Having studied both Old and Modern Irish (the later with the amazing Micheal O’Siadhail, poet and scholar) and visited the Gaeltacht of Connemara, I am very interested in the fate of the language, and was glad to see a brief but authoritative report in Language Log by Jim McCloskey of UC Santa Cruz, “one of the foremost experts in the world on the modern Irish language,” courtesy of Geoff Pullum:

I think that talk of a ‘rebound’ for the language is misplaced, but I do not equate that position with pessimism. The situation is a complex and fluid one, but largely it seems to me that things are on the same trajectory that they have been on for several decades (with a couple of interesting changes). By which I mean that the traditional Irish-using communities (the Gaeltachtai/) continue to shrink and the language continues to retreat in those communities. Nobody that I know who is involved in those communities is optimistic about their future as Irish-speaking communities (though lots of other good things are happening to them and in them).

The observers I trust most (friends and colleagues engaged in intense fieldwork in Gaeltacht communities) maintain that the process of normal acquisition (for Irish) ceased in most areas in the middle 70’s, and it is now increasingly difficult to find people younger than about 30 who control traditional Gaeltacht Irish. If you walk along a road in a Gaeltacht area and try to listen for the language being used by groups of teenagers and children by themselves, it is always (in my recent experience) English. Someone I know who is the principal of a primary school in the Donegal Gaeltacht reported that of the 22 children who entered his school at the beginning of the current year, only two had, in his judgment, sufficient Irish.

So traditional Gaeltacht Irish will almost certainly cease to exist in the next 30 years or so.

But what is unique in the Irish situation, I think, has been the creation of a second language community now many times larger than the traditional Gaeltacht communities (I think that 100,000 is a reasonable estimate for the size of this community). And being a part of that community is a lively and engaging business…

There is a great range of varieties called `Irish’ in use in this community. People like me speak a close approximation of traditional Gaeltacht Irish and there are people who speak new urban calques, heavily influenced by English in every way. For the communities of children growing up around Irish-medium schools in urban centres it may be right to speak of pidginization and creolization (along with a lot of clever inter-language play like the recent ‘cad-ever’). Many teenagers are thoroughly bidialectal, switching easily from the version of Gaeltacht Irish they have from their parents to the new urban varieties in use among their peers.

It will be interesting to see what happens to these varieties when the model of Gaeltacht Irish becomes a memory, but one thing that is clear is that this community is not going to fade away just because the Gaeltacht fades away.

It will be sad to return to the Aran Islands (if I ever do) and no longer hear the easy chatter in Irish all around me, with never a word of English, but I’m glad to learn the language is unlikely to die out.


  1. It’s almost exactly the same with Scottish Gaelic. Native speakers are few, but there’s a vibrant community of learners.

  2. I belong to a small message board mostly made up of very sophisticated, intelligent Brits and Irish. I once asked the Irish lads about the state of their ancestral tongue, and the response was pretty depressing. None of them could sense a “resurgence”. Despite their obvious pride in being Irish, none of them had particularly strong feelings about the language, including one poster for whom it is the mother tongue. They all seemed to agree that compulsory study left most people with a resentment of the language and should be abandonded. I’ve recently posted the Chicago Tribune link and the McCloskey piece and have gotten little interest, but I will report back if anyone says anything of note.
    All that being said, I’ll believe McCloskey. Data and scholarship trump anecdotes, and anyway, his observations are less depressing. Moreover, he’s not the only one who has come to the same conclusion. McCloskey’s argument that the hard-core fluent areas are static or dying, but that the influence of the language is actually spreading, is similar to that of another Irish expert, Jonathan Fishman. Here’s an excerpt from a 1996 speech (full link below):
    “So, what have they accomplished, those Irish revivalists whom I have studied for such a long time? Can you imagine, in seventy-five years of work, which is longer than most of you have worked on this problem by a long shot, they have gone from a time when five percent of the Irish population was Irish mother-tongue to a time when three percent is Irish mother-tongue. After having tried everything that you are ever likely to think of. But, by this time, two-thirds of the population understands Irish, which was not the case at that earlier time. Two-thirds of it have been strongly influenced by all these things that the revivalists did, even though few of them ever actually speak the language. Irish would be in even worse condition had the revivalists not done all they did.
    The Irish revivalists have voluntary neighborhoods in which all community services and all community informal life is in Irish. They are involved in a constant outreach effort (through clubs, camps, vacation spots, and teams) toward the appreciation and understanding of the Irish language. And that is why there are two-thirds of them now in the country who when they go to France and do not want to be mistaken for an Englishman, talk Irish to each other in a Paris cafe , even though they do not do it when they get back to Dublin. They could, but they do not. Their life has not changed that way. So, can anyone doubt that Irish today would be dead as a vernacular had it not been for the insistence of the stubborn revivalists that they wanted it for themselves and their children, regardless of what other Irish folk say, regardless of what other Irish folks do.”

