Book chapter on Nova Scotia Gaelic

by May 5, 2013

Seeing your work in print is always a thrill, no matter how many times it’s happened before. It’s a little scary, because you are putting your observations, ideas, and recommendations out there for the world to see (or ignore). But it’s also exhilarating, because this project you have been working on for months, if not years, the best-possible version of your ideas, is finally “done” (or as done as it will ever be).


Celts in the Americas Book Cover

Celts in the Americas book cover


Celts in the Americas is a new book edited by Dr. Michael Newton and published by Cape Breton University Press in April 2013. The book is a double thrill for me because 1) it contains a number of chapters about Scottish Gaelic speakers in North America, and 2) one of those chapters is mine!

The editor himself has written two chapters on Gaelic for the volume: one introductory chapter titled “Bards of the Forests, Prairies and Skyscrapers: Scottish Gaels in the Americas” (pp. 76-93), and another titled “How Scottish Highlanders Became White: The Introduction of Racialism to Gaelic Literature and Culture” (pp. 283-297) which is a much-needed contribution to studies of the construction of “whiteness” and ethnicity in North America (including historian David Roediger’s The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class and Working Towards Whiteness: How America’s Immigrants Became White, Karen Brodkin’s How Jews Became White Folks & What That Says about Race in America, and Noel Ignatiev’s How the Irish Became White, all of which I read in graduate school, apart from the second book by Roediger).

Also on the topic of race is C. Alexander MacLennan’s chapter “The ‘Good Indian’ Stories in Mac-Talla” (pp. 298-304) on Gaelic newspaper stories about the behaviour of particular Indians, and the significance the stories may have held for their Gaelic authors and audience. Concerning history and language policy, Éva Guillorel’s chapter “Speaking Mi’kmaw or Gaelic? The Linguistic Policy of the Catholic Church towards Missionaries Sent to Eastern Canada, 17th-19th Centuries” (pp. 335-348) investigates historical sources from 17th-19th century eastern Canada and shows the complex and diverse ways in which church policies toward aboriginal languages related to the ways that Celtic languages were conceptualized and treated, in multiple contexts.

In the area of oral tradition, Shamus Y. MacDonald’s chapter “Micro-Toponymy in Gaelic Nova Scotia: Some examples from Central Cape Breton” (pp. 209-217) is a carefully ethnographically researched chapter on local Gaelic placenames, while Natasha Sumner’s contribution in folklore, “The Ceudach Tale in Scotland and Cape Breton” (pp. 218-247) focuses on three Cape Breton versions of a Fenian tale and their relationship to versions collected in Scotland.

The other chapters are equally interesting and concern Breton, Cornish, Irish, and Welsh (the editor notes that unfortunately a contributor could not be found to discuss Manx immigrants to North America).

You can always purchase a copy yourself, and if you’re connected with a university, then you could request your library to purchase the book.

I try not to judge a book by its cover, but I totally judge a publisher by its book covers, and CBU Press did really well with this one which is by Cathy MacLean Design in Nova Scotia. I love the contemporary style stained glass Celtic cross, the green background and orange lettering, and the images of Welshmen in Patagonia, a high cross in Québec City, a Breton demonstration, and a Welsh gravestone (see photo above).

And did I mention that I’m really excited to have a chapter in the book myself, titled “Gaelic Revitalization Efforts in Nova Scotia: Reversing Language Shift in the 21st Century”:


Celts in the Americas chapter

Celts in the Americas book chapter


I wrote the chapter because apart from Mike Kennedy’s amazing 2002 report which is now a decade old, and Jonathan Dembling’s 1997 master’s thesis, I didn’t see much in print on the contemporary situation of Gaelic in Nova Scotia. What there was, was based on outdated census data and no first-hand observation.

So in plain language, what I did in this chapter was:

1) describe the current state of the Gaelic language and the Gaelic community in Nova Scotia, based on a year of participant observation;

2) apply the latest tools and concepts from the sociology of language (Fishman’s GIDS), applied linguistics (the expanded GIDS and ethnolinguistic vitality) and linguistic anthropology (language ideology, language socialization, communities of practice) to assess just how endangered the Nova Scotia Gaelic community is;

3) determine how effective current and recent revitalization efforts have been; and

4) make recommendations about revitalization priorities for the near future from an advocate’s point of view.

You can read the details in my article (heck no I’m not going to give it all away here!). But my most important recommendations are: first, that everyone involved with Gaelic in Nova Scotia realize that creating new fluent speakers is the most important goal to work towards, in order to ensure continuation of a Gaelic community that is in Gaelic and not just about Gaelic; second, that every current practice and new idea be assessed in terms of its contribution to that goal; and third, that all the fluent speakers in the world won’t help turn around the situation unless they are also engaged in building a multi-generational intentional community where each person helps to socialize other new speakers who are less fluent than herself/himself.

Here is the abstract of my chapter:

“Scottish immigrants and their descendants have been speaking Gaelic in Nova Scotia since the last quarter of the 18th century. Gaelic users and supporters are working to revitalize the language in the province in the early 21st century. This chapter demonstrates how academic studies of endangered languages apply to the situation of Nova Scotia Gaelic. The level of endangerment of Nova Scotia Gaelic is determined by using original and expanded versions of Joshua Fishman’s Graded Intergenerational Disruption Scale (GIDS). After reviewing some critiques of the scale in light of linguistic anthropology, a new expanded GIDS tailored specifically to Nova Scotia Gaelic is presented which lists the situation, priorities, recommended actions and challenges of each stage of revitalization. The scale can help clarify and guide efforts to reconstruct Gaelic as a spoken language of daily community-based use. Finally, previous 20th-century revitalization efforts are assessed and recommendations are made for goal-setting and coordination between all institutions and voluntary groups involved with Gaelic.”

For academic folks, the full citation is:

McEwan-Fujita, Emily (2013) “Gaelic Revitalization Efforts in Nova Scotia: Reversing Language Shift in the 21st Century.” In Newton, Michael, ed. Celts in the Americas, pp. 160-186. Sydney, NS: Cape Breton University Press.

UPDATE: A PDF of the chapter is now free to download here:

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