Current Affairs Politics

English Ireland. A Nation Without A Soul?

The Irish script of Dubhghlas de hÍde
The Irish script of Dubhghlas de hÍde

Wonderful article in the Irish Times by Lucille Redmond on language and identity.

“According to linguist Mark Abley, a language dies every 14 days, never to be heard again.

Pádraig Pearse’s “Tír gan teanga, tír gan anam” echoed linguistic pioneer Johann Gottfried von Herder, who wrote “The breath of our mouths is the picture of the world”, and “A nation has no idea for which its language has no word”.

Would Arabs be less Arab if they spoke German? Does it really matter if we sing English nursery rhymes to our children, and say “St Anthony guide” when we lose the keys, rather than “Dúidín, dáidín,/ An rudín deas a chaill mé,/ Go lige Día na nGrásta/ Gur bhfaighfid mé arís é”?

Abley quotes Massachusetts Institute of Technology linguist Ken Hale, who said languages “embody the intellectual wealth of the people that speak them. Losing any one of them is like dropping a bomb on the Louvre.” Irish phrasebooks, in those heady days when everyone was trying to relearn the language, expressed a tragic nobility: “My thousand (times) pitiable! My pulse, and my fair secret love.” ( Easy Lessons, or Self-Instruction in Irish, by the Rev Ulick J Bourke, 1876.) Or sly humour, like Jack Yeats’s 1911 Ceachta Beaga Gaedhilge illustration of an Ascendancy gent sceptically examining a pursy, spavined, sway-backed, knock-kneed, vicious-looking horse, captioned “Ní fiú cúig phúint an capall so”.

But today, despite Gaelscoileanna, hours per week of school teaching, road signs, documents, Gaeltachtaí, despite TG4, Raidió na Gaeltachta, Raidió na Lífe, despite everyone having the 2,000 words requisite to speak a language, Irish is falling away, its fingers slipping from our grasp as it slides and slides away.”

Overly pessimistic? To many observers the opposite would seem true: that Irish is undergoing a true revival and that it is the urban working and middle classes that are driving it. Yet, admittedly, how poor we seem when compared with other peoples, how lacking in the courage of our own convictions.

“Some years ago I worked with an Israeli youth bilingual in Hebrew and English. He asked me why everyone didn’t speak Irish, and I mumbled that maybe because everyone already spoke English, unlike Israel, where people came from different countries.

“No, more people had English in common at first, or German. Partly it was that it was made compulsory.” “What? You’d go to jail if you didn’t speak Hebrew?” “No, but official business had to be transacted in Hebrew. And it was a matter of pride. And then, there was this one person, Eliezer Ben Yehuda .” In Eliezer Ben Yehuda and the Revival of Modern Hebrew, Galila Whitmarsh tells the story of the man who strong-armed Israel into speaking a language almost dead but for religious use for 2,000 years.

Born Eliezer Perlman in 1858, this brilliant Lithuanian widow’s son travelled, studied, went to the Sorbonne. His future wife, Devora Yonas, taught him French, German and Russian. When they moved to Palestine (then part of the Ottoman Empire), he insisted that only Hebrew be spoken at home, despite Devora not knowing a word of it.

Ben Yehuda invented words, using classical Hebrew roots but also Arabic and words from “Market Hebrew” used in Jerusalem, and sent his children out to spread them; he wrote a 16-volume dictionary of modern Hebrew.

“The Hebrew tongue on women’s lips” was central to Hebrew becoming the language of home and street.

He insisted that all subjects in all schools be taught through Hebrew, and did so in Jerusalem, whereupon the “direct method” spread like wildfire across the country. He and like-minded friends set up a language council and Hebrew speaking societies…

He called on the diaspora to learn Hebrew, a programme carried on by Ittamar, who would stop people in the street as an adult and say “Jew, speak Hebrew” if they were soiling their mouths with another language.

Ben Yehuda succeeded beyond any dream. Hebrew is a vibrant modern language spoken daily by millions.

Has it changed how they see their world? Charlemagne would have said yes; he said “to have another language is to possess a second soul”. What we don’t know is what it means to lose a language; does speaking a borrowed language mean possessing a borrowed soul?”

Are a people without a soul anyone’s to sell? Or to buy? Would an Irish Ireland have been better equipped to resist the traps and pitfalls of crass modernity that seduced an English Ireland in the era of the Celtic Tiger?

Without our language are we merely the chattels of an anglicised elite who still dominate our politics, business and media? And who led us to such economic, social and moral ruin?

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