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The Death of a Language

Joe Mac Donnacha

In 1991, Reg Hindley published his book The Death of the Irish Language: A Qualified Obituary. Hindley’s analysis was based on three very simple observations. First, that the number of native speakers of the language (that is, people for whom Irish is learned as a first language or is learned simultaneously with English as a first language) was, by 1991, very low. Second, that the geographic regions in which Irish was spoken as a dominant language were much smaller than the official Gaeltacht regions. Third, that although many positive developments had taken place outside the Gaeltacht in the twentieth century, these developments in themselves did not, and would not at any time in the near future, lead to a sustainable future for Irish as a language spoken by a community of people.

Hindley did not totally disparage the Irish state’s efforts to support the Irish language. He concluded that when viewed from a national perspective, the

metamorphosis of Irish from the disparaged and unwritten dialects of an impoverished and remotely located peasantry into the modern literary but second language of a privileged urban elite is indeed a great achievement and one without international parallels except for the still more remarkable revival of Hebrew in the unique circumstances of modern Israel.

Nonetheless, the response to the book was overwhelmingly unenthusiastic among all but a small number of language academics, language activists and language professionals. Much was made of the fact that Hindley himself did not apparently have any particular training as a linguist – he was a geographer by background – and that much of his analysis was based on his own observations of travelling around and talking to local people in the various Gaeltacht communities over several years, rather than by more detailed quantitative research.

In hindsight, this reaction seems quite surprising. There was really nothing new in Hindley’s analysis – everybody knew that the “real Gaeltacht”, for want of a better term, was much smaller than the “official Gaeltacht”. It was also evident that there had been a significant increase in English-speaking families in the Gaeltacht in the period since the early 70s onwards, emanating partly from the success of the state’s economic strategy for the Irish-speaking regions, which aimed to persuade Gaeltacht emigrants abroad to return home, and by other changes to social networks locally and nationally (see Ó Riagáin, 1992).

Even more intriguing, in retrospect, was the response to Hindley’s book from public bodies charged with responsibility for the sustainable development of the Irish language in the Gaeltacht and elsewhere – here there was nothing but silence.

Indeed it was many years later before the Department of Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands decided to undertake an official review of the current status of the Gaeltacht, with the establishment of Coimisiún na Gaeltachta coming in 2000. The research instigated by this commission eventually led to the publication, in 2007, of the Comprehensive Linguistic Study of the Use of Irish in the Gaeltacht (Ó Giollagáin and Mac Donnacha et al), which showed that not only was Hindley’s analysis accurate, but that he had been, if anything, slightly optimistic.

The Comprehensive Linguistic Study reported that only a small number of “living Irish-language communities” continued to exist within the officially delineated Gaeltacht. These are situated in North West Donegal; in the region running from An Spidéal along the coast to Carna in Co Galway; and in the more western parts of Corca Dhuibhne in Co Kerry.

Within this small number of communities, however, an analysis of language ability and language-use patterns among sixteen- to eighteen-year-olds clearly showed that, in their own estimation, their ability in English had surpassed their ability in Irish across a range of indicators, and that English is now the dominant language of their age group.

In other words, young people in the Gaeltacht of today speak English, not because they think English is “cool” or Irish is “uncool” – they speak English because their ability in English is superior (and in many cases far superior) to their ability in Irish.

Furthermore, while the symbolic functionality of Irish is still important to the majority of young Gaeltacht people, as it is to most Irish people, for their generation the communicative functionality of Irish has become secondary to the more socially and technologically enhanced communicative functionality of English.

This analysis led the authors of the Comprehensive Linguistic Study to conclude that “Irish is unlikely to remain the predominant community and family language [in even the strongest surviving Gaeltacht communities] for more than another fifteen to twenty years.”

