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As Others See Us: the view from Russia

ASK any Quebec or Catalan expert what the real driver of their independence movements are and they will give you the same answer: language.

How they talk, what they talk, gives them their hecho diferencial, the thing that sets them apart from, respectively, other Canadians or Spaniards.

Well, not here. Scottish nationalists speak English and, usually, nothing but English. And that is a linguistic nicety that can get lost in translation.

This month Moscow's rolling news channel Vesti published a background article on its website to explain what all the fuss is about in Scotland. Its unwritten assumption: pro-independence sentiment is firmly linked with the language Russians too often (in my view) call "Scottish".

After the Union, the piece explained, "the idea of self-determination lived on and developed along with Gaelic". The 1872 Education Act, it added, effectively banned the language until Scots voted for their own parliament and a new law was passed in 2005 "to revive the national language and culture".

You get the picture: speaking Celtic and voting Yes in 2014 go hand in hand. Now Vesti did point out that fewer than 1% of Scots spoke Gaelic as a native by the time of 2001 census. Then it added:

"According to the [Edinburgh] agreement, citizens aged 16 and above will be able to take part in the referendum. "The question of who stands to gain from this lower starting age remains open.

"On one hand, the right to vote will go to children who educated in the new bilingual Scotland.

"On the other hand, most of those children don't consider Gaelic to be their native language so it is hard to say how close national self-determination will be to their hearts."

Now, obviously Scotland isn't bilingual; it is unusually monolingual. So we can scrub the idea all those joint English-Gaelic schools are churning out wee Yes voters.

No, what I found curious here was the notion that language must be a driver of nationalism. After all, there are plenty of independent states that share a language with a neighbour. Austria, anybody?

Another Russian expert late last year was interviewed on Radio Liberty, the station set up during the Cold War by the Americans and still going strong.

London-based commentator and journalist Andrei Ostalsky - without making any of the howlers of Vesti - stressed it could be hard for a foreigner to tell a Scot from an Englishman. They both, after all, speak English.

He said: "Some people insist that the drive for Scottish independence is always irrational.

"They say: go to Dublin, in the Republic of Ireland, which so ferociously fought for its independence and listen to what language people are speaking in the street.

"They are speaking English. Look at the signs above the shops - they are mostly in English. Look at what people are reading. It can be hard to tell the Irish from the English.

"And the Scots and English are historically even closer."

Me? I think Vesti and Mr Ostalsky have got this wrong. The independence movements in Ireland and Scotland have had little to do with languages. But let me know what you think.

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