Like most people celebrating St. Patrick’s Day today, I’ve got Irish ancestry stretching back to the time of the High Kings. My lot ruled Connacht, apparently, then the Normans came and ruined everything. And like most people celebrating St. Patrick’s Day today, my links to what people insist on calling the Emerald Isle, i.e. the island of Ireland, are pretty minimal in terms of my daily life. I’ve been over a few times, it was nice, then I went back home again.
But unlike most people celebrating today, I go to Irish lessons every week, close to where I live in the north-east of England. When I mention this to people (and I do, a lot), the reaction tends to be somewhere along the lines of ‘But why would you do that’. Usually a quick way of explaining is to mutter something about the increasingly weak family links to Ireland and then shuffle away to quietly revise lenition. But it’s not really true though. I’m not trying to do everything my ancestors did, partly because some of them probably did some terrible things, or at least things that would be morally dodgy from a modern day perspective.
As to my motivation, cards on the table: I’m a geek, specifically a rarer breed of geek with a strong interest in languages. It’s an obsession that’s influenced the course of my life; I work as a translator of German and Dutch into English, and it was while I was learning Dutch in particular that people started mentioning the ‘But why’ and ‘They all speak English anyway’ arguments. I learnt to file that away under ‘Advice people keep giving me that I will ignore’, and I was right to ignore it. I now earn a living from being able to translate German and Dutch. I’m in a happy situation in which my obsession is also my career.
I don’t envisage that Irish will ever help to earn me a living. At this point, around six months into learning the language, I’m not even aiming for fluency in the foreseeable future. There’s a huge amount of grammar required even to be able to say ‘My house’, for example. To say the Irish for ‘my house’, you need to understand the difference between broad vowels and slender vowels. That’s reasonably straightforward. Then you need to know basic pronunciation rules, which really don’t seem basic to a speaker of English. For interesting reasons of dialect, there are about three different ways to pronounce many words in Irish, and I’ll usually manage to pick the one way of saying the word that’s objectively wrong.
Then you need to learn lenition, which is a sound change at the start of a word and which seems at least as complicated as any bit of German grammar I ever learnt. But when you think you’ve got it cracked after two months of wrapping your head around lenition, you realise that while it applies to possessives like ‘my’, ‘your’, ‘his’ and ‘her’, totally new rules apply to ‘our, their and your (plural)’, and you have to learn eclipsis, a totally different but equally complicated system currently shrouded in mystery as far as I’m concerned. It can be maddeningly difficult.
So I’m not learning the language as an obscure way of honouring the ancestors, I don’t need to speak to anyone using the Irish language (and in fact, encounter very few speakers of the language here in Northumberland), it’s sometimes frustratingly difficult, and it’s of no direct use to me in my career. I sometimes forget why I’m learning it, but then I quickly remember it’s because I love it. I mean, it sounds beautiful, for a start. In addition, working on trying to understand a bit of grammar for weeks and then suddenly having it click into place gives you the same sense of achievement as working out a crossword clue. Language learning for its own sake isn’t about the bigger picture; you haven’t failed if you’ve yet to achieve fluency – even in the act of continuing to try and grasp a particular aspect of the language, you’re succeeding.
Without wanting to delve too far into Northern Irish politics, the Irish language is counted as an indigenous language of the United Kingdom, and there are plenty of reasons to learn one of these indigenous languages even beyond the fact that it’s a useful way of exercising the brain. When you learn any language, you don’t just learn that language, you learn a wealth of ideas, history and reasoning behind it. You can learn facts about other languages in the process and discover the way things are linked – Irish is responsible for a modest number of words entering the English language, including but by no means limited to ‘galore’. Learning Irish is fascinating in itself, even for those with less geekish tendencies, linguistically speaking. I’d accept that it’s difficult and that it seems strange, but I won’t accept that it’s pointless, or even that there’s such a thing as a ‘pointless’ language. I think “Because I enjoy it” is the best answer you can give to the question of why you’re learning a particular language, and it’s an answer I’ll be using more often in the future.