More recent research shows that even those children whose parents have made both a conscientious and a conscious decision to raise their children through the medium of Irish are struggling with the acquisition of Irish as a first language (Péterváry et al 2014), and that the best that can be hoped for, in the majority of cases, is that being raised through Irish will not hinder their acquisition of English as a primary language. One might well ask, at this stage, if it is morally tenable for the state to continue to encourage parents in Gaeltacht communities to raise their children through the medium of Irish when the state itself is aware, or should be aware, that those children will struggle to acquire native-speaker competence in their first language, given the linguistic dynamics of the current Gaeltacht.

All of this raises the question of whether Irish can at this stage be considered a living language. To consider this issue we need to clarify what we mean when we associate the concepts of “language” and “living” – as in phrases like “living language”, “keeping a language alive” or “reviving a language” – and the concepts of “language” and “death” – how do languages “die”?

On the question of “living languages”, the first thing we need to clear up is that languages don’t “live” – they just exist. Neither can they be “owned”. A language cannot be owned by you or me (except in the symbolic sense). The only thing you can do with a language ultimately is use it or not use it – nothing else counts, because a language only exists in a tangible sense when it is used. But the existence of a language in some form does not, of itself, make it a living language.

When we talk about a “living language”, we are talking metaphorically – we are using the term “living” as a metaphor for something else, something for which we don’t have an equally accessible term. Which is fine, except that the use of the term “living” in this case is perhaps too easy, and allows us to avoid having to consider what we actually mean.

In discussing the prospects for the Irish language outside the Gaeltacht, it is reasonable to conclude that it will continue to exist into the far distant future in some form or other. It will exist in its written form in books, documents and libraries. It will exist in sound and vision archives. And, for as long as the state deigns to support the language through the various levels of the education system, there will always be small groups who will be able to speak the language to a competent level of ability, and an even smaller number of individuals for whom Irish will be their primary language of choice in at least some aspects of their lives. This will be supported by a broader group of people who will have an aspirational level of interest and ability in the language. But this does not mean it will be a living language – at least not in any sociolinguistic sense.

In sociolinguistic terms, a language can be defined as living if it meets two criteria. First, it should be the dominant (but not necessarily the only) language in most or all of the social networks that make up a community. Second, the community of individuals who speak it as their dominant language must be capable of regenerating themselves as a “language community” – in other words, they must be a sustainable community in terms of both their demographic regeneration and the intergenerational transmission of their language.

On both of these criteria the Irish language is no longer a living language. It has not gained new dominance in the combined social networks of any community outside the Gaeltacht since the formation of the state, and since the late 1960s it has been losing its dominance in what were the Irish-language communities of the Gaeltacht.

It is clear from the current research that though most of these communities have been able to regenerate themselves demographically since the early 1970s (prior to that their population had been declining due to emigration), they have been finding it increasingly difficult to regenerate themselves linguistically. What we are now seeing in the Gaeltacht, therefore, are the final throes of Irish as a living language.

We are, of course, accustomed to thinking of the point of language death as being the point at which the last native speaker dies. But I think it is fair to say that in all cases the language will have ceased to be “living” long before then. We should instead, I believe, be asking at what point a language begins to die. When does its condition become terminal?

The thesis of this article is that a language begins to die when the children who are expected to speak it begin to struggle with its acquisition as a first language, and the language community is no longer able to regenerate itself linguistically as well as demographically.

Based on this analysis we can conclude that the Irish language is in terminal decline in the Gaeltacht, and that it is unlikely that it can be restored to a sustainable level again at this stage.

One might ask why, despite substantial investment by the state in the Irish language over a period of ninety years, and a significant increase in the living standards and educational attainment levels of the Gaeltacht community over the same period, the language went into terminal decline. Was it a question of people intentionally walking away from the language, or were there other social processes at work? Social processes can have an enormous impact on how we think and behave, to the extent that we can act in ways which may be in conflict with those things we hold important – including our feelings, beliefs, opinions and aspirations about language.

