When language dies
When language dies

By Jim Gibney (for Irish News)

Language analysts have estimated that there are more than 6,000 languages spoken in the world today and one minority language dies every two weeks.

There are many reasons why a language dies -- modernisation, the globalisation of the world’s economy, the expansion of English as the language of commerce.

There is also awareness that cultural poverty is every bit as unacceptable as economic poverty and the loss of minority languages shrinks humanity’s cultural pool -- when a language dies so does a rich vein of people’s customs, music and art.

Culturally, the world is a poorer place when a language dies but the significance of the loss is found in the psychological impact on those who once spoke the language.

A language distinguishes a nation or a community; it defines a people. It connects them with their historical past while reassuring them of the future. A language is a nation’s and an individual’s reference point on the graph of life.

It is therefore important when a language is being revived, as in the case of Irish, we take time out to celebrate progress.

That is certainly the attitude of Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams and those who joined him in organising Ceiliuradh na Gaeilge, a celebration of the Irish language, in Stormont’s Great Hall a few weeks ago.

The purpose of the ceiliuradh was to mainstream the language through an event at the centre of the north’s political life -- the assembly -- and to bring together those pioneering the revival of the language.

The great hall is a few feet away from the assembly’s chamber -- the seat of a sustained offensive by unionist parties against the Irish language, including minister Edwin Poots’s refusal to introduce an Irish language act and the attempt by unionists to ban speaking Irish in the chamber.

Speaking in Irish, Gerry Adams emphasised that the growth and strength of the language today was due to people-led initiatives big and small.

This theme of initiative-taking was also reflected in a speech by Sean O Coinn, chief executive of Comhairle na Gaelscolaiochta, who highlighted the outstanding role played by the Irish language education sector.

A sector helped significantly when former education minister Martin McGuinness lowered the numbers threshold for funding to Irish language primary schools.

Week on week the roots of the language deepen.

The Belfast Metropolitan College group is offering advanced language skills, computer and office training for public and private businesses through Irish.

And last week Pobal launched its ‘Abair Ta’ (Say Yes) to Irish campaign.

Last week also saw the launch of two eminently enjoyable books in Irish, which would make ideal Christmas presents.

Fergus hOr’s lifelong, love of Irish and nature are interwoven between the pages of a brightly-coloured and beautifully-designed book, Morbhealai agus Culbhealai, Lorg plandai na h Ireann, Highways and Byways, Tracing the plants of Ireland.

One-hundred-and-eighty-nine expertly taken photographs of flowers and plants, in different stages of repose, from across Ireland, adorn this scholarly, yet easily accessible, work.

Flicking the pages of the book is like being at your very own photographic exhibition.

Rare and common flowers, parasitical and insect eating but above all like the horse chestnut -- the cheeser -- Fergus’s microscopic camera eye reveals nature’s stunningly beautiful creations.

Thirty years of travel from a wide-eyed 16-year-old in Paris in 1976 to a mature, mind-sharpened, Irish-speaking journalist, in Teheran in November past, produced Cathracha, (Cities), by Eoghan Ui Nrill.

Eoghan went ‘under the skin’ of Havana, New Orleans, Teheran, Soweto, Constantin, Reciviz, Venice, Paris, Prague, Sarajevo, Nicosia, Amsterdam, Berlin, Barcelona, Copenhagan, Tallin, Vilnius and Ljubjana.

From the cradle of civilisation, Teheran, through the trauma of Soweto, Nicosia, Sarajevo, New Orleans, to the liberation from Russia of Tallin, Vilnius and Ljubjana this book is about ‘meitheal’, which in Irish means people’s combined spirit.

Nicosia is time-trapped in 1974 by the invasion of Turkey, while the blacks of Lower 9th in hurricane-devastated New Orleans are still homeless. But in Barcelona cultural life is buzzing as is the Irish-speaking community, despite the insulting and ignorant decision by Aer Lingus to ban Irish on their Belfast flights -- a decision demanded by and supported by no one.

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© 2007 Irish Republican News