Current Affairs

“The Irish language is useless”

An insightful if tongue-in-cheek examination of the status of the Irish language and the “rights” of Irish-speaking citizens in contemporary Ireland from the Brazilian blogger and translator Natália Danzmann…

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13 comments on ““The Irish language is useless”

  1. Leo The Woodlouse

    I think the point made is that Gaelic is useless in the sense of inside Ireland as well as outside, as hardly anybody in Ireland even speaks it.

    And the Scots not only don’t speak it, by and large, they are even less interested in learning it.
    As the idea of it being an ‘Irish’ language killed off any chances of it’s survival in Scotland, as no one wants anything to do with it there now, they all either speak Braid Scots or Scots-standard-English, and a mixed continuum of the two.
    I can say with certainty if it had been called Scottis/Scottish like it used to be pre-17h century, it would be far more stronger today, rather than this silly modern ‘Gaelic’ collectivist obscurantist identity that barely any Scot identifies with.


    • Irish is “useless” in the sense that those who do use it and those wish to use it are impeded from doing so by social, economic and state pressure from a deeply hostile Anglophone elite within the public services, the media, politics, etc. It is not non-sue through choice – it is non-use through linguistic persecution.

      Many modern speakers of Scottish Gaelic have reclaimed the name “Scottish” for their language. And rightly so. Just as others use “Scots” for Scots English. I say good luck to both! 😉


      • Leo The Woodlouse

        What I mean by what he/she was saying was that it was claimed to be ‘useless’ in terms of the number of people who speak it, meaning that they were probably speaking from the perspective of themselves hypothetically attempting to learn it rather than Irish people who already speak it, not that it was some lesser, inferior tongue spoken by lesser beings.

        Well true on Scots, that’s my other point in finer detail, the Germanic east variant of Scottish is called ‘Scots’ hence why it is so well accepted as the ‘true’ Scottish language, with a rich intertwined grand history behind it, it was the speech of Scottish aristocrats and royalty, Robert Burns gave his official stamp of approval on it with his famous literary works, and from one of Scotland’s most celebrated bards, that gives it yet even more recognition, even rivaling and beating English playwright Shakespear, what language is sung every year? ‘Auld Lang Syne’ – sung in Scots, all across the world every year.

        Scots-Gáidhlig has none of this Scottish praise and Scottish endorsement like Scots has, nope, instead, it is seen as some cast of heavily Irish associated language that isn’t considered as grand or rich as Scots nor worth the bother to learn as only 1-2% speak it, this could have been so different had it not been renamed with negative connotations, and this situation of it in a dying declining state wouldn’t exist, unfortunately though too, on the flip side, many who try to identify with this collectivist ‘Celt’ identity, to combat this, try to fob it off as an English ‘dialect’, rather than a language in it’s own right, despite the clear fact that it is recognised as an official language not just by the UK but the UN as well, and every major world institute of good repute. It can be claimed to be purer and truer to it’s roots than English can in fairness because although it did once share a common root with olde English, it was less influenced by foreign intervention, unlike English. Scots is full of non-English Germanic elements that more than qualifies it as distinct with it’s character.

        The truth is that all languages once shared a common root at some point though, before branching and evolving down separate paths and becoming it’s own tongue with it’s own distinctive sound, idioms and structure, just like people and civilisations across the world did.
        To understand Scots correctly, people need to realise that it is a ‘continuum’ language, this means it is a spectrum, from one end, is Braid Scots, or Broad Scots or even ‘proper Scots’ (same thing) and at the other end we have Scots-Standard-English, now because the latter has become more popular in the last two centuries, people wrongly equate that as being proper Scots, so is it any wonder why it is wrongly believed by some to be an English dialect?

        Scots is not a single dialect. Like English, it has many dialects of it’s own, the ‘Doric’ of the North East and the traditional speech of the Glaswegian working classes (Glesga Patter) are obviously different from one another, yet all Scots dialects share a fundamental unity of linguistic features which are absent from any other “English dialect”. Scots is a collection of dialects which are clearly most closely related to one another, and together they form a distinct group which is sharply differentiated from anything else that can be called English.
        Though, there’s a linguistic rule of thumb for determining whether two speech varieties should be considered as dialects of a single language or as different languages. If speech varieties are mutually intelligible then they are dialects of a common language (what I mean by Scots-Standard-English – as it is just mainly English in a Scottish accents with a few Scots words, Scots expressions and Scots idioms thrown in the mix), whereas speech varieties which are not mutually intelligible represent different languages (Broad focused Scots). By ‘mutually intelligible’ linguists mean that speakers of the speech varieties in question can communicate with one another freely and immediately upon their first encounter, without a speaker of one variety having to learn the other.

