Irish Myths“Irish has more fluent speakers than the majority of the world’s languages.”

As heard on Today with Sean O'Rourke

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Irish mythology is wildly popular beyond our shores, but myths about the Irish language are causing concern to a few people close to home.  Colm Ó Broin is one such person keen to bust what he sees as damaging myths around the Irish language. Colm is an Irish speaker and member of Conradh na Gaeilge and he spoke to Seán O’Rourke today about his TEDx talk on the subject in Dublin last September. Colm is keen to tackle “Irish myths” and notions like “it’s a dead language” head on, so he dives into the data:

The linguistic project Ethnologue estimates that half the world’s languages have less than 8,000 speakers, so that means that Irish has more fluent speakers than the majority of the world’s languages.”

Seán and Colm spend time teasing out what the statistics on what ‘speaking Irish’ really mean, as different studies ask different questions. It turns out that how well you speak Irish doesn’t predict how often you speak it. Colm Ó Broin cited an Amárach Research report which found that 160,000 people said they speak Irish fluently. Seán raised the Irish Census results, which show that 80,000 people say they speak Irish every day.  That means that only half of the people who are fluent speakers in one report say they speak the language on a daily basis. Colm says the occasion to speak Irish every day might not arise:

“There would be a lot of Irish speakers who mightn’t speak it every day; they wouldn’t have the opportunity.”

They spoke about the mixed fortunes of the Gaeltacht areas in terms of population, but Colm says as long as there are families in Gaeltachtaí raising their children speaking Irish, there is a future for the language:

“I think we can say with a fair bit of confidence that Irish will be around in the year 2100.”

Colm put to bed the objections some people have about ‘new words’ in Irish that have been swiped from English, like tacsaí and rugbaí. He explained that that this kind of thing has been happening forever in all languages and Irish has nothing to be ashamed of:

“There’s a lot of people that think these are made up word and that Irish is kind of embarrassing or comical somehow, but this is actually a normal thing that happens with all languages. All languages take words from one language and then adapt them to their own use.”

Does it all come down to money? Seán asked Colm about the resources that are put into translation and documentation in the Irish language, at home and in the EU. Colm draws on the data to place the use of Irish in an EU context:

“Since Irish was granted its official status in 2007, more Irish has been spoken in the European Parliament than Maltese or Estonian, and in some years more than Latvian and Danish, which has 5 million speakers.”

You can listen to Colm Ó Broin’s full Irish Myths-busting interview with Seán, including more on gaelscoileanna, Irish and accusations of elitism and whether Irish language broadcasting is a good investment here.

Ruth Kennedy

© The Listener 2019

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