Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Gaelic Lives !

At least a couple times a year, I check up on the survival of the Gaelic language. Although I haven't a drop of Irish blood, I grew up near Boston. My classmates and friends who were of Irish ancestry shared family stories with me. Even as an outsider, the universal themes of struggling to make it in a new country still resonate with me.

The news of Irish language survival is encouraging. Even the BBC does broadcasts in the language. Books are being published in it. What is even more encouraging is the news that 25% of people in the Irish Republic claim to speak Gaelic regularly.

A reporter for the Guardian wanted to test the 25% figure, as well as rules that require that government offices make accomodations for Gaelic speakers. Manchan Magan set out on a tour of Ireland in which he would only speak Gaelic. Despite being fluent in five languages, he toured Ireland pretending to speak only Gaelic. He wanted to see if There was a viable Gaelic speaking presence outside of some of the remote rural villages maintained by the Irish government as Irish language areas.

Magan did a documentary about his tour called"No Bearla" (Only English) which was broadcast on the BBC. Clips of the documentary are on You Tube.

Starting off in Dublin, he found his first day as a Gaelic monoglot to be most draining. Some of those to whom he spoke were downright rude. He described one such encounter as follows in his Guardian article.

"I went first to the Ordnance Survey Office to get a map of the country. (As a semi-state organisation it has a duty to provide certain services in Irish.) "Would you speak English maybe?" the sales assistant said to me. I replied in Irish. "Would you speak English?!" he repeated impatiently. I tried explaining once again what I was looking for. "Do you speak English?" he asked in a cold, threatening tone. "Sea," I said, nodding meekly. "Well, can you speak English to me now?" I told him as simply as I could that I was trying to get by with Irish.

"I'm not talking to you any more," he said. "Go away."

Magan contrasted the reaction of ordinary Anglophone Irish to those who spoke Spanish, French or other languages of the European Union. He found a friendliness that contrasted with some of the tense hostility he experienced as a speaker of only Irish. He attributed this to guilty conscience. The Irish Republic was founded as an Irish homeland. The revival of Irish as a national language was important to those who believed in Irish independence. Even among those who speak English only is the nagging thought that perhaps their ignorance of the ancestral tongue is a victory for the British.

Magan found that Aer Lingus, the Irish national airline had no Gaelic language option on their web site. He dispatched a disgruntled e mail to customer service which was ignored. Although the article and his documentary are almost three years old, the Aer Lingus web site still does not feature Gaelic.

Magan was systematic in testin the public's fluency in Gaelic. He stood on the street singing filthy songs in Gaelic. The overwhelming majority of passers by showed no comprehension whatsoever of his dirty songs. Not one person took offense. He even stood outside a bank and asked passers by if they would help him rob it. No one who had any felonious proclivities was fluent enough in Gaelic to investigate his "job offer".

He found enough people who did speak Gaelic to save him from despair. What was even more encouraging was the discovery that there are schools where Gaelic is the medium of instruction. Far from being archaic, the schools are academically competitive. The language of the young students is an evolving modern Gaelic with its slang and terminology for everything from hiphop to the world of computers. Among some young people, Gaelic has achieved a sort of hipness that bodes well for its future. In the rural areas, the government has a program where those families that pass a test in Gaelic fluency receive an annual payment from the government.

There is a developing rift between urban speakers of Gaelic and residents of the Gaeltacht, (the Gaelic speaking part of Ireland) due to outside influences in urban areas as well as the simplifications created by those who have mastered the language through study.

There are problems with preserving Irish. It is divided into regional dialects, which makes it difficult to adopt a uniform spelling system. Despite spelling simplification, those who want to read Irish classics will still need to learn the old system of writing. But most languages that are preserved are also changed in the process. It seems as though Irish will survive, changing as it does so.

I wish the Irish people success in preserving their language. And I thank Manchan Magan of the Guardian for sharing his story about modern Gaelic with an English speaking audience.

No comments: