My first encounter with (Scottish) Gaelic, or Gàidhlig, was at a mòdin Vancouver, Canada. A friend brought me along to this song and cultural festival and promptly introduced me to his Gaelic teacher, explaining to him that I spoke Irish, that other Gaelic. With a little effort, we were able to converse fairly naturally, each of us speaking our own language. At one point he was explaining the particulars of how people use different words on different islands and I noticed him using the word can, which in Irish means “sing”. To me, it sounded like people sing one word on a certain island but sing another word somewhere else. I attempted to clarify, and the exchange that ensued went something like this:
“Wait, so can means to say? Then how do you say to sing?”
“Oh, okay, for us seinm means to play an instrument.”
“For that we say cluich.”
“Okay, we also have that word, but for us it means a game. How do you say play, as in play a game?”
“Also cluich, but you can say iomairt for playing cards.”
“We use imirt for playing any game or sport.”
…and on it went. We skipped back and forth between shades of meaning that almost but never quite matched up. Though we did finally conclude that súgradh and sùgradh did indeed mean the same thing—to play in general, like how children just play. Or better still, how we were playing in the interstice between our languages.
My second encounter with Gàidhlig was also in Canada, though at the opposite end of the country on Cape Breton Island. As was also the case in Vancouver, I was impressed with how much Gaelic many Scottish-Canadians knew, even if only song lyrics—they had a lot of songs memorised. The language seemed to be such a focal part of the Scottish diaspora experience, much more so than in Irish-American and Irish-Canadian communities I’d been a part of. It gave me the impression that Gàidhlig must be quite strong in Scotland. However, these experiences turned out to be a bit misleading, as Gaelic has probably less than 60,000 fluent speakers and is under an enormous amount of pressure in modern Scottish society.
Misneachd cautions against looking at the current situation of Gaelic in Scotland as anything other than an urgent crisis that requires radical intervention if it is to survive at all as a community language of future generations. Their proposal comes in response to the National Gaelic Language Plan 2018-2023, drafted by Bòrd na Gàidhlig, which Misneachd basically deems too little too late. While they do not reject everything mapped out in the plan, their own 100+ page response contains a comprehensive set of suggestions and strategies that call for a much more serious response to the state of the Gaelic language: stronger determination, higher demands and more drastic action. In short, more radical.
I personally find Misneachd’s Radical Plan for Gaelic very inspiring and think that any community involved in revitalizing or reviving their traditional language could benefit from the empowerment and spirit that Misneachd embodies. After reading all of their suggestions, two overlying perspectives stuck out to me as very important and unfortunately often overlooked in language revitalization programmes: comprehensive care for the community and advocating for the linguistic rights of the community.
Misneachd’s community-focused approach is nothing short of logical, practical and just good planning. However, this basic unit of society is often not given its due attention in language revival movements, perhaps due to its overwhelming scope. Indeed, “community” involves every aspect of our lives and the task of community reform or care can seem simply too daunting to take on. True to their name, though, Misneach (Gaelic for ‘courage’) argues against shying away from such a large task, instead advocating for grassroots organization and efforts, building from the ground up.
The focus of many language revitalization or reclamation programs has been bilingual education. Often the logic behind this is that the younger generations will learn more easily and will be the ones to carry on the language in the future. The problem with this, as Misneachd’s report points out, is that if the language is only used in schools and does not establish itself as the default community language, there are no real chances of its long term survival into the future. And in order for a minority language to be the default in a community, two thirds of the population must speak it fluently; otherwise it just won’t stick (p. 35). This certainly will not happen through bilingual education in schools alone. Therefore, a broader approach that involves the entire community is needed.
Among adult speakers, one of the biggest worries about Gaelic is that it is transitioning ever more rapidly from being a community language to a network language. This means that the major hubs of language use are no longer established and sustainable (usually rural) communities that speak the language naturally and produce new generations of speakers, but rather mobile, non-tangible communities of mostly adult L2 speakers that network and create events or spaces in which to use their language, but rarely manage to incorporate the language into every stratum of their daily lives. A good example of this can be seen in online communities, which—no doubt—are invaluable for their help in bridging geographic distance and giving more people access to media, instruction and resources in minority languages, but a Facebook group on an online message board cannot replace a live, in-person community. More importantly, as Misneachd’s report points out, network communities have been shown to fall short of true language revival (p. 9).
In order to put more effort and resources towards community building around Gaelic language revitalization, Misneachd recommends mandatory language plans for any area with a 20% or more Gaelic-speaking population. This would ensure that the country is keeping track of and utilising significant populations of Gaelic speakers as well as seeing that they get the support that they need to connect with neighbours and other community members in their language, to ensure that their children can be educated in their language and to maintain or grow the numbers of speakers. Such language plans would include strategies for increasing Gaelic usage and visibility in the arts, school system and local economy as well as increasing access to (subsidized!) Gaelic language classes for adults. To carry out these plans, full-time language development workers would be stationed in every Gaelic-speaking community in Scotland.
In addition to supporting existing Gaelic-speaking communities, Misneachd also calls for the radical creation of new residential communities. Using the Gaeltacht community of Shaw’s Road in Belfast as inspiration, they propose the establishment of ecovillages, communes, community-run estates and new planned (Gaelic-speaking) villages, such as Kilbeg on the Isle of Skye. Many of these communities could be centered around a project or business model that may have nothing to do with Gaelic but would be carried out in Gaelic, integrating the language naturally into the local economy and creating Gaelic-speaking jobs outside of the bilingual education system. Such structures could also engage in master-apprentice programmes whereby a younger individual is paired with an older native speaker to learn a trade through the medium of Gaelic. Not only does this make the language more viable and relevant for younger speakers, but it also provides opportunities to combat the loneliness and trauma that many older speakers experience living in rural areas, detached from their native language.
At this point, most people are probably thinking that this all sounds great in theory, but how will it be funded? This is, of course, a real concern, and without financial support from the government, most of the above would probably not be feasible. Affordable housing and land purchasing schemes are needed to even make it possible for many people to remain in Gaelic-speaking regions, let alone move there. Language plans must be funded, and language officers must be paid. Teachers must see some financial incentive for the extra effort of entering Gaelic-medium education. Bilingual schools must receive the same level of support and same quality of resources that English-medium school receive. And Misneachd does not shy away from this reality, but instead makes a compelling argument for why it is the government’s duty to make this funding available and the Gaels’ right to receive it.
Minority languages generally face the challenges that they face because they are grossly undervalued—both by society at large and even the speakers themselves. Part of Misneachd’s appeal is that they are so unapologetic in their demand for recognition of the value of their language by the government and Scottish society in general. The report talks about the pressure that Gaels feel under the encroachment of mainstream culture. Every day they are denied their rights to a traditional way of life and must bow to the wishes of the English-speaking majority. Misneachd describes this simply as cultural genocide, referencing the UN’s definition of the term.
