Manx: Feeling Much Better.

Back in 2009 I reported that Manx was not extinct; now Megan Specia in the NY Times has an encouraging piece (archived) on the progress it’s making:

The squeals of laughter echoing from the playground sound like any other elementary school in its first week back in session. Listen closely, though, and there’s something rare in the children’s chatter: the Manx language, an ancient tongue once feared forgotten.

But thanks in part to these students at Bunscoill Ghaelgagh, a school on the Isle of Man, the language that was deeply intertwined in hundreds of years of local history is now becoming a part of the island’s future.

It was a little over a decade ago when UNESCO declared the language extinct, and students then studying at the school took strong exception. To make their case that the language was anything but dead, they wrote a letter to the U.N. body — in Manx.

“It sort of was on the brink, but we’ve brought it back to life again,” said Julie Matthews, the head teacher of the school, who noted that her students’ determined effort prompted a new UNESCO categorization of Manx as a “revitalized” language. […]

“We’re trying to make it accessible to everybody, and inclusive,” said Ruth Keggin Gell, the Manx language development officer at Culture Vannin, a foundation established by the government of the island, a self-governing British Crown Dependency that is not a part of the United Kingdom, but whose residents are British citizens.

“It doesn’t matter if you just moved over to the Isle of Man yesterday,” Ms. Keggin Gell added. “If you want to learn Manx, then it’s open to you; likewise, if you have been here all your life.” […]

But even as the use of the language was waning, there were people fighting for its preservation. The Manx Language Society was founded as early as 1899, and by the late 1940s, there were efforts to record the last native Manx speakers. In the 1960s, the revival efforts began in earnest, and the advent of new technologies has allowed speakers to connect online and to digitize old texts and share Manx music and literature. […]

“It does have a snowball effect,” Ms. Keggin Gell said of the way the language was being incorporated into island life. “It might be a bit of a slower-growing snowball, but it’s still definitely a snowball.” Around 2,200 people are now able to speak, read or write in Manx, according to the latest census figures, and the government goal is to see that number more than double in the next 10 years.

There’s lots more, including photos and a brief video clip of students learning the language, at the link. Thanks, Bonnie and Eric!


  1. I note the sentence “They started a playgroup with other young parents who were also teaching their children Manx to share the language, which eventually became the educational charity Mooinjer Veggey (pronounced MUN-ja VAIR-ga) — or Manx for little people.” Nice example of a pseudo-rhotic respelling which will not be helpful to NYT readers – “mooinjer veggey” is something like [‘mʊndʒə ‘vɛgə], (you can hear it pronounced at and the ‘little people’ is also a name for the fairies. I attended a few events run by Yn Çheshaght Ghailckagh (the Manx language society) in 1997-98 during two stays on Ellan Vannin, one of which was entirely conducted in Manx except for the raffle (which was bilingual), and was partly in aid of Mooinjer Veggey (I came away with a car sticker). Sadly I wasn’t there long enough to learn much Manx, though I have sung the Manx milkmaid’s song “Cur dty Vainney” on a couple of social occasions since…

  2. Jen in Edinburgh says

    It wouldn’t have occurred to me not to pronounce the r in mooinjer – it’s the same word as Gaelic muinntir. So now I’m even more confused – and Manx spelling is essentially phonetic in English to start with, and therefore confusing enough if you can spell in Gaelic…

  3. Jen in Edinburgh says

    A Manx friend was talking today about that letter – wondering whether they sent a covering letter in English, or just left it up to the UN to figure out what language it was and what it said!

  4. David Marjanović says

    So ey is [ə]?

  5. David Eddyshaw says

    oe is [ə] in the deeply cool very-atypical almost-completely-isolating Chadic language Goemai (including in the name of the language itself.) I presume a passing German linguist was responsible.

  6. Is Manx English nonrhotic? Perhaps the revivers have simply carried over the nonrhoticity from their L1.

  7. The Anthropos phonetic alphabet, devised by Wilhelm Schmidt in the 1900s, uses <ö> for [ǝ]. So maybe that was the source of the <oe>?

    The Goemai orthography was devised by Father Eugène Sirlinger (1887–1978) of Jos prefecture. He was born in Alsace, and studied in the Netherlands and in Lyon.

  8. David Eddyshaw says

    Thanks, Y. Interesting.

    According to Birgit Hellwig, the Goemai themselves are very attached to Sirlinger’s orthography.

  9. What a great piece of news.

    As far as i am aware, Manx never went extict, because it has remained in continued use in the Manx parliament.

    (Yes, i know that there were no L1 speakers of Manx for a long time, but the language still went on in the style of Latin/Manchu/Sumerian).

