We should talk about languages, Scottish ones.

In the last few months I keep coming across people who get angry when they see the speech of their compatriots written down.

Whether it is road signs in Gaelic, or our sister paper, The National, printing articles in Scots, there is something about native languages that enrages a certain kind of unionist.

This is not surprising: linguistic differences, even relatively small ones, tend to provoke a visceral response in ethnic nationalists of any stripe, anywhere in the world. And that, of course, includes British ones.

Picture: A National front page in far from broad Scots that sparked social media cringing.


So some Romanian cities try to block road signs in minority Hungarian, some Spanish nationalists still rage over Basque police uniforms decades after the fall of Franco and some Scottish ultra-unionists falsely claim police officers and paramedics are being "forced" to learn Gaelic.

Across the continent most minority language policies - including the current Gaelic regime put in place long before the SNP came to power - are designed to live up to Council of Europe anti-racism recommendations.

Linguistic bigotry, after all, is probably one of the most prevailing forms of prejudice in any European society.

David Leask on 'insular anti-Gaelic bigots'

Hence simple and cost-free policies like signs in Gaelic which, thanks to their Tory, Labour and Liberal instigators, are designed to underline that one Scottish language is equal in esteem with another, in theory at least.

But there is something particularly striking about the way unpleasantly angry language politics is being played out in Scotland.

And that is that nobody seems to remotely interested in the actual languages involved or the academic discipline of linguistics.

Background: Scots-speaking parts of Scotland staunchly unionist.

It is as if, in an era when we barely feel the need to study any language other than English, Scots are no longer even equipped to talk about languages in any kind of remotely informed way.

So we have people who declare that, say, Scots is a dialect and not a language as if they had never heard the old linguists' joke that a dialect was just "a language without a navy". Such critics seem to think they are saying something meaningful.

Gaelic road signs: bizarre myth of £26m cost circulate online


Then you have shriller commentators who declare they have simply never heard Gaelic spoken in central Scotland in 40 years - or that they have never heard anybody speak broad Scots. They should wash out their lugs.

About half of all Scotland's tens of thousands of Gaels live outside their reservation of the Highland and Islands and, yes, they bawl in to mobile phones on the train just like the rest of us. And Scots surrounds us everywhere, on the bus, in the shops and in our school playgrounds.

Background: Glasgow's thriving Gaelic school tops league tables


Now I do not care if Scots, for example, is called a language or a dialect. It is just the way some of us speak, some of the time. Yes, Scots is a low-prestige and English is high-prestige. And that is a shame. But Scottish people have become adept at switching from one to another.

What I do care about is telling people that their way of speaking is worse than yours. Or at cringing when you see their speech written down. It's unhealthy.

But why do so many of us seem to despise our native tongues? Two possible reasons: first, we are all carrying the baggage of centuries of linguistic oppression; and, second, we are all now so stuck in the monoglot golden cage of English that we don't even know how to talk about languages.