Sociolinguistics: August 2007 Archives

When did I get in league with the Sinn Féin?

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There are a few linguists who also dabble in political theory. I am not one of them.

* I'm not going to tell you how to vote.
* I'm not going to complain about one political party manipulating language because all of them do it.
* I'm not going to make a recommendation to parents on bilingual education or Ebonics (although I do have an opinion).

Quite frankly I'm a grammar geek and whatever linguistic policy interests I have are primarily focused on promoting minority languages and foreign language education.

But alas, once you become interested in working with a language, you are forced to wrestle with some annoyingly complex policy issues up to and including terrorism/armed revolt.

So here's my weird Irish language story of how you can associate yourself with "unexpected" allies in the discussion of minority language rights.

How Irish Got Endangered

Irish is a Celtic language spoken in Ireland by no more than about 30,000 speakers. It might be a more "major" language except that it was a British colony for many centuries. Part of this colonization included

* Importing English-speaking settlers, especially in the North into "Plantations".
* Killing or removing the native Irish upper class. The remaining lower classes became unwilling tenants of the new English upper class.
* Penalizing citizens following traditional Roman Catholic practice and favoring Protestantism.
* Dismantling the traditional education system in Irish and replacing it with English only (at one point only open to Protestants).
* Overt prejudice towards traditional Irish culture. This is one reason Irish culture today is still considered to be "quaint" or worse, "backwards" by some people.
* Mismanaging the distribution or food relief during the Great Potato Famine

Needless to say the native Irish speakers were not pleased with British colonial policy and by the early 20th century, there was an armed revolt which succeeded in removing British control from most of Ireland...except the North which was now predominantly Protestant and English speaking.

On a side note - the people of Ireland and the people of Great Britain have rarely had smooth relations. Many centuries earlier, Irish pirates were invading Roman Britain, and in the early Middle Ages, the Irish established colonies in Northern Scotland...which is how Gaelic got to Scotland. English rulers had some justification for being paranoid of the "Irish problem."

Unfortunately, by the time of the revolt, the use of Irish as a language was mostly restricted to rural areas and for speech only. It was NOT considered a language suited to speakers wanting to gain opportunities outside of Ireland. Even though Irish is taught in in schools of the Republic of Ireland today, there are still few active speakers and English remains the dominant language.

Skip to the IRA

My earliest political memories of Ireland were reports of bombings made by the IRA in Belfast. Although the majority of the population in Northern Ireland remain pro-British, many in the remaining Irish minority were discriminated against, and so rejected British control there as well. Needless to say these attacks have exacerbated tensions between Irish Catholics and Anglo-Protestants.

Now, I'm no fan of British colonial policy, especially as it was implemented in Ireland, but, in my heart, I was felt that the bombings was a losing strategy, especially given the demographic fact that most citizens of Northern Ireland are pro-Britain. Not only are innocent people killed, but it enrages the enemy so much that peace becomes almost impossible. After all, WWI was started because of an ill-timed political assassination.

Unfortunately, the relatively few Irish speakers of Northern Ireland are (obviously) Catholic. Whether or not the majority this community supported the IRA, the Protestants were in no mood to accommodate their Irish neighbors. If your loved one was killed in an IRA attack, the last thing you care about is Irish cultural rights (or any other right).

The bottom line is...I cannot advocate this kind of violence in the name of civil and cultural rights. I especially do not favor bombs which are more likely to target civilians. I am NOT a supporter of the IRA (even though the British government in Ireland needed reform).

As for the Sinn Féin

While these IRA attacks were going on, the pro-Irish political party Sinn Féin, headed by Gerry Adams for 30 years, was working on the political front. By the way Sinn Féin is Irish for "we ourselves."

The delicate question has always been, how closely were the Sinn Féin, and its leader Gerry Adams, working with the IRA? It is clear that there has always been "friendly relations" between Gerry Adams and the IRA. For instance, although Gerry Adams denies being in the IRA, he was invited by the IRA to peace talks in 1972 (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/northern_ireland/1287262.stm). Similarly, there are pictures of Adams acting as pall-bearer for a slain IRA member.

For these reasons and others, the British government has been skeptical of the Sinn Féin and Gerry Adams.

Yet in the 1990s and 2000s, there has been significant progress in brokering and maintaining a peace...and Gerry Adams has been a major force in this. Whatever his IRA connections were (I'm sure we don't know them all), he has been a successful political advocate for the pro-Irish movement.

Irish Rights Today

The Irish language is actually making a certain amount of political progress, even becoming an official language of the European Union. But the battle in Northern Ireland is tougher.

But in late July, 2007, Gerry Adams had taken up the cause, but there is still heavy resistance. At least one reader of the Belfast Telegram still associates language rights with the Troubles.

As for myself, I may be skeptical of Adams' past, but I can't argue with him on this one. Enabling minorities the use of their language is one of the best things a government can do to "calm restive forces." In this day and age, the reality is that most minority language speakers are bilingual - English is in no danger of going extinct anytime soon. But allowing a cultural and literary tradition to survive and grow enriches us all.

I'm also happy that Northern Ireland is starting to move beyond the memories of hate and trying to live with each other as neighbors. There is a greater recognition that Irish is a valuable cultural resource, even for Protestants learners.

But yes, progress still appears to be measured in millimeters.

About Me

I am a former linguistics Ph.D. (Celtic languages) turned instructional designer and part-time linguistics instructor. I am especially interested in monitoring development in historical linguistics, morphology and phonology.

See Elizabeth Pyatt's Homepage for more details.

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