In practical terms, Misneachd advocates pushing back against this force simply by no longer settling for unidirectional bilingualism—i.e. the phenomenon whereby all Gaelic speakers are expected to speak English when even just one English speaker is present, but no English speaker is ever expected to have any knowledge of Gaelic whatsoever, much less accommodate the Gaelic speakers present. In fact, Misneachd’s goal is 100% bilingualism in Gaelic-speaking areas for anyone resident there for more than 5 years. This would be encouraged with 6 months of free, full-time language instruction for new residents. For children in areas such as the western isles, English-medium education would be phased out altogether, and special attention would be given to heritage speakers, who may have a solid passive understanding of Gaelic but are English-dominant and come with their own unique set of needs in adapting to Gaelic-medium education. This is indeed controversial, but such is the urgency of the current situation of Gaelic in Scotland. To effect any lasting change, society must adapt to accommodate the language. Misneachd’s proposals are meant to be a wake up call and a call to radical action.
Naturally such heavy demands much come from a place of great self-worth and empowerment. To me, this is Misneachd’s strongest and most compelling point. They call for recognition of Gaels as an ethnic minority, due all the protections and rights that come with such a designation. As an ethnic minority, Gaels could have legislation to protect traditional ways of life, preventing big business or the government policy from interfering with the local economies that sustain traditional communities. Gaels would also be protected against hate crimes. Sadly enough, speaking Gaelic still can result in acts of violence, harassment and vandalism. These acts should not only not be tolerated, but should be prosecuted and treated as series acts of cultural genocide. When put in these terms, it is hard to deny the Scottish government’s moral obligation to protect and support the traditional ways of Gaelic Scotland, language included.
Democratic political autonomy should also be secured for the Gaels. Misneachd makes reference to the Sami Parliament as a possible model for how Gaels could have more power in issues that affect their existence and certainly the existence of their language. Gaels are always used as the emblematic face for Scotland. Bagpipes, tartans, kilts and even the Gaelic language are used to draw in tourist revenue and promote an attractive national image, distinct from the rest of the UK. In exchange for this, though, those actually trying to live this traditional lifestyle are brushed aside, expected to compromise and abused when they speak up for their rights. Misneachd is absolutely correct when they say that Gaelic IS a political issue. I believe that trying to play down its political significance means complacency with the situation at hand and turning a blind eye to the systematic and intentional suppression of a very important piece of world heritage.
Now is not the time to rest on one’s laurels. Gaelic speakers have the right to exist as a true community in their native land. Securing this right and maintaining these communities will be a struggle, but aiming high is the only way it will ever happen. I’ll end with one final point that I was really happy to see in Misneachd’s report:
We should remember that the struggle for Gaelic and other minority languages is part of the wider struggle for social justice, human rights and protection of the environment. Gaelic speakers must stand in solidarity with other progressive movements in Scotland and across the world – including but not limited to other language movements. (p. 97)
I think this demonstrates that this small, grassroots group knows the magnitude of the challenges it faces but draws strength from the fact that they are not alone in their struggle. This is one of the most important lessons that language revitalization and revival projects around the world could learn from. The battle begins right where you are standing, but a wealth of support can be found far and wide.
A copy of Misneachd’s Radical Plan for Gaelic is available for free here.
Having looked at the structure and lexicon of Breton and Irish a bit, it is easy to see the relationship between these two celtic cousins. Considering that languages can only evolve so fast it is no surprise, even after centuries of separation, that historically related speech communities would still have some degree of linguistic kinship. What I find more interesting, though, is that despite several hundred years of separate social, political, and cultural development, Breton and Irish find themselves in very similar situations in the modern world, sharing many of the same challenges and difficulties. I believe this helps us to see that, circumstances aside, the plight of any minority language generally boils down to a few key social, political, and financial disadvantages and/or injustices.
As an Irish speaker, I feel an immense amount of empathy for and solidarity with the struggles of the Breton speaking community. I hear about different ways in which the use of Breton is condemned, judged, or mistrusted, and it sounds just like Irish speakers relaying their own experiences—so similar are the stories. I hear about the frustration felt by speakers of a language for which there is wide public support in theory, but very narrow support in terms of action or government intervention. The frustration is familiar as it seems to be a topic of conversation every time I turn on Raidió na Gaeltachta or read Tuairisc. Ultimately, what I am witnessing are the effects of the shared trauma of having the mother tongue stripped away from entire generations of speakers over and over again until the remaining generation of young native speakers is just barely holding on for survival.
In a seminar I attended in Quimper last summer, an interesting point was made about the first stages in the decline of Breton, and probably of any language. The beginning of the language’s decline was marked by the loss of the native language elite. That is, once the language was no longer spoken by the upper classes of society, the damage was probably irreversible and would only worsen.
Breton was the primary language spoken in Brittany, and it was even the language of the nobility up until the 12th century when political instability led to shifts in power and an increase in the use of French. Scholars say that once the language ceased to be spoken by the nobility and French gained political and economic clout, that constituted a tipping point for the Breton language, after which it would only see a steady decrease in numbers of speakers.
The same might be said of Irish, though the tipping point would have been reached a bit later in the 17th and 18th centuries. With the colonization of Ireland by England, Irish fell further and further into disuse in the eastern parts of the country around urban centers and seats of government. The Irish people came to see English as the only vehicle out of farming and poverty and thus equated it with “progress” and “the future”. Though many claim that the Irish language played an important role in the modernization of Ireland, the language shift had already begun and the point of no return may well have been reached long before the so-called “Great Famine” when devastating numbers of Irish-speakers were lost to both starvation and emigration.
The importance of the “native language elite” is very understandable in the contemporary context of language loss. Time and time again, we see that the educated gentry turn to dominant languages—languages of the colonizer—such as English, French, Spanish, Chinese, or Portuguese. Meanwhile the fate of smaller, more local languages rests on the shoulders of the disenfranchised, geographically isolated, and oppressed. Without currency among the elite, these languages become associated with the past, a lack of education, a lack of opportunity, and poverty. People begin to see their language as something that is holding them back.
The result of this for both Breton and Irish was that the languages became tied to smaller and more isolated communities, eventually falling out of use in the public realm in general. Breton and Irish were languages of the home or, at best, of the village, seldom used with outsiders unless sufficient trust or in-group rapport had been established.
Such insularism was reinforced by the penalization, even criminalization, of both Breton and Irish by the French and British governments respectively. In British-occupied Ireland, Irish-speaking school children were often forced to wear a bata scoir around their necks. This was a wooden dowel or stick on which the schoolmaster would carve a notch every time the child was caught speaking Irish. At the end of the week the notches were tallied up and the child was punished, most likely beaten, that many times.
In Brittany, a similar technique was employed by the French, whereby a simple object such as an iron ring, tin can, or wooden shoe was deemed le symbole or la vache and was hung around a child’s neck as a humiliating punishment for speaking Breton in school. In a sinister twist, the only way a child could get rid of le symbole was to report another child for speaking Breton, and at the end of the day the child who was stuck with le symbole would be beaten or assigned manual labour. This naturally turned the children not only against their language but also against each other. Incidentally, this type of punishment remained in practice well into the 1940’s.
