Artwork by Jennifer Faust. More can be found on her Facebook Page
By Patrick Brogan
Protect us from what, exactly? Ourselves, probably. How we view the world and our place in it? Irish society has some major issues. That cannot be disputed. The Irish language would not solve this but, how we view our society would be different and may have prevented the conditions arising where we see homeless working families, patients waiting on hospital trolleys in a broken healthcare system, a media owned by a few vested interests, a malfunctioning police force, a society where criminals appear to act with immunity, a political system that looks like its only goal is to benefit the rich and on and on it goes.
All of these problems are interwoven. They stem from a culture, and our culture seems to be one apathy. While the case can be made that the stress of modern living and the unlimited use of technology has created a disconnect in most industrialised nations (not an argument I subscribe to), Ireland has no such excuses. Children were sold off for adoption, women degraded, murders covered up and corruption on a massive scale were all excepted by the public for years. Why? Fear. And where does fear stem from? A lack of conviction in your beliefs.
Before we go any further on this, I don’t speak Irish. I have a few words here and there. I couldn’t converse in the language. Like a lot of people, I have seen the elitist side of the Irish language and those who speak it. I have had the snooty Irish teachers look at me like I was a leper because I got mixed up between caillte and faillte (they are objectively very similar words), people that class you as a lesser being because you weren’t born in a Gaeltacht region and even had a girl stop talking to me in a pub because I could not spell her name. It was Saidbh if you were wondering and yes I did go home and Google it should the situation ever arise again. I am aware there are dickheads that speak the language, a tiny minority. So, why is its preservation and promotion important?
The Irish Language
Irish history is shrouded in mystery and myth. We are often described as Celts, but Celtic culture initially referred to anybody that was not Greek speaking. We are more specifically Gaels and Gaelic is an ancient culture. It is hard to say for certain what is exclusively Irish and what was brought over by other cultures, but some scholars say the Irish language is over 2,500-years-old or certainly elements of it are. This is a remnant of the past. Compare this to modern English which is only about 500-years-old. Irish is also the oldest vernacular language in Western Europe. When everyone else was writing in Latin, the Irish were writing in their own language. For this reason alone, it has to be a source of pride for this country.
The Decline of the Language
Whither the Irish language? Without harking on about old grievances about the British Empire, the reality is English rule in Ireland had a hugely negative impact on the Irish language. Laws were brought in outlawing Irish culture and they created an environment that made speaking Irish a major inconvenience. This was accompanied by a propaganda campaign that depicted the Irish as barbaric and in need of being civilised. We have have not shaken of the shackles of this as a society as elements of our culture are depicted as backward and our language has suffered as a result. Indeed, given the history of this island, it is hard to deny the argument that this dehumanising affect has not seeped through to modern Irish society when we walk by homeless people daily, look at the victims of gangland crime as deserving of the brutal punishment that they endure and watched as supposedly Christian organisations abused the poorest and weakest and by far the most needy in society.
In the CSO records of 2011, it stated that there were 1, 774, 437 Irish speakers in Ireland, or 40.6% of the population. On the face of it, that is a good statistic, but it is not without its problems. Firstly, you are depending on people’s opinions so what they consider as an Irish speaker might be very different from the criteria of what a linguist would use. This number is in stark contrast to the number of Irish speakers using the language daily. The Endangered Languages Project looks at endangered languages and tries to use technology as a way of either preserving them or just keeping a record of them before they become extinct. The project lists endangered languages on this cool map and if we look at Irish it is marked red as a severely endangered language with 20,000 to 40,000 speakers. Compare that to 56, 430 French speakers, many those born here. Polish has 119, 526 speakers. So, our native language is in a precarious position.
Even though we are an independent nation, our own language has remained a second class citizen. Teaching Irish at school and promotions like Seachtain na Gaeilge clearly are not having the desired impact. Not only has it not reversed the colonial affect, but it looks like it has done very little to protect the language in the very few areas were Irish is actually spoken daily and it is predicted that it won’t be the dominant language in these pockets as this report suggest.
Why is Preserving a Language Important?
