July 5, 2005

OpenOffice.org, FOSS, and the preservation of Gaelic

Author: Bruce Byfield

By itself, the release of OpenOffice.org for Scots Gaelic is a small event within the communities of free and open source software (FOSS). It is only one of the more than 50 localizations available for OpenOffice.org 1.x. However, the release shows a potential for FOSS that is often overlooked, particularly by those for whom English is their native language. Specifically, FOSS has the potential to help resuscitate a declining language and thereby aid in revitalizing a disintegrating culture.

A Celtic language, Scots Gaelic is closely related to Irish or Erse. Once the dominant language of Scotland, it was displaced in the Lowlands during the Middle Ages and Renaissance by both the cultural influence of England and the incursion of the Lowland, or Lollans, English dialect. As a result, for several centuries Scots Gaelic remained dominant only in the rural Highlands (geographically the northern and western regions of Scotland) before diminishing during the Eighteenth Century.

Some of the reasons for the decline include the Act of Union in 1707, which not only made Scotland part of England, but also established English as the official language. A rebellion in 1745 resulted in a violent repression of Gaelic, contributing to mass evictions and emigration from the Highlands during the next century and a half. By the start of the Twentieth Century, the use of Gaelic was declining rapidly.

In the mid-to-late Twentieth Century, an upsurge in cultural pride and nationalistic aspirations brought a small Gaelic revival. In an effort to cultivate the language, Scottish TV began programming in the Gaelic language. Musical acts such as Capercaillie and Runrig had Gaelic hits, and the Proiseact nan Ealan, or National Gaelic Arts Project, was established to promote the use of Gaelic in music, theatre, and writing. A trade school on the island of Skye in the heart of the Highlands began to offer full-time vocational courses in Gaelic.

In 1999, when the Scottish Parliament and Scottish Executive branches of government became the regional governing bodies in what had become a devolved United Kingdom, it sparked another surge of interest in Scottish culture. Finally, in 2003, a bill was introduced to make Gaelic an official language in Scotland.

Despite these signs of life, Gaelic remains a language on life support. The 2001 census listed only 58,650 Gaelic speakers in Scotland, less than 1.2% of the population -- a decline of 12% from the 1991 census. Much of the decline was attributed to fact that many of those in 1991 census were elderly and likely deceased. Many of the remaining Gaelic speakers are elderly, and most are concentrated in the Highlands.

The OpenOffice.org Gaelic Project

Against this background, Learning and Teaching Scotland (LT Scotland), a government program to provide e-learning and software resources for schools, sponsored the OpenOffice.org Gaelic Project with funding from the Scottish Executive. The project included a team of eight teachers, OpenOffice.org developers, and advocates of Gaelic.

Evan Brown, Project Technical Manager (or Cànan Ltd in Gaelic), explains the scope of the project:

We localized the OpenOffice.org program interface first, which totals some 90,000 words. We also localized some existing product documentation [and] created our own bespoke documentation and sections in the OpenOffice.org help system that would be more appropriate for our users. This work totaled an additional 30,000 words of translation, and obviously included the task fo writing the source material first.

The project also developed tutorials and a Macromedia Flash introduction.

Once it was complete, the Gaelic version of OpenOffice.org 1.x was beta-tested in first-year classes at Greenfaulds High School in North Lanarkshire. Danny Cleland, the teacher who oversaw the beta test, reported that, "[Students] found the interface intuitive and without difficulty transferred skills gained from using similar programs in English."

Scheduled for distribution to Scottish schools in the autumn of 2005, the project is currently a native language project on the OpenOffice.org site.

Brown expects the availability of OpenOffice.org Gaelic to be an immediate aid in the classroom. The project began because Gaelic teachers were frustrated that students had to use English language software. Having Gaelic software, Brown says, "helps to provide an immersive language environment."

In other words, users of OpenOffice.org Gaelic are likely to learn better because they do not have to use an interface in one language while trying to think and write in another. Also, although Brown does not mention it, the simple fact that Gaelic is being used in a software program might help convince students that it is a living language, in much same way that Gaelic TV shows do. Both are evidence that the language is part of modern life and not just a museum curio.

OpenOffice.org and its effects on Gaelic

In fact, OpenOffice.org Gaelic has already played a role in the development of Gaelic as a language. Because OpenOffice.org Gaelic is the first major piece of software written in the language, Gaelic equivalents did not exist for many of the terms on
the menu. "Our language experts created new Gaelic terms in many instances," Brown says, "whilst all the time endeavoring to ensure that these phrases were in keeping with precedent."

Brown also sees the righting of a linguistic injustice in the availability of OpenOffice.org Gaelic. "You would not expect a French speaker to write documents in French with a word processor that was communicating with him in English," Brown says. "In the same way, speakers of minority languages should not be forced into this situation simply because large software companies consider it economically unviable to provide appropriate software."

Brown describes the reaction from the Gaelic community to OpenOffice.org Gaelic's release last month as "overwhelmingly positive." He adds that "the very availability of this software is seen as a significant step forward."

Brown said he hopes to see the project continue in the future. "Because the opportunities and resources available in the Gaelic community for this type of project are limited, it is important to keep the localization as up-to-date as possible. An incremental program of development will help to ensure that the work required to produced new versions of OpenOffice.org Gaelic is relatively small and achievable either through informal work within the open source community or through smaller funded projects."

Whether OpenOffice.org will have a long-term influence on the survival of Gaelic is still unknown. However, Brown hopes to see its use extend beyond students to Gaelic speakers in all walks of life. He estimates that Gaelic needs at least five times the number of speakers it currently has in order to reverse its decline. An increase of that magnitude is not going to be easy to achieve while English dominates daily life. However, for now, OpenOffice.org Gaelic has given Gaelic advocates reason for hope and a tool that may aid in its future preservation and growth.


The decline of Gaelic is part of a worldwide pattern in this age of mass media. Other languages have seen a similar marginalization, including Welsh, Basque, Catalan, and most of the North American First Nations languages. Although Microsoft has developed an Inuit version of Microsoft Office, and is rumored to have proposed a similar project for Iroquois, commercial software companies as a group have rejected the idea of writing software for marginalized languages as unprofitable. However, in doing so they are helping those languages disappear faster by making them appear to be irrelevant to modern, technological life.

FOSS can offer support for marginalized languages and help to legitimize them in the eyes of younger speakers. At times, FOSS can even show the way for commercialization. For example, a Welsh version of Microsoft Office, Brown notes, was not considered until OpenOffice.org was localized for Welsh.

As Brown says, "People should not be placed in a situation where they cannot use software in their own language. If open source projects mean that users can themselves contribute to preventing this situation and... to reversing it, then I think the outlook for smaller (or what are often rather pejoratively called 'minority') languages is improved in an important way."

The FOSS community generally justifies its activities in terms of the quality of its software, or of the Free Software Foundation's four freedoms. However, its role in cultural preservation and the flowering of civic pride might be just as important.

Bruce Byfield is a course designer and instructor, and a computer journalist who writes regularly for NewsForge and the Linux Journal Web site.

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