Friday, June 15, 2007

Endangered Species: Irish Gaelic?

Bloomsday today. "Cyclops" remains my favorite, if not the most moving or memorable chapter of "Ulysses," with The Citizen (imbibing the spirit of the fearsomely bearded GAA founder Michael Cusack whose image graces today's blog) and Garryowen squaring off against our man Poldy. Via, this letter from the Irish Independent may cause some to recall the fulminations of the man against the alien hordes at Davy Byrne's door. Yet, when Polish is the second language rather than Irish of the country today, does Gaeilge have a future when Leaving Certs are now examining fluent graduates in Lithuanian and Chinese?

Michael Cronin, of whom I have written on my blog earlier this year within the context of my eco-critical essay on language learners, calls for renewed attention to save endangered languages as we would fragile fauna or threatened flora. Surrounded as I type this today by three homes being gouged out of the delicate hillsides around my home, and another lot of shade trees and bird nests to be razed soon for a stucco monstrosity only ten feet from our house, I live in the actual landscape under continued stress as we humans enlarge our carbon footprints, our concrete sensibility, and our own demands to settle here and move wherever we damn well please. How our human freedom will co-exist, and how long, with the draught scorched, pollutant clogged, and constant construction confounds me. My academic thinking, then, as with the professor whose letter is featured today below, flows into my own experiences. As it should be.

My essay can be found here, in html at the link or also pdf from the site.

If a half million people enter Ireland the past few years, 10% of the population, how many, realistically, will wish to learn Gaeilge? Annette Byrne's primer for grown-ups in our multicultural contexts, "Gaeilge agus Fáilte," (reviewed by me here and on Amazon US) presents an opportunity for learners in and out of Ireland. This is to be abundantly praised. I know immigrants, both native English and non-native English speakers, who have contributed much to their new Irish homeland. As a student stranded far away myself from the heartland, I share this welcome to engage with the language. But I also fear that the sheer numbers of arrivals into Ireland, or the native habitat vs. transplanted species analogy made by Dr. David Barnwell below, may choke off the resources that Irish needs to survive. This difficult language requiring an adaptive mindset offers its rewards sparingly to those of us pampered by cognates, Romance languages, or sloth in assuming all we need is English to express us, wherever whenever however.

"Yu Ming is ainm dom," that I posted about a few weeks past, is one vision. It's a film both idealistic and acerbic in its concise and witty commentary on the parlous state of the "first official language." You might say that Yu Ming finds a happy ending which I will not spoil, but surely the very charm of Daniel O'Hara's deservedly prizewinning work is its novelty compared with the reality of most of those in Ireland today, newly off the plane or there for a dozen millennia. This reply to such fictional depictions forces us to see Ireland through the eyes of a professor of Spanish, who should know, from NUI Maynooth. It will not win prizes. But it's another vision, likelier than Yu Ming's heroic gesture. Does Ireland invite a perilous future if many of his compatriots native or immigrant spread appealingly anglicized values that, however Joyce ridiculed them (failed student of Pearse's night classes though he picked up the language, as
Finnegans Wake shows to be sure, and like Leopold an eloquent foil to the bigotry he--- perhaps exaggeratedly for many of his real-life counterparts of the Celtic Revival?-- attributed to Cusack and his antisemitic Citizen), impel real Yu Mings to resist with their own devotion to reviving, restoring, and using in daily life Gaeilge?

Yu Ming sees a Dublin that the Citizen never could have predicted nor could we have thought of such fifteen years ago. It's the city we all have to deal with in an Ireland that looks more and more like the rest of the world it longed to become and helped create. Now it's the turn of the Irish, like the British and the American, to redefine their identity, their complexion, their culture. But, as with the Welsh and the Scots, let us hope that this rush into globalization preserves the language, and does not become, as with the decimation of Cornish and Manx, the remains of Elmet (see Ted Hughes' poetry) and the defeat of the Gododdin, the dwindling chants of Algonquin and Arapaho but an imperial epitaph, a remnant of voice among the offramps to chain stores and blare of CNN.

13ú Meitheamh 2007

The threat to language

In welcoming the provision of Leaving Cert exams in languages not taught in Ireland, Gaeltacht Minister Eamon O'Cuiv declares that the arrival to our country of tens of thousands of speakers of these and other foreign languages is beneficial to Irish. The minister provides no evidence for his assertion, nor could he.

In a lifetime of studying language and linguistics I have yet to see a case where an already debilitate minority language is reinvigorated by the coming of throngs of users of other languages. Ireland shows no exception to the rule that strong languages overrun weak languages. Just a decade ago Irish was the second most commonly spoken language in this country. Today it has been supplanted by Polish. Nor is Irish now in third position, nor in fourth, not even in fifth.

Indeed one needs no expertise in philology to know that weak native species are imperiled by the arrival of strong outsiders. Has the red squirrel benefited from the arrival of the grey, would the Irish hare survive as distinct species if tens of thousands of foreign hares were imported onto Bull Island?

This is not to imply that the threat to the language comes as a result of malice on the part of immigrants. The fact is merely that the great majority (more than 99pc, surely) of migrant workers simply have no interest in Irish nor any desire to learn it. They exhibit as much curiosity about the ancient language of this nation as Americans show about Arapaho, Allegany or Algonquin.

The immigration of the past ten years or so has been unplanned in its execution, unprecedented in our history and unparalleled anywhere on the face of the globe. Governments and employer organisations have had their own reasons for promoting the mass importation of migrant workers. But please Mr O'Cuiv, don't insult our intelligence by claiming that the arrival of hundreds of thousands of speakers of Polish, Chinese etc. is somehow going to aid our ailing ancestral tongue.

Dr David Barnwell
Roinn na Spainnise,
Ollscoil na hEireann,
Ma Nuad, Co. Chill Dara

Irish Independent - Lthch:
Letter to the Editor.

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