“Le symbole”, Musée de l’école rurale en Bretagne, Trégarvan
“I was punished!” Musée de l’école rurale en Bretagne, Trégarvan
The younger generations had the language literally beaten and shamed out of them, and this is where the issue of trauma really begins. These two languages became associated with suffering, shame, judgement, inferiority, and servitude. The physical and psychological violence inflicted on entire generations of people in both countries is hardly ever acknowledged, much less processed or deconstructed by the subsequent generations, and as a result, there really does seem to be something pathological in the modern day relationships of Brittany and Ireland to their own languages.
Part of the reason that Breton and Irish are not spoken more in the public realm is the amount of shame (or other dysfunctional emotions resulting from shame) tied to the languages themselves and then, ironically, to one’s own inability in speaking them. If you try to speak Irish to a stranger in Ireland, you can expect a range of resentful responses from an annoyed “Why don’t you just speak English?” to a defensive “Who do you think you are?” or even “You think you’re more Irish than me?” You might also find a few people willing to go along with it, but mostly people will just be annoyed.
In fact a recent tweet reveals just how much disdain people still endure for speaking Irish in public or even having Irish-language names. Again, this is intolerance by Irish people in Ireland for a language that is called…Irish.
In Brittany I was told of younger Breton speakers in the past complaining that they had a hard time using Breton with older speakers because the response was often: “I CAN speak French, you know. I’m not stupid.” In both cases, there is an incredible amount of linguistic dysfunction and insecurity in the presence of these languages. Ultimately this stems from the historic lack of value put on Breton or Irish and an ingrained notion that these languages are good-for-nothing dead-ends that only highlight one’s otherness rather than one’s place in a community.
I believe that these injuries constitute a community trauma, the effects of which are still present today. The communities have essentially been gaslighted into believing that the abandonment of their language was actually in their best interest. This applies just as easily to younger generations who grew up entirely without their language. They are still programmed to subconsciously believe that they are better off for having English or French as their first language. Programming like this fuels the “betrayal” mechanism of trauma, which allows the community to ignore the fact that they were wronged, much as an abused child blocks out the abuse of its caregiver for the sake of survival, as a coping mechanism. People often say “it’s a shame” that they don’t have the language of their grandparents, but they have been trained to believe that the dominance of English or French was ultimately for their own good. In an individual, this kind of thinking on a subconscious level keeps the trauma alive as it manifests in other areas of the psyche. One must wonder if something similar happens collectively on a community level.Does the trauma of previous generations with a language necessarily have an effect on the younger generations’ receptivity or inclination to learn it?
The trauma of language loss has not gone unnoticed by those working in the field of medicine in Brittany. Professor Jean Jacques Kress, from the faculty of medicine at the University of Brest writes:
Les grands parents parlent le breton, les parents sont bilingues et les enfants ne parlent que le français. En fait, la perte est intergénérationelle. Elle diffuse dans l’inconscient et est donc non brutale comme certains ont voulu le faire croire. On peut néanmoins, en se fondant sur l’observation psychiatrique, préciser de quelle nature est cette perte. On remarque en effet, nettement, une difficulté plus grande d’expression portant tout particulièrement sur l’affectif, les relations inter-humaines et la sensibilité individuelle. C’est ce que nous appelons l’alexithymie. Il n’est pas impossible, que cela soit une composante de la tendance à la dépression caractéristique des Bretons.
(The grandparents speak Breton, the parents are bilingual and the children only speak French. The loss is actually intergenerational. It diffuses into the unconscious and is therefore not violent as some would have you believe. Nevertheless, based on psychiatric observation, one can specify the nature of the loss. One can actually notice greater difficulty in expression in terms of emotions, human relations and individual sensitivity. This is what we call alexithymia. It is not impossible that this may be a factor in the tendency towards depression that is characteristic of the Breton people.)
And in fact, statistics show that Brittany has particular struggles with mental health. The rate of depression is measured at 20% above the national average and the rate of death by suicide is 65% higher than the national average.
Furthermore, substance abuse plays a role as well. Compared with the rest of France, there are 43% more alcoholism-related deaths before the age of 65, and Bretons are 80% more likely to experiment with heroin.
Marcel Texier, former president of Bretons du Monde (OBE), reflects on the link between these social problems and the loss of language:
De nombreux psychiatres ont établi une corrélation indiscutable entre la prévalence de l’alcoolisme et du suicide en Bretagne et la dévalorisation et la perte de la langue. Dieu merci, les choses sont en train de changer. J’en parlais, il y a quelques années, au Docteur Guy Caro, co-auteur d’un livre sur le sujet. “Le tableau est moins sombre qu’il y a quelques décennies”, m’a-t-il dit, “manifestement, dans la mesure où la langue bretonne, l’identité bretonne se portent mieux, l’alcoolisme régresse.”
(Many psychiatrists have established an indisputable correlation between the prevalence of alcoholism and suicide in Brittany and the devalorization and loss of the language. Thank god, things are changing. I was talking about it a few years ago with Dr. Guy Caro, co-author of a book on the subject. “The situation is less bleak than it was a few decades ago,” he told me, “clearly, as the Breton language and the Breton identity fare better, alcoholism decreases.”)
It is not surprising, that we can see similar phenomena in Ireland. A UNICEF study last year revealed that Ireland has one of the highest teen suicide rates in the European Union, yielding 10.3 suicide per 100,000 as compared with the national country average of 6.1. On top of that, nearly 40% of drinkers in Ireland typically binge while drinking, and for almost a quarter of them, this is a weekly occurrence. These problems are no doubt multi-factorial, but one cannot ignore that they can more or less be expected in communities that have had their language taken away.
One report by Hallett, Chandler, & Lalonde notes a significant correspondence between aboriginal language knowledge and lower youth suicide rates in First Nations communities of B.C., Canada. Ghil’ad Zuckermann and Michael Walsh go further in their paper on Barngala language revitalization in Australia and discuss language as central to a people’s well-being, drawing a relationship between language gain and increased mental health.
The outspoken Breton poet Xavier Grall touched on this theme in writing about his own experience outside of his language. Grall grew up in Paris but eventually renounced city life and moved back to Brittany to live off of the land and raise his family. He struggled immensely with not knowing the Breton language and wrote and debated extensively about its centrality to the Breton identity, albeit in French. He referred to the state of living outside of one’s own language as “cette atroce division mentale”—this agonizing mental division.
Nous sommes condamnés au dédoublement. Tous. D’abord, nous avons la malchance d’écrire dans la langue française. Nous avons cette tare de ne point connaître la langue de notre personnalité. Ensuite, nous vivons de la France qui fut, paraît-il, notre mère ! A Paris, ce dédoublement peut aller jusqu’à la folie. (…) Les équivoques sont constantes. La gueule double de Janus. Au risque de passer pour félon aux yeux des uns et des autres.
