Irish as an endangered language

by Bob Burke

UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) estimates that of the 6,000+ languages spoken today half will disappear by the end of the century if nothing is done. The Irish Language is “definitely endangered,” according to UNESCO. Will this language—spoken for several thousand years, first written around the time of St. Patrick (450 AD), and one of the oldest continuously-spoken vernaculars in Western Europe—be one of the languages to disappear? Or will it survive?

In the 2011 census, 94,000 people in the Republic of Ireland, with a population of 4.5 million, said that they use Irish daily. In Northern Ireland, only 4,100 out of 1.8 million said that Irish is their daily language and the fourth most common language in Northern Ireland behind English, Polish, and Lithuanian.

A language is considered endangered when children are no longer learning it as the mother tongue in the home. This means that in the span of just two generations a language could be lost completely from a state of healthy transmission. There are many political, social and economic reasons for this. To lose a language is to lose a part of a culture.

Officially a bilingual country, the Government of the Republic of Ireland provides support to the language although the means often seem to be at cross-purposes. Last year five non-Irish speaking Garda (members of the national police force) were posted to an area in which families receive a stipend for raising their children through the medium of the Irish language. The current Taoiseach (Prime Minister) has advocated making the Irish language an elective subject in secondary school. Yet schools in which the Irish language is the medium of instruction, which began as a “grass-roots” movement in the 1970s, have seen a growth from 16 schools in 1972 to 214 schools today.  Some Irish language schools have waiting lists of up to three years for kindergarten.

Even in areas where Irish is the daily language of the people, English words keep creeping in. Words like “fridge,”  “computer,” and “bicycle” are mixed in with the Irish.  English has been described as the Wal-Mart of languages: convenient, huge, hard to avoid and devouring all rivals as it expands.

The Irish poet Pádraig Ó Broin, in his poem “Disinherited,” laments what has been lost when he stands before a bookshelf laden with 11th and 12th century Irish manuscripts and writes: “Here is my heritage and here I stand.  I can not read a word! I do not know the tongue my fathers spoke, I can not sing the songs my fathers sang, I can not read the books my fathers wrote.”

On Saturday, May 18, the Department of Culture and Media at Marylhurst will sponsor its 6th annual Irish Language Day. Marylhurst’s own Irish language instructors Ger Killeen and Bob Burke, along with invited guest teachers, will be there. It is one way to preserve and share the Irish language—join us!

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Bob Burke is an instructor at Marylhurst in the Department of Culture and Media and vice president of The North American Association for Celtic Language Teachers. He has a special interest in second language acquisition by adults.

Photo: J. McLendon