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The Daltaí Boards » Archive: 1999-2004 » 2004 (April-June) » The most LIKELY total of Fluent Irish Speakers...? « Previous Next »

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Ó Deoráin (66.183.6.161 - 66.183.6.161)
Posted on Sunday, June 06, 2004 - 04:04 pm:   Edit Post Print Post

I've done some searching in the archive and couldn't find posts which dealt with the total number of fluent Irish speakers...but I could've missed it..

I've seen official census reports...I've seen the figures from the UNESCO RED BOOK ON ENDANGERED LANGUAGES: EUROPE (http://www.helsinki.fi/~tasalmin/europe_report.html#IGaelic) I've seen discussions about the topic on travel forums and elsewhere...

BUT...

I'd be interested to know what active speakers and learners of the language HERE on this forum think about the state of the language...

Realistically, how many fluent Irish speakers do you think there are? The lowest number I've heard of is 10,000... I don't care if they are from a Gaeltacht region or from Dublin or wherever...But by fluent I mean they use it often...it's their working language or the one they use as much or even more than English...I don't doubt that there are many many who have some knowledge of the language and could use it if needed...but I'm most curious about those who use it most often.

If there has been a previous post like this before, please direct me to it. Also, if you've come across some interesting articles or reports that deal with the topic, please link to them if you can =)

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OCG (82.69.43.131 - 82.69.43.131)
Posted on Sunday, June 06, 2004 - 08:41 pm:   Edit Post Print Post

The problem is we start to get bogged down in definitions of who we define as a "speaker".

I don't think I've ever seen a satisfactory conclusion to this debate.

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Jonas (213.243.178.33 - 213.243.178.33)
Posted on Monday, June 07, 2004 - 03:22 am:   Edit Post Print Post

Me neither, no. I'd say that the estimates of 20-30.000 spekers in na Gaeltachtaí are rather convincing. Then again, there are considerable number of absolutely fluent people across Ireland, especially in the cities. Both natives from Gaeltacht areas who have moved away and people who have been brought up in Irish - or gone to a gaelscoil - outside the Gaeltacht. All in all, the number should be somewhere around 50.000 according to some rather in-depth investigations but of course that number is also just an estimate,

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Chris Dixon (194.247.95.130 - 194.247.95.130)
Posted on Monday, June 07, 2004 - 06:30 am:   Edit Post Print Post

A chairde,
I'd be very wary of the figures in the UNESCO Red Book. They are very out of date.
There are more up-to-date figures on the Eurolang website, with the Six Counties included, although reported seperately. (See attached link - http://www.eurolang.net/Languages/Irish.htm.
Eurolang uses census figures which are self-reporting and therefore not entirely reliable. The level of "fluent speakers", which is very high, is nevertheless unsurprising, given the place which the language has had in the schools system since 1934.
The situation in the Six Counties is, to my mind, the most interesting aspect. (More up-to-date census figures for the Six Counties are available at http://www.nics.gov.uk/nisra/census).
Rather than being "extinct", as the UNESCO Red Book suggests, there are tens of thousands of fluent Irish speakers. Recent research by the Ultacht Trust - not available online, unfortunately - suggests in excess of 20,000 fluent speakers - which seems a not unreasonable figure given that there are approximately 3000 children in Irish-medium education and 26,000 elsewhere in the schools system studying the language as a subject. The language is unquestionably growing fast in the Six Counties.
My own view overall is that Irish should no longer be regarded as an "endangered" language - although there is no room for complacency. Learners have saved the language!
Slán beo!
Chris

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Jonas (128.214.107.119 - 128.214.107.119)
Posted on Monday, June 07, 2004 - 07:07 am:   Edit Post Print Post

A very interesting topic indeed. Having a language declared "endangered" is always a two-edged sword, isn't it? It might help rally support for the language but it might also cause a feeling of being inferior to the dominating language.

