakers shared many important insights about language, songs and the ways in which they interact, one of those that made the biggest impression on me was made by Prof. David Samuels of New York University, who works with the Apache. He discussed how the modern notion of linguistic equivalence can undermine the legitimacy of minoritized languages. If, as is often assumed, there is only one reality, and all languages are simply interchangeable codes for referring to the objects in that single reality, then there is little point in maintaining a multiplicity of languages: we could instead agree on a single linguistic standard.

The problem is that this is not the reality of languages: each language has its own unique way of expressing the world as experienced by its speakers, each with its own unique set of associations and values and nuances. We should emphasize not the synonymous potential but the uniqueness of our chosen languages and the unique worldviews and experience that they offer. If you’re interested in Scottish Highland heritage and culture, there is no better way to immerse yourself in the thought-world of those people than to learn Gaelic songs.

If you’re interested in the history of Scottish Gaelic in Nova Scotia, the people keeping it alive today, and the role of song in all of that, you may be interested in the video documentary I created in 2012, entitled A’ Seinn an Aghaidh na Balbhachd / Singing Against the Silence.

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