(It is our curse to have to live as divided beings — all of us. First because we must unfortunately write in the French language, since we suffer from the shameful affliction of not knowing the language of our own personality. Secondly, we make our living off France which was, so we are told, our mother! In Paris, this division of the self can lead to tragedy. It may drive some to madness, “the kind you lock up”, as Rimbaud said. One is constantly torn between two selves, like a two-headed Janus. With the risk of being taken for a traitor by everyone in the end.)
Grall, Mémoires de ronces (English translation by Gary German)
A teacher of mine recalled psychiatrists in Brittany in the 70’s telling him that at least 50% of their elderly patients were dealing with trauma due to language loss. This would have been the generation of Bretons who grew up in entirely Breton speaking environments only to see their language nearly vanish during the course of their lives. Philippe Carrère, psychiatrist and founder of the Société bretonne d’ethnopsychiatrie also touches on this loss and the collective implications thereof in his two volume work Ethnopsychiatrie en Bretagne.
If we can hone in on one general pathological theme as concerns the modern day rejection of Irish and Breton, it would have to be “shame”. There is the shame of having lost the language in the first place, a feeling felt by all generations. There is also the shame beaten into the older generations for having spoken an “inferior” or “backward” languages. And finally, there is the shame of the younger generations for not being able to speak their national language, often a raw nerve that is easily aggravated when confronted with the fact that these language do in fact still exist and can’t just be swept under the rug. Whichever variety, this shame is a destructive force on the psyche. It causes one to dissociate from the group to which they belong, and this ultimately contributes to fragmentation in society.
xenolects and totemization
Aside from the psychological problems related to intergenerational trauma that Breton and Irish share (along with countless other languages in similar situations), there exists a host of other parallel problems that mirror each other.
First of all, because both languages were relegated to home life and were only used as community languages in the most isolated areas, the differences between the various dialects were reinforced and perhaps even enhanced. Just as a Breton speaker from Bro Leon might hardly understand a Breton speaker from Bro Gwened, an Irish speaker from An Daingean will certainly have to pay more attention to understand someone from Tory Island. Differences in pronunciation, spelling, vocabulary, and to some extent grammar meant that once revitalization movements began in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the leaders of these movements were met with the question of exactly which variety of the language they were promoting.
In the case of Irish, the three main dialect branches are not so divergent as to be irreconcilable, and an official standard, AnCaighdeán Oifigiúil, was developed that incorporated characteristics of all three varieties. Breton, though, had a bigger challenge considering that the Gwened varieties of the language differ significantly from the other three dialect groups (Leoneg, Kernewek, and Tregereg). This resulted in two spelling standards: KLT for the latter dialects and another orthography (or more) for Gwenedeg.
In all instances, though, these standards, seen as necessary for the effective teaching and dissemination of the languages, have not always been well received by native speakers themselves. There are many stories of native Irish speakers in the Gaeltacht being perplexed by the Irish of Dubliners who had come to practice their language skills. These outsiders are often seen as speaking something very artificial and awkward sounding, hardly considered Irish at all by native speakers. Poet Cathal Ó Searcaigh speaks of Gaeilge mhaide na leabhar—wooden Irish from books—the way people in his Donegal Gaeltacht would refer to the non-native, standardized Irish that outsiders would speak when visiting.
Now that there are generations of children who have learned to speak fluent Irish through the Irish-medium Gaelscoil system, there is a considerable population of Irish speakers whose main dialect of Irish is this so-called artificial, wooden Irish. This variety of Irish lacks many of the phonological intricacies of Gaeltacht varieties of Irish and uses many English-influenced constructions and calques, yet also employs artificial-sounding, neologisms where native speakers from the Gaeltacht would generally just use an English word. The resulting language is often labelled a xenolect, a variety that on the surface resembles the original language but lacks many of the fundamental elements. Many native speakers of Irish claim that Gaelscoil Irish lacks the essence or spirit of Irish, some going so far as to say that the language would be better left to die out altogether. This creates a definitive rift between the communities of native speakers in the Gaeltacht and the often urban-based language enthusiasts who carry the language forward, albeit in an altered form.
Michael Hornsby very concisely sums up the phenomenon on his blog:
The situation is indeed complicated, and quite tense, as people who grew up speaking the language try to make sense of their position in relation to these ‘new’ speakers, whose presence can reinforce a sense of double alienation – firstly, from deep memories of actively being discouraged from using the language publicly and an associated sense of shame of being a minority language speaker; and secondly, by the appearance, in their later years, of younger speakers who say they are speaking the same language as them, but who sound markedly different from what they remember growing up. For new speakers, who are attempting to reconnect with their immediate heritage or who are symbolically resisting globalization through learning a local, non-majority language, this confusion on the part of older, native speakers can produce in them a sense of entrenchment or defensiveness.
A similar xenolect situation has arisen in Brittany out of the Diwan schools, Breton-medium schools that have been growing in popularity since the late 1970’s. One of my Breton teachers cautioned us against the many imperfections and francismes used in Breton-speaking TV and radio programs, which are often presented by the progeny of the Diwan school system. The ever-present Daoust hag-eñ…? is an overused interrogative construction mirroring the French Est-ce que…? Another example is Bez ez eus…—there is—which is not technically incorrect but is overused in non-native Breton probably because it mirrors French word order more closely than the other possible sentence patterns for “there is”. Such constructions are often cumbersome to the native ear but they are common in Diwanek varieties of Breton which, for better or worse, seem to be here to stay.
Another modern day problem that revitalized languages often face is their own totemization. Revitalization movements often put a lot of focus on the visibility of the language. This may entail using the language in public and official signage (generally alongside a more dominant language), short utterances in the language to introduce important cultural or political speeches, the usage of isolated, sometimes untranslatable words from the revitalized language when speaking the dominant language, etc. And it is true that all of these instances increase the visibility of the language, but they usually do not do much for the actual state of the language itself. Bilingual road signage is ubiquitous in Brittany and Ireland, but this doesn’t change the fact that you can scarcely find the languages spoken in public anywhere.
Such signs are token nods to the existence of the language in question, but these gestures often do little more than give people a false sense of security and complacency. They can make a people feel that their language is more viable than it actually is, and, more to the point, that somebody else is taking care of it.
In fact, if we take into consideration the intergenerational shame that many are walking around with, these constant reminders of the existence of the language, coupled with the average person’s inactivity or lack of personal engagement with the language, may just perpetuate subconscious feelings of shame or resignation. By this, I by no means wish to say that surface gestures visibility towards revitalized languages are necessarily destructive, but rather that they must be supported by active engagement of the population to use and incorporate their language into their daily communication. Otherwise, their language will run the risk of totemization and its progress in the process of revitalization will be stunted.
