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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: April 16, 2010 @ 8:46 am

    Speaking tongues

    Pól Ó Muirí

    It would be a mistake to think that the issue of language – ‘compulsory’ or otherwise – is an issue that only pertains to Ireland. In fact, questions of language and how best to preserve and promote them are world-wide matters. In that regard, I would highly recommend David Crystal’s A Little Book of Language (Yale) in which the distinguished linguist looks at language in all its aspects: its origins; sounds; the development of grammar; placenames; the spread of language, its survival and, yes, death. He highlights that Britain is, in fact, a multilingual country and writes that there are 6,000 languages on the planet but that half of them will be dead within the next 100 years.

    I have taken these two quotes from the book because I think they resonate in an Irish context. However, the book is fascinating; very readable and if you have an interest in language – even if it is just the English language – it would be well worth reading.

    Anyway, here is the first quote:

    “Bilingualism is a big issue in places like the USA, the UK, and Western Europe. That’s because there are places where for centuries most of the people spoke just one language, and saw other languages as inferior. Spanish was the language of Spain; French of France; English of Britain. Any other languages which happened to  be spoken in these countries were dismissed as unimportant. They may even have been repressed, as in the case of Franco’s Spain. Other countries did similar things. Over a hundred years ago, if you were heard speaking Welsh in a school in Wales, you were punished. The same thing happened if you were caught speaking Breton at schools in Brittany in north-west France. Today, these communities are fighting back, wanting respect for their languages once again. Bilingualism has become a political issue.”

    And the second one: “I hope you will care about the fact that so many languages in the world are dying … Half the languages of the world are likely to die out during this century. If their speakers want them saved, are there ways in which you can help? Yes, there are. Saving a language is possible if the public cares enough, and if the politicians care enough. It’s the politicians who control the purse-strings that can provide money to help languages survive. And who will vote in those politicians? You will. So: make them realize the importance of language diversity.”

    • GM says:

      Aontaím go huile ‘s go hiomlán leis an méid ráite anseo ag Crystal. Go sochthengeolaíochta, is cuma cad a dhéantar muna bhfuil toil an phobail mar thacaíocht ag an ngníomh. With the very little effort that is speaking the language in the contexts that it is supported in, and bit by bit, subtle expansion into other areas where support is found (sought after, or discovered) will occur. It is with this approach that the language will continue to live- in an active, but uncoerced manner- or there lack of which will pronounce its death.

    • Alicen says:

      To me, Gaelic looks like Hungarian, Latin and Old English all stuck together in a blender, looks pretty difficult… Additionally, the more people who can speak and keep a language in print, the better its chances are of surviving long-term, I think.

    • Master Bates says:

      Futile attempts to prevent the inevitable demise of the Irish language – at the tax payer’s expense -represent a gross waste of resources. Irish is now tantamount to a quaint hobby, and its proponents, like steam-engine enthusiasts or collectors of antique paraphernalia – coins, vases and other useless things of the past. The Irish language is already comparable to the collections of extinct butterflies we see in museums. Better to simply accept its passing than to throw good money after bad. Enforcing Irish within the school curriculum has been an unmitigated failure and an unfortunate waste of time for young people who are now competing for jobs within a global economy. The language of Ireland – the island of Ireland – is first and foremost, English. Yes we should strive for greater bilingualism as is fitting our participation in the European Union. But our children would be better served learning German, French, Spanish, Polish (or even Mandarin) than trying to breathe life into dead butterflies.

    • Neil says:

      Ah the old reductive warhorse of ‘our children would be better off learning Spanish, French etc is wheeled out again. This excuse for an argument has being doing the rounds for quite a while now. I would love to know what constitutes a useful/useless language…number of speakers, prestige, what exactly? It never occurs to these people (most of whom are monoglot English speakers) that a knowledge of Irish heightens linguistic awareness and makes the learning of a third language easier (there have been many studies of this in both Ireland and Wales and students with a good command of two languages tend to do better than monoglot English speakers). I would also love to know how a knowledge of Irish makes you less competitive on the international market. Nobody is advocating that we abandon English which is the language in which most business is done in worldwide. Most Europeans are just slightly amused at the idea that you don’t even speak what they see as your own language. Native command of the international business tongue allows us to concentrate on Irish, on getting to grips with the tongue that has shaped us throughout most of our history and which forged us a people. All languages are precious things which contain multitudes. Irish is no exception, it holds the key to understnding Ireland, her literature and history. How useless is that? As Michael Hartnett (a poet, one of those quaint and useless things the Celtic Tiger didn’t quite manage to kill off) puts it: ‘All that reminds us
      we are human and therefore not a herd
      must be concealed or killed or slowly left
      to die, or microfilmed to waste no space.
      For Gaelic is our final sign that
      we are human, therefore not a herd’.

    • Kynos says:

      As I drove through Wales this trip I’m making I note with pleasure that the roadsigns are all now both in Welsh (phonetically spelt, I think) and in the invader’s language also. I still can’t get past Llanpwyllsomethingsomethingogogoch(I swear I didn’t just look that up)

    • Studied Welsh for a month. Could not get my head around it at all and gave it up for … Breton!

    • Kynos says:

      Zahur hitzak. I think. That’s Basque sorry. Not Breton. Have a copy of the Voyage of Saint Brendan written in Anglo-Norman that had to study for a (not taken) degree in Old English and stuff. Vaguely remember last looking at it through beer goggles in the UL JCR bar. Nice the old Anglo-Normans took a bit of notice of us that didn’t involve aiming something.

    • Aidan says:

      Pól, you should have a look at Say Something in Welsh, really useful site for learning Welsh in an easy way.

    • Aidan, diolch but no diolch. Still have nightmares about ys and ws in the wrong places. Noowwwwoooyyyooo.

    • Aidan says:

      That method is purely oral so no spelling required.

    • Ceol Sister says:

      I have just been listening to Mary Black singing ‘Mo Ghile Mear’ on Youtube… it is quite beautiful…the combination of the clarity of her voice the haunting quality of the music and the melodic of the sound of the language…
      defies belief…
      Sometimes it’s not always about economics or pragmatism…as this song and many others like it reminds us…listen to it and tell me this is not a part of our culture worth preserving…
      Someone has also written a phonetic version of the lyrics alongside the original Irish…which is helpful as the original is sadly so alien to me..
      There is also a comment posted on the Youtube site that the Romans considered Old Irish the language of Kings…I don’t know if this is true but am prepared to believe it having heard this and many other traditional Irish songs…
      I would include the link in this message but I’m a bit technologically challenged…perhaps someone else might do so…


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