Regarding Eurolang, I worked for them for two years (only part-time and from Helsinki, they have very few full-time employees). I'm very sceptic to the usefulness of the figures the census presents - but not to the figures themselves. It is absolutely true that 43,5% in Ireland say that they can speak Irish. I think measuring self-reported ability to speak a language serves no purpose at all - the percentage speaking English in Finland would definitely by above 60% but that doesn't make Finland an English speaking country. Unfortunately, of those 1.43 million claiming to speak Irish many don't. They say it for sympathy reasons. As a Finn I've met an incredible number of Irish people saying they can speak Irish - of course they don't expect me to speak it. The minute I switch over to Irish they immediately admit that they haven't really spoken Irish since they left school and cannot remember it. Sad but true.

The same thing goes for those 353.000 claiming to speak Irish every day. Perhaps it's true - if you say "go raibh maith agat" once each day you have speak Irish each day. As I'm sure you all know, there was a study done on the numbers in the census some years ago. What I've written above pretty much summarises it. It gave the number of about 50.000 who actually speak Irish daily (not just the odd word), half of them in the Gaeltacht and the other half outside it.

I'm also interested in the situation in the north. Traditional northern Irish, the Irish dialects once spoken in Antrim, Armagh, Down etc. is extinct, the last native speakers died sometimes in the 1960s. In that sense one might think of "northern Irish" as extinct. As Chris writes, there are now a fair number of fluent Irish speaker in the north, many of them native speakers who have been brought up speaking Irish and have gone to Irish-medium education. In that sense Irish is not only alive in the north, it is growing stronger each year!

To conclude - once again a long message - I think the issue of Irish being endangered is both true and false. In most places of Ireland it is completely false, many parts of Ireland (Leinster in particular) have more fluent speakers now than anytime in the last 100 years. At the same time, Irish is endangered in all Gaeltach areas. One should not only talk of the Gaeltacht speakers, but at the same time they represent the only non-broken tradition of Irish as a spoken language and the only places where Irish is still used as a community language. The situation is improving in the Galltacht but needs to be addressed in the Gaeltacht.

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Chris Dixon (194.247.95.130 - 194.247.95.130)
Posted on Monday, June 07, 2004 - 08:15 am:   Edit Post Print Post

A chara a Jhonais,
Tá an ceart agat. Classifying languages as "endangered" has its own inherent dangers!
I'm very interested in what you say about your experience with Eurolang. Does your current work still involve you with languages/language policy?
I'm sure you are aware that, in addition to over-reporting language ability, there can be significant under-reporting, particularly when languages suffer from "low prestige", in the socio-linguistic sense. I can think of many encounters with people, especially from the margins of Gaeltacht areas, who have claimed no knowledge of the language, but who have then displayed considerable knowledge - sometimes even proving to have had Irish as a "cradle tongue".
The extinction/survival/resurrection of the Eastern Ulster varieties of the language is a particular interest of mine for both personal (my grandfather, died 1945, was a native speaker from Antrim) and professional reasons. Although the last documented native speaker died in 1961 (I think), there are numerous recordings of Antrim Irish, which enthusiasts have used in learning the language. Antrim Irish is being spoken by them.
Does this represent survival or resurrection of the dialect? Certainly some Irish speakers from the area, who may not have had Irish as their first language, are likely to have conserved some dialectic features in their idiolects. I'm sure there is a PhD (or several???) for someone with more Irish than myself in this topic. (I also suspect that there are many elements of "Antrim" Irish recurring "naturally" in the Gaeltacht areas of Belfast, due to the common substratum influences... and thereby hang another several PhDs!).
My own conclusion would be to suggest, although I am in general agreement with your closing point, that the concept of Gaeltacht may itself be in need of some revision, and my confidence in the survival of the language - and the likelihood that it will go from strength to strength - remains undiminished.
Le gach dea-ghuí!
Chris

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Jonas (128.214.107.119 - 128.214.107.119)
Posted on Monday, June 07, 2004 - 10:00 am:   Edit Post Print Post

A chara!

Does your current work still involve you with languages/language policy?
No, not at the moment. Since the beginning of this year I've been trying to combine my PhD studies with a lectorship and that forced me to leave some other projects. I'm still very interested in the topic and try to follow it as well as I can.

I'm sure you are aware that, in addition to over-reporting language ability, there can be significant under-reporting, particularly when languages suffer from "low prestige", in the socio-linguistic sense.
Very true indeed! As you might know, this is often found in the Welsh census. While all native speakers in Ireland tend to regard their Irish as the most correct the opposite is very often the case in Wales. Those in the north think of southern Welsh as the norm and in the south they think northern Welsh is more prestiguous. As a result, many speakers with fluent Welsh tend to downplay their own abilities - especially older speakers.

