Dead Languages | Teangacha Marbh

Gabh mo leithscéal, ach… They’re at it again, you know. Those people who like to claim that “Irish is a dead language.” In spite of all evidence, they pop up at this time of celebration of Ireland, its culture and language, and recite the same spiel as oft-times before.

“The language is dead! Irish is a dead language! It is expired! It is no more! Deceased! This… is an ex-language!”

Of course, you and I understand that the contrarian has been given more than their share of time to launch such diatribes, whether there is substance in the claims or (most often) not. To the claim that Irish is a dead language, I pose one question:

When was the funeral?

Surely, the passing of our language was honoured in an appropriate fashion. In keeping with the customs and traditions of the island, a right and proper funeral was held. The language was laid out and waked. Mourners arrived in their droves; everyone had some connection to the deceased, after all. Not all knew the deceased well, maybe they knew them when they were in school together, but not as well since that time. Some of that number whispered quietly about how this was a long time coming. Others knew the deceased intimately and once believed this could never happen, that the language could never die. Feeling distraught, they turned to the drink to ease the pain.

All mourners partook of a drink; indeed, the drink flowed and flowed until such time as there wasn’t a sober mourner remaining. Days of mourning passed and the Government were, undoubtedly, obliged to declare a period of national mourning. The funeral proceeded to the cemetery where prayers were spoken as the ground was filled in, covered over with flowers and wreaths. As always happens, all mourners retired to the pub at this point for further “refreshments”. A couple of days passed with national participation in mourning. When enough time passed, a tombstone was installed with the inscription “Here lies the Irish Language.” Only, no one ever visits this little plot of the cemetery because they’ve forgotten about it entirely…

That’s the gist of it though, right? If the Irish language is dead, there was a funeral. Except… the Irish language isn’t dead, is it? Proof being that, if nothing else, every single Irish person would be dead of alcohol poisoning after mourning so much. There are dead languages, such as Latin, Ancient Greek, Biblical Hebrew or Ancient Sanskrit. As it happens, there are thousands of dead languages from around the world. Some languages die and some languages evolve. Our near neighbours have books of Old English and Middle English. Likewise, there is Sean-Ghaeilge, Mean-Ghaeilge and Nua-Gaeilge. Does that suggest a dead language or an evolving language?

Not that such things matter to the contrarian. I do not expect to change minds that are convinced things are the way they have decided them to be. I would suggest, however, that we join these armchair activists in their efforts to bring attention to dying languages, using the Irish language model of Gaeltacht communities or gaelscoileanna to support languages that are actually in need. Here are a few of my suggestions:

D4-ish: A language where the word ‘like’ can have over 4,000 different meanings. This language will not require a great deal of financial support, given the affluence in the area of its strongest speakers. That said, less than 1% of the population speak D4-ish so it does require some level of attention. Fortunately, the language has a significant public outlet in state broadcaster, “Oar” T.É.

Kerryish: Often incorrectly labelled as a regional accent, Kerryish is simply incomprehensible to any non-native. According to laws of language and syntax, it cannot be categorized as either Irish or English and thus should be regarded as a language in its own right. Kerryish deserves to be protected and, above all else, thoroughly researched (and its neighbour in Cork isn’t far behind).

Highland Hybrids: In the hinterlands of Donegal and Derry, a new language emerges in times of heightened emotion, be that anger or elation. To the untrained ear, it is either confused as an accent or mistaken for the squall of a flock of desperate seagulls as they fight over stale bread. Greater understanding and protection is required of this minority, ephemeral language.

These are but a sample of other languages I feel merit attention of those who claim to be concerned about dying languages. Another that came to light is the language of train service announcements, spoken in a tongue that is all times foreign, possibly even to the speaker themselves. Has anyone ever both heard and clearly understood a train service announcement, be it on the train itself or while waiting on the platform? The recorded announcements in Irish and English work well, but any live announcement seems to be delivered from an alternate dimension, such is the level of language difficulty. With deference, however, I suggest we allow that language to pass…

If there are other languages that you feel need a raised profile, please let me know. I will be happy to help with the cúpla focail where I can. Slan agus beannacht!