Abstract: Language usually implies and embodies communication, but this paper explores the silence created when people living with dementia revert to their first language. I explore the connotations and denotations of the word “silence”, and the cultural dimensions affected by its imposition or adoption. When communication and entire languages are lost, either by attrition or hegemonic pressure, culture is lost, stories are no longer told, experience no longer valued, and our very humanity silenced.
Keywords: Silence, dementia, listening, minority language, bilingualism
It is not difference which immobilizes us, but silence. And there are so many silences to be broken. (Lorde 2019, 32)
We generally think of silence as an absence of sound, but here I want to
look at it as an absence of communication, a figurative silence
paradoxically spoken into being when no one understands what is being said.
I will explore this idea through the progressive silencing of bilingual
speakers as they traverse dementia in a monolingual, second-language
environment. Though still able to speak their native tongue, they become
linguistic exiles, prefiguring what happens to all who progress through
dementia in any setting, losing their memories, their language, and,
ultimately, their very selves, at first lost in language and then to it as it retreats.
This piece owes its existence to an intriguing conversation I had with Alex
Macdonald, a Gaelic speaker from the Isle of Lewis in northwest Scotland,
who perceptively observed that dementia-related second language loss is
creating monoglot adult speakers of Gaelic, when it has
long been agreed that there are none, due to the complete saturation of
Scottish life by the English language (Macaulay 1992, 141).2
The same situation pertains in the North-East of Scotland, where
native-speakers of Doric (the region’s dialect of the Scots language) are
losing their later-acquired English through dementia and becoming, in
effect, monoglot Scots speakers,3
a phenomenon my colleague, Simon Gall, has observed within his own family.
Fieldwork profoundly shapes projects in Folklore studies4
and my thanks go to Alex Macdonald and Simon Gall for sharing their
experiences in recorded interviews. The result is this reflection, intended
to explore some intellectual and social ideas that relate to how we
interact with our elderly citizens.5
An individual speaker’s language attrition is almost invariably discussed
in relation to a bilingual speaker’s loss of their lesser-used native
tongue in a majority-language environment, usually a “minority” language no
longer necessary for community interaction. The “minority” language’s loss
of functionality can be due to gradual cultural shifts but can also result
from hegemonic social or political pressures, sometimes backed by
colonial(izing) power, which often sees bilingualism as a threat or at
least an opportunity to exercise control.6
An individual losing the majority language, as in the contexts
that Macdonald and Gall discuss, raises a completely different set of
issues. Such loss is not about the loss of linguistic heritage and
identity, or about dementia, but rather about how its consequences impact
communication, understanding, listening, and, ultimately, caring.7
Oftentimes in our society, we valorize silence: “silence is golden,” “can
you keep a secret?”, “don’t tell,” children should be “seen and not heard.”
These are positives, something to aspire to. We attend quiet, contemplative
retreats; we admire monks and others who live in silence as a contemplative
tool. Even sound itself, and language carried by it, requires
silence “which does not cease to surround it and without which it would say
nothing” (Merleau-Ponty 1964, 46).
But we are confused, and equally celebrate speaking out, when required:
“speak up for yourself,” “be a whistle-blower,” or, at a wedding, “speak
now or forever hold your peace” (though we usually hope that nobody will).
We also decry silence as indicating complicity, for example, in the
widespread use of “Silence is Violence” in protest movements. Here, we hope
to end a silence that has allowed oppressors and their regimes to
perpetuate themselves and the status quo (see Marching 2017). Silence is
thus complicated by a diverse set of subtexts.
Imagine yourself listening to someone on a train who is speaking a language
from a different linguistic family than your own. You listen for a minute,
straining for lexical meaning, for the smallest unit of understanding, but
there is none. The speaker’s voice is thus, in effect, silenced. Intonation
and tone can, of course, convey aspects of meaning and, sometimes, a sound can evoke a range of meta-meanings, though not necessarily
the correct ones, precisely because you do not understand it.
Incidents like this are likely to happen every day around the world when
bilingual speakers lose their second language minority-language native
speakers find themselves losing their second language to dementia in
majority language care settings and are left with their mother tongue as
the sole means of communication. The speaker is left adrift, like you on
the train, hearing but not understanding.
