Irish: how can an endangered language be a threat?

10 Feb 2017 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 10 Feb 2017

UNESCO map showing languages at most risk

It is time we had a mature debate about the Irish language.  To do so we need to get a much broader context for our discussions. 

The global population is currently around seven billion and we speak around 7,000 different languages. This may come as a shock to many in this part of the world, but multilingualism is the norm.

Sadly, by the end of this century around 50% of those languages will no longer be spoken. Academics are collecting recordings of those most under threat, so they can be preserved in some form. They are having to work fast. If you average out the predicted loss, a language dies every four months.

There are many examples of languages which are only spoken by a handful of people. And when they die the language, developed over millennia dies with them.

 Linguists are agreed on the causes of the demise of languages: globalisation is a big factor, as is political turmoil in some regions and the process they call “assimilation”, whereby people switch to the dominant language of their country or region. This brings benefits as internet usage increases and the global trend of people moving from rural locations to cities accelerates.  Making sure you speak the dominant language is essential for employment and social interaction.

At the forefront of this huge global shift is the English language which is the lingua franca of the digital age. Today those speaking English as a second language outnumber native English speakers by hundreds of millions.

So why should this concern us for a second: languages evolve, they die and they are replaced. If English is destined to be a universal second language, why not get rid of the rest altogether. Would we be worse off for it?

Not necessarily in direct economic terms. But to regard language in such a way is to misrepresent what is at stake.

Native English speakers would not for one second accept the demise of their own language if the converse was proposed. Our language connects us to our ancestors, our culture and our heritage. We all know that. Suggest to a native English speaker that his or her language doesn’t matter and they would be as well off speaking Chinese would provoke outrage and rightly so. To destroy the English language and let it die would be to cut us off from so much that we value, not least our literary and artistic traditions. What would become of Shakespeare, of Dickens of great political speeches, or the majesty of King James’s Bible?

The English language is more than a means of communication, it helps define those who speak it.

Here is just one example of how culture and language are inter-twined.  The Mohawk language is one of the 170 indigenous languages still spoken on the American continent. In Mohawk language there is no “I”. This reflects the belief that everyone is part of a relationship, nobody is alone. So in Mohawk you cannot say: “I am sick,” instead you say: “The sickness has come to me.”

 Language reflects culture because it is inseparable from it. That alone is reason to do all we can to preserve it.

We would all agree that we should preserve, as far as we can our built and natural heritage - our old buildings, our mountains, lakes and rivers, the rolling drumlins and the beautiful coastline. We’re prepared to invest in them. And all citizens of Northern Ireland are proud and delighted that the Giant’s Causeway is on the UNESCO list of world heritage sites.

But UNESCO has more than one list. It also has one of endangered languages, which can be accessed here.

Irish is one of them.

Recently Google has joined the global campaign to save endangered languages. It funds the Endangered Languages Project (ELP) which uses technology to help the fight against the extinction of languages.

It states: “With every language that dies we lose an enormous cultural heritage; the understanding of how humans relate to the world around us; scientific, medical and botanical knowledge; and most importantly, we lose the expression of communities’ humour, love and life. In short, we lose the testimony of centuries of life.”

Its researchers seem a little cynical about census returns, which can overstate the number of native speakers of a language. Its 2006 estimate for the remaining number of native Irish speakers was a little above 20,000. That’s around 0.5% of the population.  It gives its rationale for that here

I could not find estimates for native Irish speakers in Northern Ireland, there will not be many.

Across the world governments are waking up to the importance of preserving endangered languages. Up until the 1970s, for example the Canadian Mohawks were educated in religious schools which banned the use of their language.

Today those on the US side of the border are getting help. In 2006 George W Bush signed off on the Esther Martínez Native American Language Preservation Act which provided funding for language survival and restoration programmes. This was formal recognition that there were people living in America before Europeans arrived and that their culture and language is a precious part of the nation’s shared heritage and that it is important that it should be safeguarded.

Meanwhile in Northern Ireland we have had Irish words scraped off manhole covers, boats named in Irish renamed and the movement to protect and revive an endangered language accused of attempting to use it to subvert the state.

There is of course a political dimension to the preservation of the Irish language: in so far as it is an expression of cultural and by extension national identity. And from the days of the Gaelic revival it has been associated with nationalism, and nationalist politicians will, as they have in the past, assert and politicise its use.

But is there anything necessarily wrong with that? Is it subversive to want to preserve a language and to uphold it as a part of cultural identity? How can it be wrong for someone to want to feel Irish and to express it by helping to revive the language?

Exactly the same applies to Ulster Scots.

In a grown-up world, a world that wants to reconcile its people and come to terms with its past, preserving and reviving endangered languages is important. The only major countries on the planet that think otherwise are Russia and China both of which still energetically suppress minority tongues.

For native English speakers, whose language is now everywhere, to express fear of a language that is under threat of extinction is absurd.

The proper debate is not whether we should be investing in protecting and reviving the Irish language – and indeed Ulster Scots – but how best that can be achieved and at what cost.


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