        But if we take this same rule and apply it to Urdu and Hindi – both of which are universally regarded as different languages, it doesn’t add up so well that way either, because Urdu is written in an alphabet derived from Arabic via Persian, Hindi is written in the Devanagari script which is indigenous to northern India, so the two look very different on the page. Hindi speakers have no hope of reading Urdu, or vice versa, but this is purely because the two use different alphabets. Despite the different alphabets the spoken languages are perfectly mutually intelligible on the colloquial level, and speakers of Urdu and Hindi can communicate with one another without any difficulties and without any need to learn the other’s tongue. In fact it’s even possible to conduct a fairly lengthy conversation without being certain whether the parties are speaking Hindi or Urdu. Problems only arise in the formal language, because Hindi takes its formal and literary vocabulary from Sanskrit, whereas Urdu makes use of loanwords from Arabic or Persian. Hindi and Urdu owe their status as different languages to the fact that each has an independent literary tradition – a cultural not a linguistic factor. Each is the official language of a state, Urdu is the official language of Pakistan, Hindi the main official language of India, these political factors reinforce the perception that Hindi and Urdu are “different languages”.

        But in China the complete opposite happens. The different dialects of Chinese are different languages from a linguistic point of view. Cantonese and Mandarin are no more mutually intelligible than English and German yet because their speakers share the same written language and a common Chinese culture and identity, they are regarded as different dialects of a single Chinese language. Again, personal perception, often based on inaccuracy based on broken logic.
        In some parts of southern China the Classical Chinese written language and Chinese culture were adopted by indigenous groups who then came to see themselves as Chinese and who became accepted as Chinese by their Chinese neighbours. Structurally the indigenous languages happen to resemble Chinese, being tonal languages with a so called isolating structure like Chinese. Speakers of these languages, most of which have names unfamiliar to most Westerners, borrowed thousands of Chinese loanwords so much of their vocabulary came to be familiar to Chinese speakers. After a few generations the speakers of some of these languages ‘forgot’ that they were separate languages and came to believe them to be Chinese dialects. Again, perception.

        This happened amongst sections of the Zhuang people of southern China. The Zhuang live in a region where due to internal migrations there are speakers of various mutually unintelligible Chinese dialects living in close proximity to one another. Since many of the local Chinese people speak dialects other Chinese people cannot understand, it’s not too difficult to comprehend why the Zhuang language – spoken by a group which had become Chinese in culture – should also have been regarded as a ‘type of Chinese’. When the Chinese government embarked upon its mass literacy campaigns after the Communist revolution, they conducted the first linguistic surveys of the country. Many Zhuang clans were shocked to discover that their language, which both they and their Chinese neighbours believed to be a regional dialect of Chinese, was actually a different language related to Thai and not genetically related to Chinese at all.

        So the point is that although examples of Urdu/Hindi and Zhuang can show that cultural, social and political factors can be so strong that they lead people to classify different literary styles of a single language as “different languages”, it is also very often at least just as much the other way also, much more than credit is given for, i.e to classify unrelated languages as “dialects of a single language”.

        So if we state that Scots is the same as English, that’s akin to claiming that Dutch is the same as German, or Norse is the same as Swedish or Spanish is the same as Portugese, like Scots and English, all these pairings, these languages, all once shared a common root before being influenced separately by their own lands and cultivated to the way they are now, resulting in different tongues, and therefore distinct languages in their own right. The Goidelic languages are no different, like all other languages, the same pattern exists. But if they are named by other collective labels other than their own national name to indicate that they are heavily bred, influenced and evolved within these countries, effectively making them native tongues of the said land and nation then they inevitably diminish, you certainly couldn’t expect them to thrive.

        So all in all, when it comes to the Scots language, during the 16th century when Scotland still hadn’t yet shared a ‘political union’ with England from 1707 and still only shared a ‘personal union’ from 1603, there was no doubt about the status of Scots as a language. As well as being linguistically differentiated from its English cousin, Scots enjoyed the same political and cultural development as other emerging European state languages. Scots was thi Kingis Scottis in exactly the same way as English was the King’s English or French was la Langue du Roi. Scots was the language of the Scottish royal court, of government, administration and law. A literature based upon the usage of the royal court in Edinburgh was well established and this literature did not look solely to English literary traditions for inspiration, it was a truly European literature. The use of Latin was beginning to decline in this historical period, and across Europe vernacular languages were starting to be used in fields which had formerly been the sole preserve of Latin – like law and legal reports, self-consciously ‘artistic’ literature, and prose texts like histories, medical tracts and scientific writing. Scots was used in all these areas as naturally as Dutch was being used for the same purposes in the Netherlands or English in England. Like these other languages, 16th century Scots was beginning to establish its own standard spelling system (an orthography) whose rules and norms differed significantly from those of English.


