Over the last few weeks I’ve been peripherally involved in a discussion on the position of the Irish language in Irish society. Peripherally, because I’m not Irish and am therefore not qualified to discuss Irish, apparently. I didn’t buy the Sunday Times today, so I missed an editorial by Sarah Carey, one of those involved in the discussions. I didn’t even know her work had that kind of exposure, but the editorial is now online.
I find myself in total agreement with Sarah here. She makes an important point about the separation of business and culture, and like me questions the need to equate a country’s language with its culture. Don’t get me wrong – I don’t doubt the importance of culture, and the way language mirrors it, but language differences are a barrier to effective communication in a global business market. Quote:
The purpose of language is straightforward, allowing us to communicate with one another. Languages develop in isolation, but once people move around the language spreads.
When they are spoken by small groups of people, in evolutionary terms they have outlived their usefulness and get subsumed by others and die. A marginal language becomes a cultural appendix.
Theoretically, having as many people as possible speak the same language should be welcomed. Like the euro, it’s so handy. You’d think we’d be relieved of the burden of having to learn and translate other languages into one we can understand.
The problem is that in the 19th century, when colonialism was in full swing, people became more conscious of their nationality. When the colonists arrived, language was one of the first targets. Hating the invader’s language and clinging to your own became a weapon of resistance.
The link between invasion and the annihilation of language was forged and this negative connotation is what prevents us from letting go. The fact that people and language can move in both a peaceful and highly productive manner has been lost. Letting go of Irish doesn’t mean letting go of being Irish.
My study of Japanese has much more to do with the culture than business; the possibility of going there to live and work was secondary to that, and not something I had my heart set on – unlike a colleague of mine who I was studying Japanese with, and who is moving there at the end of September to work.
I don’t do much business travel, but I have visited Germany, Portugal, Denmark and France in the last two years. I work in a department with people from seven different European countries: I have joked to a few people that I wished there was a language called “European”. Why? An English-speaking business visitor to Europe can cross multiple borders in a matter of hours, and could not be expected to settle on a single European language to learn, even if he or she was prepared to learn one. The example given by Sarah, of the outrage caused by a European employer’a group deciding to use English, is instructive, but a taste of things to come as the world gets smaller.
Where does this leave Irish? I have had zero interest in learning it, from the minute I landed here. It offers me no tanglible benefits, since I am not a scholar of Irish culture who needs to “read in the original”. It might look charming to tourists to see it on road signs, but that quickly gets old.
Canada is another odd case, with French an official language, some Québécois would call it the only official language. What if I was go there, to and live and work? Watch this space…