Thursday, March 28, 2013

Voices silenced!

Is the future of Irish what we think or expect?

I never heard of James McCloskey until the week before last when somebody mentioned that I should read a book by him. This person said that they would look it up for me and did so and bravely lent it to me. I must remember to return it!

This is a book, or perhaps one could call it a pamphlet, the author calls it an essay, for it tells its story in a mere 50 pages in either Irish or English. It is called "Voices Silenced - Has Irish a future?" and the note on the fly-leaf calls it "A timely examination of the current state of the Irish Language. The author's appreciation of Irish as a world language, of its linguistic and ecological importance, makes for challenging read." And so it is! (A Kindle version is available through Amazon!)

"..the mysterious and magical ability of a
child to make a language out of nothing..."
Having read it through I must say I found it strangely liberating for it put forward views on language and linguistics that I, as a layman who has thought about the "language question" a lot, certainly hadn't known before.  The incredible linguistic ingenuity of pre-teen children was something I hadn't realised. He talks about the responsibility of those who, like me, have the ability to use this language, to encourage and enrich it not for our "nation" but for mankind.

Both sides of the argument so-called "Irish Language enthusiasts" and those opposed to them have essentially a superficial appearance of profound disagreement, based he maintains based on insular indeed arrogant arguments. Fundamentally "behind the surface acrimony lurks a silent consensus...largely taken for granted and hidden from critical scrutiny," and, says the author, "largely mistaken!"

He starts off by talking of the appalling situation in the world of the 21st century, of the estimated 6,800 distinguishable languages in the world in 2001 and estimated 50% are now moribund - spoken by a relatively small number of adults and not being learned by children. If this statistic is correct than half of the languages will be extinct in the very near future. (Here is one of them which expired in February 2013.) This can happen quite suddenly and he cites examples where this has happened in a space of twenty years.

He discusses the inimical effect of the great world languages of European conquest, Spanish, English, French and the use of their languages in suppression of the languages of the conquered. This results in a frightening impoverishment of the world experience for when a language goes so does an "encyclopedia of histories, mythologies, jokes, songs, philosophies, riddles, superstitions, games, sciences, hagiographies - the whole cumulitive effort of a people over centuries to understand the circumstances of its own existance!" He goes on to say that "the corresponding narrowness of the world-views that remain is equally frightening!"

The fact that this is happening is not contested anywhere though the reasons, the speed with which it is happening, and what should be done about it, are all argued about. Yet there is more of a fuss created over the possible extinction of certain species of animal than there is about this uniquely human gift, the gift of language and what it contains. He discusses why this should be.

Let's celebrate!
Having frightened the life out of us he then goes on to look at the situation here. He is by no means pessimistic although he does recognise that there is a "problem." Looking at the facts he says that there is little chance of Irish becoming moribund in the technical sense in the next 100 years. Furthermore he says that "Claims occasionally and casually made that Irish is already dead border on the irrational."

He then proceeds to examine what is in fact happening, in the Gaeltacht areas, the new Gaeltacht in Belfast, and what I suppose one could call "occasional" Gaeltacht communities in other cities and the Irish medium schools and colleges and come up with refreshing views. Looking back at what has happened since Conradh na Gaeilge was founded in 1893 he says that what has been achieved is very substantial, very unusual and indeed unique. It is something to be celebrated, albeit soberly as it is constructed on a delicate and shifting foundation.

I would love to give this book to several bêtes noires of the "Irish Language lobby." Notably certain contributors to Independent Newspapers and the entire staff of Prime Time would, I feel, benefit from a perusal of these 50 pages provided they looked at them with an open mind. But also many people in this same "Irish Language Lobby" would benefit from it. It might perhaps help them change the focus of what they are aiming for and to look at the language, and all languages spoken in Ireland, from a different viewpoint, a viewpoint that looks at language as a world treasure, a unique repository of humanity's experience and invention. It would, I feel, lead perhaps to a less virulent and more fruitful discussion.

I would like every Government Minister, especially the Ministers for the Gaeltacht and Education, every TD and Senator to beg borrow or steal a copy of this book. It gives a different, and for this reader, an exciting way of looking at our language, our children, the ecology and our civilisation.

This book is an easy way for us to better understand what is happening and also to decide what is important and what is not as our language progresses into the future.

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