The other evening I was in conversation with an Englishman when the topic of the Basque Country and the Basque language came up. The man was a retiree who had lived in San Sebastián for almost a decade over thirty years ago.
“Basque,” he told me, “is not a language apt for the modern world. It isn’t fit for purpose. Try to go into a bank and do a transaction in Basque and there’s really not very much you can say. It doesn’t have the forms. Catalan, on the other hand is a much more current language . . .”
The hackles on my back started to rise. I had heard this argument many times in relation to Irish, and the man’s clipped public-school accent, along with the air of self-assurance and condescension that seems to be part and parcel of the demeanour of a certain type of southern Englishman, nearly got me going. Nearly. But I was in the man’s kitchen, drinking the man’s wine — a guest in his house — and so I bit my tongue. But what he said got me thinking.
At this point in time, the dawn of the third millennium, there are languages on the rise — English, Mandarin and Spanish, for example — and many more on the decline. It is estimated that between 50 and 90 per cent of the languages in use today will be extinct by the end of the century. What factors determine whether a given language will survive our century’s great language cull? The answer is complex. Let us consider what my English host opined: a language’s suitability for modern life.
Imagine a language spoken by a remote rural ethnic group which had neither codified their language (as many of the great European languages had by the time of the Enlightenment) nor was in possession of a bulk of written documents going back centuries. Imagine the speakers of this language suddenly coming into contact with the modern world. Where do these people get their words for all the new gizmos and gadgets that parachute into their lives, and how does a language that has evolved over millennia to describe a rural life based on agriculture and the cycles of nature find the means to describe the new ways of living and of doing things? They usually borrow their new words, and sometimes whole phrases are awkwardly tacked on to existing structures. Take a look at Basque. The vast majority of the lexicon added to Basque over the last century or so comes from the two major languages that surround it, French and Spanish. These cultures have exerted a kind of dominance over Basque since the birth of their respective nation states. Through the thrusting forward of France and Spain from the Renaissance onwards, in terms of technological development, military expansion, exploration, colonisation, political innovations and the sheer weight of population growth, these peoples and their culture have threatened to swamp Basque language and culture.
It has been touch-and-go at times, but Basque is putting up a stiff resistance to its extinction, and happily its future looks assured. The measures taken by those interested in Basque’s survival have included an aggressive fight for parity of esteem in French and Spanish Basque country, the setting up of a Basque language education system based on ikastolas (Basque language schools), the promotion of Basque language TV, radio and newspapers, and making sure that Basque develops as a living language with a place in post-industrial, internet-age society.
The main achievement of those who fought for Basque’s survival was their transitioning of a pastoral language of hills and valleys into a modern language which was fit for purpose in the streets and bars of city life — not to mention on social media. Irish, on the other hand, is experiencing a slow death precisely because of its perception as a language of a pre-industrial past, of country folk, forebears — a language of generations past that no longer has a place in the modern world. Ever since the Tudors, closely followed by Oliver Cromwell, destroyed the native Irish nobility, adapted aggressive colonisation and planting policies (which would today be called ethnic cleansing) and enacted harsh laws to suppress Irish language and culture, the Irish language has been on a steady downward spiral. English slowly became the language of the cities and large towns, became the language of the ruling elite and their courts and laws, and of the usurper landlords and aristocracy. It was the language of success, of the victor. Notwithstanding this, even up until the Famine in the 1840s, Irish was the majority language on the island, albeit spoken in the main by a dispossessed peasantry.
What the Famine did* was wipe almost half the monoglot Irish speakers off the face of the island — one million died and one million emigrated in the immediate aftermath of Famine, and perhaps another million left the country between the 1850s and 1860s. After this, Irish was the language not only of the defeated, but of those who were so dirt poor and backward that they died in their hundreds of thousands for want of a few pounds of grain and adequate sanitation. Post-famine Irish speakers abandoned the language that marked them out as history’s losers. Native Irish speakers took to speaking English at home, schoolmasters beat children who spoke Irish, the Church advised that English was the way forward, as did nationalist politicians following Daniel O’Connell’s example. Irish stopped being passed on from father to son, mother to daughter. In the half decade following the Famine, Irish became a minority language in its own country, and, worse, became branded as the language of failure and poverty. Neither the Gaelic revival of the turn of the nineteenth century nor any end of nationalist sentiment that eventually culminated in a successful independence movement for most of the island could reverse the decline in Irish’s fortunes or the perception of it as a language not fit for success or modern living.
Even when I was going to school a full century and a half after the Famine most of my classmates’ attitude towards compulsory Irish language education was hostile. “Why should we waste our time learning a dying language that won’t get us jobs or won’t be worth tuppence when we have to emigrate?” they asked. Another problem for us was that Irish just wasn’t cool. The movies we watched were all American. The music we listened to was British and American pop. TV was in English. Those of us who read books were reading Tolkien and Douglas Adams. The Irish we studied was all about the past: cottiers on the Blasket Islands scraping a living from the sea in the 1930s; the poems of seventeenth-century nationalist bards lamenting the Flight of the Earls; the Annals of the Four Masters. While some of us recognised Irish as a beautiful language with a rich written history going back to the late Iron Age, it was about as far from cool as could be, and outside the gealtachtaí — reservations of native Irish speakers given special status by the Irish state in a half-hearted attempt to revive the language — there was no context in which Irish was fit for purpose when viewed from the mind of a twentieth-century teenager.
Irish is going to have a problem surviving if it cannot do what Basque has done and reinvent itself for the modern age. It’s decline will only be arrested by a concerted effort between those interested in its survival, the state, the education system and whatever members of the English-speaking majority in Ireland who can be won over to using the language. The sad thing is that Irish is not alone. Just across the Irish Sea, Welsh is up against huge pressure to resist being similarly swamped by the sea of Anglophone culture that surrounds. Scottish Gaelic is in danger too. Then there are the thousands of “little” languages worldwide in danger of disappearing as speakers from rural areas move to the big city where parents fail to pass on their native tongues to their children in favour of the dominant language of the city — a language that they think will prove the gateway to education and success in life.
The world will be a much poorer place for the loss of these tongues, because a culture’s language is a repository of centuries and even millennia of folklore, myth, religion, history, cultural beliefs and practices. I see little hope. Globalisation is a ravenous, unstoppable beast and the changes it rings are blunt and sometimes brutal. I hope I am wrong.
*There is a valid argument that the Famine was a tool of ethnic cleansing used by the English to “solve” the “Irish problem”.