The Life Cycles Of Language

Joe Mac Donnacha offers a sober assessment of Irish as a “living” language:

In sociolinguistic terms, a language can be defined as living if it meets two criteria. First, it should be the dominant (but not necessarily the only) language in most or all of the social networks that make up a community. Second, the community of individuals who speak it as their dominant language must be capable of regenerating themselves as a “language community” – in other words, they must be a sustainable community in terms of both their demographic regeneration and the intergenerational transmission of their language.

On both of these criteria the Irish language is no longer a living language. It has not gained new dominance in the combined social networks of any community outside the Gaeltacht since the formation of the state, and since the late 1960s it has been losing its dominance in what were the Irish-language communities of the Gaeltacht. It is clear from the current research that though most of these communities have been able to regenerate themselves demographically since the early 1970s … they have been finding it increasingly difficult to regenerate themselves linguistically. What we are now seeing in the Gaeltacht, therefore, are the final throes of Irish as a living language.

But not all language is lost; Cal Flyn has good news for Gaelic speakers in Scotland:

The 1991 census showed a drop of more than 20 per cent [of Gaelic speakers] in a single decade. By 2001 the number had fallen another 11 per cent, to just 59,000. Gaelic speakers were ageing, then dying, and their language was dying with them. When the latest figures were released in September, naysayers were preparing to sound the knell. But the new total (58,000) had barely dipped and closer inspection revealed new growth: in every age group under the age of 20, there had been a rise.

There is a Gaelic revival under way. Increasing numbers of parents – even those who don’t speak the language – are opting to send their children to Gaelic-medium schools, where all subjects are taught in the language. In 1985 there were only 24 primary school children being taught in Gaelic; last year the figure was 2,953. Sixty-one schools across Scotland now offer Gaelic-medium education. The expectation is that, as time passes, these young Gaels will revitalise a language that is intricately tied up with their country’s identity.