According to the Living Tongues Institute, a non-profit organization dedicated to the preservation and revitalization of cultural linguistics, a language dies every two weeks. The Irish language has been on the decline since England banned it in 1641 to assert control over its subjects, according to City College anthropology professor William Doonan. The Irish government and the National University of Ireland are trying to bring
back the language and encourage its use.
Doonan, a dual citizenship holder from Ireland and the United States, spoke at the Cultural Awareness Center on April 19 to inform the City College community about this language revitalization issue.
In 2010, Doonan took a sabbatical and left with his family to Ireland to study the Irish language and its use in modern-day Ireland at the National University of Ireland. He moved to a Gaeltacht, or Irish-speaking region, called Galway.
According to Doonan, under British rule the Irish couldn’t own land. They rented small plots of land from the English and grew what they could. In 1846, the potato famine struck, decimating the Irish population. Their lack of variety in the type of potatoes they grew contributed to the devastating impact of the fungus responsible for the famine. This resulted in a mass exodus that devastated the native speakers of the Irish language.
“About a million people died,” Doonan said.
The Irish language is commonly known as Gaelic. Doonan explained that the term is offensive. Of the 4 million Irish citizens only about 72,000 speak Irish as their primary language, according to the National University of Ireland.
“Wherever the Irish went they didn’t teach their children Irish,” said Doonan, explaining that speaking English was a necessity to gain employment. “With Irish independence in 1922, the preservation of the Irish language became a real national priority.”
Kayla Prahl, a 20 year-old City College family and consumer sciences major, says: “I hope enough children learn the language so it can remain alive. With the big population [Ireland has] it would be a tragedy for the language not to exist anymore.”
The government is trying to find ways to get more people to speak Irish.
“[There is] a TV station that is conducted only in Irish,” said Doonan of attempts to promote the language. Doonan believes that Irish might cease to be a living language in a generation or two due to its decreased daily use.
“By increasing the prestige value of a language and by insuring that it remains vital we can ward off, for a while, this language dying out,” said Doonan. Doonan gave the audience hope that the Irish language won’t share the same fate as the dodo bird.
“In the end the way to keep a language alive is to teach it to children, and that might be the most important thing,” said Doonan. “My grandparents came from the Aran Islands [of Ireland] and the only reason I am not a native speaker is because of that famine in the first place.”