Although the last documented native speaker died in 1961 (I think), there are numerous recordings of Antrim Irish, which enthusiasts have used in learning the language.
That is true, of course. I have a book on Antrim Irish in my shelf and also some phonetic transcriptions of Antrim Irish. I'm always struck by how similar it is to the (still very much alive) Gaelic of Islay - much more so than to Donegal Irish in my opinion.

Does this represent survival or resurrection of the dialect?
I would say resurrection, and I don't see that as an inferior thing. Manx has been resurrected with some succes, and the resurrection Hebrew is of course an example of absolutely amazing succes.

I've heard many speakers from Belfast and in general they have tended to look to the Donegal Gaeltacht for inspiration - just as people across Munster often look to Corca Dhuibhne and people in Connact look to Conamara. I would say that the Irish of Belfast is mostly Donegal (West Ulster) Irish rather than Antrim (East Ulster) Irish but of course you're right when you say that there are some elements of Antrim Irish to be found in Belfast speech. I, for my part, would welcome even more influences from this very interesting dialect although I understand that people have taken the closest Gaeltacht as an example.

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Ó Deoráin (66.183.6.161 - 66.183.6.161)
Posted on Monday, June 07, 2004 - 04:20 pm:   Edit Post Print Post

Very interesting posts!

When I first came across the UNESCO Red Book site a year or so ago...I was suspicious even then! And that was before I knew much about Irish...it seemed odd that Irish was completely EXTINCT in Northern Ireland but still the main language in communities throughout the west...I remember one person on an Irish forum once saying that West Belfast had the biggest "gaeltacht" on the entire island..(although wouldn't Belfast have to be designated a gaeltacht first???)

Anyway, sounds like the situation in NI isn't as bad as some might suggest.

Quick question about Manx and Cornish for those who might know...Aren't both languages technically dead? The last native Manx speaker died in the 1970s? The last cornish speaker dead in the 1700s or 1800s? I thought enthusiasts just picked up languages based on recordings and transcripts of the last speakers...so in reality the languages are merely based on Manx and Cornish? (it's now called Cornic?) Any info on this?

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Liam Ó Briain (194.125.133.245 - 194.125.133.245)
Posted on Monday, June 07, 2004 - 04:35 pm:   Edit Post Print Post

In the strictest definition I would say an Irish speaker is one who is fluent in the language and speaks Irish daily for a substantial amount of the day. In this context the figure is about 60,000-34,000 in the Gaeltacht(census 2002) and 26,000 in the Galltacht. Figures of 353,000 are plainly ridiculous as in Ireland there is overreporting of ability. Northern Ireland to me is the shining light for Irish . They've actually gone and reclaimed it back particularly Belfast and Derry. The blossoming of the language in Belfast is extraordinary. In a few years a huge number will be coming out of Gaelscoileanna as fluent speakers.

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Jonas (213.243.178.33 - 213.243.178.33)
Posted on Monday, June 07, 2004 - 06:18 pm:   Edit Post Print Post

Quick question about Manx and Cornish for those who might know...Aren't both languages technically dead?
Technically, yes. They became extinct by the times you have given. Today both are still native languages, children are brought up speaking Manx or Cornish. Not that they are many, of course. As you write, one might say that they are based on Manx and Cornish - especially in the case of Cornish since no-one knows exactly how it sounded and there are in fact three competing forms of Cornish around, always attacking each other and spending far too much time on this fight :-(

In the case of Manx it is recorded so the language as spoken today is pretty much the same as that of the last native speakers.

it seemed odd that Irish was completely EXTINCT in Northern Ireland [snip] Anyway, sounds like the situation in NI isn't as bad as some might suggest.
No, the situation in the north is a constant reason for optimish. Still, northern Irish is just as much (or as little, depending on one's views) extinct as Cornish and Manx. All three died out completely = the last native speakers died. All three have been resurrected. In the case of Cornish based on assumptions about how it once was. In the case of Manx based on how it actually was. In the case of northern Irish mainly based on another dialect (Donegal) of the same language.

