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Will The English Language Ever Wipe Out Every Other Language Of The British Isles?

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In this section of my Extended Project Qualification, I will be discussing the potential viewpoints surrounding my question; namely whether or not the English language will ever become the only native language of the British Isles to still be in use. For clarity’s sake, I will be considering native languages to include English, and the Insular Celtic languages- except Breton.I will not, however, be including immigrant languages like Urdu, Polish, or Hindi, or Norman languages in the Channel Islands, simply due to lack of available information. This in itself, however, should be seen as a stark reminder of the slow, painful decline of Jerriais, Guernésiais, and Sercquiais. I shall be counting the “British Isles” as the island of Great Britain, the island of Ireland/Éire, and the Isle of Man- though this will likely take a tertiary focus to Great Britain and Éire. I shall be assessing the past, present, and potential future situations of the aforementioned native- also known as indigenous or autochthonous- British languages through a number of different academic subjects, such as history, sociology, economics, and- of course- linguistics.

So, how have these languages fared through recorded history to this point? Ask an Irishman- and he might well tell you, “Is fearr liom Béarla, ach is maith liom Gaeilge.” A Scotsman would more likely tell you he knew very little about Scottish Gaelic (Gàidhlig), probably in either English or Scots Leid (which, for the purposes of this project is considered a dialect rather than a standalone language). This hypothetical situation alone shows a huge disparity between the fortunes of just two Insular Celtic languages, both of which are Goidelic languages. But why have these two languages, and the many others that populate the British Isles, had such different fates and, today, have such different numbers of people claiming aptitude in them?

One flashpoint of British, and religious, history could tell us a lot about why not all autochthonous British languages are thriving as well as others anymore. In 1549, it was decreed that churches across Britain would have to use a common prayer book, written in English for the widest accessibility. This sparked a rebellion in Cornwall, where most residents were far more adept with Cornish (Kernowek) than they were with English, and so perceived the new ruling regarding the prayer book to be an act of persecution against Cornish language, religion, and culture. The fact that Cornish speakers elected to responded to the standardisation of prayer books in Britain with a full-scale rebellion shows an insistence to keep the language of Cornish alive- which it managed to do for another three centuries. The language originally died in the year 1777, when Dorothy “Dolly” Pentreath, widely considered to be the last native speaker, passed away. Pentreath had been famous for her words, “My ny vynnav kewsel Sowsnek!”, translating to “I will not speak English!”.

However, a language with a very contrasting history post-1549 is the language of Welsh- also known as Cymraeg. According to BBC Cymru, Elizabeth I passed legislation in 1563 which, in a contradiction to her older half-brother Edward’s Act of Uniformity, required all churches in the principality of Wales to possess the Book of Common Prayer in the Welsh language, a provision which was, notably, not extended to Kernowek- despite Elizabeth herself being rumoured to have an ability in both Brythonic languages (Welsh and Cornish). In 1588, William Morgan- the vicar of the village of Llanrhaeadr-ym-Mochnant- completed the first Welsh-language translation of the entire Bible (Old and New Testaments, Psalms, and even the Apocrypha), revising William Salesbury’s 1567 New Testament in the process. Queen Elizabeth’s reasoning for allowing the translation of these religious texts into Welsh was that it would encourage the Welsh to pair both their own language and the English language together, and thereby learn English through religion. The actual result was quite the opposite; Morgan’s translation helped to provide a concrete written standard of Welsh, and an elevated form thereof. Bishop Morgan, however, suppressed the South Walian dialect and began a trend of North Walian being viewed as superior, as he replaced words like caser (translating to hail) that were present in Salesbury’s original New Testament, and replaced with their North Walian equivalents, such as cenllysg, in the case of “hail”.

These contrasting stories of two closely linked languages- both are Brythonic Insular Celtic languages- shows the effect that religion and the standardisation of a written form can have on the prevalence and viability of a language. The Welsh speakers across their principality were granted the ability to worship God in their own tongue by Elizabeth I, William Salesbury, and Bishop William Morgan- and their language survives to this day across Wales and the British Isles, as a result of internal migration- with other 1.4 million speakers within the nation of the UK, according to the 2011 Census (ONS, 2011). In direct contrast to this, the Cornish people were not the granted the same freedom to practice Christianity in their own language- in spite of Elizabeth’s previously discussed capability with the Cornish language; this left Kernowek without a standard form of writing for its language, or a way of being used to connect with the most powerful being in the Cornish speakers’ lives- God. The language later lost its last monoglot and everyday user in the eighteenth century, and its last original polyglot- Jacob Care of St. Ives and Mevagissey- in the nineteenth century, leaving people like Henry Jenner to try and revive the language from its dormancy. The fact the histories of Welsh and Cornish fork so wildly following the decision to grant a Welsh bible to the Walians in 1563 seems to suggest that without the widespread use of a language in religious and social contexts, or at least the widespread existence of a holy book and/or standard written form- a language will eventually and inevitably reach the point of death.

