Session 65: Ystafell 5
Sociolinguistics and language shift: Irish and Gaelic

Chair: Robert Douglas Dunbar

Local and national identity in teenagers’ attitudes to the Irish language

Eileen Sorcha Áine Coughlan
University of Oxford

Ireland’s language policy has long distinguished between ‘Gaeltacht’ areas, where Irish remains the main community language, and the rest of the country, where English is the community language. This paper explores the importance of local and national identity in the attitudes of teenagers in two Irish-medium secondary schools, one located in a strongly Irish-speaking Gaeltacht area and one outside the Gaeltacht, to the Irish language, based on ethnographic fieldwork.

Recent research suggests a sharp decline in the level of use of Irish among young people in Gaeltacht areas and there has been an increasing focus in research and policy on the role of Irish-speakers outside the Gaeltacht. There is also evidence of levelling across dialects on a regional and national level. However, this study shows that significant differences remain between the way young people in the Gaeltacht perceive the language and relate it to their own identity and the way their peers outside the Gaeltacht do so.

The Gaeltacht teenagers showed a strong sense of local identity, to which the Irish language was integral. The local dialect was prized and contrasted with the ‘book Irish’ they felt was imposed on them by the educational system. In contrast, for students attending an Irish-medium school outside the Gaeltacht, local identity played no role in their relationship to Irish, and national identity was more likely to come up in discussions on this theme. For them, ‘book Irish’ was normal, whereas Gaeltacht Irish was difficult to understand and even comical.

Language shift in the Irish midlands 1600-1950: the case of Co. Westmeath

Aengus Ó Fionnagáin
Ollscoil Luimnigh (Limerick)

The midlands of Ireland are popularly considered long anglicised, and Irish, as a natively spoken community language, a distant memory. In truth, there was a scattering of native speakers in Cos. Longford, Westmeath, Offaly, and Meath, as recently as the early twentieth century (Piatt 1936 & 1952; Finnegan 2013). In the vicinity of Athlone, Co. Roscommon, a sound recording was made of a native speaker in 1964.

This paper focuses on the interaction of the English and Irish languages in Co. Westmeath, during and immediately after the plantation period (seventeenth century). It will also seek to provide an overview of language use and transmission in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in that county, and in other areas of central and eastern Ireland, drawing on the limited sources available, with inferences from recent and contemporary parallels in the Gaeltacht.

I will argue that the framing of Irish since the revival of period of 1893-15 as a ‘national language’, its established position in the education system post 1922, as well as the emergence of the concept of the Gaeltacht (Ó Torna, 2005), have tended to diminish, if not obscure, the local significance of Irish as a ‘heritage language’ in many parts of Ireland. This has important implications for learner motivation, as well as popular attitudes towards the language.

Without a clear understanding of language usage in the recent past, at a local and regional level, the movement towards increased provision of services for Irish speakers, and the increased visibility of the language, might meet resistance, or come to be perceived as an imposition, along the lines of the 'never spoken here' trope in Scotland.

Language death revisited: a new analytical approach to data from the Gaelic languages

Conchúr Ó Giollagáin
Oilthigh na Gàidhealtachd agus nan Eilean (Highlands and Islands)

The living Gaelic languages of Scotland and Ireland are at an advanced stage of social collapse (Ó Giollagáin et al. 2007; Ó Giollagáin and Charlton 2015; Taylor 2016; MacKinnon 2011; Ó Giollagáin and Ó Curnáin 2016; Ó Curnáin 2016; Ó Giollagáin et al., forthcoming). This paper proposes a new theoretical framework underpinning the societal processes of language death based on the current condition of the Gaelic languages. The analysis builds on the tipping point/critical mass perspective of Dorian (1981), the examination of status disadvantage in Gal (1978) and the societal/institutional deficit approach of Crystal (2000). Drawing on current demographic, sociolinguistic and linguistic data, this paper posits that the penultimate societal phase of language death is primarily marked by a loss of normative function in the language spoken by the minoritised group in a contracting social habitat, i.e. the process of habitat loss is mirrored in the pragmatic redundancy of the minority language. The social-linguistic constraints of the younger generations in establishing a normative function for the minority language, in comparison with older generations raised in higher minority-speaker group densities, is an indicator of the demolinguistic contraction of the speaker group. This new analysis of sociolinguistic function in the spatial extent of the speech community demonstrates the central importance of protecting a high threshold of speaker density in supporting normative processes in minority language practice. Given the contraction of the spatial/demolinguistic extent of the Celtic languages, mitigating measures are proposed for the speaker groups falling below this high threshold.