Using language to communicate is a social act. In a bilingual society, an individual may have a linguistic preference, and usually has a higher competence in one language than the other. In order to communicate, however, she/he must also take into account the social and linguistic context in which the communicative event is happening. In other words, much of our linguistic behaviour is driven by the situational factors in which we find ourselves and not by our own linguistic preferences. In a bilingual community, to ignore those situational factors and assert our own preferences involves, at best, not fitting in linguistically in the society in which you live. At worst, it means continuous linguistic conflict in your personal, professional and social life. Not surprisingly, that is not a price many people are willing to pay.

These of course are complex issues, and in themselves not easy to research. However, enough research is available at this stage – both from the broader literature on motivation theory and social psychology and from research into patterns of language attitudes, abilities and usage within the Gaeltacht – to explain how the position of Irish as a “living language” has been undermined over the past forty years or so.

All of the current research on the Gaeltacht, from Ó Riagáin’s (1992) pioneering work in the Corca Dhuibhne Gaeltacht, to more recent research by Péterváry et al (2014); Ó Giollagáin et al (2007), Mac Donnacha et al (2005) and Ó Giollagáin (2002 and 2005), indicates that the language shift away from Irish in the Gaeltacht is being driven by social dynamics. These dynamics have emerged from changes in the composition of Gaeltacht communities from the late 1960s onwards, and from the linking of Gaeltacht communities into regional, national and international networks over the same period.

Partly as a result of emigrants returning with their families, and partly as a result of the attraction of some Gaeltacht communities as a place to live (because of their physical proximity to developing urban centres or because of other physical or amenity attractions), a significant number of people of non-Gaeltacht origin have come to live in Gaeltacht communities in the period in question. Although some of them may speak Irish, it is reasonable to assume that the vast majority of them are not active Irish speakers.

In particular, English-speaking in-migrants now constitute a significant proportion of young Gaeltacht-based parents. This fact has impacted severely on sociolinguistic trends within the Gaeltacht, as a result of the important role young parents play in the intergenerational transmission of a language. As the proportion of English-speaking parents increases, the social networks in which they interact adapt to their presence, and the pressure to switch to English to facilitate communication in formal and informal settings grows.

This trend, when sustained over a period of forty years, has had a particular impact within the Gaeltacht education system. The tendency of parents, teachers and children to speak English in the classroom, at parent-teacher meetings, in the playground, within groups of friends and within other social networks has increased to the point where the dominant language in education has gradually shifted to English.

As the number of English-speaking parents in the Gaeltacht has increased it has not only influenced the proportion of Irish-speaking adults, but also had unintended consequences for future Gaeltacht generations. As with adults, it is normal for Irish-speaking children to shift into English to communicate with their English-speaking peers. The available evidence suggests that as they move through the education system – from preschool to second level – their use of English with their peers surpasses their use of Irish. Because intense language usage with one’s peers is a precondition of successfully acquiring a language as a first language, this shift to English among Irish-speaking Gaeltacht children not only reduces their own use of Irish, it also affects their ability to acquire native-speaker competence in Irish.

These demographic changes within Gaeltacht communities have occurred over a period of five decades. They have gradually influenced the linguistic composition of the Gaeltacht community and increased the functionality of English for those living there, and, therefore, their propensity to use it. This, in turn, has increased the social, educational and economic functionality of English, further strengthening its position as the dominant language.

In effect, Gaeltacht communities were initially transformed from what were, up to the late 1960s, mostly monolingual Irish-speaking communities, into Irish-dominant bilingual communities. However, it is clear from current research that all Gaeltacht communities have now become English-dominant bilingual communities – or will within a short period of time.

The only question that remains is whether they can be maintained as English-dominant bilingual communities, or whether the shift towards monolingual English-language communities is now inevitable.

Joe Mac Donnacha has worked in several aspects of language planning, including as a community organiser, lobbyist, lecturer and researcher. He has co-authored several major sociolinguistic studies of the Gaeltacht, including the Comprehensive Sociolinguistic Study of the Use of Irish in the Gaeltacht (2007) and A Baseline Study of Gaeltacht Schools (2005). He currently works with the College of Arts, Social Sciences and Celtic Studies at the National University of Ireland Galway.

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