Teanga agus trioblóidí
IRISH LANGUAGE:ONE OF THE MORE disturbing aspects of the language debate – or, more often, argument – is the way in which those who have no interest in Irish characterise those who do as “fanatics” or, almost as bad, “enthusiasts”. We speak English, goes the line, and have no need to spend time or money on a “dead” language. (It says much about contemporary Irish values that having two cars, two homes or two holidays abroad is good while having two languages is bad.)
Yet many countries use more than one language. Our nearest neighbours – who were kind enough to, ahem, gift us English – also have native communities of Welsh and Scots Gaelic speakers and other language communities from former colonial holdings. Continental Europe is awash with regional, lesser-used or minority languages – take your pick – and some of the same boast far more speakers than Irish. Those languages speak of a different and older Europe, one that predates the borders of many of the modern states drawn with such finality in the school atlas.
It is unsurprising, then, that the study of languages is a global academic phenomenon and one of which Irish scholars are very much aware. An tSochtheangeolaíocht: Feidhm agus Tuairisc is a collection of essays on sociolinguistics, edited by two Limerick academics, Tadhg Ó hIfearnáin and Máire Ní Neachtain (Cois Life, €20), in which these global issues are examined in an Irish setting. Multilingualism, language shift and language death, planning and legislation are some of the themes scrutinised by contributors in essays that are challenging in their terminology and arguments and that often offer sobering analysis. Brian Ó Catháin, for example, writes that the next generation of young native speakers could well be the last and that, once they die, Gaeltacht Irish will go with them.
THAT IS A SENTIMENTechoed by Aoife Ní Chonchúir in a second collection of essays, An Chonair Chaoch: An Mionteangachas sa Dátheangachas (Leabhar Breac, €20). Ní Chonchúir writes that English is becoming more central to every aspect of Gaeltacht life and that Irish is being pushed out. As a consequence, the opportunities young native speakers have to engage fully with Irish is gravely lessened and intervention is needed if capable young speakers are to be nurtured. The editors of An Chonair Chaoch – the journalist Ciarán Lenoach and the academics Conchúr Ó Giollagáin and Brian Ó Curnáin – examine the language specifically in the context of the Gaeltacht and bilingualism. Unsurprisingly, the view of parents, legal issues, language planning, education and their effect on a very fragile linguistic region are studied in great detail here too.
Again, many of the conclusions make for stark reading and give the lie to that oft-repeated slur that Irish speakers live in cloud cuckoo land when it comes to Irish. Far from it: serious scholarship is being devoted to understanding language erosion and how best to combat it.
BREANDÁN DELAP’Sbook Ar an Taifead: Fís, Fuaim, Focal (Cois Life, €20) looks at another aspect of language use: that of the media. Delap, a senior journalist with Nuacht TG4 and an occasional contributor to this paper’s Irish columns, examines Irish-language print, broadcast and online journalism. It says much about the development in this area (or should that be arena?) that this is a new edition of a book originally published in 2007. A second issue of an Irish book is a rare enough thing, and it is not difficult to see why Delap’s book is in demand. His introduction and commentaries are pithy and informative while the short interviews provided by contributors (this reviewer has a small piece) offer a practical overview of what journalists do and the difficulties they face in providing information in a language not everyone – sometimes even those being interviewed – speaks.