Minority Languages, Dying Languages, and Learning Them

Huh? Why? Why would you do that?

When I first started learning Gaelic, that was the reaction from speakers and people with some connection to the language alike. “It’s a dead language. There are too many dialects, you won’t be able to talk to anyone, whichever you learn. It’s not a real language. It’s useless, there’s no point to it. Everyone speaks English – that’s a good language. Gaelic’s dying. It’s not fit for the modern world.”

Okay, probably you don’t care about that, and I never got all of those arguments from the same person at one time. But Loving Languages posted today about endangered languages, about why we don’t care about them, not really, and about a Bashkir woman he met who is resigned to the language not being passed on. He also linked two articles others have written about why we should just let languages die quietly.

In Malik’s post, in the very first paragraph, he said:

“When Ned Madrell died on the Isle of Man in 1974, he also took the ancient Manx language to the grave.”

What’s interesting to me about that statement is that, by the time Ned Madrell died, there were already significant numbers of non-native speakers and in fact, just ten months after Malik wrote that article in late 2000, the Manx-medium primary school was opened, and today there are around a hundred children and young people who are regarded as native speakers.

Both of the articles seemed to be saying, “Well the culture argument is defunct because keeping a language alive artificially doesn’t preserve the culture – the closest thing is going to be the culture of similar groups.”

Richard’s point, on the other hand, is not necessarily that the culture is preserved pristinely by learning a language, but that one’s view of the world is widened by knowing these languages, and one’s ability to connect with others is the likewise expanded.

The idea of keeping “Gaelic culture” intact as if it were pre-Clearances is clearly ridiculous. The world isn’t the same as it was in the 17th century – and the fact that there are words in Gaelic for “global warming” and “spoilers” doesn’t mean that “Gaelic culture” is dead – quite the opposite, in fact.

Actually, there are neopagans who try to “revive” “Gaelic culture” from ancient texts and remnant traditions, and it gets a bit strange when you consider that they’re trying to revive a religion that hasn’t been practiced for 1500 years, sometimes without much care for the living culture. But more on that later.

But knowing the language can change how I see things. As an English-speaker, you have clear ideas about colours. There’s blue and there’s green. There’s red and there’s pink, there’s orange and yellow. In Gaelic, it’s different. There’s blue-green, and green-grey; pink doesn’t exist, because it’s obviously just “light red”, and orange and yellow are the same colour. There’s a word for orange-red, as well.

One can understand how the Gaels of the past saw the world, because of what there is in the language. There are a couple of ways of saying “I hope”, but none are quite so clear-cut. My favourite, and the main one used in parts of Ireland, is “le cobhar Dè” – “with the help of God”. In Gaelic, you don’t have a “lightbulb moment”, you have a “mionaid rathad Dhamascuis”, a “Damascus Road moment”. Wednesday and Friday aren’t just sounds to denote days, they’re “the first fast” and “the fast”, and Thursday is “the day between the fast”, because Christian observance pervaded the culture for so many years.

Languages aren’t something you speak, to a Gael, they’re something you have – inasmuch as a Gael ever “has” anything, considering the closest he can come is to have something at him, or with him, or to him. An older Gael I know, let’s call her Sìne, replied once when someone asked her, “A bheil Gàidhlig agaibh?” (“Do you speak Gaelic?”; or rather, “Is Gaelic at you?”), “Chan eil – is Gàidhlig a th’ unnam”. No, the Gaelic is in her. To her, the language is deeper than just something she speaks, it’s in her and part of her. The phrase she used to describe the language is the same phrase used to describe nationality or life calling.

“Why would you learn Gaelic? It’s a pointless language.”

Sìne sometimes shares memories of her childhood, with Gaelic pervading everything. But at the same time, she also recalls how she had to speak English at school, from the moment she started at the age of four without a word of it. Gaelic was frowned-upon. It wasn’t until after she graduated that it became an option as a Highers subject, but it still wasn’t to be spoken in any of the other classes.

There’s an elderly man, let’s call him Donnchadh, who rang in while I was presenting a programme for Scottish Radio, very excited about hearing me speaking some Gaelic on-air. “Cha do chuala mi a’ Ghàidhlig ‘o chionn fhad’ – ‘o chionn ‘s marbh mo mhathair!” He hadn’t heard Gaelic in such a long time, since his mother died. “Tha mi an dòchas gun cluinnidh mi mòran Gàidhlig ‘n uair a bhitheas tu ann,” he told me earnestly, before clamming up. He was reluctant to speak any more Gaelic with me, because he didn’t think he knew it well enough. His parents were foster-parents when he was a child, and the government had paid them extra to not use Gaelic in the house, let they taint the foster children, who had come from the Lowlands.

I think it’s probably rare for languages to just die by chance. Perhaps there are some out there that where honestly let go by their speakers because they preferred another. Majority languages can be pushy, offer a better life, and the speakers of those majority languages don’t do it maliciously.

