Sunday, April 01, 2007

Seachtain na Gaeilge, Irish week

This week is seachtain na Gaeilge, Irish week. For many of you, this will come as a surprise.Most of you are unlikely to have heard much of the language spoken in the cafés, pubs and shops of Ireland’s busy thoroughfares.Even though there are many events on all over the country, sometimes it feels as though the language exists in a sort of a parallel universe, irretrievably lost in the ether of our nation’s collective unconscious, surfacing furtively every now and then by deftly disguising itself as English. Even though the language is written all around us, it requires an effort to actually perceive it. In a sense, the notion of a bilingual place name is somewhat perplexing. A place should have a name. That is all. When we provide anglicized versions next to the names we are immediately negating the possibility of linguistic consciousness being awakened every time we utter that place name. We pronounce its meaningless English version. This not only distorts the word but it deprives that place name of dignity. A place with the dignified name of An Obair meaning, The Work, mutates into the meaningless and ignoble ‘Nobber’. An Uaimh meaning The Cave, becomes the insipid sounding Naven. Most place names thoughout the country contain some sort of meaning yet most people are unaware of this. It is often argued that foreign nationals would not understand or be able to read the place names if they were only in Irish, but this is nonsense. English literacy is one of the most irregular and illogical in the Indo-European language group. Why would Gallimh be any harder for a Polish person to pronounce than Galway? Should the French anglicize their place names so that foreigners will be able to understand them better? Of course not. The French are far too proud of their national language, and besides, the absurdity of the suggestion would soon be ridiculed. If monolingual placenames were introduced, it would not only raise our own awareness of the language but that of visitors to Ireland, most of whom are interested in the country’s language and culture. It would also bring us closer to the language in our daily lives, making the cúpla focail an effortless daily phenomenon. Everyone educated in Ireland has some smattering of the language. Yet one rarely hears ‘dia dhuit’ or go raibh maith agat or slán. Why? I suppose it is not natural for a predominantly monolingual society to consciously introduce the words and expressions of another language into common speech. Yet, what about the role of the state, what about the public sector? Public sector? Did I not see that advertised in the January sales? One of the difficulties with the state project of linguistic regeneration is the diminution of the very state itself. Privatisation of public services has made it increasingly difficult to implement policies that are not motivated by the formula of profit and loss. Yet, the attitude of the public bodies to the language is still lax and uncommitted. It is a requirement that all workers in public libraries, the Garda Síochána, county councils, have a sufficient command of Irish to be able to do their business through that medium. The problem here is lip-service without speech. Why am I not greeted by ‘dia dhuit’ when I am accosted by a Garda, or when I go to get a book out from the library, or when I ring up the county council looking for information? Why can’t we have a situation where I am not embarrassed and self-conscious for speaking Irish? The cúpla focail are not difficult. Yet, why is it not part of the training and practice of public bodies to reflect the aspirations of the constitution of the state? Why will debates in Dáil Éireann and the Seanad be conducted in English this week? The state policy allows for the potentiality of Irish instead of its actuality. In other words, if I ring up the county council and I am greeted with ‘hello, how can I help you?’changing the language to Irish involves a conscious effort on my behalf becoming an object of communication rather than a means.If the bilingual legislation were implemented it would revolutionize Irish culture introducing colour and grace into the banalities of everyday communication, bringing the language out of the night and back to where it belongs in the cold light of day. Whether we like it or not, the spectre of Irish has not gone away you know. As long as we the multi-ethnic people of this island call ourselves Irish, the language question will remain inextricably linked to our sense of identity.

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