Irish (known among its own speakers as Gaeilge) is widely believed to have existed for roughly 2,500 years (Údarás na Gaeltachta, 2018), whilst- again according to Údarás na Gaeltachta- remains of Ancient Irish still exist from the 4th and 5th centuries CE, as inscriptions on Ogham stones, so named as the inscriptions themselves are written using the Ogham writing system, the first standardised writing system for the Irish language. Later, during the 10th-13th centuries, Irish developed, in much the same way as the English language, a series of loanwords from the Scandinavian language, for example the Scandinavian word market was Gaelicised and underwent minimal change to become the Irish word margadh. The reason why this is important to note is because many linguists, both amateur and professional, have previously considered words like margadh or pingin (penny) to be béarlachas, a form of Anglicisms in the Irish language, that will be discussed in more detail later on in this discussion. In the late 1600s, and early 1700s, the Irish language began to experience a steady decline, even outside the long-Anglicised Dublin (also known as Baile Átha Cliath), which had begun speaking predominantly English much earlier, according to the BBC, with English being considered the preferred language of both the upper classes, and working-class people with aspirations of upward social mobility- as well as the only language in which administrative and legal matters could be conducted, thereby preventing the Irish-speaking, Gaeilgeoir community from having any real level of political independence or meaningful representation. Later, in the 19th Century, the Great Famine drew more and more Irish citizens toward an Anglicised way of life, and- in many cases- even emigration across the Irish Sea. Gaeilge was relegated to little more than a shameful secret for the layman, and an item of scholarly interest.

This was the case until the year 1893. 1893 was the year in which Dubhghlas de hÍde (often Anglicised as Douglas Hyde), Eoin Mac Néill, and Father Eoghan Ó Gramhnaig- along with others- created Conradh na Gaeilge (also abbreviated to CnaG), a group dedicated to promoting the traditional Irish language that still exists to the present day. After little more than two years, the group had managed to drum up a mass support for the Irish Language, and begun an effort to bring the standardised grammar of written Irish closer in line with the idiosyncrasies and lexis of the then-current spoken form of Irish. These efforts concluded in the year 1958, when the Government Of Ireland published the Official Standard, which updated the traditional standardisation of written Irish to align more closely with the contemporary usage of Irish in the spoken form.

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Since then, the image of Irish has changed significantly, with thousands of students across both the Republic Of Ireland and Northern Ireland attending Gaelscoileanna at primary level and/or Gaelcholáistí at secondary level in order to receive their main education through the medium of the Irish language, and summer immersion colleges like Coláiste Lurgan also proving popular with students not only across the island of Ireland, but also from further afield including Boston, Massachusetts (Banks, 2018). In addition, language learning software solutions, like the browser-based Duolingo, have begun to incorporate the opportunity to learn Irish into themselves, and have contributed to a steep increase in the number of speakers and learners of both, in the case of Duolingo, Irish and Welsh.

This recent increase in the numbers of people developing interests and competence in Insular Celtic languages suggests that these languages are, for the foreseeable future at the very least, protected from extinction by the cultural and ancestral connotations they hold for many people, as can be demonstrated from the aforementioned American students attending Coláiste Lurgan in Spiddal, Connemara. Many hundreds of thousands of people have, in recent years, developed desires to learn languages due to a connection to the land said languages originated from, be it ancestry or affinity. In addition, students choosing to study at Gaelscoileanna/Gaelcholáistí, as well as their Welsh, Scottish, and even Manx counterparts, show not only a high level of interest and aptitude in their target language (i.e Gaeilge, Gàidhlig, Cymraeg, and Gaelg), but also- typically- higher attainment on English-language assessments than English-medium pupils in similar areas or socioeconomic circumstances (Nic Dhùghaill, 2013)- evidencing the advantages of using an autochthonous non-English language regularly, as well as the strong reasons many new learners and speakers have for taking up their target language.

On the other hand, there is also evidence to suggest that the Irish picked up by students in both Gaelscoileanna and Gaelcholáistí is not necessarily of a standard where it could be well understood by a native Irish speaker, or really technically correct in any way. Breandán Mac Ardghail discussed, in a TEDx talk entitled “Gaelscoilis- error-laden pidgin or creative creole?”, the technical inaccuracies often seen in the form of Irish heard from many Irish-medium primary and secondary school students, coining the term Gaelscoilis to refer to it. One criticism Mac Ardghail makes of the so-called Gaelscoilis is the high level of atypical calquing found within it. Calquing is the process of literally translating a phrase from another existing language- almost always English in the case of Gaelscoilis- where a translation for the phrase already exists within the target language. Mac Ardghail also points out the awkward marriage found in the Irish of the Gaelscoil/Gaelcholáiste of typical, perfectly correct Irish vocabulary and phrases with English grammar rules and structures- with the fact that many Gaelscoil/Gaelcholáiste students only really using the Irish language in the educational environments meaning that the distinctive Insular Celtic feature of VSO (verb, subject, object) word ordering is absent from much of Gaelscoilis, replaced with Irish words awkwardly crowbarred into English sentences. A simplified version of this would be the following:

The Irish phrase for “I speak Irish” translates most closely to “I am an Irish speaker”- the phrase itself being “Is gaeilgeoir mé” (note how the verb “is” translating to “am” is placed first, with “gaeilgeoir”- Irish speaker- second, and “mé”, translating to I (the object) comes last). We needn’t worry about the “an” in “I am an Irish speaker”, as the Irish language does not natively feature an indefinite article. The Gaelscoilis equivalent of this would likely involve both an incorrect word order, and calquing to create the phrase “mé labhair Gaeilge”, which, despite literally translating to “I speak Irish”, is not correct in any more than the words being right.

