Could improving our Gaeilge help us to live more sustainably?

One Change: Language can offer us insight into how to be more in tune with nature

Irish language is a perfect tool to help navigate this age of alienation and exploitation. Photograph: Michael J. Murphy/duchas.ie

Irish language is a perfect tool to help navigate this age of alienation and exploitation. Photograph: Michael J. Murphy/duchas.ie

 

This may seem a bit left field, but could the key One Change that we ought to make in our lives be to improve our knowledge of Irish? After all those fraught debates about what the purpose of Gaeilge is in the modern world, might the answer be to help us live more sustainably?

Ancient languages that have been spoken for thousands of years are rooted in the landscape and to a way of living in tune with nature that is uncanny and precious. Irish, having been spoken on the island for at least two thousand years, and possibly far longer, is a perfect tool to help navigate this age of alienation and exploitation. It can offer us insight into how to live lightly within the limits of the available resources.

There is no simple One Change that is going to solve the toxic manner in which we live

For our ancestors it was clear that everything was connected on a fundamental level, from fields and flowers, to hawks and waves. To us, in our atomised, isolated culture it is less apparent, and yet these are precisely the insights and perspectives that we must now relearn.

Prof Michael Cronin writes in his bilingual book Irish and Ecology/ An Ghaeilge agus an Éiceolaíocht that “the future lies with languages that can maximise diversity, alter human interaction with the non-human and reveal ways of being that are connected to the specificities of place but are open to the world. Irish is one of those languages of the future. The genuine pragmatists are those who look to the language for resources to build an alternative future, not the monolingual fantasists who would condemn us to an intolerable past in the name of an unsustainable future”.

Secrets of nature

Intimate, local languages, rather than broad generalised ones, have an ability to unlock the secrets of nature according to the journalist Rob Rhymer, because “their speakers tend to live in proximity to the animals and plants around them, and their talk reflects the distinctions they observe”. He points out that when small communities abandon their languages, “there is a massive disruption in the transfer of traditional knowledge across generations – about medicinal plants, food cultivation, irrigation techniques, navigation systems, seasonal calendars”.

With its rich mythologies of vengeful rivers and lakes that rise up to flood people who are not living in tune with nature and of humans who take on the form of birds and thus see the world through their eyes, Irish is well suited to present us with new insights and perspectives on living sustainably. There is no simple One Change that is going to solve the toxic manner in which we live, but as Cronin writes “rather being seen as incontrovertible evidence of the credulous naivete of the ‘primitive’ mind”, the Irish language could play a role in helping to offer new perspectives on how to live lightly on the land as our ancestors did.

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