December 30, 2004

McCloskey on the rebounding of Irish

When Bill Poser recently pointed out to us an article about the revival of Irish, it occurred to me to ask a colleague about the subject. Jim McCloskey, Professor of Linguistics at the University of California, Santa Cruz, is one of the foremost experts in the world on the modern Irish language, and certainly the most prominent of those taking an interest in theoretical linguistics. His brilliantly worked-out and impeccably detailed theoretical works on Irish have been appearing since the late 1970s, along with philological notes (published not just about but in Irish) and a couple of popular works for an Irish audience. He regularly visits the Irish-speaking areas of Ireland to do fieldwork, and is just back from there. Here are his reactions, presented (in green, naturally) as a guest post. —GKP

Although I haven't seen the original article that Bill Poser reports on, I'll try to say something in response to his report of it. I've just come back from three and a half months in Ireland, much of that time spent in discussing these issues with a range of people (academics, teachers, broadcasters, writers, friends ...).

I think that talk of a ‘rebound’ for the language is misplaced, but I do not equate that position with pessimism. The situation is a complex and fluid one, but largely it seems to me that things are on the same trajectory that they have been on for several decades (with a couple of interesting changes). By which I mean that the traditional Irish-using communities (the Gaeltachtai/) continue to shrink and the language continues to retreat in those communities. Nobody that I know who is involved in those communities is optimistic about their future as Irish-speaking communities (though lots of other good things are happening to them and in them).

The observers I trust most (friends and colleagues engaged in intense fieldwork in Gaeltacht communities) maintain that the process of normal acquisition (for Irish) ceased in most areas in the middle 70's, and it is now increasingly difficult to find people younger than about 30 who control traditional Gaeltacht Irish. If you walk along a road in a Gaeltacht area and try to listen for the language being used by groups of teenagers and children by themselves, it is always (in my recent experience) English. Someone I know who is the principal of a primary school in the Donegal Gaeltacht reported that of the 22 children who entered his school at the beginning of the current year, only two had, in his judgment, sufficient Irish.

So traditional Gaeltacht Irish will almost certainly cease to exist in the next 30 years or so.

But what is unique in the Irish situation, I think, has been the creation of a second language community now many times larger than the traditional Gaeltacht communities (I think that 100,000 is a reasonable estimate for the size of this community). And being a part of that community is a lively and engaging business. A friend of mine who produces a weekly current affairs program in Irish on TV reports that it is always possible to do a report on whatever topic they like in any part of the country and find people who are willing and able to do the business in Irish. And it is true that certain recent developments have boosted this community and its self-confidence---the success of some poets (Celia de Fre/ine) and musicians (Liam O/ Maonlai/, John Spillane, Larry Mullen), the availability of an Irish TV channel, a vigorous presence on the net, and the opening of two trendy coffee-shops in the center of Dublin.

There is a great range of varieties called `Irish' in use in this community. People like me speak a close approximation of traditional Gaeltacht Irish and there are people who speak new urban calques, heavily influenced by English in every way. For the communities of children growing up around Irish-medium schools in urban centres it may be right to speak of pidginization and creolization (along with a lot of clever inter-language play like the recent ‘cad-ever’). Many teenagers are thoroughly bidialectal, switching easily from the version of Gaeltacht Irish they have from their parents to the new urban varieties in use among their peers.

It will be interesting to see what happens to these varieties when the model of Gaeltacht Irish becomes a memory, but one thing that is clear is that this community is not going to fade away just because the Gaeltacht fades away.

And maybe that is what a half-successful language maintenance effort is going to look like (maybe that is the best that can be hoped for). It seems to be very difficult to work against the historical processes that lead to language-shift. But what the Irish experience teaches us is that it is far from impossible to create a new community of second-language users with all the usual and lively trappings (literature, music, radio, TV, journalism, schools, politics).

Of course, what is ‘maintained’ or ‘revived’ in this process, is very different indeed from the language which was the original focus of revivalist efforts. But in this context, as in most, purism is surely misplaced.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at December 30, 2004 07:00 AM