August 1, 2015

There is a very interesting article now up on Slugger O’Toole, based around an interview with Dr Diarmuid Johnson: Do urban Gaeltachts produce a compromised Irish?. Go read it now — it’s well written and very well informed, especially if you compare it to the general level of debate around in the Irish language in Northern Ireland (as some — though by no means all — comments demonstrate).

Full disclosure — I’m an admirer of Diarmuid Johnson, and I owe him a debt of gratitude for the kind assistance I received from him in the course of my own research in West Wales. Nevertheless, I do think that Barton Creeth is on to something in the final paragraph, saying

There will be many who argue Johnson’s purism about the language is misplaced. […] What we have in Belfast, in terms of language revival, is probably as good as it gets, and other minority language activists can learn a lot from the Belfast experience. The hybrid, urban, pidginised and creolised Irish of Belfast, Dublin, Derry and other cities across Ireland is probably the future of the language, and it likely means a new chapter in the history of the language.

What’s really jagging for me is the use of ‘compromised’ to describe the non-traditional (‘urban’) varieties of Irish. I suspect it starts out as an aesthetic judgement of someone very familiar with traditional Irish, but equally I suspect being perceived by many — including those outside the ‘movement’ — as a value judgement. Indeed, in that same paragraph we find the burden of justification being laid squarely on the minority language users:

In the meantime, parents and educators need to seriously think about the source of Irish in Irish-medium education, and whether Irish-medium education, in its current form, offers children the best possible resources to fully develop intellectually and emotionally. I’ll look forward to hearing the responses from people who work in Irish Medium Education as well as from urban language activists.

Let’s be honest for a moment: would we be hearing these challenges to prove that bilingualism offers the ‘best possible resources’ for the ‘full development’ of children if the language in question were a ‘major world language’ rather than a minority one with a history of political string attachment?

There is no doubt that traditional varieties of Irish as spoken in the Gaeltacht are under severe pressure as it finds its position weakened as a community language. An increasing proportion of those who use Irish are ‘new speakers’, with relatively little access to traditional Irish as their input in language learning (as Johnson rightly points out). Indeed, some scholars, such as Dr Brian Ó Curnáin at DIAS, have argued that the point of no return for traditional varieties of Irish is very close or already past, and ‘new-speaker’ Irish is what we’re stuck with.

New-speaker Irish is undoubtedly different from traditional Irish in many respects. It’s interesting, however, to look at how exactly it is different. For most people, I suspect, the most appalling sign of decline is the use of English borrowings (after all, for the average layperson, language equals vocabulary) and calques, as people complain about Gaelscoil kids saying things like tá sin ag déanamh mo cheann isteach. But acquiring a language is, of course, much more than acquiring the words: it’s also about the grammatical structures and the different ways language is used in society. Some of the available research, such as that from Prof. Alison Henry at Ulster University (disclosure: a former colleague) has shown that to the extent learners in Irish-medium education do not attain the target state, this shows patterns associated not with some sort of terribly monstrous unnatural language but with the lack of sufficient input in an otherwise ‘normal’ acquisition context. Dr Claire Nance has in her thesis shown how we can use our knowledge of the processes of language variation and change to look at the Gaelic spoken in Glasgow’s Gaelic-language school. The conclusion here, again, is that while these varieties are influenced by English, they still behave like real, living languages do.

I should like to emphasize that this is not some sort of professional ‘language-changes-deal-with-it’ attitude that one sometimes has to adopt in the face of clueless pedantic hand-wringing about language. Of course, this is language change that happens in the social context of a majority-minority dynamic, so the adoption of new, English-influence norms might not necessarily be value-neutral. Nevertheless, I do find ‘new-speaker’ Irish to be less objectionable than the idea that it might be somehow so inferior as not to merit any support at all. Of course it would be absolutely great if we could have a situation where urban Irish speakers have the opportunity to get enough input to acquire beautiful traditional Irish, but let’s face it — neither polity on the island of Ireland has the political will to channel the kind of resources this would require. There is a lot that can — and should — be done to support the continued existence and future viability of traditional Irish-speaking communities, but to say that non-traditional varieties are little better than urban pidgins is, I think, counterproductive.

