Tag Archives: Irish language

Speak Irish to me

The Irish language, like its people, has suffered greatly.

It has been used and abused by many: British colonialists, by the Catholic Church, and by Irish revolutionaries. The first two discouraged its use, associating it with poverty and primitive wildness. The latter co-opted the language as its primary symbol of nationhood and struggle against oppression.

When Ireland finally gained a degree of independence in 1922, its government brought Irish back into the schoolrooms.

Dublin Street Sign with names in both English and Irish. (Photo: Doug McKnight)

Dublin Street Sign with names in both English and Irish. (Photo: Doug McKnight)

This podcast episode talks to three people who studied Irish in the years since independence: Patrick’s father who was taught Irish “by the nuns” in the 1930s and 40s; linguist Jim McCloskey, who fell in love with the language in the 1970s when he went on language summer schools in Ireland’s Irish-speaking regions; and Iarla O’Halloran, who spoke Irish at home, then forgot much of it at school, only to pick it up again in the less formal settings of pubs and clubs of his college years.

“I was surprised by how much of it was actually stored within me, how much of came out when I wasn’t nervous to speak it,” says O’Halloran.

An Irish nationalist poster from 1913.

“There were expressions that I picked up [from Irish speakers] that I found hilarious. They’ll all sexual … .Just hearing how the lads from Connemara, when they would see a good-looking woman on the street, how they would describe it. … It was hearing laddish banter that made me realize that the language could be a bit more than I thought it was.”

We also hear from a research project at UC-Santa Cruz that is documenting Irish pronunciation with the help of ultrasound imagery.

Podcast Contents

0:10 My father learned Irish in a new nation.

1:42 “There was an enormous psychological resistance to learning the language”

2:20 The beginnings of Irish.

4:10 The crucial initial moment in the decline of Irish.

5:20 How the Catholic Church helped the colonial government drive the language to the fringes of society.

6:30 “A generation has to come to believe that their language is a burden.”

8:10 The Gaelic revival.

9:50 Jim McCloskey summers in a Gaeltacht, an Irish-speaking region.

13:10 Iarla O’Halloran grew up initially speaking Irish.

14:35 “There was an ideological aspect” to the Irish language curriculum in schools.

16:30 Iarla discovers idiomatic, scatalogical Irish. (Irish has a ton of wonderful expressions.)

Galt Barber playing his fiddle at his SAnta Cruz, CA,  home. (Photo: Doug McKnight)

Galt Barber playing his fiddle at his SAnta Cruz, CA, home. (Photo: Doug McKnight)

17:45 The support of the diaspora.

18:05 The Barber family, an American family of distant Irish ancestry speaks Irish at home.

19:00 Jaye Padgett explains the consonant pronunciation project that he’s working on with colleagues at UC-Santa Cruz and University College, Dublin.

Linguist Jaye Padgett wearing the head frame used to stabilize an ultrasound camera. Padgett and colleagues at UC-Santa Cruz and University College Dublin are documenting Irish consonant formation. (Photo: Doug McKnight)

Linguist Jaye Padgett wearing the head frame used to stabilize an ultrasound camera. Padgett and colleagues at UC-Santa Cruz and University College Dublin are documenting Irish consonant formation. (Photo: Doug McKnight)

21:50 Language purists message to the new urban Irish: don’t mess with the language.

22:50 A new perspective: the role of Irish in the global context of the loss of linguistic diversity.

27:10 Patrick’s father’s regrets.

Music heard in the podcast

0:00 “Dramamine” by Podington Bear

6:00 “Interference” by Hugo Paquette

11:05 “Coinleach Glas an Fhómhair” by Róisín Elsafty

14:52 “The Mussels” by Osvaldo Cibils

20:42 “Calm” by Alexander Boyes

24:00 Stiofán Ó Fearaíl sings an Irish language version of the Aviici song, “Wake Me Up” The video features students at the Coláiste Lurga in Indreabhán, County Galway.

A big thanks to Jim McCloskey and Doug McKnight for their help with this podcast.

Listen above or at iTunes.

The World in Words is also at PRI and on Facebook .

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Language-learning in France and Ireland, and free speech in Tunisia

In France, the  government is proposing that children start learning English at age three. It’s high time, they argue, that French educators face up to the fact that learning English gives you — and your country — an edge.

Good idea,  say French intellectuals. But why English? According to French linguist, Claude Hagège, the proposal is “totally pointless, if not ridiculous.”