  2. Each language has unique idioms and descriptive terms. I speak English but recognize the inherent contributions that myriad other languages have made to enrich the English language. This is a process that is ongoing. And, of course, there are the advantages involved with being bilingual or trilingual in terms of mental acuity.

    The loss of a language is the loss of a cultural heritage, a history and a winding linguistic trail that evolved and contained information that could have been of benefit to other tongues and peoples.


    • CBC, agreed. Every aspect of human culture is worth celebrating and protecting. No language, no culture, no people is lesser or superior than any other.

      Today’s Irish news and current affairs’ websites are full of Anglophone contributors describing those who intend to march in support of Irish language rights next Saturday as “Gaelic Taliban”, “Gaelic Nazis”, “Gaelic Fascists” and many more abusive terms. We live a nation that is rapidly embracing a mentality of cultural apartheid and where violent words may some day be matched by violent actions. And re-actions.

      I despair.


      • I can’t really grasp, from 3,500 miles away, what the consternation is on the part of Anglophiles. This isn’t a zero-sum game. English is obviously the dominant language while Irish and other Celtic tongues are, relatively speaking, spoken by very small numbers of people. Some will say it’s a wasteful expenditure, but the amount allocated by governments toward these languages is a drop in the bucket in the overall budgets.

        I don’t understand the antipathy toward Irish language, or the need for such pejorative terms as “Gaelic Taliban” or “Gaelic Nazis.” What is going on that I can’t see from the US, or is this a complex issue that can’t be summed up simply?


        • @CBC, bizarrely none of the Anglophone zealots who complain the loudest about the Irish language take any notice of the huge expenditure on translating government documents, forms and websites into languages other than Irish or English to accommodate our significant immigrant communities. Or the hiring or contracting of translators in various European and global languages by the public services, from the courts to the schools, social welfare offices to health care clinics. That is accepted as the norm, as “modern”. But Irish language translations of any government websites or documents are attacked by newspaper and radio journalists, by politicians and actively blocked by public servants themselves. Meanwhile Irish-speakers are subject to continuous “hate speech” across the news and current affairs media. “Shock-jocks” devote entire radio shows to phone-ins castigating those who speak or wish to speak Irish. Newspaper columnists portray Irish-speakers as a hidden conspiracy, a cabal with undue influence on Irish society. It is a Gaelic “Protocols of Zion” for an Anglophone audience.

          As for why? Cultural dysphasia. A post-colonial nation unable to reconcile itself to its present form, a nation uneasy with itself. Centuries of being told that Ireland’s native language and culture is inferior, primitive, tribal, backward has left a poisonous mark. Too many still believe it. Irish-speakers by virtue of speaking Irish are inferior human beings. That is the underlining truth of Anglophone discrimination.


          • Your explanation makes good sense. Inability to reconcile one’s past actions – and misdeeds- with the present means you’ve got to keep the misdeeds and lies covered up. I don’t expect all the colonial powers to fall on their swords and issue mea culpas for their past wrongs; I understand that some things done 150 years or more ago weren’t perceived as wrong then. But to do the opposite, as in the case of England, and continue to essentially blame the victim, is a slap in the face.

            I appreciate the inside scoop, so to speak. From afar it can be difficult to get a handle on what’s really going on without considerable research.


  3. @Séamas, here’s a heads up about a recently posted speech by poet Gabriel Rosenstock’s on his relationship with Irish: . You may find his thoughts on Irish’s linguistic situation worth a gander.

    His prickly, idiosyncratic and cosmopolitan reflections on the Irish language have enlivened many questions for me.


  4. The suggestion above that people are put off learning Scots Gaelic because of associations with Irish is completely new to me. Of course, at one time as part of a campaign to alienate highlanders and their culture, Gàidhlig was referred to as ‘Erse’, i.e. ‘Irish’, but that has little or no resonance in the present day.

    While it’s true that Gaelic was brought by its speakers from Ireland, it been naturalised in Scotland for nearly as long as there’s been English in many parts of England. It came under a different combination of influences from Irish in Ireland and consequently developed it own special ‘feel’ and character. While Ireland has several distinct dialects, they all share common features that set them apart from SG. I recently found a website that taught the Donagal dialect and was actually surpirsed to find that it only resembled SG in a few small ways, and was still very definitely Irish.

    Whatever their past, they are now two distinct (but related) languages. A knowledge of SG doesn’t allow you to breeze through a text in Irish, the way that say a knowledge of Norwegian will make Swedish and Danish 95% comprehensible.

    Gaelic is taught as a second language over most of Scotland and GME is on the increase. There are also Irish classes in places with established Irish communities such as parts of Glasgow. So what’s the source of this ‘put off’ meme?


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