Totemization brings up another risk in that it can reduce the language to a superficial symbol that is widely recognized but seldom thought about or explored on a deeper level. This is exactly the kind of symbol that can be easily co-opted for political or other reasons and used to push an agenda that has nothing to do with the preservation of the language itself. Ultimately such exploits will deeply hurt the revitalization movement.
A prime example of this is the use of the Breton language and other cultural motifs in the Nazi-sympathizing Breton nationalist movement of the 30’s and 40’s. A portion of Breton nationalists saw the Nazi occupation as their way out of French occupation, and one publication that served as a platform for this sentiment was the militantly nationalistic Breiz Atao—Brittany Forever. The publication’s contributors were French-speaking, Breton intellectuals who co-opted the Breton language for the title of their publication but did nothing to actually promote it. The language was simply used as an empty symbol to promote otherwise unrelated ideologies. By the time the war was over, there had been enough use of the language and other cultural symbols to push the collaborationist, nationalistic agenda that it hurt the image of the Breton language and identity, and this most likely contributed in part to the increased speed of decline over the following decades.
This problem continues today. As I was researching this article, I discovered that there is now a website called Breiz Atao hosting mostly political content taking a very xenophobic, nationalistic stance on current issues. It appears to speak in the name of Brittany and the Breton language, but their content is little more than inflammatory scapegoating. It’s easy to rally behind a flag and language, but dedicating oneself to learning a language, particularly a very small, regional language, requires a certain amount of inner reflection and generally breeds acceptance and openness. I suspect Breiz Atao has no interest in such openness.
In Ireland, particularly in the north, the language simply cannot escape politics. While political agendas have motivated many to learn and use the language, as we are seeing today with the movement to demand an Irish Language Act, there are still those who associate the Irish language with nothing more than the Provisional IRA and dismiss its legitimacy entirely. In a recent editorial, Northern Irish protestant Richard Irvine reflects on the attitudes in his community towards the Irish language:
The Irish language, to me, and to the vast majority of my peers, was never a real language—rather, it was a treachery, a plot, and a Machiavellian political scheme of the disloyal and the dangerous.
And this is part of the reason that the government in Northern Ireland remains suspended. Petty fear is preventing the DUP from allowing itself to sign off on an Irish language act, despite the fact that Irish, particularly in West Belfast, is vibrant and far from being just a totem language. This stalemate illustrates a problem shared by Irish, Breton, and many other minority languages—that the powers that be find these languages to be such a threat to the status quo that they simply refuse to cede them any recognition whatsoever.
What excites me the most when I look at the Breton and Irish revitalization movements nowadays, is the grassroots activism aimed at engaging people with their language and evoking an emotional response and connection to it. One of the major problems today is that people feel no ownership of their national languages, either because of linguistic inability or lack of exposure. The youth need to find a home in the language, and older native speakers need to warm up to the idea that languages change and the Irish and Breton of today won’t sound the same as they did 50 years ago.
In Brittany, groups like Ai ‘ta have succeeded in creating engaging, theatrical public actions, pop-up classes and other gatherings to give people a chance to interact with and show support for their language. For learners or Diwan speakers, it creates a welcoming context in which to use Breton outside of the classroom, and for native speakers it introduces the concept of taking pride in Breton and shedding some of the shame that has kept people from using it publicly.
In Northern Ireland An Dream Dearg has awakened considerable support for and engagement with the Irish language in the fight for an Irish language act, legislation protecting the language. People have taken to the streets to make their demands for linguistic rights and recognition known. Again, I think the importance here lies in taking the language out of the classroom and showing people, particularly young people, that it does have relevance to their lives and their identity and that they can take ownership of and responsibility for it. Without this ownership, the language is just another thing they are subjected to. Furthermore, without a sense of ownership over the language, people are not really able to recognize that something was stolen from them, and without acknowledging this, it is hard to heal the collective wound and linguistic shame of the community as a whole.
I think that there is an important lesson to be learned here. Speakers of minority languages anywhere in the world—not only Breton and Irish—need to feel that they are the caretakers of their language, like they have some command over its fate. If a generation of children is taught that their language is a lost cause, there isn’t much incentive for them to be invested in it. However, if the language is framed as something that they belong to and can take responsibility for, their instincts to take care of it will engage and their relationship to their own language will be marked by pride instead of shame.
Breton and Irish speakers would do well to look towards each other for inspiration and support. The battle of a minority language is at times a very lonely one, and given the connection and similarities between these two Celtic gems, I believe they could easily find strength in each other’s company.
The Breton language tends to be unheard of outside of France except perhaps among Celtic language enthusiasts. Indeed, I first heard of the language from linguistic literature about the Celtic language family. Not much information was available to me at the time, but I became curious about the only Celtic language still spoken in continental Europe. My first exposure to Breton was through the online Breton language radio station An Tour Tan. I was intrigued from the first moment. The sound of the language was not at all what I was expecting; the heavy phonological influences from French, such as the uvular /ʁ/ sound and many of the vowels, caught me off guard. But there were some familiar things as well: the /x/ sound and something about the rhythm of the language, particularly with older speakers. I wanted desperately to pick out familiar words or phrases, cognates with Irish, but at this early stage no such similarities were apparent. Nevertheless, I was hooked and set about to tracking down materials for learning this low-profile gem of a language.
As I began to study whatever materials I could get my hands on, I started to be able to draw some lexical and syntactic connections to Irish. After visiting Brittany in 2008 and understanding a little more about the sociolinguistic situation there, certain political and cultural parallels became apparent as well. Thus my approach to the Breton language has always been influenced by my perspective as an Irish speaker, and I hope to outline here a few of the parallels that I’ve observed between the two languages.
COGNATES – mind your P’s & Q’s
The most obvious similarities are found in the cognates that you will find between the two languages. Coming from different branches of the Celtic language family, there are not as many cognates between Breton and Irish as there are between Breton and Welsh, but there are certainly enough to give an Irish-speaker a leg up in learning Breton. Below is a small selection of related words that I’ve noted over the course of my studies.
A few additional cognates will point out one major difference between the two branches of modern Celtic languages, Goidelic and Brythonic. Goidelic languages (Irish, Scottish-Gaelic, and Manx) can also be classified as Q-Celtic, while the Brythonic languages (Breton, Welsh, and Cornish) can be labeled P-Celtic. This difference refers to a sound change whereby the Q-Celtic languages, in branching off from the other Celtic languages, replaced bilabial stops (represented by “P”) with velar stops (represented by “Q”). Hence, questions words in modern Breton such as pe, pet, penaos, peur are cognates with the Irish cé, cad, conas, and cá huair (who, what, how, when).
The word for “son” in the Gaelic or Q-Celtic languages is mac, commonly known from many surnames such as mine, MacEoghain, is mabin Breton and other P-Celtic languages. Incidentally, there is also a surname found in Breton, Abeozen (the M was lost at some point),which shares the same etymology as MacEoghain, Eoghan and Eozen both deriving from an old Celtic word meaning “yew”.