  3. O’Siadhial’s “Learning Irish” is easily one of the best language-learning books I’ve come across – at least for learners like me who desire phonetic descriptions in IPA (or close) combined with competent descriptions of grammatical features, and (significantly for people who’ve learned a random mishmashed assortment of dialects at school) a clear focus on one variety of the language. His “Modern Irish” is fascinating too. As someone who has been taught Irish since age five or so, but never quite felt able as a user of the language, his books are really a revelation.
    The possible death of Gaeltacht Irish is utterly depressing, but not completely discouraging; If Irish gains a foothold around Gaelschoil pupils and adult learners, the language might be saved from the fate of being confined to short stretches of the western coast.
    I overheard a conversation in a in Dingle this autumn; A man talking, in Irish, to a teenage girl. After a while he switches to English: “And what will you study in university?”. She: “English”. He frowns and pauses while thinking, and finally asks: “And what use is that?”. Laughter all round :).

  4. ___________”Is maith an scéalaí an aimsir.”
    Time is a good messenger
    or “time will tell…”
    An scéalaí – a story teller or messenger
    An aimsir – the weather

  5. And in “my” (Connemara) dialect that would be pronounced “is MWAH SHKAY-lee NAM-sheer.”

  6. I suspect this kind of thing is actually happening a lot. Navajo kids who start learning Dine in kindergarden and speak an English calque is something I heard about back in the early 90s. Now, I’m hearing similar stories for Plains Cree, Lakhota, Mikmaq and even for languages like Chippewyan. Mikmaq hieroglyphs are even making a comeback. In Europe, I’m hearing talk of Dutchized versions of Limburgish, mixed Platt-German hybrids and resurgence of Occitan, Wallon and even Provençal from people who speak it as if it was French.
    People like having a language that reflects a non-mainstream identity nowadays. I even find myself regretting that I can’t speak Plautdietsch.

  7. The future of Irish Gaelic does not look promising at all. There has never been a language in history that has been successfully resuscitated when fewer than 1% of the population speaks it well.
    It is disappointing that both the Scotts and the Irish have neglected learning their native languages in contrast to French and Dutch speakers who have actually felt almost as much pressure from English.

  8. Dia duit! Is mise Sinisa (Sinisha). I as an tSeirbia. Tá beagán Gaelige agam. Is runai mé.
    I will write in English now. I am Serbian, interprter and I speak 7 languages. I’m trying to lear Irish and some other Celtic languages. I think that are extraordinary languages…
    In brief, the future of the Irish and other Celtic langugaes depends only of Irish and other Celtic nations.
    Slan go foill!

  9. Liz Coughlin says

    :::French and Dutch speakers who have actually felt almost as much pressure from English.:::
    A more accurate comparison would be Native American languages or perhaps Maori in New Zealand, languages regarding which there were very definitive and direct political campaigns to abolish. Irish has an incredible resiliance considering the campaigns to ensure it not be passed to the next generation.

  10. Miran Èernec says

    Is fearr Gaeilge briste na Bearla cliste !
    Beatha agus slainte chugat !

  11. Ta agam Gaeilge beag anois ni raibh geileadh. Okay, Okay, this is probably not quite correct, but I hope that I have made my point.

