restricted access 13. ‘Shall Gaelic Die?’: Iain Crichton Smith’s bilingualism – entrapment or poetic freedom?
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213 13. ‘Shall Gaelic Die?’: Iain Crichton Smith’s bilingualism – entrapment or poetic freedom? STÉPHANIE NOIRARD Does choosing a language impinge on your writing? This is a question Iain Crichton Smith, as a bilingual poet, often had occasion to ponder. He was brought up in the Gaelic language until he went to school where he then had to speak English and was confronted solely by an Anglocentric culture. As an author, he thus found himself in a state of what Labov calls ‘linguistic insecurity’1 and this is a feeling which he expresses well when he admits: ‘I find myself in an ambiguous position both with regard to language and with regard to the preconceptions of what I do in art, and I must say that it has been at times a nightmarish labyrinth. It has resulted in desperate manoeuvres in order to be true to myself.’2 This comment emphasises the double nature of the bilingual poet and the artistic barrier it leads to as the language dichotomy may tend to result in annihilation or entrapment rather than strength or freedom. This chapter will not focus on the poet’s state of mind and self-analysis but rather on his English texts to assess the prosodic outcome of his ‘desperate manoeuvres’. In other words, does the poet manage to free himself from his linguistic maze? A Gumperzian approach3 will therefore be adopted, pointing out the main differences between Gaelic and English, and giving concrete examples of how the structures of the latter are modified by the former. This will be followed by a discussion of the interest of these modifications and the Gaelic reading of English verse. Finally, as perhaps Crichton Smith’s deepest questioning engaged with, Language in its differential sense, as opposed to tongue, will be examined together with its issue in the poems. Everyone who has read the plays of John Millington Synge will have noticed the peculiarity of his formulations as the English sentences are symptomatically imitating the Irish Gaelic structures, thus highlighting the poliglossic situation of the islanders. The hybrid language it creates, however, 214 though attested in Ireland, is the fruit of an artistic choice and craft. The craft is perhaps less obvious in the texts of Iain Crichton Smith but awareness of the basic differences between Scottish Gaelic and English is enough to point to oddities and what may cautiously be termed dialectal variations. Grammatically, there are four main differences between the two languages which directly affect English: noun phrase organisation, word order, impersonal structures and the auxiliary or verb ‘be’. Unlike English, Gaelic is deeply rooted in noun phrases and paratactic chains of nouns following particular declension dependency often occur. In this case, William Gillies notes that there may be either a purely genitival construction such as ‘mullach taigh a’ mhinisteir’ (‘roof house the minister i.e. the roof of the minister’s house’), or compound nouns in which the dependent noun in the genitive case has truly become an adjective such as ‘taigh samhraidh’ (‘house of summer i.e. summer house’).4 These deep Gaelic structures are much represented in the poems of Iain Crichton Smith and it is possible to quote examples such as ‘winters of pervasive snow’ (p. 1),5 ‘setting of sun’ (p. 2), ‘Sunday of wrangling bells’ (p. 24), ‘veer of yacht’ (p. 145), ‘hunters of golf balls’ (p. 156), or ‘hulk of the humming dead’ (p. 246). The proportion of nouns, whether simple or compound, moreover, is much higher in Gaelic than in English, which accounts for Crichton Smith’s nominalisation impulse, notably his constant use of the -ing form. A second feature is the syntax, English being a subject-verb-object (SVO) language while Gaelic is a verb-subject-object-adverbial (VSOAdv) one. Yet, though the verb always comes first in Gaelic sentences, the other elements are quite flexible and may take up second position if topicalised. When this happens, it often results in a doubling of the subject. For instance, ‘tha iad beag’ (‘they are small’) may become ‘is ann beag a tha iad’ (‘it is small that they are’). A phrase such as ‘here there is the Land of the Straight Lines’ (p. 153) or ‘they all come in, / the villager’ (p. 202) are perfect illustrations of the underlying mother tongue. Adjectives are also almost systematically placed after the noun in Gaelic and so in Crichton Smith’s poems, but this is arguably a more common feature of English poetry per...