Sunday, August 22, 2004

A cancer of language coercion

I grew up in an Ireland which had certain hangovers relating to our relatively young free nationhood, after many hundreds of years being ruled by a succession of outside influences.

One of them was an attempt to make everybody speak Irish, at least to some extent. Understandable in a way, as one of the definers of a nation can be its own language. After centuries of rule by England, English was, and remains, the predominant language of Ireland.

Government wisdoms of our early nationhood included making Irish a compulsory subject in school, requiring a pass in the subject in order to pass national Intermediate and Leaving Certificate examinations, making mandatory a proficiency in Gaelic for acceptance into the police and civil service, and giving financial incentives to those individuals and companies located in the 'Gaeltacht' areas that fringed the edges of our country.

(If this is old hat to my Irish readers, I need to explain it for those who read me from abroad, of whom there are apparently quite a few. So bear with me.)

It is now generally accepted that the compulsory aspect of Irish was probably the biggest single inhibitor to making it more widespread. After those aforementioned years of dominance, the Irish didn't take coercion well. Most of us growing up in the fifties and sixties came to dislike the subject intensely, simply because it was mandatory. So we, reluctantly, learned just as much as we needed to get through our examinations.

I had Irish classes all the way through primary and secondary schools. During the early years of my second-level education I had some 12 and three-quarter hours of class time in Irish, and an equivalent two and one-quarter hours of classes in French every week. Today, I speak and understand much more French than Irish. In fact, I don't speak or understand Irish in any useful way.

QED, if I might introduce yet another tongue.

As a writer I've always believed that the English language, with all its richness and flexibility gained from a wide variety of imports from other languages, is probably the best thing the 'auld enemy' left with us.

At the other end of the scale, a certain element of the corps of speakers of the Irish language here have always been rather strident. Mostly they were the 'new' Irish speakers, who aggressively pushed to have Irish more and more around the place. They tended to be loud in public and almost invariably exuded a sense of superiority.

(Needless to say, such was never the attitude of any native Irish speakers I've ever known, who always had traditional Irish manners as well as their traditional language.)

At the very fringes were those even more militant, who went as far as to paint out the English parts of dual-language road and direction signs. 'If you don't know where you're going in Irish, then you shouldn't be going there' seemed to be the attitude.

For those of us already conditioned to dislike the Irish language, their activities further reinforced our attitudes. However, as I've grown older, I've also felt gradually more wistful that I could speak Irish as well. Not enough to want to spend time learning it in classes, but for many years I have made a point of using whatever 'cupla focail' of the blas that I do have, whenever appropriate.

And, over the years, the place and incidence of Gaelic in Irish life did seem to improve, and there is today hardly a parish that doesn't have a 'Gaelscoil' where children are taught through the medium of Irish, by the choice of the parents. And outside the traditional Gaeltacht areas there are now many homes where Irish is the spoken language of preference.

At the educational level, things became more relaxed, and as far as I understand it, while Irish is still a mandatory subject to take in second-level school, it is not necessary to pass it in order to pass the whole examination.

And that's all very good, I believe. Further, I reckon much of the changing attitude to Irish has been the gradual withdrawal of the coercion factor.

But recently there have been some disturbing things happening. Things that indicate there has been almost a stealthy infiltration into parts of our public and social lives by those we used to call the Gaelgoiri. Things that on one hand are costly additions to the workings of our public service, and on another are downright discriminatory.

For instance, it came as something of a shock to most people recently that from the middle of this summer, it is now a requirement that every piece of public documentation, whether produced by a local authority or a Government department, must be produced in both English and Irish.

At the most basic level, this means that every two-line letter of acknowledgement to a query from somebody in English must be translated into Irish as well. Every minutes of every county council meeting must equally be presented in both Irish and English, and, presumably, every report from every official of a council in relation to any matter, be it planning or grant-giving, must now come in duplicated languages.

Every roadworks sign with text on it, must have an equivalent sign in both Irish and English. Not just leading to extra cost, but doubling the amount of temporary signs already problematical on our crowded roads.

Except, if I've taken this up correctly, in official Gaeltacht areas, where there is no requirement to have the English versions.

In addition, all maps produced in future, even those done outside the country, must have the Gaelic version ONLY of the names of towns in those Gaeltacht areas.

Why should this be necessary? The cynics amongst us would suggest that it provides more 'jobs for the boys (and girls)' of the Gaelgoiri. As the general membership of our public service are far from bi-lingual nowadays, extra staff who are fluent in Irish will have to be employed for translation work, further bloating our public service.

I see that our top echelon of politicians are also getting in on the act, with the recent announcement that our Government is to try and have Irish made one of the official languages of the European Union.

More high-paying jobs in Brussels for the Irish speakers if this one gets through. And yet another forest of timber to be felled annually to make paper to carry this extra level of wordage.

This latter move was 'explained' by a suggestion that more than 80 per cent of Irish people spoke Irish, according to recent census returns. That is a blatant manipulation of information, based on the likely most common answer to a multiple-choice question in the census, that most respondents would speak 'some' Irish. Probably four-fifths of our population do have at least a 'cupla focail', but little more. Enough, though, that they couldn't tick the box 'none'.

Away from that, I was particularly disturbed by a report recently that a Galway developer of a complex of apartments was loaded with a planning condition that any buyers or tenants of the homes would have to be able to speak Irish. He fought hard to have this taken out, but, so far as I know, failed.

Who gave 'them' the right to do this kind of stuff? Irish is a minority language in this country, and is likely always to remain so in a world where English is the global tongue of commerce and industry, along with Spanish and French to a somewhat lesser extent. Yet, the result of our recently sneaked-in legislation makes Gaelic the first official language of this country.

If we accept these and other instances of a new cancer of coercion in relation to use of the Irish language, we are accepting no less than a language fascism.

The extreme extension could be that any potential visitors to the country at some time in the future may have to prove at the border that they can speak Irish before they will be allowed in?

Sure, such an idea is impossible. Isn't it? Modern societies do not become extreme.

Don't they?

There are laws in this country against discrimination on the grounds of race, gender, and age. I think that, very quickly, we need to extend them to include discrimination on grounds of language used.

While we are still allowed to. Before, perhaps, it even becomes a requirement that any posting like this, using an Irish conduit to an internet server, must also be published in both languages.

Though I suppose we will now have to make the applications for such an extension in both languages?

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