This website is a very interesting overview of the state of the Irish language today. It’s a publishing house that does nothing but publish Irish language books and tapes and books and audio on the subject of the Irish language. One would have expected them to go out of business long ago, but not only are they still in business, but they seem to be doing well. I was amazed that there was even a market for Irish language literature, but apparently there is.
There are quite a few authors of Irish language novels, poetry, short stories, children’s books and even non-fiction! The first four, one might expect, but the last was really a shocker. Some of these are published in bilingual Irish-English editions.
The reports of the death of Irish language, like that of Twain, are premature. And looking back historically, it seems that Irish was in its worst shape about 100 years ago or so. Since then, things have improved dramatically. Of course Ireland was a British colony at the time, the Brits waged an all-out war against the Irish language which was very succcessful.
With independence in 1920 came a role for the Irish language. At some point, 12 years of schooling in Irish was required, and it still is. One of the strange things about the argument that Irish is dying is that all Irish schoolchildren get 12 years of Irish education. How could Irish possibly be dying if the whole country spends the entire school career studying Irish? It doesn’t make sense.
It’s true that Irish come out of that school system with less than perfect knowledge of Irish, but around 50% of the population are at least proficient Irish 2nd language speakers. The idea that you come out of 12 years of Irish schooling with no knowledge of the language whatsoever is absurd. People have long decried the problems with Irish language education. It’s said to be old-fashioned and no fun, and lots of Irish students hate it. Clearly, the teaching has to be upgraded somehow.
I believe that until recently, all Irish students had to pass a proficiency test in Irish to graduate from high school, but I think this has been junked. In 1968, the requirement to pass an Irish proficiency exam to work for the Irish government was trashed, as it was very unpopular. Getting rid of some of these unpopular requirements will probably benefit the language, as all these strictures did was make people hate Irish. There have been loud calls for getting rid of the mandatory 12 years of Irish study, but I don’t think that’s going down yet.
The great thing nowadays is state funding. There is a lot of state funding going into Irish. There are Irish TV stations and radio stations, but the nation’s largest Irish language daily recently closed its doors. There are Irish monthlies and weeklies though.
After high school, if you go on to university, there are vigorous Irish Language programs at the university level. Many people major in Irish, and there are quite a few jobs for translators. What exactly they are translating, I’m not sure, but I think that all major government paperwork must be in Irish and in English. There are calls to get rid of this too on grounds that it’s a waste of money, but it isn’t going to happen. A large number of Irish speak Irish every day, often sprinkling their Hibernian English with Irish words and phrases.
There has long been an obsession with Gaeltacht, the region of Ireland where Irish is the native langauge of children. This area has been shrinking for over 100 years and now exists mostly in the far west of the country. On a map, the Irish speakers appear to be falling off into the sea. It’s true that the Gaeltacht is in bad shape, but it doesn’t make sense to say that the death of the Gaeltacht will be the death of Irish.
In recent years, the government has actually been paying Gaeltacht speakers to speak Irish, which seems odd. There has been quite a bit of fraud associated with this program, and the money isn’t much anyway.
The Gaeltacht has been the poorest part of Ireland for 100 years now. The result was constant emigration from the Gaeltacht. Now that it’s doing better economically, a new curse has befallen the area. Non-Irish speakers are moving into the Gaeltacht! There are alarming that the speech of young Gaeltacht Irish speakers is full of English words. Non-Irish speakers complain about not being able to understand Irish signs in the Gaeltacht.
However, in recent years, many Irish language learners go to the Gaeltacht in the summer to study Irish and interact with Irish speakers. There are also now Irish medium schools, mostly in the Gaeltacht, but also outside of it, in which all, most of much of the curriculum is delivered in Irish. These are now running into problems as immigrants move to the Gaeltacht and insist on English-medium education for their kids.
Even if the Gaeltacht dies, there will still be a huge number of Irish speakers, mostly 2nd language speakers, with varying levels of proficiency. Many of these speak and write at a native to near native level. Some of the famous Irish language authors are actually second language speakers.
There have been loud calls to create a Modern Irish out of the Irish language, that is, to make its grammar and syntax less irregular and difficult and more sane and easy to learn. This has run into a lot of obstacles, but it’s a good idea. Irish grammar is still stuck in the 15th Century and there’s a lot of needless difficulty and irregularity in there.
One of the best books on the site was an overview of the state of the Irish language today by a leading scholar of Irish. He concluded that at least we know that in 100 years, Irish is assured of being alive and well. After that, everything is up for grabs. So Irish has at least a secure century ahead of it. But being alive in 100 years is better than what’s expected for 90% of the world’s languages, as it’s assumed that 90% of the world’s languages may not make it through the next century.
That a language in as tenuous a shape as Irish has a better future than 90% of the world’s languages is bracing indeed.