Friday, April 30, 2004

The Irish Language - How We Lost It, How We Can Save It

There was some poor soul from last Sunday’s march to protest the exclusion of Irish from the list of officially recognised European languages explaining his position to Vincent Browne on Browne’s radio show on Tuesday night. I use “explaining” in its broadest sense – the man was so poor that even the notoriously narky Browne took pity on him, and, rather than savage him as is his wont, Browne merely sighed deeply at the more meandering of the Gaelgeoir’s points.

All very depressing I’m afraid. The Gaelgeoir was an avatar of all that is wrong with Irish, and a miserable personification of why the language is virtually dead at the start of the 21st Century – he was rambling, unfocussed, and uncoordinated. He hadn’t thought out what he was going to say, and, even when Browne offered him the easy question of why Irish was so important, he dropped the ball on the tryline.

The Irish language is important is because it’s part of what we are, part of what makes us unique. Without it, we become even more of an adjunct to Britain and the US, another assimilated cell in the depressing homogenisation of the country that will soon make Kerry indistinguishable from Kent or from Kentucky. And that would be a bad thing.

The three oldest surviving literary artefacts in Western Culture are written in Greek, in Latin, and in Irish. Irish, as a language, has a tremendous pedigree, but it has never attained the status of Latin or Greek not because it is a lesser language, but because the Greeks and Romans were conquerers, and the Irish were the conquered. Language, like history, is written by the victor.

The mere fact that Irish survived at all is due in no small part to the efforts of the revivalists of the late Nineteenth Century. Prior to this, speaking Irish was just a burden, an impediment to a child’s chance of being able to speak the language of whatever faraway land where he or she could emigrate and find a new life for him or herself, a life that he or she could not find at home under any circumstances. The memory of the Famine was widespread; Irish was the language of the hungry, the poor, the dispossessed. English was the language of hope, and of a possible future.

As such, the Irish nation owes a huge debt to people like Douglas Hyde and an tAthar Peadar Ó Laoghaire – without their efforts, Irish would be lost to us entirely. Unfortunately, it is also because of their efforts that the teaching of Irish has been so uniformly poor, and why, after fourteen years of learning Irish in school, twenty per cent of our natural span, that so many of us leave school unable to speak the First National Language.

In setting about to save the dying language, the Gaelic League had two choices. They could establish a standard, a melding of the different dialects that survived in the country into a whole, or they could do as they did, which was to recognise the spoken language of the people as the authentic Irish of today, as opposed to the long-lost Irish of poets like the monk whose cat was called Pangúr Bán. The establishment of a standard was tricky; the might and glory of Irish as a language was long in the past, before Strongbow’s arrival – an attempt to impose a standard would always run the risk of being rejected out of hand by speakers who spoke the language of their fathers and their fathers before them, and who would reject this Standardised Irish as being no less alien than English. Irish would become a Gaelic Esperanto – spoken by few, understood by fewer, loved by none.

And so, they chose another way. The founders of the Gaelic League, and those that came after them, like George Thompson in the 1920s, saw the spoken Irish of the people as the true Irish, and if there were regional variations then so be it – all regions were to be cherished equally. Except Munster Irish, which was seen as more equal than others.

People say they love their children equally, but it’s not true – deep down, there’s a favourite, and the unspoken favourite of the Gaelic League was Gaeilge na Mumhan. A lot of that had to do with the Blasket Islands of course, where idealists could see Islandsmen facing into the broad Atlantic in those flimsy currachs and say here, at least, is the true noble savage of Rousseau; here, on an island of Kerry, is the Natural Man, the man untainted by “civilisation.”

As the country went through the birth-pangs of independence, much lip-service was paid to the language, and precious little done to guide it from infancy to childhood. Because all dialects were recognised, no one word or no one construction was ever entirely correct, and equally, no one word or construction was ever entirely incorrect.

This was confusing at first; when it came to neologisms, words that had to be invented to describe things that never existed before and therefore had no name, the situation became farcical. At one stage, Irish had eighteen different words to translate the word “telescope”; each one was equally correct in the eyes of the law, or such law as existed in formalising an Irish grammar and vocabulary.

Any conquered language is always in danger of becoming pidginised; that is, borrowing words from the conquering vocabulary because equivalent words do not exist in its own vocabulary. The vision of the nineteenth century saviours of the language, that the Irish that was spoken in such Gaeltachta that survived was to promoted above any attempts to set up a language academy along the lines of the French, the Welsh, the Finnish or the Hungarians, has become a millstone around the language’s neck. The Irish revival was built on a collection of patois rather than an exemplary text that demonstrated a correct standard of Irish. All languages are spoken in different ways by different speakers, but they all need a central corpus of vocabulary and grammar if meaning is to be retained.

One of indictments of the incredibly poor job we have done as a nation to save our own language is the excellent job that the Welsh have done in saving theirs. What we forget is that the Welsh had God on their side – the core text of correct Welsh is based on a sixteenth century translation of the Bible into Welsh, and that provides a tremendous resource for whatever the Welsh equivalent of a fíorGhael is to say that such and such a construction is true to the genius of Welsh, and that such and such is not.

The French enjoy the same with the Academie Francaise, which enthusiastically joins battle with alien words like “le weekend,” which, to the Francophile, lacks a certain je ne sais quoi. Poor misfortunate Irish lacks any such school of champions to defend her honour. The nearest Irish has is the Department of the Gaeltacht, but there is a question of what purpose exactly that Department serves, other than ensuring a constant stream of harp-stamped envelopes making their way to the residents of said Gaeltachta.

It’s a crying shame, and it’s about to get worse. The absence of a standard means that we, as a nation, are lacking a vital bulwark to fight the homogenisation of our culture. Because the language is dying, make no mistake about it. Vincent Browne’s interviewee indicated that the last survey conducted reported 100,000 people in the country speaking Irish daily – if speaking Irish daily constitutes being able to say sláinte then perhaps the results are accurate, but otherwise the language is dying on its knees.

I’d like to think that the advent of TG4, which has done more to make Irish cool than any other single initiative post Independence, will give rise to a generation that will find speaking Irish as natural as speaking English; that rather than being self-conscious about the language and associating it with school that they will use it as a emerald badge of distinction in an increasingly indistinct world. I’d like to think so, but I have no evidence one way or the other, and I am not by my nature an optimist.

The Government has to start getting serious about the language, and it has to start getting serious about the language now. We need to remember the proud history of the language, before the Strongbow, when the Irish monks brought learning back to Europe and Irish was a language of equal standing with Latin or Greek. We need to set up an equivalent to l’Acadamie Francaise to ensure that any new words coming into the language belong there, and that any leaving the language are doing so as part of a natural evolution, rather than as an act of linguistic eugenics. We need to say as a nation that this is who we are and this is what we believe in, or else apply for the franchise for the fifty-first state, or go knocking on the back door of Buckingham Palace and ask her Majesty if she will accept back her most humble, and penitent, servants.