Forgive the “Animal Farm” paraphrase in the title above but it seemed appropriate when contemplating some recent articles written on linguistic equality by Anglophone journalists in Ireland and Canada. The first comes from the newspaper columnist Catherine O’Mahony in the Sunday Business Post where in two pieces she both praises and criticises the Irish language and those who speak it. In a convoluted argument that more or less eats its own tail she arrives at the conclusion that, yes, Irish-speaking citizens and communities in Ireland do face social ostracization for speaking in our nation’s indigenous language and are being pressurised into speaking in English. Her solution to the heretofore unacknowledged oppression of a significant section of the population? Remove the obligation to continue the teaching of Irish language skills to schoolchildren ages 12-18. This of course will lead to a situation where even fewer people will possess any understanding or respect for the Irish language (and more importantly those who speak it). Fascinatingly this is presented as a reasonable solution to the problem of the linguistic oppression of Hibernophones in an Anglophone milieu. While O’Mahony recognises that something is seriously wrong in modern “officially” bilingual Ireland it is obvious that her proposals will simply place another wedge in the ever-widening gap between Irish Ireland and English Ireland.
The second example comes from Canada and the journalist J.J. McCullough writing in the HuffingtonPost:
“The other night I had a bit of a Twitter tussle with Paul Wells, beloved Maclean’s political commentator.
To make a not terribly interesting story short, Paul sent out a tweet written in English linking to a blog written in French, and it grabbed my attention simply because it was the most recent instance of a tic I’ve noticed a fair bit from establishment-type journalists based in the eastern provinces: happily tweeting (or retweeting) in French, in glib indifference to the fact that very few of their followers could possibly be expected to understand.
According to the 2011 census, only 17 per cent of Canadians claim fluency in both official languages. An English journalist who tweets in French is thus purposely engaging in a weird sort of audience-alienating behaviour, and I’ve never understood precisely what motivates it.
Not that I begrudge anyone who’s proud they can do it, given that knowledge of French is the price of admission to the upper echelons of the Canadian elite.
Justin Trudeau once quipped that non-bilinguals are simply “lazy,” a Marie Antoinette-like bit of victim-blaming (“Let them learn French!”) popular with segments of the Canadian elite who simply can’t fathom why more peasants can’t find the time to study an exotic dying language utterly irrelevant to their daily lives.
Journalists and academics have long played a role in this “unilingual shaming” as well, posting long, untranslated French quotations in books or articles, excessively praising the merits of being “fluently bilingual” when evaluating the suitability of potential leaders, and of course, drifting in and out of French in supposedly public forums before overwhelmingly unilingual, English audiences – including social media.
People can speak – and tweet – in whatever language they want, but Canada’s second-class, 83 per cent majority have equal right to recoil from an overzealous, ostracizing culture of bilingualism, which is not, nor has ever been, rational, given the demographic realities of this overwhelmingly English country.”
A linguistic minority who function as a privileged elite in society secretly exercising the levers of power and oppressing the majority? A dying language no one speaks? Sound familiar? Given the opinions regular expressed by Anglophone journalists in Ireland I’ll call this the “Irish theory”.
[ASF: With thanks to Sinéad Rohan and Jean François Joubert]