It is well known that many living with dementia tend to lose their more
recent memories first, falling further and further back into the
remembered, hard-wired past and their native tongue.8
Thus, native speakers of Scots or Gaelic living with dementia leave behind
English and revert to their mother tongue. Individual language attrition
can also happen from disease or injury destroying parts of the brain or the
connections that make them useful. People living with dementia, however,
following patterns of memory loss, regress through their acquired languages
in reverse order of familiarity and embeddedness, sometimes rediscovering
one that they had “forgotten.” Alex Macdonald told me of a woman from the
Netherlands who reverted to speaking Dutch, a language her children thought
had been “taught out” of her many decades before when she was evacuated
from Holland to New Zealand during the Second World War. “Birth languages
do not simply disappear from memory” (Macdonald 2019), but are instead
silenced through teaching, immersion, hegemonic language replacement, and
sometimes active suppression, whether from outside forces or the person
themselves as they jettison their native language to “get ahead,” a common
enough scenario internationally.
A regression to native language is, of course, perfectly unproblematic if
it is the majority tongue, but when the mother tongue has been supplanted
in the community by another, the speaker is effectively silenced. Simon
Gall has noticed such a situation developing in his grandmother’s home in
Aberdeen. She is losing her English language skills as dementia takes hold,
a change particularly noticeable when she talks to a non-Scots speaker like
Simon’s Venezuelan wife, Sol.
I’ll tell you when it started: when Sol spoke to her.
Sol obviously doesn’t speak Doric, being Venezuelan, although she tries,
and she does well sometimes.
She would say stuff to her. And Sol speaks great English and is easy to
understand, I think, for most folk, and ma grama, every time she’d
say anything, ma grama would look at me and say, “Fit? Fit’s she
sayin?” [What? What is she saying?] An she’s sittin right there in front of
And it started to dawn on me that maybe it’s not just because of Sol. […]
So then I started doing my own wee experiments. I’d say something to her,
as I would in Standard English, and say, you know, “Have you seen Margaret
today?” She’d look at me an go, “Eh?” “His Margaret been roon theday?” “Oh
no, I hinna seen her.” [Oh no, I haven’t seen her.] So, I started tae
realize she’s […] hardly comprehending English now.
It’s really weird.
In recent months, the situation has become acute, “When the doctor visits,
my mum has to be there to translate, and the doctor is Scottish. She
wouldn’t get the medical care she needs otherwise” (Gall 2020). The
communications affected are no longer simply phatic speech, social
visiting, or even practical interactions about quotidian needs, but about
vital health care.
In a home setting like this, a regression to the mother tongue is not a
problem, but Gaelic and Scots speakers can grow increasingly isolated as
they find themselves in the predominantly English-language settings of care
homes, institutions, and even whole communities, towns, and cities. The
voiced become voiceless, losing their ability to communicate their story,
their experience, and, at times, even their most basic needs, as Alex
Macdonald recounts of a care home in the Isle of Lewis,
There was an incident with a man who had been asking for a glass of water
all day and hadn’t got it, because there was nobody understood what he was
saying. He was asking in Gaelic. And his relatives were very angry, quite
rightly, and pointed out that, actually, there needed to be a lot more
thought in a place like this where there were patients, who were only
speaking Gaelic now, that there would be Gaelic-speaking staff. (Macdonald
The man had spent most of his life bilingual, with Gaelic as his native
language and English learned when he attended school from the age of about
six. He lived his life in an English-dominated world, but with the onset of
dementia, began to lose his second language, leaving the deeply embedded
Gaelic still usable. Usable but ineffective. This phenomenon is the sound of silence; he was capable of speech, of making sounds, but
was silenced for all intents and purposes in the very act of speaking.
Dementia-related silencing can also be brought about by a physical journey
into a different linguistic realm rather than shifting language patterns.
One of Alex’s relatives, who had moved away, “regressed, only
spoke Gaelic the latter year of her life, which you would think isn’t
unusual, apart from the fact that she lived in Detroit.” The woman had left
in the 1920s, existed in a monoglot English environment all her days,
until, with dementia-induced language loss, she found herself effectively
silenced though still able to produce sound. “There must have been other
people who left here who found themselves in nursing homes across the world
and unable, really, to communicate. Her children don’t speak it.” Even the
woman’s own family was unable to help directly, though “they tried to
access people in Detroit who could speak it and it was very sad for Lewis
relatives, who understood, but could do little from four thousand miles
away” (Macdonald 2019).
