Giving Up Your Language

Consider for a moment the effects of being asked to change the language you use. … Brian Friel’s play Translations, written in 1980, depicts this in an Irish setting. The action takes place in County Donegal in 1833: we follow a detachment of English soldiers who are part of an Ordnance Survey team anglicizing Gaelic place names, and their work illustrates the significance of names in framing people’s perceptions of the land, The belief that Gaelic is somehow responsible for Irish savagery, superstition and sententiousness dates back at least to the sixteenth century, when Henry VIII asserted that it was sufficient grounds for compelling the Irish to speak English. (When he declared himself king of Ireland in 1541, he did so first in English and then, as an afterthought, in the language of the people he was bringing under his rule.) Friel’s play dramatizes the moment when one language supplants another.

There are areas of Britain where people still use languages that were present before the arrival roughly 1,500 years ago of the Germanic settlers whose dialects became English. But while the central role of English has not been achieved without bloodshed and resentment, it is a largely uncontroversial fact, historically ingrained. Of the languages spoken in Britain today, Welsh has the most ancient roots. … The decline of Welsh began with the seizure of the English Crown by the part-Welsh Henry VII in 1485, and accelerated in the sixteenth century as English became the language of education and administration in Wales …

In Scotland, English arrived earlier; there were English-speaking settlers as far back as the sixth century. However, English became the de facto public language only in 1707 when the Act of Union joined Scotland to England and Wales. …

In Ireland, as Friel’s play Translations suggests, the situation is rather different. Ireland is not a part of Britain, although in my experience some otherwise knowledgeable people seem to consider this an eccentric statement. The details of Irish history are too complex to digest here. The first English-speakers to settle there arrived in the twelfth century, but it was only in the seventeenth century that Irish resistance to English plantation gave way. By the following century, the use of Gaelic was “a marker of rural, Catholic poverty” whereas English was associated with “Protestantism, ownership, and the towns,” although some towns “had a sizeable Gaelic-speaking working class until well into the nineteenth century.” Gaelic was to a large degree abandoned in the nineteenth century, but from the 1890s it was promoted as a minority language. For present purposes, it is enough to say that Gaelic has in Ireland an appreciable symbolic value; that there is a distinct Irish English with its own grammatical features, vowel sounds, stresses and vocabulary; that Irish English exists in several different forms, and that, these facts notwithstanding, English is spoken by very nearly everyone in both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.

Henry Hitchings

Transcribed by me from pages 253–4 of my hardback copy of The Language Wars: A History of Proper English, © 2011, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux.

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