Friday, May 09, 2014

Destructive Love and the First Language

First published in the Western People on Monday.

Psychologists call it destructive love. Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights. Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind. The poor lonely singer in Love is Pleasing, who left her friends and her own religion, she left them all for to follow him.

All of these great doomed loves pale to nothing compared to the hopeless of the Gaeilgeoir’s love for Gaeilge, the ancient language of the Gael. It came to mind last week, while reading an online discussion about the new postcodes.

Someone remarked that maybe the postcodes would allow letters addressed in the first language to be delivered a little bit livelier than they are currently. Someone else wondered if the anyone addressing letters in the first language wasn’t just being a little awkward, and would they not just stop showing off and cut out the nonsense.

At this stage, people licked their lips and waited for the fur to fly, because suggesting to Gaeilgeoirí that insisting on using Irish is just being awkward is like going into the toughest bar in town and ordering a pint of milk. It’s shillelagh time.

In this case, the Gaeilgeoir didn’t rise to the bait. What would be the point? In all our hearts, we know the battle is being lost. It’s visible from all points.

The state was founded on poets’ dreams. Not quite as substantial a foundation as considerable riches in natural resources or harbours vital to international seaways. One of the poets’ dreams was that everyone on the island would be speaking Irish within a generation. The superior culture would wash east from the Gaeltacht and swept the inferior culture of the oppressor into the Irish Sea, where it belonged. Darwinism at its finest.

Well, that didn’t happen. The Gaeltacht is still considered the one true well of Irish linguistic purity, but the reality is the last person to only speak Irish lived, died and was buried long ago. The language is laid out like Tim Finnegan at his famous wake, with a copy of Dineen’s Dictionary at her feet and a DVD of TG4’s Laochra Gael at her head.

Every time that different Governments tried something new to save the language, their plans blew up in their face. Attempts to standardize the language were dismissed as “Civil Service Irish.”

The spelling of the language was modernized, making books printed in the 1920s and 30s, when the fire burned brightly among Gaels, very difficult to read now. And the project failed to be consistent in its revisions, leaving the orthography of Irish broken in bits, having fallen between two schools.

Compulsory Irish was the way to go in the early days of the State. In the 1960s, opinions had changed, and compulsory Irish was seen as killing the language through coercion. So compulsory Irish was done away with, and the decline accelerated instead of slowing down. Damned if they did, damned if they didn’t.

The language struggles to keep up with the modern world – how could it not? An Béal Beo, written by Tomás Ó Máille and first published in 1936, is still in print today and is regarded as one of the great works of scholarship in the language. But the words and phrases Ó Máille records describe the lifestyle of a very different people in a very different Ireland to today’s.

Just looking through the chapter titles emphasises the changes – chapter six has words for turf and the bog, chapter seven deals with the fair, chapter nine looks at seol an fhíadóra, the weaver’s loom.

And then, of course, when all hope is lost, it happens. You hear her voice in the last place you were expecting, and you forget everything negative that’s gone before. You are hers and she is yours and you will love your own language until the end of time for one or both of you.

For instance: you may wish to install a thing called Linux on your computer, in the hopes of keeping up with the modern world. During the installation, you will given a choice of language options, and you get a shock when you see that those options include Irish.

Linux is open-source code. That means it’s free to use, but it also means it must be written for love, not money. Nobody gets paid for writing open-source code – how could they? If it’s given away for free, how could anyone get paid to write it?

But people write it anyway, out of love. Love of different things – computers, obviously, but also love of a certain vision of humanity, where everybody works together for the common good, because it’s the right thing to do.

And in the midst of all these pale but noble souls there was at least one, but probably a few, Gaeilgeoirí. Every day they come in, open up their machines and open up Linux, looking for the tables where the language labels are stored.

All the usual suspects are in all the usual places –haughty France, fiery Spain, world-conquering England – all the great countries of the world are represented by their own languages. And then the pale and noble souls would get typing and clicking and saving, so as to make sure that the strange, throaty, hardsoft, staccato-sibilant language clinging to life on a small island on the western edge of Europe could take her place with the best of them in the shiny halls of cyberspace.

Some Gaelgeoirí like to believe that Gaeilge captures something of the Irish soul that is untranslatable, that can only be understood by those who think in Irish. The language’s enemies say that even if that were true, that day is long past.

But maybe the way that the language has managed to survive for all these years, is reflective of the Irish themselves. That our language’s dogged survival mirrors the Irish nation’s no less dogged survival.

An island people, stubborn, quixotic, inconsistent and, in many ways, much better off they’d give up the struggle and just be like everyone else. But damned if they want to be like everyone else, and so we march on into the future just the same. Nár lagaí Dia ceachtar acu.