While such distances are dramatic, there is no necessity for an
international journey for a similar silencing to take place, as Alex
The worst scenario, I think, was the one where a man from here told me that
his mother was no longer speaking English and had no understanding of it
now. […] And his father didn’t speak any Gaelic, so they weren’t able to
speak to each other.
That is something that happened here, but I can equally see that happening
in any other community where people are speaking minority languages and
perhaps are in a situation where they’ve got a partner who’s not from the
same background as them, or whatever. His father had never learned Gaelic,
so they weren’t able to speak to each other. So that’s an extreme example,
but it shows the importance of language.
Sometimes, the arrival of new populations creates new language
environments. While English has long been a lingua franca for many
Scottish communities, including care homes, the last few decades have seen
an influx of carers from overseas. Some learn Scots or Gaelic, like the
woman from India who assists Simon’s grandmother. She has “been living in
Scotland for a long time. […] And she finds that she has to speak
Doric to her to be understood” (Gall 2019). Without this kind of linguistic
adaptation, silence is easily created, here by omission or a lack of
Organizers in very local settings, however, sometimes have a better sense
of the need for cross-linguistic awareness. A care home in Lewis, for
example, says Alex Macdonald, “advertises which languages are spoken there,
which I think is a fantastic thing, because you can then look for a home
where […] there’s somebody who can converse with your relative” (Macdonald
Aside from such apparent exceptions, people living with dementia in
non-domestic settings, while still having voices, often lose their ability
to communicate their story, experience, and even most basic needs, as the
example of the man asking for water shows, becoming effectively voiceless.
There is widespread acknowledgment of the need for linguistic accessibility
within hospital medical settings, but while various regional branches of
Scotland’s National Health Service offer interpreters for more than forty
languages, neither Gaelic nor Scots is among them.11
Granted, new monoglot speakers are small in number, and they are usually
found in the home or in care settings rather than hospitals, but it might
be valuable and rewarding for carers to learn and perhaps even be formally
taught these local languages for the sake of our growing elderly
We often tend to think of those with dementia losing their ability
to communicate, but the disease reaches far beyond the individual. While
someone is losing their second language, a carer who cannot speak the first
becomes an equal partner in the creation of silence. Meaning, typically
created in the communal space between speaker and listener, is left
inchoate because the dementia dynamic militates against it, creating a
vacuum notable for its absence of lexical communicative engagement. It may,
at some level, be a communicative act, but one defined by negation—the lack
of reciprocal exchange and understanding. Thus, dementia enforces silence
on both sides, quieting both by progressively deleting their shared
language and experience. Thus carers, too, are silenced.
Through the inaction of passively allowing such linguistic
isolation to develop, silence becomes a verb. To “silence” something is to
end its communicative activity, neuter its power. Sometimes we do this to
ourselves, consciously or subconsciously suppressing memories to create a
desired “reality.” Often, we mean it metaphorically, as with “cancel
culture” on social media, not paying attention to what some individual,
group, or culture is saying, often as a result of a power dynamic that
allows, or makes us not listen to a certain individual or
perspective. More aggressively, silencing includes history being written
(voiced) by the winner, the pervasive, unremarked control of women by
(white) men’s domestic, political, social, and religious practices, and
prison regimes that disproportionately affect people of color, those in
poverty, or those who threaten the status quo in some way. Silence, the
verb, can also be violent, in extremis taking explicit physical form, as in
the “Colombian necktie,” a form of execution in which the perpetrator draws
the victim’s tongue out through a slash in the throat, a physical silencing
and an aggressive warning to others to keep silent, but also symbolic in
that it embodies overt external control over the instrument of speech
Preventing people from being heard is the first step to retaining power.
Thus, regimes aim to silence dissent, suppressing discourse that undermines
their perspective or authority: protestors who disagree, women campaigning
for the vote, or voters simply trying to exercise their democratic right,
This can even extend to the visual, most famously in Stalin’s habit of
altering photographic images to eliminate troublesome evidence.
