In 1766, English writer Samuel Johnson penned a letter to William Drummond, an Edinburgh bookseller, regarding the translation of the Bible into the “Erse or Gaelic language” as biographer James Boswell put it in The Life of Samuel Johnson (1791).
Certain members of “the society in Scotland for propagating Christian knowledge” (undoubtedly meaning the Society in Scotland for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge (SSPCK), opposed translation of the Bible into Scottish Gaelic because it would be contrary to national unity.
The linguistic background is a little complicated; Boswell does not go into it.
Johnson was English; he often made prejudicial comments about the Scots that both reflected his actual views and his argumentative nature and love of controversy.
Boswell, an attorney, was Scottish. In fact, his university degree was in Continental civil law because, unlike England, Scotland had, and retains to this day, an uncodifed, mixed civil law system in which common law still plays a role.
Three distinct languages are involved. English is one.
Scots, the vernacular language of the northern, southern, and eastern Lowlands since medieval times, as well as of Northern Ireland, is another. Of all the Germanic languages, it is the one most closely related to English. Further complicating the picture is the existence of numerous Scots dialects, not to mention major linguistic variations such as Scottish English and Anglicized Scots. In Boswell’s day, most upper and middle class Scots such as himself, David Hume, and Adam Smith, spoke English, or slightly Scotticized English.
Finally, there is (non-Germanic) Scottish Gaelic, a member of the Gaelic or Goidelic subgroup of Celtic languages, spoken in the Northwest Highlands and Islands of Scotland.
Interestingly, neither Google Translate nor Microsoft’s Bing Translator contain entries for “Scots,” “Scottish Gaelic,” or “Scottish.”
When Johnson learned of the opposition to translating the Bible into Gaelic, he weighed in on the issue by writing his letter to Drummond.
Ironically, Johnson, a committed Christian who was Anglican not Presbyterian (the dominant Christian denomination in Scotland), pro-English not Scottish, and Tory not liberal, favored the translation.
His first motive was religious: obedience to the “will of God” is necessary for happiness, and knowledge of God’s will is necessary for such obedience.
“I did not expect to hear,” he wrote, “that it could be, in an assembly convened for the propagation of Christian knowledge, a question whether any nation uninstructed in religion should receive instruction; or whether that instruction should be imparted to them by a translation of the holy-books into their own language.”
While “Papists” have “denied to the laity the use of the Bible,” this was less condemnable than refusal to translate the text for “motives purely political.” “The blackest midnight of popery is meridian sunshine” by comparison; Catholic practice was at least grounded in arguments involving “the care of souls.”
To perpetuate ignorance of Christianity would be a “crime” surpassed only by “the practice of the planters in America [slavery], a race of mortals whom no other man wishes to resemble.”
This raises the issue of black-white racial differences and Johnson’s attitude toward them.
Briefly, a freed Jamaican slave named Francis Barber was Johnson’s manservant and lived with him until he died. Johnson financed Barber’s education in England and left a monetary bequest to him in his will. Johnson was sharply criticized by friend and biographer Sir John Hawkins for his “ostentatious bounty and favor to negroes.”
Johnson desired that Barber should move to Johnson’s hometown in rural Staffordshire, which the man did following the writer’s death in 1784. There Barber married a white woman (I believe she was white) and had children by her; his descendants supposedly still farm in the area today.
By way of comparison, I have read—directly from his personal papers, not secondary sources such as biographies—virtually everything Benjamin Franklin, the ostensibly liberal descendant of Massachusetts Bay Puritans, had to say about blacks and Indians. He was much more of a racialist than the anti-Puritan, anti-Whig, anti-American (re the Revolution), Tory Anglican Johnson. The two men were contemporaries, Franklin being but three years older.
Indeed, as the feud between England and America intensified, Franklin, an American representative in England who all his life had been an English patriot and Empire loyalist, and whose son William remained a prominent Loyalist throughout the Revolution, was compelled to respond to English attacks on slavery in America, which were common. (In a pamphlet, Johnson himself sneered, “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?”)
In reading most of what Franklin said about race and Jews, I discovered that contemporary historians routinely cherry-picked his writings. They did not present an objective account of his views. I think the same thing is true of Abraham Lincoln, although I have not personally verified it in his case.
This is the kind of unexpected thing you sometimes learn when you turn directly to original sources such as The Papers of Benjamin Franklin or Boswell’s The Life of Samuel Johnson rather than relying solely upon recent secondary academic or journalistic sources. One must guard against being led down the garden path when there is so little margin left for error.
It is especially important to take such precautions before basing key hypotheses about white decline on sweeping generalizations about Christianity, Puritanism, the Enlightenment, abolitionism, capitalism, or what have you.
Is Language an Adequate Proxy for Race?