Penn is “head” in Breton, and is found in Irish as ceann. By extension, we find two more cognates empenn and inchinn, which both mean “brain”, i.e. “in the head”.
In addition to sound shifts there are also naturally shifts in meaning between cognates of the two languages.
Skuizh and scíth both in fact mean “tired”, though in Irish scíth nowadays has the more common meaning of “rest” and another word tuirseach is used to indicate “tired”.
The pair of antonyms uhel and izel, meaning “high” and “low” respectively, exists in Irish as uasal and íseal. While the meaning of íseal still has a lot of overlap with izel, uasal in Irish is used to mean “high” in the sense of “high-born” or “nobel”, but not in the sense of physically high or tall.
Dorn in Breton is “hand”, while the same word in Irish means “fist”.
Exhibiting another regular sound correspondence GW / F, gwenn meaning “white” in Breton shares its origins with fionn which is generally only used for “fair-haired” or “fair-skinned” in modern Irish.
Tud, “people” in Breton, is a cognate with the Irish tuath, which has the less general meaning of “people” in the sense of “a people” or “tribe” or even “lay people”.
Finally there are even occasional compounds or expressions that are shared by both languages:
den ebet / duine ar bith = anyone/no one (literally “a person in the world”)
ouzhpenn / os cionn = above (literally “over head”)
buoc’hig-Doue / bóín Dé = lady bug (literally “little cow of god”)
With a little prodding, the surface differences between Breton and Irish begin to melt away and traces of kinship appear. But the lexicon just one aspect. If we look into the grammatical workings of Breton and Irish, we will find many more parallels.
MUTATIONS – ma vamm / mo mháthair
Mutations are another trait found in Breton that will be familiar to Irish speakers. The Breton mutations more closely resemble those in Welsh or Cornish, but there is a definite resemblance to Irish, both in phonology and application. An Irish speaker won’t bat an eyelash at the fact that “woman” in Breton is maouez but “the woman” is ar vaouez. After all, the same thing happens with “woman” in Irish, yielding bean and an bhean (here bh is pronounced as /v/). And the use of the mutation here is no surprise as both languages lenite feminine singular nouns after the definite article.
The only real difficulty for an Irish speaker is that Breton has four varieties of mutation, twice as many as in Irish. But the basic principles of sound change are the same and rules that block mutation in certain situations such as “the dental rule” can apply in both languages.
SYNTAX – Penaos eo an amzer? / Conas atá an aimsear?
The word order of Breton presents some interesting challenges. Literature generally labels Breton as a VSO language, like all other Celtic languages, without paying attention to the fact that most sentences in Breton do not follow this pattern. Indeed subordinate clauses and negative statements are strictly VSO, so there is some basis, however underlying, for VSO categorization, but something else is happening on the surface. The pattern that we see most commonly is referred to as verb-second or V2, which is exactly how it sounds. The verb comes second and the first position is occupied by the subject, object, adverbial phrase, etc. Breton speakers tend to put into the first position whatever information is new or intended to be emphasized. As Stephen Anderson points out, the verb actually CANNOT be in the first position in most sentences. Curious for a supposedly VSO language.
This peculiarity didn’t strike me as particularly odd at first though, because I could easily find parallels in Irish to refer to. Irish stays fairly loyal to its VSO structure, but it can also make use of particles to introduce subordinate clauses, exactly as Breton does, in order to create sentences with a similar structure to Breton’s V2 sentences. In Irish this usage is generally limited for the purposes of emphasizing a particular idea.
The Irish examples still fit the VSO description with the copula is occupying the V position, but the particle a introduces a subordinate clause which contains the main verb (cheannaigh) of the sentence. Likewise, I believe that there may be an unrealised, implied copula of sorts in these Breton sentences that introduces a subordinate clause after the particle a or e and gives the V2 surface result.
The can be rendered into Breton as shown below (though admittedly I switched to the imperfect tense in Breton to preserve the parallel word order and use of particles, so it is…imperfect). The only thing missing is a copula at the beginning of the sentences:
Me a brenen ur c’harr e Doire dec’h.
Ur c’harr a brenen e Doire dec’h.
E Doire e prenen ur c’harr dec’h.
Dec’h e prenen ur c’harr e Doire.
The following passage caught my attention for exactly this reason. In this construction in Irish the copula in the initial position is generally omitted and just implied.
Furthermore, this “do + infinitive” construction is very common in Breton. The above sentences can thus easily be rendered in Breton as:
Torriñ ar prenest a rae. = break-INF. the window PART. do-3SG.FUT.
Kouezhañ a ri! = fall-INF. PART. do-2SG.FUT.
So many sentences can be translated nearly verbatim from Irish to Breton, leaving out only the initial copula where it appears in Irish. I would have to look more into the structure of Old Breton to know if in fact there ever was a copula used in that position, but at the very least it is striking that two now distantly related languages still share a common flexibility in word order and that beneath the surface, their structures are not all that different.
Another characteristic shared between Breton and Irish is the behaviour of their prepositions. First of all, they both “conjugate” their prepositions, as do all other Celtic languages. That is, prepositions have specific inflected forms for each person, such as the Bretonganin, ganit, ganti (with me, with you, with her) which derive from the preposition gant (with). Not only that, but the usage of these prepositional forms is quite similar, even if the prepositions themselves differ. For example, possession or ownership is often expressed with prepositions:
Irish: Tá leabhar agam. (lit. A book is at me.)
Breton: Ul levr a zo ganin. (lit. A book is with me.)
Both of these mean “I have a book” in one sense or another. Whereas both of the following mean “The book is mine”:
I: Is liomsa an leabhar. (lit. The book is with me.)
B: Din eo al levr. (lit. The book is to me.)
The past perfect is also expressed with personal prepositions in conjunction with the past participle:
I: Tá sé críochnaithe agam. (lit. It is finished at me.)
B: Echu eo ganin. (lit. It is finished with me.)
Both of these mean “I have finished it.”
Certain idiomatic expressions even hold up in both languages, such as in these two sentences which both mean “He succeeded (at it)”:
I: D’éirigh go maith leis. (lit. It rose well with him.)
B: Dont a rae brav gantañ. (lit. It came well with him.)
PERSPECTIVE – Is glas iad an cnoic i bhfad uainn.
Finally there are a few other details that I think beautifully illustrate both the linguistic and cultural ties between the Irish and the Bretons. The existence of the word glas in both languages is one example.
Glas in both Breton and Irish is the colour of nature, basically. In Irish I’ve heard it defined as “the natural colour of plants or things in nature”, and in Breton one teacher of mine defined it as “the colour of the sea”. In both languages, this means that glas could be translated into English as blue, green, grey, or even black depending on what is being described. Plants, trees, the sea, the sky, horses, wool, or someone’s eyes could all be glas. It’s a colour that includes a quality of vitality and nature. It is often translated as “green”, but both languages actually have words to describe things that are green but artificial or not found in nature: gwer in Breton and uaine in Irish. Your t-shirt may be green, but the grass is always glas.
