The Language Commissioner, Rónán Ó Domhnaill, has offered a carefully worded response to an article published in last week’s Irish Examiner by the eco-conservative journalist Victoria White. Through her newspaper column White derided the legislative basis for language rights in Ireland while extolling the lyrical, airy-fairy, oh-so-gossamer nature of our indigenous tongue, one that has no place as the living language of several hundred thousand citizens in a modern post-industrial society (or some such nonsense). From Monday’s newspaper:
“IN last Thursday’s Irish Examiner, Victoria White advanced the sensationalist theory that the Official Languages Act (2003) is “killing off what’s left of the Irish language”.
The fact of the matter is that the recent controversy about the validity of drink-driving convictions has absolutely nothing to do with the Official Languages Act.
Firstly, people are charged for traffic offences under the Road Traffic Act, not the Official Languages Act. Secondly, the fact that the legislation which stated that breath test results be furnished in both official languages was ignored is not the fault of the Irish language, or language legislation designed to protect the rights of Irish language speakers, but rather an example of the State deciding one thing in legislation and subsequently failing to fulfil what was a fairly simple procedural duty.
While many of us might find it comforting to imagine, as Ms White does, that ‘only love’ will save the Irish language, all evidence and research points to the fact that effective language legislation is also crucial to the survival of minority languages.
Likewise, we are told matter-of-factly about the “idiocy of attempting to revive the Irish language by an act of parliament”, despite the historical and contemporary evidence from across the globe that suggests that acts of parliament, while never the sole determinant in the fate of a language, are often important in deciding whether languages survive or not.
There is also a question of language rights, two words which Ms White feels necessary to place in quotation marks. Many regard the right to speak a language as a human right, but she seems to hold the reductive view that understanding English renders the very notion of linguistic rights redundant.
The Taliban reference is an obvious, tiresome, and disrespectful slur, but we might also wonder as to who these “guardians” of language rights are. Is Ms White referring to the thousands of Irish speakers, from the Gaeltacht and elsewhere, who took to the streets of Dublin last year on ‘Lá Mór na Gaeilge’ to demand the same language rights? Or to the many parents who demand services in their native language for the child they are raising, against the odds, in Irish?
For many people, the Irish language is more than a ‘bird dialect’ or even a beautiful historical anachronism. It is a living language spoken by a significant minority who deserve to be treated with respect rather than to be patronised with spurious arguments based on factual inaccuracies.”
In other words, stop drinking the supremacist Kool-Aid.
[With thanks to the many folk on ASF, email and Twitter who alerted me to the article by An Coimisinéir Teanga]