There is a Darwinian view that languages die out all the time and this is the natural order of things. Survival of the strongest. Now, as we mentioned on this site before, Darwin’s theory was backed by the British East India Company because it justified their goal of global dominance. This may explain why so many of the world’s languages will be relics of the past by the end of this century, some put the number as high as 90%. Why is it important to save languages?
This BBC article sums it up pretty well. “What’s more, languages are conduits of human heritage. Writing is a relatively recent development in our history (written systems currently exist for only about one-third of the world’s languages), so language itself is often the only way to convey a community’s songs, stories and poems. The Iliad was an oral story before it was written, as was The Odyssey. “How many other traditions are out there in the world that we’ll never know about because no-one recorded them before the language disappeared?” Austin says.” This is why most European countries speak their own language.
Each language gives an insight into the society that created it. For instance, the Piraha tribe has no numeracy words, no future or past tense and no words for colours. This language is even challenging long established views of how language works and how it was created. This would say to me this is a very laid back culture where specifics aren’t a huge deal and that they live in the moment.
When a language dies, an entire body of knowledge goes with it and this knowledge can be totally unique to the society that created it. “In the case of Cherokee, that language was born of thousands of years spent inhabiting the southern Appalachia Mountains. Cherokee words exist for every last berry, stem, frond and toadstool in the region, and those names also convey what kind of properties that object might have – whether it’s edible, poisonous or has some medicinal value. “No culture has a monopoly on human genius, and we never know where the next brilliant idea may come from,” Harrison says. “We lose ancient knowledge if we lose languages.””
Languages are a version or interpretation of the world and when it goes it’s gone forever. The Irish language is our way of viewing the world and this has been built up over thousands of years. If we look at Irish mediums, they are pretty much all foreign. The language is English, the news is either British or American or promoting American ideas, the entertainment is either British or American etc, etc. Not that there is anything wrong either of these two nations, but every time important issues are covered and discussed it is done so through a red, white and blue prism. A uniquely Irish perspective is missing.
I have trouble with notions of national identity, they are constantly in flux and very general, and often wrong. That said, there is something a miss with Irish society, something gnawing and eroding away. As a society we complain about globalisation dominating our culture and then wear premiership jerseys and sit in a pub all day watching football, worry about the rise of Islamic terror and then watch the X-Factor. We are endanger of quickly becoming just a location on a global map rather than a society, a set of agreed upon ideals. Many have come and tried to eradicate our culture and ourselves as a people and those brave enough fought and died to protect this vague notion of nationalism. Then we turned around and used Irishness as a marketing gimmick.
This is no weepy-eyed plea for a rebirth of Irish nationalism. Nationalism as a concept can often be dangerous and has led to many conflicts. On this island, it led to deaths of many innocent people. Between becoming a vassal state of the US and unborn children being blown up there’s a happy medium. This is about a balance and should not be used as a political tool.
Progress is inevitable and it is good. Losing your culture and heritage are not. In terms of mobility, socially, accountability and on a host of other issues things have never been better. While the media drum up hysteria and terrible events do happen, most of us are blessed to be alive at this point in time. So, my argument is that adopting Irish would be part of this progress, not a hindrance.
How Would We Start to Revive the Language?
I think this would be very straight forward. Create a plan whereby primary school teachers are completely fluent in Irish by the time they graduate college. Then they conduct classes purely in Irish, much like the Tefl system. By the time the kids they taught graduate, they will be fluent in Irish. This approach has two key elements. Children will learn it in an easy way because even if they didn’t speak Irish at home, it will become second nature in a very short period of time at school. They will grow up communicating through Irish to their peers. This will also not exclude native English speakers from society. Eventually, over time, every one will have grown up in this system and everyone will be speaking Irish to each other.
The Irish language could be used as a shield from the more negative scenarios that come with globalisation. This would not be done to exclude non-Irish people. Millions of people go to France every year that are not native French speakers. This planet should be made up of a community of peoples coming together, but with their own uniqueness celebrated. Diversity is important because the more views and information people can bring to the table, the better. A symphony of nations. We live in a time when issues can only be solved by the globe coming together and working in unity to move the human race forward. There are excessive versions of nationalism and I would never want to go down the road, but a sense of national identity is important and can be an anchor in an otherwise crazy world. We have an ancient and mysterious bedrock of knowledge, why not embrace it?
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