The thing is: abandoning these speakers massively narrows the base from which the future of the language can be built. As the western Gaeltachtaí shrink, seeing Irish as a Gaeltacht matter is putting it on a path to oblivion. The state can only dedicate resources to the language as long as it has some sort of duty of care towards its speakers. Once Irish goes the way of Latin in society, it goes the same way in terms of funding for arts, university teaching, research, and all the rest — it becomes a niche pursuit. In this context it is mad to say that just because Dubliners use English words and much prefer tá sé ina dhochtúir (if they’re lucky) to wrangling with the copula they aren’t really Irish speakers. It’s not just a tactical mistake if you’re a language campaigner — it’s just not the right thing to do.

All that said, it is of course imperative that the teaching of Irish (as with any other language, and especially a minority language) equip the learners with as much knowledge of the ‘target’ variety as possible. This, of course, requires resources, which aren’t really forthcoming just now, but — in an ideal world — there would be a rethinking of how the language is taught. Diarmuid Jonhson is right to point out that the Gaeltacht simply can’t produce the numbers of native-speaker teachers — teacher training in the future will inevitably have to deal with L2 speakers, so a focus on the quality of the language pedagogy there is absolutely vital. And — here’s a bit of pro domo sua — what is also sorely needed is a big programme of language documentation. To some extent, the teaching of Irish as a language has relied on the continuing availability of at least some L1 speakers in the profession. This has meant that the gap between language teaching and the linguistic study of the language — as wide in Ireland as anywhere in the English-speaking world — has not been at the top of people’s concerns. But we should be worried.

There are academic descriptions of Irish — mostly done in the mid to late 20th century, in line with the linguistic theories prevalent then — and there is a wealth of archival material, but there is so, so much more than can and should be done. Linguistic science has come on massively since then, and without taking anything at all away from the achievements of these scholars, to whom we owe an eternal debt for documenting the language, we are now in a position to ask questions that would just not occur back then. And these are the sort of questions that a teacher should be able to answer if they come up — and when the teacher is not a ‘traditional’ speaker, how are they going to do it? As a very small example, I’m now engaged in research (with Dr Máire Ní Chiosáin of University College Dublin, with thanks to the Royal Society of Edinburgh for funding) that, at bottom, addresses what you’d think was a fairly basic question — how many vowels are there in Irish and Scottish Gaelic? The existing descriptions – and some of them are truly excellent — just don’t contain the sort of data that would allow us to answer this apparently innocuous question reliably. And don’t get me started on syntax, which for now an advanced learner can really only acquire by way of osmosis.

This is just one example of the disconnect between school- and even university-level pedagogy and linguistic research, but I think it’s really, really worrying in this minority-language context. My colleagues in Celtic & Scottish Studies here at Edinburgh hope to begin addressing this by including a linguistics component in their new degree in Gaelic and Primary Education, but this is only a start, and anyway there is just so much more of the actual research that needs done on these languages.

But in any case, even this little self-serving rant aside, the phenomenon (I’m carefully avoiding saying ‘problem’) Diarmuid Johnson has identified is real enough: the education systems patently do not give the learners the amount of exposure to traditional varieties for them to be acquired reliably. This should, of course, be remedied — it probably won’t any time soon, realistically, but one can always hope. But even if it isn’t, new-speaker Irish (or Gaelic, or Welsh, or your minority language of choice) is here to stay, and its speakers are friends to the language, not a blight on the landscape. Even if their Irish is imperfect by the high standards of the past, they deserve help and support.


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I’m Pavel Iosad, and I'm a Lecturer in Theoretical Phonology in the department of Linguistics and English Language at the University of Edinburgh. ¶ You can always go to the start page to learn more.

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