  12. John Cowan says

    Fifteen years have passed, half the remaining lifetime of Gaeltacht Irish per McCloskey. What’s its status now, does anyone know?

  13. speedwell says

    Immigrants are moving in and learning it. You may have caught, the other day, a story about Victor Bayda from Moscow being appointed an Irish language officer in Kerry. It’s kind of a half-joke in the international group I belong to (they meet in Leitrim) that the people who seem to take Irish seriously are the ones who aspire to become Irish. What this says about the Irish I am not prepared to guess.

    I’ll let you know more after I finish going through the Buntús Cainte lessons I was assigned last year by a teacher from Oideas Gael. 🙂 In the meantime I’ll ask one of the children in the neighbourhood who are amused I am doing what they’re doing in school.

  14. “The total number of persons (aged 3 and over) who could speak Irish in April 2016 was 1,761,420, representing 39.8 per cent of the population. This is a decrease of 13,017 on the 2011 figure of 1,774,437. …

    Of the 1,761,420 persons who answered yes to being able to speak Irish, 418,420 indicated they never spoke it, while a further 558,608 indicated they only spoke it within the education system. Of the remaining group, 586,535 persons indicated they spoke Irish less often than weekly, 111,473 spoke weekly while just 73,803 persons spoke Irish daily. ” (c) 2016 Irish census

  15. David Marjanović says

    73,803 persons spoke Irish daily

    That’s actually not such a small number. It’s much larger than I feared.

  16. SFReader says

    I was struck by 418,420 people who said they are able to speak Irish even though they never spoke it.

    “Can you play piano?”

    “I don’t know. I never played it”

  17. Of the 1,761,420 persons who answered yes to having had piano lessons, 558,608 indicated they only play when practising for their lessons, while a further 418,420 indicated they haven’t played since they stopped getting lessons. Of the remaining group, 586,535 persons indicated they play less often than weekly, 111,473 play weekly while just 73,803 persons play daily, mostly the scale of C major.

  18. Heh.

  19. John Cowan says

    Note however that my question is about L1 Irish, not the thriving L2 Irish. Indeed, I know of nothing quite like L2 Irish: a huge number of persons have learned the language despite the lack of practical motives (L2-heavy languages like Swahili and English tend to be lingua francas). McCloskey says he believes that L1 Irish transmission ended in the 1970s (no doubt with a handful of counterexamples). Is anyone able to confirm or deny that?

    I presume that never is here interpreted non-temporally, which the OED traces to Old English, something like ‘not in any relevant time-frame’. The oldest use is in a charm to stop bees from swarming found in the marginalia of an Old English translation of Bede: Sitte ge, sīgewīf / sīgað tō eorðan / næfre ge wilde / tō wuda fleogan ‘Sit down, victory-women, settle on the earth; never be wild and fly to the woods’, where never means something like ‘not now’. Michael D.C. Drout recites the whole entry (the part I quote starts at 0:27). He has a substantial Modern English accent (mid diphthongs, fronted /u:/, minimally rounded /y:/), but sounds very natural to my ear: it’s obvious that he knows exactly what he’s saying. In the left menu can be found his recitations of most of the other bits of Old English we have.

  20. Yes, he’s very good, but there’s still that unnatural EM-phasis and care-ful ar-ti-cu-la-tion that is common to all such attempts at reconstructed pronunciation. It reminds me of the early days of Early Music revival, when all performers sounded stilted. Now they’ve become able to play it as if it was actual music, not a code to be deciphered.

  21. per incuriam says

    McCloskey says he believes that L1 Irish transmission ended in the 1970s (no doubt with a handful of counterexamples). Is anyone able to confirm or deny that?

    So he is the source of that claim (previously asserted here as fact).

    The many native Irish-speakers born after the 1970s are living proof of the contrary. Note however that McCloskey qualifies “in most areas”.

    Irish is even now being transmitted from Gaeltacht parents to their children. But those children are becoming bilingual earlier and socialisation through English now appears to be the norm.

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