Northern Ireland to me is the shining light for Irish
I agree 100%, they are doing great things with and for the language. Much of the innovations in reclaiming Irish is coming from the north at the moment. It shows what can be done when there is genuine support and general goodwill!

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Chris Dixon (194.247.95.130 - 194.247.95.130)
Posted on Tuesday, June 08, 2004 - 05:37 am:   Edit Post Print Post

A chairde,
A couple of additional points about the situation in the north - with particular reference to Belfast.
Firstly, I'd like to qualify what I said in my earlier post about Eastern Ulster Irish - and perhaps in so doing refine a little what Jonas says about the relationship between Donegal and Belfast Irish.
I'm not suggesting that any of the distintive lexical or grammatical features documented in Anrim Irish - and which do have striking similarities to the Scots Gaelic of Argyll and the Inner Hebrides - are to be found in the current Belfast koiné. The formal model for the reintroduction of Irish in the past half century has certainly come from the Donegal Gaeltacht. When you listen to the phonology, however, the situation is markedly different. The sound system that you find in Belfast Irish has moved quite far from anything you will find in Donegal and has produced a distintive Belfast "accent": you'll find a lot of the phonetic features which are distintive in accounts of Antrim Irish. There used to be a saying in Italian that the best Italian was spoken "con lingua toscana in bocca romana" - with a Tuscan tongue (i.e. following Tuscan "grammar") in a Roman mouth (i.e with Roman pronunciation). I think what we have in Belfast is, by analogy to some extent "with a Donegal tongue in an Antrim mouth".
The emergence of this vibrant new form of the language throws up some interesting points, and I'll briefly mention two (to avoid this post becoming just too long!).
Some advocate a seperate spelling system for Northern Irish. I don't support this idea. It might make more sense to write "Caidé mar tá tú?", which accurately refelcts the pronunciation, but in the long run it does no real service to the language or the nation.
Some deplore the "corrupting" influence of English on the new variety of the language - citing, for example, the development of numerous constructions which are a calque on English phrasal verbs. Dip into any edition of Lá and you'll find plenty of evidence of this phenomenon. Here, I am fully in support. "Strong" and "confident" languages have no problem with adopting and adapting models from other languages with which they are in contact. This particulary colourful (and controversial!) feature of Belfast Irish certainly reflects the self-confidence of this variety of the language.
Beir bua agus beannacht!
Chris

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Jonas (128.214.107.119 - 128.214.107.119)
Posted on Tuesday, June 08, 2004 - 06:22 am:   Edit Post Print Post

A chairde!

I agree with what Chis says and would like to point out an interesting feature. The pronunciation of Irish in Belfast has been influenced by the English pronunciation in the area - then again, the English pronunciation in turn was heavily influenced by the Irish spoken there before. In other words, the Irish in Belfast today has taken parts of it pronunciation from a language which took its pronunciation from the original Irish there. Quite an interesting development! As Chris says, the language is very much Donegal Irish in an Antrim mouth, I've never heard a better description of the Irish of Belfast.

I also agree that any kind of spelling reform would be much unfortunate as it would only serve to split up the language in smaller pieces. Nowadays a Kerryman and an Antrimman can read each other's writings perfectly well. It would not be possible if they used different ways to write the language.

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OCG (82.69.43.131 - 82.69.43.131)
Posted on Tuesday, June 08, 2004 - 03:43 pm:   Edit Post Print Post

Have they no recordings of Antrim Irish? Surely there would have been elderly speakers in the 1920's and 30s. AFAIK, one of Heinrich Wagner's LASID survey points was in Tyrone.

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Jonas (213.243.191.177 - 213.243.191.177)
Posted on Tuesday, June 08, 2004 - 04:28 pm:   Edit Post Print Post

So it was, and one was Rathlin Island. On the other hand, Wagner himself considered Rathlin to be closer to Gaelic than to Irish. By the time Wagner gathered his information, in the 1950s, he could not find a single native speaker in mainland Antrim - apart from those who had moved there. Anyway, Wagner did not record his informants, he onlt noted their speech in script. However, there are recordings of some East Ulster Dialects done as early as in the 1920s.

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