In the Scottish context, the repression of Gaelic as a means of
politico-social control has been deliberate and explicit for a long time,
as seen in the Scottish Education Act of 1616, which explicitly calls for
Gaelic to be “abolisheit and removit,” abolished and removed (Donaldson
1970, 178–179). For the Scots language, attrition and disempowerment were
the results of hegemonic power methodically applied since the seventeenth
century by a confluence of political, religious, and social forces.14
For the last few centuries, Scottish children have been taught English as
their lingua franca, often completely leaving behind their native
tongues, which were often beaten out of them from the age five or
six—figuratively by a politically motivated education system, and literally
through corporal punishment meted out to pupils for using of their native
language in a school setting. Following on, Gaelic and Scots have been
devalued and ghettoized into the realms of home and rural life. Today, they
are thus often seen as best suited to self-deprecating humor, characterized
by those in power (and wishing to stay there) as unsophisticated and
Our governmental systems have, moreover, institutionalized a dismissive
attitude to “minority languages,”
as all the civic institutions of education, law, and government use the
medium of English. So, Scots and Gaelic as languages of authority and
learning have become silenced through deliberate action. Even today, a
“cultural cringe” exists, leading many to recoil when they hear their
native tongue—Scots or Gaelic—used in formal settings such as a university,
the workplace, in the media, or “high culture.”
Many Scots spend a lifetime, it is commonly said, thinking in
English, but feeling in Gaelic or Scots, reflecting a commonly
held belief that our native tongues remain the languages of emotion and
childhood, even in later life.
In our day-to-day lives, of course, we pay little attention to what
language we are speaking. Simon Gall had “absolutely no idea” that he and
his family were speaking Doric (North-East Scots) in his youth; it was the
language of home and family and, as such, was the norm. For Alex, there
seems to be a clear distinction between speaking our native tongue(s) and
the effort required to speak a second or third language: “I’ve always felt
it was an effort to speak the poshest of English, the proper English, at
school. ”Indeed, most Gaelic and Scots speakers feel more comfortable using
their native tongue in the home setting as they have been raised from the
earliest of times to think of their native tongues as inferior, in the case
of Scots as a broken-down, bastardized relation of English (the use of
which is often tellingly referred to as “talking” as opposed to spikkin,
“speaking posh,” or speaking “properly.”
Conversely, hearing our language in a non-native environment puts us at
ease immediately, surrounded by the deep foundations of earliest (hopefully
Well, it’s the “tuigsinn,” “tuigsinn”—understanding. There’s an
understanding straight away that, if […] I meet a native somewhere, that
they understand my culture as well as my language. (Macdonald
Our native tongue elicits visceral feelings of connection even before we
consider the content of what is being said.
To me, as a Gael, I’ll make a connection with somebody instantly if they
speak to me in my own language. So even the fact that they can do that
connects you in a way that you can’t…
You know, you can obviously connect to people speaking in English, as we
are now, but if somebody comes through the door and speaks to me in my own
language, then instantly […] there’s an extra connection between you.
Simon, raised in a Scots-speaking environment but schooled, like most
Scottish children, through the medium of English, is now able to use it in
a work setting:
I’ve had this feeling of a weight being lifted off when I can
speak it, if you know what I mean. […] I always felt that it was an effort to always speak the poshest of English, or the “proper”
English, at school and afterwards, etc. An there’s a feelin of relief,
almost, recently over the last wee while when I can use it [Scots]. […]
I’m not able to put ma finger on it, but I certainly felt a bit of relief.
I think that’s the only emotion that I can describe easily. I’ll spik the
wey I spik at hame, I canna be arsed haein tae think o fit it is I’m sayin.
Part of this sense of ease derives from the domestic setting, in which
conversation is generally far less formal, linguistically, and topically.
Many older Scots and Gaelic speakers have not had this opportunity and
exclusively use English, their second language, in the formal settings of
education, work, and civic life, able to switch with inconspicuous
proficiency when the social context calls for it. Nevertheless, this subtle
dexterity is the crux of language loss, being precarious and particularly
vulnerable to changes in the brain, whether through injury or disease. Our
mother tongue is so closely tied to identity that we do not think of it as
a separate entity, as Alex suggests,
People could be taken halfway across the world, but, actually, their birth
identity remains somewhere hidden deep in their head and it […] came out
when they developed dementia. It just never went away, is what I’m saying.
