Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Irish Complaint Box

by Dora Lee |

Jessica Nicholas (PhD candidate in French)
Zsuzsanna Fagyal (Associate Professor of French) |

“Où se trouve la bibliothèque?” [Where is the library ?]
“Up the street two blocks, turn to your right, just pass Burger King and you’re right there.”
“Je vous ai dit, “Où se trouve la bibliothèque?” [I’m asking: Where is the library?]
“And I told you, up two blocks, to your right, right past Burger King.  Don’t you understand English?"
We don’t often anticipate someone responding to us in a language other than the one we’ve spoken to them in.  Even if they’re just telling us that no, they don’t in fact speak our language, they usually manage to muddle through our language well enough to inform us that they just can’t muddle through it any longer. 

Not so in Ireland, apparently, where muddling through just doesn’t seem to cut it!

Irish Language Commissioner Seán Ó Cuirreáin has recently issued a report detailing the rise in complaints related to the state of use of the Irish language.  The complaints vary from policemen being unable to communicate in Irish, to signs either being exclusively in English or in misspelled Irish, to receiving English responses to letters written in Irish, all of which are a violation of the 2003 Official Languages Act1, in which Ireland announced its intention to have 250,000 daily Irish speakers by 20302.

This subject has captured my interest because I’m never sure whether complaints are a sign of progress or not. On one hand, if people are complaining, it means that there’s a problem.  If the Irish government were meeting all of its benchmarks, providing all of the services to Irish speakers it promised, there wouldn’t be complaints…or at least not a marked increase in them; people will always complain about the government. However, the fact that Irish citizens are complaining that they are unable to file reports with police officers in a state language like Irish  is a serious matter. Something is wrong.

On the other hand, the fact that people are complaining about it means that there’s something right, too.  It might means that at least the people lodging these complaints are motivated Irish speakers. This means that there are speakers who want to speak the Irish language!  If there were no speakers, there wouldn’t be complaints, because everyone would be complaining to the police officers about the loud party next door in English. The police officer would be responding in English, the report would be written in English, and everyone would be happy… in English, except maybe the teenage neighbor whose parents grounded him until kingdom come. 

I think this dilemma encapsulates the positives and the negatives of Irish’s position in its national arena of language use.  The Irish language has had a lot of support historically, unlike, say the majority of Amerindian languages , which suffer from their own communities’ negative attitudes. Consequently, speakers of such communities are in general more than willing to switch to the European language alternative (be it English, Spanish, or French) and align with governments who have little interest in maintaining the indigenous languages.  The combination of these two factors accounts for the fact that many of these languages are moribund. Irish is a different case. It is an official state language, with speakers who want to speak it and a government that wants to protect it. But as this increase in complaints demonstrates, willing something just doesn’t make it so.

Irish Language Commissioner Seán Ó Cuirreáin has also issued another warning earlier this spring when he explained in the Irish Times that even the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, the department of the Irish government responsible to implement language policy, “has no updated formal scheme” for implementing some of the key elements of the Official Languages Act. Last year a protest was held in Dublin concerning the proposal to drop Irish as a compulsory subject in schools. As one protestor at the event said, “to speak a language is to have a language” . If Ireland wants to maintain its language, it will have to be a language people can gab in, people can lecture in, and people can complain about the loud party next door in. Irish legislation is trying to make this dream a reality, and I believe an empty complaint box would represent the ultimate failure: lack of care! Where there’s a will there’s a way: as long as the complaints are still pouring in, there’s a will.

[1] "Number 32/2003: OFFICIAL LANGUAGES ACT 2003." Number 32/2003: OFFICIAL LANGUAGES ACT 2003. Web. 02 May 2012. <>.
[2] "Critical Times for the Irish Language." Gaelport Latest News. Web. 22 Apr. 2012. <>.

Dora Lee is a senior in Linguistics. In the ‘Language and Minorities in Europe’ (418) EUC survey class, Dora was intrigued by the paradoxical situation of Irish, an official state language in the EU that is struggling to survive on the streets. In this blog entry she wrote for the class, she talks about this and other dilemmas facing Irish, putting the reader in the shoes of native speakers and language activists.


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