Compass directions are another very interesting thing in Celtic languages. This summer the directional parallels between Breton and Irish became clear to me when a Breton teacher pointed out that in nautical terms kleiz (left) is used to mean “north” and dehoù (right) is used to mean “south”. So ar mor kleiz is the sea to the north of a ship and ar mor dehoù is the sea to the south, indicating a directional orientation towards the east. This reminded me of Irish, which uses the word soir (east) to mean “forward” or “ahead” and the word siar (west) to mean “back”. So if you ask someone to bog siar, you want them to move back, but you’re literally saying “move west”. The actual direction in which they move is irrelevant, but the language still reveals an orientation towards the east. Furthermore, the Irish word for south(ward), ó dheas, comes from the word deas, meaning “right”, though the same logic does not apply to “north(ward)” which is ó thuaidh instead of something related to clé (cf. kleiz).
So here you have a brief introduction to some of the elements shared between Irish and Breton. The more Breton I learn, the more I see the similarities with Irish and the more I rely on Irish-language logic to speak and formulate ideas in Breton. Given their geographic separation and independent development, the amount of common ground that modern Irish and Breton share is astounding, though it may not be immediately apparent.
Aside from the linguistic richness that they share, though, they also sadly share many societal obstacles. In my next post, I will take a step back from the inner workings of Breton and Irish and focus more on the social and political challenges that these two languages face in the modern world.
There is a Sinéad O’Connor song that had a strong impact on me as a young person. It speaks of the loss of language, culture, history, and the effects it can have on a nation. I revisited this song recently in response to some new information I learned about language revitalization and found new layers of truth in it. The song is called “Famine”:
Okay, I want to talk about Ireland Specifically I want to talk about the “famine” About the fact that there never really was one There was no “famine” See Irish people were only allowed to eat potatoes All of the other food Meat fish vegetables Were shipped out of the country under armed guard To England while the Irish people starved And then in the middle of all this They gave us money not to teach our children Irish And so we lost our history And this is what I think is still hurting we
The Irish people and language suffered serious losses due to the occupation of Ireland by the English. Starting in the late 18th century, economic pressures and the flourishing of English in Dublin began to erode the security of the Irish language. Emigration and urban jobs were seen as ways out of poverty, and this meant that English, not Irish, was the language of the future. The days of Irish-speaking poets and nobility were long gone. The upper classes in Ireland were now exclusively English-speaking.
Nevertheless in 1800, Irish was still the main language of 85% of the country’s inhabitants. Written accounts by British visitors to Ireland describe the difficulty that many encountered in trying to communicate in English beyond the Pale. This would, however, change drastically over the next century. In 1831 the British established the National School system with English as the sole language of instruction, violently contributing to the decline of the Irish language and the stigma attached to it.
It is often said that the Irish language was beaten out of the people, and this is to be taken quite literally. National School children were forced to wear a small wooden stick hung on a string around their necks in order to monitor their language use. Every time they were caught speaking Irish the schoolmaster would cut a notch in the stick, and at the end of the day they would be beaten or punished that many times.
See we’re like a child that’s been battered Has to drive itself out of it’s head because it’s frightened Still feels all the painful feelings But they lose contact with the memory
Meanwhile, people were forcibly removed from their lands and food became scarce as much of the farmland was used for raising beef cattle for export to England. Other crops and livestock were also sent to England in vast quantities. Furthermore, locals were prohibited from fishing and gathering seaweed, leaving them with little else to eat but potatoes. In 1845, when the Phytophthora infestans blight wiped out much of Europe’s potato crop, the Irish began to lose their main source of food and were simply left to starve.
Widespread death and emigration reduced the country’s population by about 20% over the next 10 years, and those remaining were often coerced to give up their religion and language for scraps of food. The Irish identity became synonymous with poverty, backwardness, shame, and inferiority, and many realised that the quickest way to make themselves seem more “civilised”, i.e. less Irish, was to simply speak English. By 1860 only about 30% of the population spoke Irish, and by 1921 that number was reduced to less than 15%. Almost a hundred years into independence, the stigma attached to Irish is still very real, and the language has never recovered.
from “Rebuilding the Celtic Languages” by Diarmuid Ó Néill
from “Rebuilding the Celtic Languages” by Diarmuid Ó Néill
So let’s take a look shall we The highest statistics of child abuse in the EEC And we say we’re a Christian country But we’ve lost contact with our history See we used to worship God as a mother We’re suffering from post traumatic stress disorder Look at all our old men in the pubs Look at all our young people on drugs
In O’Connor’s song, she suggests that Ireland still suffers from post traumatic stress disorder. It’s chilling to conceive of a mental health diagnosis on a national level – that a people affected by a trauma collectively suffer the symptoms that come with the inability to process and deal with that trauma, and furthermore, that these symptoms are echoed for generations to come. Recent research has in fact shown evidence of the effects of trauma on DNA – effects that are inherited in the DNA of subsequent generations.
As far as Irish is concerned, I personally have often thought that there is something pathological about Ireland’s relationship to its national language. The shame felt by our ancestors for speaking the language has now been converted into the shame that we feel for not being able to speak it, or for speaking it inadequately. The language has become something that divides us, rather than unites us. Those who speak Irish are often discouraged from using it by the reactions of those who do not. Speaking Irish in public can even be met with hostility, as if one’s use of the language is a challenge to another’s Irish-ness.
A TV Series on TG4, Ireland’s Irish language television station, tackled the question of what exactly would happen if someone simply went about their daily life in Ireland speaking only in Irish outside the Gaeltacht, or designated Irish-speaking regions. In No Béarla, Manchán Magan took a road trip around the country speaking only in Irish and was met with a wide variety of reactions, ranging from curiosity to hostility, but almost never nonchalance. It’s as if speaking Irish is the least natural thing that Irish people could do with each other.
More recently, a column in the Irish Times written by Rosita Boland last May, sparked a heated national debate over the usefulness of Irish. Boland declared, “I do not like having my national identity pinned to a language I never use and cannot speak.” She laments the dry, lackluster way the language is taught in schools, and I agree that this is a tragedy. However she seems to equate her own lack of interest in the language to Irish being a completely useless language altogether. Her bitterness towards having had the language imposed on her in school is all too common.
In September of last year Cormac Ó Bruic, an Irish-speaker from the Kerry Gaeltacht, was forbidden from speaking Irish at his job in a Cork pub. The pub owner claimed that it was not about the Irish language itself but rather about practical communication, citing that he had an international staff of native speakers of several languages who all spoke English on the job. The difference that seems to elude Ó Bruic’s boss regarding the use of Irish in his pub is that his pub is in, well…Ireland.
Stories like this are by no means unusual, and Irish-speakers often have to take an almost apologetic approach to using the language. The country is clearly suffering some kind of linguistic identity crisis. Polls show that people feel favourably about the Irish language and believe it is an important part of Irish culture, but when it comes to actually engaging with it, all affection disappears and dysfunction reigns. Is this the PTSD kicking in?
