Bhasha Glasgow Language Festival 2021

Published: 22 February 2021

Read the address given by Prof Alison Phipps at the Opening Ceremony on Sunday 21 February, International Mother Language Day.

This is the address given by Prof Alison Phipps, UNESCO Chair, at the 2021 Bhasha Glasgow Language Festival Opening Ceremony
Abay Abay…. Habi habi huc huc  

“You’re a tyke” said the Professor of Linguistics, pinpointing my language to south Yorkshire but with a Mother from Lancashire. The sound that comes from your mother marks you out. Forensic linguistics can pin-point the place of your birth. It’s a category marker of being more profound than race – according to psychologists – the sound of the mother language accompanies skin to skin touch. It’s the first recognition, long before sight.  

Abay Abay…. Habi habi huc huc  

In the history of Mother Language Day we see the intellectual consequences of our own colonial past. The insistence on English only, English first. The letting loose of what Prof Deborah Cameron has termed Verbal Hygiene – actions rooted in fear but which giving certain people permission for language bullying, language harassment in the name of a fictional linguistic purity.  

We see this line of thinking still in the profound and damaging ignorance and economic deterministic arguments in Scotland about Gaelic and Scots, and hatred people feel entitled to express from a place of privilege and power over people who sound a little different. We see it in the work of inclusion everywhere where the insistence is that you – you New Scots – will speak my English, my way, with an accent that means you can ‘pass’ and I do not have to do any work of hospitality or fostering, to use the UNESCO phrase for today, of multilingualism and fostering inclusion.  

This is the etymology of the root words for mother language/ mother tongue.  


"female parent, a woman in relation to her child," Middle English moder, from Old English modor, from Proto-Germanic *mōdēr (source also of Old Saxon modar, Old Frisian moder, Old Norse moðir, Danish moder, Dutch moeder, Old High German muoter, German Mutter), from PIE *mater- "mother" (source also of Latin māter, Old Irish mathir, Lithuanian motė, Sanskrit matar-, Greek mētēr, Old Church Slavonic mati), "[b]ased ultimately on the baby-talk form *- (2); with the kinship term suffix *-ter-" [Watkins]. Spelling with -th- dates from early 16c.,   


Old English tunge "tongue, organ of speech; speech, a people's language," from Proto-Germanic *tungō (source also of Old Saxon and Old Norse tunga, Old Frisian tunge, Middle Dutch tonghe, Dutch tong, Old High German zunga, German Zunge, Gothic tuggo), from PIE root *dnghu- "tongue."  

Mother Tongue. It’s proto indo European in root, connecting us through the kinship of language fostership to the Bangla language martyrs as our language people too. It’s women’s work. And it’s called mother language because it’s from the tongue/language, the organ of speech and breath patterning. Not mother text day or mother literature day or mother writing day. But Mother language day, reflected in the statue in Bangladesh commemorating the martyrs. 

And this is not a political or feminist point – though it is right we make it one in these days of inclusion and equality. And in these days of recognising the violence done to people’s languages and presence and difference.  

Humans have – we think – be using sounds to communicate for around 100,000 years.  

What’s interesting, as Elizabeth Wayland Barber points out in her book ‘Women’s Work: the first 20,000 years’ even though the visual sense is most acute: “Our most acute sense is vision, yet eons ago the human race selected sound, not vision as a its primary channel for linguistic communication. That kept our newly evolved hands free for using tools and allowed us to send and receive messages even when we weren’t looking or couldn’t see.”  

And why? – well, scholars think this is a practical point about the work that women could do as part of child raising – cooking and spinning and weaving, and some horticulture. Not metal work sailing or warfare which were the work away from the homestead, because they were dangerous especially for children.  

Abay Abay habi habi huc huc  

Too often we treat language the way we treat our women:  

  • Ignoring  
  • Abusing  
  • Harassing  
  • Raping  
  • Exhausting  
  • Requiring levels of purity that are inhuman, fictional.  
Abay Abay habi habi huc huc  

Language, the words coming from the tongue and the pen and the keyboard which give us our best laws, our great treaties of peace, our poetry, and the languages we can love in. Sometimes just beginning with Paix, Peace, Frieden, Pax, Salam, Selam.  

I’ve led multi-million pound projects all over the world and also Chair New Scots Refugee Integration Project, working for languages incorporated. Mostly my work fails because monollinguisim and verbal hygiene is as entrenched as structural racism. Yes, we are right to be proud of our language city, and to point to it as a proxy for diversity, but care is needed. 

Progress comes uneasily and I point again and again to the work in Aotearoa New Zealand, between the differing translations of the The Treaty of Waitangi and the pains taking, patient struggle to have the bilingual and bi culturalism honoured in law and in practice and in reparatory justice. But the Māori language moment in 2020 had 1 million speakers taking part and Scots Duo Lingo Gaelic has recorded 500,000 learners this year.  

We have work to do and in many ways in Scotland we are just at the start. So I’d like to take today, Mother Language Day 2021, to call for a Languages Strategy for Scotland "Fostering multilingualism for inclusion in education and society"  

Fostership “The bonds of milk are stronger than the bonds of blood.” Says my colleague Alistair McIntosh in his book Riders on the Storm, pointing to the old tradition of fostership, of wet nursing babies to give them the milk they needed to survive, when their own mothers died in child birthor their own milk did not come. Fostership, beyond words of welcome as a strategy between women, for life. 

There can be no cultural justice in Scotland, no including in education society without fostering multilingualism and without language justice.  

Abay Abay habi habi huc huc  

At the birth of my foster daughter’s child, my grandchild, the midwife turns to me, laying the new born onto her mother’s breast “And you, what are you going to be called?”  

Abay Abay  

My daughter’s mother language for grandmother.  

It’s a pandemic. My granddaughter is 2 years old and pressed the phone with my WhatsApp image to her face, to her lips. “habihabi” “give it to me” she says. “Abay, Abay” she says urgently ‘ “huc huc” – “hold me, hug me”.  

Mother language day, grand mother language day – lets huc huc as best we can using language for the work of love, and of life. 

First published: 22 February 2021