Rebuilding the Celtic Languages: Reversing Language Shift in the Celtic Countries

Forside
Diarmuid O'Néill
Y Lolfa, 2005 - 461 sider
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A comprehensive survey based on extensive research of the linguistic features together with historical, structural and socio-linguistic aspects of the Celtic languages, including detailed notes. 32 maps.

"Slow-paced euthanasia" may now be the fate awaiting some of the six languages traditionally (and controversially) classified as "Celtic": Breton, Cornish, Irish, Manx, Scottish Gaelic, Welsh. Cornish and Manx were given last rites long ago, and now survive as the passion of antiquaries and language revivalists.

Canadian Celticist Diarmuid O'Neill joins with six academics from both sides of the Atlantic in highlighting the critical state of the six languages in their homelands, and in two "outcrops": the Welsh of Argentina's Chubut Province, and Scottish Gaelic in Nova Scotia, Canada.

Of the Brittonic/Brythonic languages, Breton is spoken by an estimated 304,000 people (7.37% of the population of Breizh/Brittany); Welsh in Wales by 659,213 people (23%); Cornish by some 500 people (0.01%). The statistics for the Goedelic/Gaelic languages are similarly apocalyptic. Scottish Gaelic is spoken by 58,652 people (1.15%); Irish by 339,541 (8.65%) in the Irish Republic, and 75,125 (4.8%) in Ulaidh/Northern Ireland; Manx by 1,689 (2.2%) in the Isle of Man; Scottish Gaelic by 415 people (0.044%) in Nova Scotia, the refuge of the victims of the Highland Clearances.

The essays assemble available facts, opinions, policies and statistics on the current language situation in each country, thereby creating an important reference resource in a field of prevailing obscurity, obscurantism, and political sleight-of-hand. Nowhere else are these data so conveniently accessible. This factual aspect of the essays is handsomely enhanced by extensive notes, endnotes, references, bibliographies, maps and tables.

Each essay also presents rational policies and strategies whereby language shift (and ultimate language death) might be averted. These strategies vary country to country, but all are informed by the visionary scholarship of world authority on language revitalisation Joshua Fishman of Yeshiva University (New York), New York University (NY), and Stanford University (California), who contributes a stimulating and encouraging preface.

In his book Reversing Language Shift (Clevedon: Multilingual Matters, 1991) Fishman presents an eight-stage strategy (GIDS) whereby languages threatened with extinction by a dominant neighbour might be saved.

Can the Celtic languages be saved, and restored? O'Neill and his colleagues are cautious, bleakly warning that languages can indeed die. They may be killed by the indifference, even the hostility of the indigenous people. "Permissive" policies can lead to the dislocation, attrition, and termination of minority language-in-culture-and-identity. "Supportive" approaches, evident only during the past fifty years or so, are still tentative and experimental - and, too often, meagerly implemented, little more than "promissory notes". Fishman counsels supporters of threatened languages not to place their trust in princes, but to rely primarily on their own sweat, tears, and resources.

"There is another kind of death, where a language is officially used, but where it has lost its cohort of first-language speakers." Establishment of new Celtic-speaking communities is crucially important. Goals must be realistic. At present, only Welsh and Irish can pursue linguistic expansion at all eight stages of Fishman's GIDS scale. They have opportunities to advance which other threatened languages do not.

A valuable reference resource and a realistic guide to action by language activists and all who have no wish to mourn the death of their mother tongue. 

 

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