Now, before you write off Hagège as a good-for-nothing naysayer, consider this: he’s one of France best-known promoters of language-learning. He strongly supports the idea of people learning several languages if they can. But for Hagège, language is power– and speaking English is “not quite innocent.”  From his perspective (and, I suspect, he is far from alone) it’s more important to resist the rise of English than it is to expose French youth to it, at least as a first foreign language. In his words, speaking English is “a guilty act because it is the language of very wealthy, industrialized countries. And I think any person who has a minimum of sense of justice cannot accept that because this means domination by the countries whose mother tongue this language is.”

It may be because of attitudes like this that French schools will continue to lag behind school systems elsewhere in Europe, when it comes to teaching English.

In Ireland, mandatory Irish learning in schools became an issue in the recent parliamentary elections.  OK, so it didn’t sway voters as much as the economy did. But the party that won, Fine Gael, has promised to consider dropping Irish as a must-learn subject at school.  In the old days — or at least when my dad went to school — learning Irish was considered act of patriotism in a new country eager to establish its national identity.  It didn’t work. Despite massive government support, the vast majority of Irish people forgot most of the Irish they had been forced to learn. Fine Gael’s proposal, while upsetting the old guard and some native Irish speakers, struck a chord with some voters and commentators.  Why not learn languages that are more widely  spoken, like Spanish, French or Chinese — languages that  might help young people get a leg up?

In Tunisia, journalists are getting used to their new freedoms; some are clinging to the old ways.  The pod has a report from Tunis on how some news organizations are adapting quickly to their new freedoms, while others can’t figure out quite how to express themselves without a censor to frame reality for them.

Also,  we have  an interview with Anglo-Middle Eastern singer Natacha Atlas. Atlas isn’t known for her political or social stances. But recently she began singing about free speech in Egypt, and beyond.

Listen in iTunes or here.

Photos: Wikicommons

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Swearing in Irish, storytelling in Scots, and rapping in Khmer

There may be many reasons why attempts at reviving the Irish language have not fared as well as those for Welsh, or even Scottish Gaelic.  You might think that Ireland, as a new-ish nation, would have embraced its ancient language — a language suppressed by the British colonialists. And certainly, Ireland ‘s first few governments tried that in the 1920s and 30s. Irish was mandatory in schools, and mastery of it was required to enter the civil service. Despite that,  it never really took off. Perhaps the British had done too good a job in near-wiping it out. (And did less well in Wales, where people persisted in speaking Welsh, even before its current government-sponsored revival). Or perhaps, people aren’t comfortable learning a language as a political act, as part of a nationalist agenda.

We hear from two speakers of the language: first, my Dad, who remembers hardly any Irish these days but studied it at school for many years. Today, many decades later, he wishes he’d paid more attention.  Then, a conversation with Manchán Magan, who made a documentary series for Irish TV about his attempt to travel around Ireland speaking only Irish. (That’s him in the picture, praying that he’ll meet someone who speaks Irish.) He was verbally abused in Dublin — a reaction Magan thinks has to do with the past, and feelings of guilt and shame. In Killarney, he asked people, in Irish, to help him rob a bank. In Galway, he sang filthy songs in public and was applauded by uncomprehending old ladies.  He also tried — and failed — to buy food and clothes, and to hire a mechanic. Middle-aged Irish people like him, Magan says, never really were interested in keeping up their Irish skills. But the young are different: for them, learning Irish doesn’t have an agenda attached to it. So there may be hope yet for this language.
Then, it’s Alexander McCall Smith. His latest offering in the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series is a children’s book in the Scots language. McSmith and other participants in a BBC round-table program (also featured  in the podcast) discuss books in translation. English is now so dominant and so widely understood, that many books written in English simply aren’t translated into the likes of Dutch, Danish or Swedish, let alone Scots. So, publication of this book in its translation a full year before it is published in the original English is a quite a statement from McCall Smith.

Finally, we profile hip-hop artist Boomer Da Sharpshooter. Boomer, who is ethnic Cambodian, was born in a refugee camp in Thailand and raised in California. He grew up speaking English but now raps in Cambodia’s main language, Khmer. It’s not out of choice: in his late teens he was gang-banger, and was sent to prison on weapons offenses. On his release, the US deported him to Cambodia. That was seven years ago. Today, he’s a reformed character, and his  Khmer raps are considerably softer in tone and content than his English ones used to be.

Listen in iTunes or here.

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