  10. Now that I think of it, [ǝ] is about halfway between [o] and [e], so why not.

  11. ey is definitely [ə] oin this context. For the -r of mooinjer, yes, it must have had a pronounced -r at some point but I can’t hear it on the video or in my fading memories of people referring to the organisation – but of course they would have been L1 non-rhotic English speakers for the most part. Manx spelling started off fairly Anglicised but I don’t think it was ever quite like English and subsequent sound changes have often obscured things: e.g. ‘ben’ [bɛᵈn] meaning ‘woman’ (as in Ben-my-chree [bɛᵈn mə xri:] = bean mo chroí, ‘woman of my heart’ (and the name of several ships)), ‘shassoo’ [ˈʃaːðu] ‘standing’, or ‘moddey’ [ˈmɔːðə] ‘dog’ , cappan [ˈkavan] “cup”

  12. January First-of-May says

    Yes, i know that there were no L1 speakers of Manx for a long time, but the language still went on in the style of Latin/Manchu/Sumerian

    I wouldn’t call 50 years (and I think it’s been less than that) “a long time” in this context. Also I didn’t think Manchu was ever extinct at all? But I might be misremembering.

    Hebrew is a better comparison to Latin and Sumerian here; that language also went on as a continuous L2 for many centuries. Manx was “extinct”, if at all, for barely a generation; there are probably still people around who remember talking in Manx with the original native speakers. [EDIT: sounds like the article’s Mr. Gawne would qualify.]

    [EDIT 2: Previously on Language Log.]

    As far as Sumerian is concerned, it’s honestly a little sad that the original tradition ended; there are tantalizing signs that the teaching of Sumerian had been transitioning towards writing down the sounds in alphabetic scripts, but it appears that, for whatever reason, it had shortly afterwards stopped entirely.

  13. David Marjanović says

    From the new LLog thread: a comparison, in English, of Standard Irish with a very interesting English accent – all the palatalization and velarization is, I think, still there, just not in the expected places – and Manx with perhaps less of an English accent. They’re not outright mutually intelligible, but Ulster Irish and Manx are said to be.

    (Also interesting about the Irishman’s English: START is a completely unmodified [æɹ]. In one of his long blog posts, Alexander Foreman was quite surprised that Benjamin Franklin claimed to speak like that. Well, it still exists.)

  14. anhweol: ‘shassoo’ [ˈʃaːðu] ‘standing’, or ‘moddey’ [ˈmɔːðə] ‘dog’

    Irish “seasamh” and “madadh”, and pronounced roughly the same (at least in Ulster).

    There are a lot of recordings of the last few native speakers. I listened to some in the Manx Museum about 20 years ago.

    Also a great place to visit if you have an interest in narrow-gauge steam trains.

    January First-of-May: there are probably still people around who remember talking in Manx with the original native speakers

    The last L1 speaker, Ned Maddrell, died in 1974. By that time there was a lot of interest in reviving the language, so I’m sure a lot of people still have memories of him.

  15. @January First-of-May: The sacral character of Sumerian in later times was probably tied to the combined edifice of the language and its writing system. Its cultural importance may have been principally as a written language (in which the great kings of legend had recorded their inscriptions), rather than a spoken one. In that case, without cuneiform,* it would become just another old language without no remaining native speakers.

    * I misspelled that as “cunieform,” and my browser’s only suggested correction was “cumshot.”

  16. i expect that at this point there are at least a few new cradle-tongue speakers – just as there are a few in the yiddishist world whose parents aren’t (though more from an unbroken line of speakers). we don’t really have a good word for those distinctions around broken and mended transmission.*

    * ivrit doesn’t make a good comparison because of the whole “replacing the unbroken chain of (non-cradle-tongue) use with a new, quite different, artificial variant that’s now naturalized” thing

  17. David Fried says

    @Rozele: Ivrit may actually be a good point of comparison. If the last native speaker of Manx died almost 50 years ago, the teachers in the new Manx-language schools must be no more fluent than Hebrew teachers in the Yishuv in the early years of the 20th century–perhaps less so, because many of those Hebrew teachers presumably had a good-to-excellent knowledge of literary Hebrew of all periods, from the Bible to the new journalese that began in the 1860s or so.

    So the new Manx, like Ivrit, must be taking shape as a playground language among children in the Manx-language schools. As such, it probably has little to do with real colloquial Manx as it was spoken from time immemorial. What I would really like to know is whether the emerging language, like ivrit, is morphologically simplified in an analytic direction. I’m referring, for example, to the way colloquial Ivrit from the beginning has dropped nearly all pronominal suffixes expressing possession (nouns) and direct objects (verbs). And Ivrit is also stuffed with calques from Yiddish and other European languages. I’ll bet that’s true of the emerging “new Manx.”

    The one thing that might help, as I have just learned from YouTube, is that Manx is closely related to Irish Gaelic, particularly as spoken in Ulster. Irish Gaelic may thus provide a model of fluent and colloquial speech which may be modified in the direction of good Manx.

    FWIW, I find the spoken Yiddish of most second language learners, with no “heritage” background, to be excruciating. The accents are execrable; the pronunciation is devoid of the mergers and contractions of ordinary speech (imagine an English speaker who never, ever says ‘I’m gonna”); and the language is entirely uncolloquial and lacking in “tam.” In my limited experience, by the way, no Yiddish teacher ever, ever teaches or corrects pronunciation or explains the ways in which the YIVO spelling system, although very phonemically good, is not exactly phonetic.

