Is there a political version of Sapir-Whorf?

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It’s the fourth month of my pseudo-retirement from scholarly pursuits.  It’s been a sort of reverse-sabbatical, I suppose.  Not that I’ve been idle.  Besides the increasing demands of a job at an institution whose future is uncertain, I have been trying to make up in four months what students in Ireland have fourteen years to do.  I doubt very seriously that I could pass the Certs at this point, but that’s a goal for the not-too-distant future.

Part of the joy of learning a new language is that you get an insight into a culture that would otherwise be unavailable to you.  Saying that you get an insight into a culture by learning its language is, of course, as meaningless as it is true.  But I would say that in the case of Irish, it is more meaningful than true.  It must be said that here in the 21st century, Gaelic is much more a part of Ireland’s politics than its culture.  I’m not sure I’d have any better handle on Irish customs and traditions if I spent a year there trí Ghaeilge (if such a thing were even possible) than I’d have through English.  Even the weakest version of Sapir-Whorf won’t hold up in Ireland.

Nevertheless, there’s a sort of political Sapir-Whorf at work on that island.  I’m used to the idea of using a language as an expression of identity.  If I see a Rom anywhere in the world, I can walk up to him and say, “T’as baxtalo! Rrom san?” If he answers in the affirmative, we drop whatever we’re doing and become friends.  And in five minutes we know each other’s genealogies, joys, and hardships.  And we make plans that we’ll almost certainly never keep.  There’s always a good chance, too, that we speak very different dialects and that we can only half understand one another (and in the case of Romanichals and Kalé, much less than half).  It doesn’t matter.  We fill the gaps with English or Russian or pantomime.  I don’t mean to be overly sanguine about this–there’s always the matter of individual personalities–but the usual feeling of meeting another Romani speaker is one of joy.

Apparently, this is not always true among Irish speakers. I’ve been told that sometimes the first feeling Irish speakers get when strangers meet is one of suspicion. First, there is the issue of dialects. A Digression: I’m not even sure if the site is still used, but days gone by, when I was a young, very insecure T.A., I occasionally snooped around RateMyProfessor.com, comparing comments about me to those of my colleagues. Most of the negative comments were petty and personal.  And, inevitably, if the T.A. happened to be from somewhere other than U.S., the first complaint would be about accent, about how the student couldn’t understand a thing the teacher was saying (not one single word!), and how criminally irresponsible it was for the school to put an English teacher in front of them who couldn’t even speak English. Such comments were made not just about my Chinese, Thai, and Ghanaian colleagues (all of whom were better than fluent), but also about my friend from Bristol. Bristol, England. Perhaps they really couldn’t understand their teachers’ English, but the inability to do so had to have been an act of willpower. End digression.  I mention the RateMyProfessor thing because it’s the closest analogy I have for the dialect barriers among Irish speakers. True, Donegal Irish is a bit of a tough one, and, yes, there is that famous Connemara blas (Des Bishop jokes that he practiced it by watching Al-Jazeera), but the three main dialects are quite mutually intelligible. And yet, I am told that some Munster speakers will tune out when approached by a Connacht speaker (and vice-versa), as if they’ve somehow been imposed upon. Again, this is only anecdotal information, and I’m not sure how often it happens in practice, but the impression seems to be widespread.

Second, there’s the issue of “good Irish.” This isn’t totally divorced from the dialect issue. The synthesized Standard Irish never enjoyed much social status because, unlike other standardized dialects (e.g. Inland Northern American English or Castilian Spanish), it did not approximate a dialect whose speakers were at the politico-economic center of the nation. It is said to have been too Connacht-heavy for southern and northern speakers, and too much of a mutant for Connacht speakers. Nevertheless, a non-Gaeltacht (sometimes called “Urban Irish”) variant has appeared in recent decades. Different from Standard Irish and heavily influenced by second-language Irish speakers, those in the Gaeltachts seem to agree that this is not good Irish. As a learner, I must say that this emergent variety is easier to understand, although it does sound quite like Irish with a Maryland accent (with its prominent eʊ sound). And yet, it is increasingly spoken by people who wield more political and economic power than their counterparts in the Gaeltachts.  And indeed, the rise in students attending prestigious Gaelschoils (Irish-medium schools) is seen by many as a 21st century Irish take on white flight. It may well be that a new elitism will be the savior of the Irish language, but there’s probably going to be more resistance and suspicion along the way.

As I struggle with what is a pretty difficult language, I’m a little jealous of those fourteen years of Irish classes that students in the Republic receive, even if the compulsory nature of it has turned many Irish people away from the language.  But I suppose I’m also fortunate just to be a curious Yank with a cupla focail. As long as I don’t say anything stupid, I’m pretty much a non-combatant. Yet, when I watch my TG4, and as my Irish improves, I do feel a tinge of that postcolonial friction go down my spine. This is a feeling which cannot be explained by knowing something of the history alone.  The very sounds are becoming political signifiers.

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