You never lose your key identity. (Macdonald 2019)
Nevertheless, when you lose your communicative language, that “key
identity,” while not lost, lies unheard.
Silence can derive from the active suppression of a voice or a lack of
linguistic understanding, but, equally, from the absence of a simple but
crucial bridging step: listening. A wave of sonic energy released is
effectively not a sound until it is heard. Creating meaning
requires that we hear, and that we pay attention, so that we may
In the context of those with dementia-related language loss, one kind of
paying attention is an awareness that “their silence may be triggered by a
failure in our methods of communication” (Macdonald n.d., 9, my
emphasis). So, we must be alert to non-linguistic entryways. Sometimes a
sensory experience, smell, taste, seeing or touching an object, can release
language, bringing silence to an end: “A fisherman recently demonstrated
mending nets in one of the hospital wards and a patient, who hadn’t spoken
in over two months, informed a care worker that he used to do that task
too, and assisted with the demonstration” (Macdonald n.d., 6). Dementia can
bring about an age of enforced silence which traps people in an internal
world, but even before that a lack of contextual understanding and
effective triggers can bring an end to communication. Thus, while we often
think of silence as an absence, it can become manifest,
something we bring into existence by our actions or just plain
Though there is technically sound in the case of Gaelic and Scots speakers
adrift in an anglicized sea, silence reigns supreme when there is no one to
listen or to understand. Entire languages are lost, stories no longer told,
experience no longer understood or valued, and culture no longer passed on.
We lose the interaction and communication that define us as homo narrans and, with that, our humanity itself.
It is easy to conflate silence with quiet and connotations of
peace and serenity. Those used to city dwelling, for example, often remark
on how quiet the countryside is but immediately describe it in terms of
sound: “the silence/ Of the wind through the trees” (Gibbard 2020). A
listening ear soon picks up on many sounds: that very wind through the
trees, a breeze over the grasses, water flowing, birdsong. The unpractised
ear may experience a kind of silence, however, because these rural sounds
can be experientially devoid of meaning, empty of the understood vocabulary
of cars, crosswalk indicators, piped music, overheard telephone
conversations, and media. “Silence,” in everyday parlance, is, therefore,
relative. It is not acoustic silence but instead an absence of meaning
parsable to the individual experiencing it. So, we might better conceive of
“silence” as an absence of communication.
What if the world around us really was silent, truly quiet? That would
equate to death, in our imaginations, Hamlet’s “quietus” (to discharge,
release, or end in death). Quiet might be the end of all things, connecting
to a visceral fear deep within, but even in a silent, anechoic chamber, we
hear things: the sounds of our blood moving around the body, the heart
beating, the sound, by contrast, evoking life and living. Thus, our
embodied selves are our best insurance against the desolation of quiet,
death, silence, and silencing.
The Gaelic for dementia is “gad do chall fhèin”, literally, losing
yourself, says Alex.
They would explain away, you know, an older person maybe, ‘Th’ad air call’,
they’re lost. It’s this whole thing of losing themselves as a person. […]
This is the thing that’s most interesting to me. It’s the fact that there’s
a drawer somewhere in your head where English no longer makes sense. You go
right back to the beginning. (Macdonald 2019)
Language is a vital weapon in defying silence and silencing of every kind,
making the rapid global trend of language loss nothing short of a tragedy.
When we lose a language, we lose a particular ontology of the world and the
capability to listen to voices and perspectives other than our own. When
communicative language is lost to neurodegeneration, we lose a crucial
mechanism for making sense of the world and, concomitantly, the world loses
its means of making sense of us.
Ultimately, we must develop a deeper understanding of silence and what it
means to be heard. It behoves us today, then, as we care for people living
with dementia in a context of hegemonic world languages, to pay attention
to the sounds of silence, to see if we might hear, and listen carefully, to
the still, small voice of one crying out in a linguistic wilderness, in a
language we do not understand.
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