Gaeilge (Irish Language)

Philip Ferguson plf13 at
Sun Feb 4 19:00:18 MST 2001

Danielle writes:
>An acquaintance of mine who has a background in anthropology and
>linguistics has described English as "the most imperial of imperial
>languages, controlling all public discourse over such vast areas that those
>within them can go through their whole lives without having to use another
>language. As a result many English-speakers think of English as not just
>one language among many, but as The Language: its particular way of
>structuring the world is accepted as the absolute norm, from which other
>languages deviate in more or less exotic or perverse ways."

Well, this is not really a linguistic or anthropological issue.

The point is that modern English developed with the development of
capitlaist property relations in Britain.  If English is 'the most imperial
of imperial languages' it is because the social relations which became
dominant in England are today dominant globally.  Those relations simply
can't be expressed in the languages belonging to pre-capitlaist or
non-capitalist societies.

Moreover, there is another aspect to modernism that capitalism - that is
there is the use-value aspect as opposed to the exchange-value aspect.  A
lot of new inventions have been made and these have been often named by
English (and other languages in the most capitalistically-developed
countries) usng Greek or Latin-derived words, which then become part of
common English, common French etc - television, telephone etc etc.

These cannot be readily expressed in other languages.  For instance, in NZ,
the Maori language has been confronted with this challenge.  Instead of
using words like television, which aren't originally English anyway, a
whole phrase has been pressed into use - it's something like box in the sky
that makes pictures.

Irish confronts the same kind of problems.  Since it stems from a
pre-capitlaist and even, to some extent, pre-feudal period, irish doesn't
have things like possessive pronouns.  There is no Irish word for 'my', for
instance.  If you want to say my pen, you have to say Ta peann agam - the
pen is at me.

Then you have particular rules like aspiration, something which -
apparently - existed in other European languages, but which faded out, or
was dropped, hundreds of years ago.  Aspiration, for the non-Irish or
non-linguistically familiar, refers to the placing of an 'h' in a word; in
Irish this depends on the word before.  To take an example - there is no
indefinite article in Irish, so 'a woman' is simply 'bean'.  The irish for
'the' is 'an', but when 'an' is placed before 'bean', to make 'the woman',
the bean is hyphenated, so  'a woman' is an bhean, with the 'bh' sounding
as a 'v'.

Alice Milligan's paper 'Shan Van Vocht' (Poor Old Woman), dealt with this
by spelling its name as it sounded, rather than how it was actually written
- ie using phonetics, rather than correct Irish.  The correct Irish was
Shean Bhean Bhocht.  Shean is the aspirated form of sean (old), bhean the
aspirated form of woman (bean), bhocht the aspirated form of poor (bocht).

All this is very interesting, from an historical point of view, and shows
that languages reflect social reality, including social systems, rather
than being, or reflecting, some inherent racial or culture essence.

But the problem remains that language has to reflect reality *now*.

This is one of the main reasons why national liberation movements rarely
use 'native' languages.  (Another, of course, is that choosing one 'native'
lanaguage over another can be a recipe for disaster, in terms of internal
conflict, and using the language of the oppressor can be much more useful
to achieving national unity and freedom.)

Moreover, the fact that a language is spoken by an oppressor does not make
the language itself an oppressor any more than the fact that cricket was an
English game - and quintessentially English, I might note - makes cricket
inherently and inevitably imperialist.  West Indians embraced cricket and
used it very effectively to undermine British idiocies about white racial
superiority.  It was also taken up enthusiastically in the Indian
sub-continent.  I would say that beating the English at circket did a lot
more for the pride of the oppressed than if they had have just stuck to
African or Indian games.

>I think this is important to keep in mind when discussing the Irish
>language and the idea that Irish is irrelevant to modern Ireland.  I say
>the Irish language is key to any meaningful form of Irish culture, past or

But how?  Irish culture these days isn't qualitatively different from
English, New Zealand, US, or for that matter any other culture.  In a
capitalist world economy, all culture gets synthesised.  Maori and Pacific
Island youth in NZ mimic American black street culture.  African and Irish
musicians play together in the Afro-Celt Sound System (fab music!).  But
there is no distinctive Irish culture any more.  Even the most traditional
music forms - like sean nos - can be found all over the world, parlty
because plenty of other countries have their own forms on unaccompanied
music and partly because people emigrated from ireland (and Britain) and
took it with them.

>The problems are a lingering mindset of a colonized nation and
>that the language has been taught in Irish schools in such a way as to make
>people dislike it.

Well, everything was taught in Irish schools in a ways to make kids dislike
it.  But other things from school education have survived, but, by and
alrge, the language has not survived.  Only about 5 percent of the
population of the south speak Irish.

Moreover, it is rather difficult to think of a way in which the life of
Peig Sayers, perhaps the most notorious book that school kids had to read
in Irish, could be made fascinating.  The reality is that by the 1920s or
1930s the only parts of Ireland where Irish was still the daily language
were the most god-forsaken rural areas in which people lived extremely
limited, conservative, impoverished lives, dominated by priests and
superstition.  People in Ireland, understandably, rebelled against that.
To people who rejected that, the English language was actually
*liberating*.  It opened up a world of possibilities - including the
possibility of national liberation and thus material progress and
individual freedom.

In a city like Dublin, moreover, the only people who spoke Irish were a
section of the middle class.  Many of these were clambering their way up
the public service and, by and large, running the neo-colonial
establishment and collaborating with the imperialists.  The Dublin working
class spoke English - in fact, I suspect that the Dublin proletariat always
spoke English - and probably had little time for professional Irish

>Admittedly the people making the most noise about the
>issue are pretty conservative, but I think there's a place for Gaeilge in
>building a class-conscious working class movement.

But how would this be?  The Irish language, as a pre-capitalist language,
does not even have the vocabulary to describe the class struggle.  There
is, for instance, no Irish for your expression above "building a
class-conscious working class movement".  The only way that you can even
express the view that Gaeilge has a place in building such a movement is by
speaking in English.

Although people on this list might be surprised, I am a bit of an old
nostalgic about things Irish, so I see nothing to celebrate in this.  But
if we are going to make revolutions, we also have to be realistic.  You
can't make a revolution if you don't speak the language of the people in
the here and now.  And in Ireland, the language of the people is English
and that ain't gonna change.


"Don't Dream It - Extreme It" (Lana Coc Kroft)

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