    The result is ostensibly fluent speakers, even college professors of Yiddish, with unbearable English accents and what is worse, intonation. Apropos of my remarks about Manx and Irish, I once met a Yiddish speaker who said that he acquired fluency only after a year speaking German in Germany. For all the differences in grammar and pronunciation, German gave him a model of natural speech that he could generalize and extend to Yiddish.

    All of this raises the question of what language revival is for, exactly. Hebrew was “revived” as part of an intense ideological project and the revival was probably necessary to the success of that project. It was at least necessary to provide a multinational community with a common tongue. The passage of time has created a fully colloquial language But to this day it does not embody Jewish culture in the way that Yiddish did (and in fairness, was not intended to.) It may eventually do so, but only as a result of a strong tendency in Israeli culture toward religious revival.

    It is true that each language expresses a unique culture and world view. I think it’s probably a fallacy to suppose that it is possible to revive any such culture or world view, once it is lost, by reviving a “dead” language. I assume that the new speakers of Manx are not reviving the farming and fishing way of life of their ancestors, still less their world view. At best learning Manx may help them understand that world view a little better.

  18. I don’t speak Yiddish, but hearing Haredis in Israel speak Yiddish with a strong (Ashkenazi) Israeli accent sure sounds off-kilter to me. Are there any Haredi communities whose Yiddish lineage has never been interrupted or affected by the L2 speech of converts?

  19. i think your parallel with YIVO-yiddish makes a fair amount of sense – and i quite agree with some of your critiques of the results of YIVO’s teaching (though most current teachers that i’ve learned with give plenty of pronunciation correction and explanation of the gaps in the orthography). part of what’s so wrong over there (as i’ve ranted about on here a number of times) is that YIVO clings to the fantasy of that it’s teaching a supplementary dakh-shprakh*, and so is constantly (and to a degree deliberately) undermining the vernacularization of the yiddish it teaches (which is a living dialect at this point, but is taught as if it were fixed in 1925 (plus neologisms)).

    but i think you’re missing my point about ivrit. i take the manx revitalizers at their word when they say they’re trying to speak manx as it was spoken by its last cradle-tongue speakers. they give no indications that they’re inventing a new celtic-derived language using an eclectic assortment of manx sources spanning two millennia, plus bits and pieces of irish, cornish, welsh, and breton (but actively not erse), with a pervasive structural layer of unacknowledged english.

    ivrit is only a “revival” project if esperanto is**. its raw materials are largely drawn from (various points in) the history of hebrew, but it was purposely separated from that history (and in particular from the actually-existing literary hebrew of the 19th/20th centuries). the idea of ivrit as a “playground language” is just the myth (read: lie) of ben-yehuda’s son turned pseudo-sociological. ivrit was built as deliberately as esperanto or volapük, and propagated, like them, through adult classes above all. i don’t see any reason to think that the teachers in those classes (the handful who wrote the textbooks aside) knew much more than their students – when the zionist movement began to have any substantial membership, it was largely made up of secularists unlikely to have much loshn-koydesh beyond a scattering of memorized liturgy. the first cradle-tongue speakers learned ivrit from their parents, those same adult language-learners, not some fictional generation of zionist linguists.

    * which wasn’t even true in its founding period for central figures like weinreich, who were not cradle-tongue yiddish speakers themselves.

    ** has anyone tried to reverse-engineer esperanto to figure out which branch of romance it would’ve been descended from if it were descended? my deeply uninformed money would be on dacian, as more likely than most to have slavic and germanic loanwords, but i assume the sound changes would be much more important.

  20. it was largely made up of secularists unlikely to have much loshn-koydesh beyond a scattering of memorized liturgy

    That is not generally so. Ben Yehuda, Mendele, Bialik, Y.L. Gordon — all had religious education up to their teenage years. The assimilated Jews (like Herzl), who spoke neither Hebrew nor Yiddish, were not a big part of the early Zionists who became the nucleus of Hebrew revival in Palestine.

  21. David Marjanović says

    Reportedly, Switzerland came very close to introducing Esperanto as a mandatory school subject at some point in the early 1920s. I think they canceled it when they noticed nobody else was doing it – they didn’t want to give Switzerland a national language…

    has anyone tried to reverse-engineer esperanto to figure out which branch of romance it would’ve been descended from if it were descended?

    Not that I know of; too much of its grammar* is invented a priori, and obviously enough so that any such attempt would be stopped very quickly. The lexicon is just chaotic (and of course that’s deliberate).

    Eastern Romance has way fewer Germanic loans than Western, anyway. “Fresh” in Romanian? Rece.

    * Morphology. Zamenhof never gave it a syntax, and it still doesn’t seem to have a lot in modern practice.

  22. Rece isn’t ‘fresh,’ it’s ‘cold’ (also ‘inert, stiff; cold-hearted; hostile; impassive,’ etc.).

  23. David Marjanović says

    Huh. I’ve been lied to (by a tertiary printed source).

    Anyway, it’s native, from recens.

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