Monday, June 26, 2006

"Spoken" Irish

Some guy that don't speak Irish goodStudents and advocates of the Irish language alike are to be forgiven any wry smiles or mirthless chuckles they may have indulged in on reading in Friday's Irish Independent that the level of spoken Irish in the educational institutions of the state is "in freefall." Those familiar with the issues in the revival of the language are to be excused if the remarks reminded them of nothing so much as a doughty old dowager on the Titanic complaining about a waiter serving red wine with the fish while the Atlantic waters washed the table away.

It's like the old saw about Northern Irish politics, where those that thought they saw a solution had to be informed that the only reason they thought they saw a solution was that they did not fully understand the problem in the first place. As such, to fret and worry over the state of spoken Irish is to miss the elephant in the room; that is, that the State has been criminally negligent in its responsibilities towards the language and it's only the efforts of enthusiasts, idealists and amateurs - to say nothing of cheques guaranteed by Her Majesty's Government across the way - that are keeping the ancient language in such a state of life as she currently endures.

For the past number of years, certainly since An Spailpín was in school - and that's not today or yesterday, I sadly note - emphasis on the spoken, rather than the written, language has been all the rage. I'm sure the best of intentions were behind it, as the earnest and idealistic remarked that it was a terrible thing to be able to write and read a language, but not to speak it. Unfortunately, twenty years down the line, we are still unable to speak our language, and are now considerably further towards illiteracy in reading and writing her as well. If this is progress, the Irish language will not survive much more of it.

It's always rather confused An Spailpín how a language that has no received pronunciation can be thought as a "spoken language" anyway - the absence of RP means that there is no official guideline on what the spoken language sounds like. Take "dubh," the Irish for the colour black - is it pronounced like the English "do," or the English "dove"? Nobody knows, but everyone is damned if they will change the way they were taught in school - even when they say they despised the language in school and that their teacher was a monster and a sadist.

There are three - at least - recognised dialects of Irish, and possibly more. Irish language enthusiasts claim that it's easy to tell them apart after only a little study. That may be true for talented linguists, but for twelve and thirteen year olds in secondary school, already hopelessly confused by inconsistent teaching standards in the national schools, it's all too much. So they just give up, and the language inches just that little bit closer to Eternity as the generations go by.

Back in the 1920s, at the height of the language revival, the revivalists had a choice - they could take the classical form of Irish, which lasted until about the Flight of the Earls in the early 18th century, give or take a generation, as their template for the return of the language to the people, or they could consider the language as spoken in the Irish speaking areas of Kerry, Galway and Donegal as time capsules, that preserved the spoken language of the people in an ideal and pure state.

Miserably, they chose the latter option. Blinded by a philosophy that was one part Rousseau, one part Marxist, and one part I don't know what, they failed to notice when they were setting "the spoken language of the people" as their ideal that the spoken language of the people is English, actually. They also failed to note that all "spoken" languages are dynamic, ever-changing, which means that there is never a solid rock there on which to build a church. Better had they chosen the bardic Irish; it would have been difficult, but at least a high water mark would have been set, and everyone would know where they stand.

Beyond that, although not a linguist by any means, An Spailpín Fánach has severe doubts about this whole "spoken language" method of learning. It's like those books you see in airports, that promise you fluent French or German after three weeks' study. Anybody that clever doesn't do their book shopping in airports. Latin has survived for two thousand years by generation after generation sitting on hard benches and chanting "hic, haec, hoc..." until it went in their heads and stayed there. Maybe there's something to be learned from all that. Go dtéimidse slán go leir, agus ár dteanga féin linn. But An Spailpín is not that hopeful, I'm afraid.

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