It’s perhaps not entirely useful to draw such a literal connection between the state of the Irish language and actual symptoms of PTSD in a human – I wouldn’t want to erase the experiences that individuals have with immediate trauma – but a few points of comparison are worth noting. “Efforts to avoid thoughts and activities” that are reminders of trauma could certainly describe much of Ireland’s disinterest or reluctance towards the language. Cormac Ó Bruin’s boss could be said to have had a sort of “exaggerated startle response” to Irish being spoken by his employees. Irritability and anger are not unheard of reactions to the use of Irish either. A bartender once snarled “Who do you think you are?!” at me for ordering a pint in Irish…in a Gaeltacht. This isn’t to say that there aren’t plenty of Irish people out there who support the language, but non-supporters do seem to harbour an inordinate amount of hostility towards it.
So how do we heal? Or do we, as so many suggest, just be done with the language and put it out of its misery? Revivalist linguist Ghil’ad Zuckermann would argue that there is strong evidence in support of holding on to our heritage language, particularly for the sake of mental health. I recently took his online AdelaideX course entitled “Language Revival: Securing the Future of Endangered Languages” in which he presents evidence gathered in Canadian and Australian aboriginal communities that links language revitalization with improved mental health on the community level. Communities that have retained their native languages or are engaged in the process of language revitalization are likely to have lower suicide rates and better overall mental health as compared with communities who have lost their languages. In essence, people thrive when they have a strong sense of identity and a strong sense of place in the world. The pride, sense of belonging, and well-being that can come with linguistic decolonization is not to be underestimated. This is what it means for a community to heal.
I think that O’Connor was really onto something with “Famine”, and I think that Ireland’s complicated relationship with her language can be healed. Irish needs to be a source of pride rather than shame. The language has to be normalized again. We have to stop associating Irish with the isolated, rural Gaeltacht, and realise that the language is relevant anywhere in Ireland. We also have to work through our collective shame around our language’s decline and rediscover its value in the world of today. Then perhaps we can create a more hospitable environment for those who want to make Irish an active part of their every day lives.
And if there ever is gonna be healing There has to be remembering And then grieving So that there then can be forgiving There has to be knowledge and understanding
It’s very difficult to give an answer when asked what my favourite language is. It seems cruel to have to pick one, given the endless beauty and idiosyncrasies of each language…or dialect…or sub-dialect. However, my answer is usually Irish because there is one, clear reason I can readily cite for the inevitable follow-up of “Why?”: the imagery.
Every language uses visuals in descriptive expressions, often in ways that are completely unique. The image of raining cats and dogs is unlikely to turn up in any other language; it is truly an English notion. However there is something about the imagery in Irish that strikes me as particularly special, especially when it comes to describing the natural world.
I must admit that I am motivated by some level of cultural bias, as the names of plants, animals, and herbs abound with vivid imagery referencing perhaps more than a thousand years of folklore, mythology, and oral traditions to which I am personally connected. However, I think that anyone will appreciate this aspect of the Irish language, and perhaps gain some insight into how inseparable the landscape and natural environment is from the Irish culture, language, and psyche.
Below is a collection of some of my favourite nature-related words in Irish and some explanation, where possible, of the origins of these terms.
Let’s start by explaining the title of this post a bit. Smugairle róin is the Irish word for jellyfish. Smugairle literally means “spit” or “snot”, and róin is “of a seal”, hence “seal snot”. I love the image of seals joyfully gliding through the water, hocking loogies and spawning slimy, transparent creatures off the coast of Donegal. It’s absurd and gross and beautiful all at the same time.
Lus an Chromchinn
Daffodils in Irish are called “Herb of the Bowed Head”. Lus is herb and chromchinn comes from crom, “bowed” or “bent”, and ceann or “head”. The name obviously describes the posture of the flower gracefully bowing its head. There is another, much less graceful name for Daffodils, though, and that is Lus an Aisig, more or less “vomit herb” in English. This comes from the fact that daffodils are highly toxic, vomiting being one possible result of a human or an animal accidentally ingesting them. A friend of mine suggested that the second, more graphic name might also be in reference to the posture of someone bending over to vomit, though I think most will prefer the more demure, poised “bowed head”.
Lus an Chromchinn (Daffodil)
Méaracáin na mBan Sí (Foxglove)
Lus na mBan Sí
Foxglove, itself a beautiful and fitting plant name in English, has a few versions in Irish, two of which relate to the banshee. The first is simply Lus na mBan Sí, “Banshee Herb”. The other, more in the line of “Foxglove”, is Méaracáin na mBan Sí, meaning “Thimbles of the Banshee”. The purple, thimble-sized flowers are the most obvious feature of this plant, and the reference to the banshee may be a warning of the potentially toxic nature of this plant. It seems that an inordinate amount of plants whose Irish names reference the fairies, banshees or other spirits from the Irish pantheon are poisonous. The fairy folk, or an t-Aos Sí, are powerful and not to be toyed with. So are their plants.
This link between poisons and the fairy world can be seen as well in Caipíní Púca, the Irish name for a kind of psychedelic mushroom, meaning “Little Goblin Caps/Hats”. Ingesting these will certainly bring on aisling-like visions and possibly access to na daoine maithe, “the Good People”.
Irish sometimes has a curious way of using mac (son) in creating words. The word for wolf is mac tíre (son of the country/countryside). Some have thought that this is in reference to old beliefs about the shapeshifting abilities of wolves, who are encountered in human form in many tales.
Another curious usage of mac can be found in the word macalla (echo). This word comes from mac (son) and aille (of the cliff). Thus an echo is the son of a cliff, i.e. a sound being reproduced off of the side of a cliff.
Cumulus clouds in the sky are referred to as “castles” in Irish. Large and imposing, they tower high like castles of ancient lore, clouds and castles incidentally both being fairly common in Ireland. Taking the image one step further, the golden-orange-pink vision of clouds in the sunset is known as caisleáin óir – castles of gold.
Finally, one of my favourites, is actually not a native plant to Ireland. Fuchsia is the result of planted hedges that outgrew their intended confines and is now commonly seen growing wild particularly in the southwest of Ireland. Because of this, there is not any old folklore to be found regarding the plant, yet it has still managed to acquire a very beautiful Irish name: Deora Dé (God’s Tears).
The drooping flowers and stamina are the most graceful of tears, and their electric colour is perhaps their godly quality. I haven’t been able to find information on the origin of the name Deora Dé, but it isn’t surprising to me that the flower found such a striking name in Irish.
The above is just a smattering of the imagery that Irish has to offer. The language casts vivid scenes and stacks layer upon layer of meaning, often onto some of the most simple or common objects or ideas. This is what I miss when I don’t get to speak Irish for an extended period of time. These types of words are the real heart of the language. So the next time someone corners me into answering why Irish is my “favourite” language, I’ll simply reply, “Seal snot and God’s tears.”