Stories that bring the world together



Most of you probably recognise the word, some of you use it in yoga classes and some may even know what it means. Pronounced num–ah-steh it is the commonest greeting across the Hindu world, usually with palms pressed together, and serves as both hello and goodbye. It’s been part of my vocabulary from childhood as I was born in Kathmandu and grew up in South Asia, so I love hearing it whenever I go back to my beloved Himalayan countries, and I use it as the sign-off for my newsletters. I was amused, therefore, to discover it recently in this Cairngorms Lyric from a workshop participant:

 The wind blows, the trees move,
A bird swoops upwards gracefully,
SPLAT! Wind turbine.

One of the three rules of this new poetic form, arising from the Shared Stories project, is that at least one word must be of non-English origin. A very intelligent teenager in a workshop I was leading for Moniack Mhor Young Writers, rightly pointed out that most of the English language has developed from other sources. So it has, and remains all-embracing in continuing to absorb words from everywhere including street slang, tech and the constantly evolving vocabularies of popular use. And that’s the point. If people use them, words inevitably become part of the language.

Mother and son work together on a writing activity
Shared Stories participants at Cairngorms Nature Big Weekend

Despite what English teachers, Scrabble players and other pedants (I’m all three) might insist about what is or isn’t a ‘real word’ or ‘proper English’, there is no legal boundary. Even the Oxford English Dictionary doesn’t own the language; it merely seeks to record it. We do have a thing called ‘Standard English’ and it’s useful for people to learn, as it’s the medium of much information and power, but all the other forms of this vast, sprawling, boundless tongue are not incorrect or inferior, just variations on a constantly changing theme.

But that vastness is part of the problem. English is a great river into which all the words of the world can run, but it also threatens to flood them, to dilute the richness of other languages and to drown them out altogether. Language loss is happening at an alarming rate across the globe. I say alarming because language is a profoundly important expression of culture, and to erase language is to erase a people’s distinct voice and with it, much of their history, literature, song, beliefs and practices. Increasingly, diverse ethnic groups are being absorbed into ever-dominant and homogenised cultural monoliths, and quite often, language is the driver.

School boy shows his hand-written poem on a clipboard.
Iolair is Gaelic for eagle

Sometimes, this is because ethnic groups rightly recognise their need of the national and/or English language in order to access education, work and influence, and without it they are disadvantaged. At other times, national policies have enforced use of the state language and punished use of indigenous languages and dialects, as happened with Gaelic in Scotland. For both these reasons and more, English is increasingly dominant world-wide, and though I support everyone’s right to learn it to meet their needs, I am also passionate about reinforcing linguistic diversity.

That is the reason I was very keen from the outset of the Shared Stories project that we encourage the use of other languages. This includes the heritage languages of Scotland – Gaelic and Scots – but also all the others spoken by residents and visitors in the Cairngorms National Park. One of the activities I run in schools involves looking at Gaelic, Scots and even Pictish words for landscape and nature, as explored in the Place Names of the National Park leaflet and map, and several books including Amanda Thomson’s wonderful compilation A Scot’s Dictionary of Nature.

Map of Cairngorms National Park with book 'A Scots Dictionary of Nature'
Place names and nature words

And that is why the Cairngorms Lyric must have at least one non-English word. That’s not difficult. Just mentioning a loch or Ben Macdui or a ‘wee’ bird will do it. But many people have enjoyed digging deeper and drawing from the rich meanings of the place names and old words. Loch Mallachie means The Loch of the Curse; Càrn an Tuirc is the Mountain of the Wild Boar. Other people, wonderfully, have included words from other mother-tongues or languages they know. Sometimes, as in the namaste above, they are just a single word. A Welsh boy delighted in having his own country’s greeting in the middle of his lyric:

My feet squelched through wet mud
“Bore da!”
I cried to the squirrels and birds.
- Eoin Jones

But the rules of the Cairngorms Lyric mean the entire thing can be written in another language. When I said this at the workshops I led for school groups at the Rural Skills Day on Monday, faces lit up. Two Polish teens wrote poems that were a mystery to me but had them rolling with laughter; another teen wrote in her native Spanish, which impressed her pals no end; another teamed with a friend to work on the English version together and then she wrote the Polish, which her friend copied down. I loved the way these responses not only reinforced the young person’s use of their language but brought celebration and respect from their peers.

Two teenage girls show their poems on clipboards
Polish teens show off their poetry

Then in the beautiful Abernethy woods on Wednesday night I led a workshop with teachers and other practitioners for the wonderfully named OWLS: Outdoor and Woodland Learning Scotland. One participant spoke of how Gaelic words for colours were so much more expressive to her. Another read her Lyric in French, filling our forest glade with sounds that, even if we didn’t understand them, were beautiful. “We don’t understand what the birdsong means,” I commented, “but we still enjoy it.” A Danish participant spoke of how glad she was the project embraced other languages and it led to a discussion of the rich potential of drawing from all the languages in the classroom and the many extensions activities such as audio recordings and learning about translation.

And so I invite, I encourage, I urge YOU to join in the project, in your own tongue, and to share the richness of your language and voice with all of us. Come along to a workshop or send us your writing about the nature of the Cairngorms to share on our website and our end-of-year anthology. We want to hear you!