This example shows the problem with a lot of the Irish being spoken by young people across both the Republic of Ireland, and Northern Ireland, in that it is becoming more and more Anglicised with the prevalence of calquing, incorrect word order, and béarlachas.

Béarlachas are words in the Irish language that have been incorporated, in some way or another, into the language from English. The same phenomenon exists in the Scottish language, where the originally English words are known as Beurlachas. Both languages have developed these words from a history where the Celtic language is a substrate language, with few monolingual speakers and a perceived lesser status in society, and English is a superstrate language, dominating the native languages. Béarlachas and Beurlachas are both a direct result of the two languages overlapping due to bilingualism within Irish and Scottish society. One common way in which Béarlachas are formed is by taking an English verb, suffixing -áil onto the verb, and then inserting it in a sentence in place of the original Irish verb. For example, “Táim ag rith go dtí an siopa” (I am running to the shop) would be altered with the introduction of a Béarlacha, becoming “Táim ag runáil go dtí an siopa”, as the verb run is suffixed with -áil to become runáil. According to my interviewee, Aimee Banks, these words, which also include equivalents of words that do not exist in Irish, such as dheas for yes, and dhiúnó for the colloquial “you know?” that is often placed on the end of sentences by speakers of British English, are widely used within her own Gaelcholáiste- an assertion that seems to agree with Breandán Mac Ardghail’s claims, and legitimise them as an accurate reflection of the drawbacks to the Irish spoken in Gaelscoileanna/Gaelcholáistí.

One way in which Insular Celtic languages are promoted on a national, and global, stage in the present era is through dedicated entertainment provisions. These can often be split into two major categories: radio/television, and music. I will discuss both categories in this piece, starting with television and radio channels broadcasting in the autochthonous languages being discussed. For example, the BBC operate Scottish Gaelic-language channel BBC Alba in partnership with MG Alba, making it the first channel to be run by the BBC in conjunction with another corporation. Like other minority languages’ television channels, BBC Alba offers some sports with the language most widely spoken in its nation- following the example of the Basque broadcaster EITB, Irish broadcaster TG4, and Wales’ S4C. However, this decision has drawn ire from writers like Lisa Storey and Aonghas MacNeacail, who argue through the campaign GAIDHLIG.TV that Gaelic content should be increased, in accordance with the original aims of the channel. It could be argued that a diminishment in the Scottish language on the airwaves of its own broadcaster comprises a damning indictment of the sheer lack of support for the language among companies and the average viewer.

Wales’ equivalent to BBC Alba is operated by a government-operated authority, who oversee the day-to-day running of Sianel Pedwar Cymru, abbreviated as S4C. The channel began broadcasting in November of 1982, a day before Channel 4 began operating in the remainder of the United Kingdom- an arrangement that appeased Plaid Cymru’s then-president, Gwynfor Evans, who had threatened two years previously to begin a hunger strike if the Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher did not fulfill the commitment it had made to provide a television service for Welsh speakers. Some of S4C’s programming, such as long-running soap opera Pobol Y Cwm and news programme Newyddion, are in fact produced by the BBC- taking the place of an actual dedicated channel from the national broadcaster, as had been done with BBC Alba. S4C is a more widely watched channel than BBC Alba, and its viewership is growing- with roughly 7,600,000 viewing sessions being undertaken the S4C Clic video on demand platform in 2016-17, and roughly 8,200,000 viewing sessions being undertaken in 2017-18, an increase of 600,000.

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Will The English Language Ever Wipe Out Every Other Language Of The British Isles? (2022, February 21). Edubirdie. Retrieved February 4, 2023, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/will-the-english-language-ever-wipe-out-every-other-language-of-the-british-isles/
“Will The English Language Ever Wipe Out Every Other Language Of The British Isles?” Edubirdie, 21 Feb. 2022, edubirdie.com/examples/will-the-english-language-ever-wipe-out-every-other-language-of-the-british-isles/
Will The English Language Ever Wipe Out Every Other Language Of The British Isles? [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/will-the-english-language-ever-wipe-out-every-other-language-of-the-british-isles/> [Accessed 4 Feb. 2023].
Will The English Language Ever Wipe Out Every Other Language Of The British Isles? [Internet] Edubirdie. 2022 Feb 21 [cited 2023 Feb 4]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/will-the-english-language-ever-wipe-out-every-other-language-of-the-british-isles/
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