Some Stupid Prejudices about Irish

“Irish speakers are racists.” It is often stated that Irish speakers are particularly racist or suffer from xenophobia. Being a foreigner with Irish myself, I must say that I have never encountered racism or xenophobia among Irish speakers. In fact there are Irish speakers with non-European looks who have been victimized by racists. To me it seems that an average Irish racist gets his ideology from Britain and speaks no Irish (in fact, Britain has been a huge influence on Finnish organized racism too). Typically, Irish speakers in Ireland are told to “go home to their own country” by ignorant racist fools who are so stupid they don’t even recognize their own ancestral language.

In my opinion racists are typically consumers of what I call default culture. Default culture is the sort of culture that is readily available to everyone, i.e. mass culture in English language. Non-default culture is for instance modern literature in Irish: most Irishmen don’t speak Irish as their native language, which means that they must take the trouble of learning Irish before they can read it.

Racists usually are culturally and socially lazy people with a very narrow comfort zone. They come up with all kinds of excuses why they shouldn’t make friends with a Muslim or learn Irish. I don’t find it particularly plausible a racist would take the trouble of learning Irish. The only racist I know of who has bothered to learn Irish is an Englishman who wants to recruit the Irish for his cause. Obviously, he is also an opponent to Irish independence – a fact that should make you think twice before you equate Irish nationalism with fascism or racism.

“Irish is a dead language.” Irish is no more a dead language than German or French. A dead language is one that has ceased to be spoken by parents to children, but although Irish is a minority language, it is certainly not a dead language by this definition. And it is the definition linguists usually use, i.e. people who do know something about languages, or about language in general.

One reason why Irish is said to be a dead language is the fact that Irish speakers mix in English words. For some reason, mixing Irish words into your English does not similarly make English a dead language. In fact, in a bilingual country widespread language mixing is a fact of life – also indicative of the fact that both languages are very much alive. 

Although I am myself a stickler for what I perceive to be good Irish (and be warned that after reading and annotating thousands of pages of Irish folklore as well as literature written by native speakers I think I have a pretty well-informed idea of what constitutes good Irish), I don’t really think vocabulary mixing and wholesale use of English words in Irish is the problem, but rather a symptom of the problem. The problem is that Irish has relatively low status in society, and that terminology in Irish is often not readily available to people. If you are never taught at school that a spiral galaxy is réaltra bíseach, and have seen popular science programs on astronomy only in English (because none are produced in Irish), you will obviously not know the Irish term and call it “spiral galaxy” even when speaking Irish. If there was enough status in speaking good Irish and learning scientific terms in Irish, of course people would learn good Irish and pick up all the terms. 

“We can’t expect that immigrants learn Irish.” Actually, many immigrants to Ireland have learnt fine Irish. Immigrants are not stupid, they are people, and people are intelligent and curious – it’s part of being human. Living in Ireland, intelligent and curious people tend to get interested in Irish. It is indeed racist to suggest that immigrants couldn’t learn Irish.

If you think of a Kurdish immigrant who has spent their adult life literally fighting for their right to native language, how dare you suggest that they would not have at least some fellow-feeling for the Irish language struggle?’

“Other languages should be preferred.” For some reason, in every bi- or multilingual country you find a certain fraction of people who suggest that learning languages spoken in your own country is unnecessary and that everybody should use the majority language. In Ireland, the language subject to this sort of cold-shouldering is Irish, of course, and preferable languages suggested include French and German because of their commercial significance. 

However, in Belgium – where there is a small but significant Germanophone minority along the eastern border – German is at least as much despised as Irish is in Ireland. Surely learning German would entail as much practical advantage for a Belgian as for an Irish person? Yes, but inside Belgium German is a minority language, and learning it would mean a concession to that minority. Similarly, there are Anglophone Canadians who resent the suggestion that they should learn French. Those who revel in their majority status prefer to lord it over the minority.

So, this bull shit about preferring other languages for commercial or practical reasons is precisely what I call it – bull shit. 


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