The bulk of Johnson’s letter to William Drummond, however, focused on language, not religion. He informed Drummond that he possessed an exceptional “zeal for languages.”
I am not very willing that any language should be totally extinguished. The similitude and derivation of languages afford the most indubitable proof of the traduction of nations, and the genealogy of mankind. They add often physical certainty to historical evidence; and often supply the only evidence of ancient migrations, and of the revolutions of ages which left no written monuments behind them.
This is a very perceptive observation for the time.
Population geneticist L. L. Cavalli-Sforza in The History and Geography of Human Genes (1994) and other works wrote extensively about language in very similar terms, though with the benefit of vastly increased scientific knowledge.
Cavalli-Sforza pointed to numerous associations between the evolution of human populations and the evolution of languages, while carefully noting important distinctions as well. A relationship does exist, as Johnson perceived.
Unfortunately, language preservation and glorification became a fetish for liberals and Romantics in the late 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries. Whites used language instead of race as a proxy for collective identity.
Today, the anti-white European Union and genocidal governments continue to fetishize language preservation, indeed foster fragmentation, while actively destroying the white populations that speak them!
Governments are comfortable doing this because language is not an adequate proxy for race; linguistic preservation does not equal racial preservation. Thus, blacks, Jews, and Muslims from various countries have learned European languages and, from a linguistic point of view, become members of our community.
Nor will the efforts by some on the right to make mastery of European languages by newcomers mandatory assist in racial preservation. It will have the opposite effect.
“English Only” and similar initiatives are presented as being somehow “racist” by the Left and pro-white by certain elements of the Right. But, in a multiracial society, linguistic differentiation works to keep races apart, thereby mildly retarding the pace of miscegenation and cultural assimilation.
Wealthy Jewish businessman Ron Unz understands this—it is why he supports pro-English initiatives. (Unz, the publisher of The American Conservative, is a major financial backer of Wikipedia.)
A final objection to fostering linguistic fragmentation and differentiation among Europeans is that it multiplies and exacerbates petty nationalism of the kind that has so harmed white racial consciousness and solidarity.
To promote three languages in a nation as small as Scotland (Gaelic, Scots, and English), or two types of written Norwegian in Norway (Bokmål and Nynorsk), is racially counterproductive. It destroys a sense of unified identity, or even our ability to communicate with one another.
Johnson, however, did not blindly endorse language preservation or fragmentation. He did not favor the continuance of “every language, however narrow its extent, or however incommodious for common purposes.”
Rather, preservation was important only until a marginal language such as Gaelic had been “reposited in some version of a known book, that it may be always hereafter examined and compared with other languages, and then [emphasis added] permitting its disuse.”
Thus, he believed publication of the Bible in Scottish Gaelic would preserve the language “for the purposes of learning”:
When the Highlanders read the Bible, they will naturally wish to have its obscurities cleared, and to know the history . . . When they once desire to learn, they will naturally have recourse to the nearest language by which that desire can be gratified, and . . . must learn English.
In other words, he came down on both sides of the issue: the Bible should be published in Gaelic, but Gaelic should, and probably would, die out in daily use!
And this is essentially what happened.
The Scottish Gaelic Bible was eventually published in two parts, the first in 1767 and the second in 1801. Which was published first? The New Testament, of course. The complete Scottish Gaelic Bible with the Old Testament included finally appeared in 1801 as Am Bìoball gu Gàidhlig.
The appearance of this Bible was crucial to the gradual emergence of orthodox literary Scottish Gaelic in the 18th century, and the standardization of grammar and spelling in the 19th.
The essentially new (i.e., written) Scottish Gaelic thus created survived for nearly a century, until the gap between spoken Gaelic and standard orthography became too extreme in the 1960s.
By then, the center of gravity of Gaelic speaking had moved from the southern Highlands to the Hebrides, and mass media such as television had marginalized it further. By 1991, an estimated 1.4% of the Scottish population spoke Gaelic.
English is the official language of the United Kingdom, of which Scotland is a part. It is the principal language of government, education, law, and the media in Scotland.
Still, a majority of the indigenous population in thinly-settled areas of the Outer Hebrides, Skye and some of the Inner Hebrides, and townships of the northwest coast, together with isolated groups throughout the Highlands, continued to speak Gaelic in 1991. Gaelic-speaking communities also existed in Scottish cities.
As the liberal zeal for language fragmentation among white Europeans would predict, Scots and Scottish Gaelic are officially recognized autochthonous languages of the European Union.
Near the end of his letter, Johnson made a general observation that turned out to be wide of the mark: “Knowledge always desires increase; it is like fire, which must first be kindled by some external agent, but which will afterwards propagate itself.”
With the rise and triumph of Communism and other forms of Leftism, which systematically censor and suppress knowledge, and to which intellectual freedom is anathema, the gears of progress ground into reverse, and Darkness and ignorance settled over a dying West.