In the case of Gaelic, that wasn’t the case. I’m more proficient in it now than I was when I got those comments with which I opened the post, and my ability to speak Gaelic isn’t so obviously a decision (you must bear in mind that it’s a language with a lot of native partial-speakers, so not being fluent doesn’t preclude having spoken it from childhood). The reactions I get now are different. The older Gaels I meet are usually sort of pleased that someone young speaks the language, particularly as it’s so rare for that to be the case outside Scotland.

But I still get a lot of “But how? But why?” The older native demographic have a very hard time understanding why anyone would learn a language they were conditioned from their childhood to believe was backwards and dying… even if it’s so deeply a part of them and they love it for the memories in it.

Things are swinging around now. The language hasn’t been actively suppressed for several generations. My parents’ generation are ambivalent. They aren’t against the language, as so many in my grandparents’ generation are. They just don’t really care. It doesn’t affect them. Their parents spoke it – they don’t. My father remembers hearing it from children at the village school, but the response he heard when it was mentioned was, “Oh, that? No, it’s a dying language.” It’s not as important as French or German.

And now, the government is supporting the language. People are for it. Not everyone – there’s still a lot of the anti-Gaelic sentiment going around, as those conversations when I first started learning the language will show. But, by and large, it isn’t a dying language, it isn’t a useless language, it’s part of us, and we can bring it with us into the modern world.

Not all endangered languages have that support, or even that mentality. It’s sad that Aboriginal languages are dead, you see, but they’re stone age languages (even if we won’t say that out loud) – they can’t cope with the modern world. Better for the Aboriginals to learn English.

Well, that’s the same sort of rhetoric that went down about Gaelic not so long ago. Actually, I’ve been interested recently in an article I found from Scotland in the 1850s about Gaels and “the slovenly and stupid Celtic race” and how everyone would be better off without them. What struck me was that, if “Celt” and “Gael” had been replaced by “Aborigine” and “Black”, it could so easily have been published in Australia at the same time.

“Bashkir is a village language”, I imagine the woman Richard spoke to thinking. “It’s dying anyway. It’s my language, but I speak Russian – what do I care if my children speak only Russian and not Bashkir? That’s just the way things are.”

Maybe. Should we care if languages die? Languages die all the time, and we can’t do much to stop it. Great and mighty languages have died – Demotic, Phoenecian, Latin. If we can’t stop languages so big as those dying, why should we care about the village languages? It would probably make things easier if everyone spoke the same language, anyway.

I could go on about how diversity is good – that seems to be a word bandied about a lot. We’re enriched by the sum of our parts, and all that. I’ve already said that different languages have different ways of seeing the world. I could have proved that with a major language, like German perhaps. But when it comes down to it… why?

Why would you do that? Why would you learn Gaelic?

Why would you learn any endangered or dying language?

Sometimes there’s no sensible answer. I never really had a sensible reason for learning Gaelic. I still don’t, not really. Paul from LangFocus talks about being “bitten by a love for a language” and I suppose that’s the best explanation I have.

No language doesn’t mean something to someone. And no language has nothing to offer.

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One thought on “Minority Languages, Dying Languages, and Learning Them

  1. Abendlaender says:

    I have just come across this post and would like to give my points.

    I am very sad that my own regional tongue, called Colonian, Platt, or Rhinish, is worthed so little. My answer to the point why we ought to care about our heritage languages is the point that every language spoken makes cultural and as well everyday life more colourful. In music, we have as well many styles from the countries of the world. Why not to keep alive and bring back regional tongues? They are part of who we are and linking us to our roots. If a tongue has no links at all to our days and has died out totally since long, then it makes little sense bringing it back.

    As to Latin and Demotic, they have not simply died out. Latin has evolved into the Romance languages and is still used within the Catholic Church. Latin itself will never be forgotten as long as thers are native European people, including those in European colonized countries. Last but not least, Logudorian Sardinian is a day-to-day language very close to Latin. In the middle ages, a form of vulgar Latin had been spoken among servants of the upper class, the so called kitchen Latin, a form between a fixed and a naturally spoken language. Latin has very much dwindled as a kind of lingua franca in Europe when the upper class began to aim at spreading Classical Latin and French which had undermined Latin as a living tongue.

    Demotic has evolved into Coptic and not died out. Demotic script, however, died out and gave way for a modified Greek script. Coptic has dwindled due to harsh oppression by the Arabs since the Islamic conquer and was spoken in everyday life until perhaps the 18th century. In the liturgy of the Coptic church, it is still present while some Copts have been trying to bring it back as daily spoken language. Some families of priests are known to speak Coptic at home.

    Every tongue can fìt modern topics by setting up new words from the existing word stems and shaping loans from outside to fit into native language patterns.

    Greatings, Alexander Dietz

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