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University of Arizona Gaelic Research Scientist, Muriel Fisher, with Dr Andrew Carnie, Professor of Linguistics and Dean of the Graduate College, and her
2015 Excellence in Community Linguistics Award

 

The historic, adobe-style Arizona Inn in the desert city of Tucson might seem an unexpected place for two island Gaels to meet (writes Katie Macleod), but then again ‘unexpected’ is a word that describes the career of University of Arizona Gaelic Research Scientist, Muriel Fisher, to a tee.

For the last eight years Muriel – who hails from Feriniquarrie in Glendale on the Isle of Skye – has been a Senior Research Scientist at the University of Arizona in the southwestern USA.  She is part of the University’s Critical Language Programme, aiding the Department of Linguistics in their research of Gaelic.  It’s one of 14 ‘less commonly taught’ languages in their remit, taking its place in the course catalogue alongside the likes of Kurdish and Swahili.

But how did the language of the Misty Isle find its way into classrooms located in the legendary deserts of the American West?  According to Dr Andrew Carnie, Professor of Linguistics and Dean of the Graduate College, it all began as “a happy accident.”  “We happened to have a number of faculty [members] interested in Celtic languages and Muriel lived in town. Having access to a native speaker consultant is a critical part of doing research on a language.”

Interaction with the communities who speak the language is essential for successful linguistic work: this is why the faculty journey to Skye annually to conduct experiments and collect data, with Muriel acting as a liaison.  “They have a bunch of experiments that I help them develop, and then I act as a liaison between the locals and the linguists.”

“Linguists are like brain surgeons, they want to dissect it [the language], and they write papers about various aspects of it. It’s completely different to what we might think. It’s mathematical... I love all the different bits of Gaelic that they teach me, things that I would never ever have known,” says Muriel.

Andrew, who invited Muriel to join the department, explains that “Linguists are interested in how humans use, produce and understand language, as well as how we acquire it and how we pass it on to the next generation.  Gaelic is a particularly interesting language. While it is genetically related to English and Spanish... it has many properties that make it very different in the spectrum of languages we look at. It has all sorts of rare properties.” 

In an attempt to understand these rare characteristics, Muriel and her colleagues are currently working on a project involving both the University of Arizona and the University of Nevada; they recently received a grant from National Science Foundation, allowing them to undertake necessary linguistic research into Gaelic on the Isle of Skye.  

An official partnership is also in the works between the University of Arizona and Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, where Muriel has been teaching summer classes for more than 16 years.  If all goes well, a student exchange will take place, with students from Skye studying in Arizona, and vice versa.  “So many people care about the language, culture and traditions and are available to teach us about their language,” says Andrew.  “This makes the language a joy to study while at the same time contributing to the science of language.”

As if university classes and linguistic research weren’t enough to keep her busy, Muriel wears yet another hat: she offers Gaelic lessons via Skype to students around the world.  Her lessons (both on and offline) are not solely about Gaelic grammar, but Gaelic culture too.  “We come from a storytelling culture,” she says.  “So I also talk about where we grew up and our culture. You can’t separate them. Out here in the desert I talk about the sheep and the peats!”

Over the years her Skype students have logged on from as far afield as Colorado, New York, Mexico, England, and France. But whether they’re in the Sonoran Desert, in Skye, or around the world, the students always move Muriel with their desire to learn the language.  

“They move me to tears,” says Muriel. “That’s what gets your heart.  What makes it possible is the people, because the people themselves, they’re so interesting... because they’ve got this desire for the Gaelic. I just get really sentimental about it. There’s something about it that gets them in the heart and in the soul.”

Muriel is modest about her role and her achievements: it is over an hour into our conversation before I discover she has been recognised at the highest level by the Linguistic Society of America (LSA), receiving the 2015 Excellence in Community Linguistics Award. Muriel is only the second person to receive the award, which “recognises the outstanding contributions that members of language communities make for the benefit of their community’s language.”

“I think that’s alright. I’m quite chuffed,” admits Muriel, in that understated fashion typical of islanders. The LSA honoured Muriel not only for her “outstanding work with the teaching, promotion, and documentation of Scottish Gaelic” which has helped people around the world learn (or indeed, re-learn) Gaelic, but also for her contribution to linguistic research and documentation efforts relating to the language.  

It’s an impressive achievement, even more so for someone who found their way into teaching via all manner of adventures at home and abroad.  Muriel first moved to the USA in 1972, or as she says with a laugh: “When I was young and fabulous.”  Having previously worked as an artist in Tuscany and at the post office in Glendale, she soon found herself selling traditional Skye scones in Woodstock and even sheep herding with the Navajo in the Arizona desert.  

But it was teaching English in Mexico that opened the door to her current career. “That boots on the ground confidence... I think it helped me a lot,” she says of her two years across the border.  It was that experience that saw her start private Gaelic lessons in Tucson almost 20 years ago, begin working with the now-closed Tucson Open University, and graduate into the indispensable role she plays at the University of Arizona linguistics department today.

Muriel couldn’t have done any of it, she says, without her family: her husband, Paul Fisher, whom she affectionately refers to as Darling, and her two children, Alexandra and Jahil, who live in Los Angeles and New York City, respectively. Alexandra’s son, Cole, is even taking informal Gaelic lessons from his Nana.

Through it all, Muriel retains her attachment to Skye. She misses the land, and the sea, and - like so many islanders - still calls it ‘home.’ “Our earth home” she says with a laugh. That sounds so new agey! My home is with my husband, because I love him... but also we go ‘home’ when we go home [to Skye]. You’re connected to the land here, and you back and you recalibrate... You feel recharged, you seriously go back and charge your batteries.”

Muriel will be returning again this summer to teach her regular Gaelic classes at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, as well as a new addition, one centred on ‘The Island.’  She says it will be much more hands on, with students going on trips to the likes of Raasay and Cana, engaging in situations where they will use the language they are learning.  As Muriel explains, “When you’re out there and you’re ordering tea, you’re going to remember your ‘bun’ or your ’soup’ or your ‘coffee’ – that stuff - much better.”

“I’m very very grateful to them,” she says of Sabhal Mòr, and the opportunity the role affords her to return to the island. “I don’t know what I would have done without them, because it’s Skye, you know?  I would still be grateful if it was on Uist or Harris or Lewis, but the fact that it’s on Skye is just fabulous.”

As we joke and laugh over gin martinis at the Arizona Inn, it’s clear to see that Muriel doesn’t take herself too seriously. She strives to make her Gaelic classes fun and enjoyable, and has a passion for the language and the people who are trying to keep the language of the island alive – even if it’s in the desert on the other side of the world.

(Katie Macleod, who formerly worked for The Skye Magazine, is an internationally recognised travel-blogger based in New York - http://storiesmysuitcasecouldtell.com)