Archive for June 25th, 2005

Clutching at Straws

There is a Spanish proverb that adorns many an ashtray which says ‘El que de joven no trabaja, de viejo duerme en paja’. A rough translation would be ‘he who doesn’t work when young sleeps on straw when old’. The Finbar Saunders in me can’t help but remark that the word for straw, ‘paja’, also means ‘wank’. I have no idea how popular the Mitsubishi Pajero is in Spain.

I am hectored by this stark materialist warning each time I start typing something to post when supposedly at work.

Despite this, or maybe because of it, I am compelled to write something about the Irish language. Many of the debates I end up reading on this subject end up centred on the cash value of speaking the language, or what speaking it says about one’s identity.

While I am fascinated by languages, I have shown no inclination of late (i.e. in the last 13 years) to learn to speak Irish more fluently (I would assess my present level as marginally inferior to that of Gerry Adams i.e. not yet fit for public consumption). But I’m going to take it up again.

To explore the matter further, I shall disclose that I approach the topic of the Irish language with a long list of prejudices. Here are a few:

I know a few people who got so involved in promoting the Irish language in the North that they never got round to speaking it.

It seems ‘unmodern’. While spoken English seems endlessly malleable, capable of adapting to any set of circumstances, spoken Irish somehow manages to retain its status as the language of Peig Sayers or someone like that.

It sounds accentless. Everyone seems to be from Ireland.

Compared with the immense scope for talking to people from completely different backgrounds to your own that comes with speaking other languages such as French, Arabic or Mandarin, there is little point in an Irishman learning to speak Irish as a second language in order to communicate with other Irishmen who speak Irish as a second language, because there is considerably less potential for cultural exchange. ‘Did you see the United game last night?’ may not become a more worthwhile question because you pose it in Irish.

As a teenage cynic, the classmates who really got up my nose at school were the ones who wore the fainnes on their ties. Unionists tend to see Irish as too politicised, too tied up with republican ideology, but when I was younger I saw it as a nice bourgeois conformist pursuit, like going to elocution lessons or playing the cello. When it did get polticised, it was always more the preserve of the ‘tiocfaidh ar lah-di-dahs’ than the ruffians who ended up in the Real IRA, but in the main, excelling at Irish meant a pat on the head from the school and church authorities.

The horny-handed sons and daughters of the soil who appear on TG4 in lavish documentaries about Gaeltacht areas may be either paid actors or the brothers and sisters of the documentary makers themselves.

The more I think about the above prejudices, the more ridiculous they seem. No-one in their right mind would reject learning German because it was the language of Hitler, or English because of Thatcher, yet many people reject the possibility of learning Irish because it has supposedly become too ‘politicised’. The notion that every word of Irish spoken is like a bullet fired in the struggle for Irish freedom is simply false. Just like any other language, Irish can also demean and suppress.

There is nothing particularly virtuous about a language being ‘modern’. The decline of one language, or the emerging dominance of another, is not progress in itself, and does not necessarily lead to progress in other spheres.

That I should associate Irish with people and practices of what seems like a dreary, bygone era says little about Irish itself but more about a culture in which English is the dominant language. Likewise, the objection to learning it because ‘only Irish people speak Irish’ is needlessly reductive. Only heads of state and the like meet more than a few thousand people in the course of their lives. Learning French does not mean the chance to socialise with 50 million French people. If you speak French but live in Ireland, you are unlikely to speak with more than several hundred French people in the course of your life. Which is about the same amount of people you might end up speaking with in Irish.

It is sad, but somehow inevitable, that public discourse about language is confined to matters of utility, as though the sole purpose of learning another language was to stop the foreigners from dominating everything, whether in commerce or terrorism. Here, Irish gets an especially bad press, mainly because there are few emerging markets where it can be best put to use, but its rather unfortunate and unfair association with terrorism doesn’t do it any favours either.

That said, there is no real point to learning Irish either: It doesn’t improve you as a person, and is unlikely to keep the wolves away from the door. These days, you will not die because you can’t speak Irish.

Learning and speaking a new language, and switching between languages, is a sensuous pleasure. It requires no further justification. Perhaps if more people began to think about Irish like that, it might actually start to flourish.

For my own part, I’ll keep this weblog updated with my progress. First new word: tuí, meaning ‘straw’. I shall try and find out if this also means ‘wank’.

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June 2005