Tuesday, July 31, 2012

What is Manx and Why Does Manx Matter?

by Josh Erb |

editor: Jessica Nicholas, PhD Candidate in French |

Josh Erb is a Senior in Global Studies. Josh is interested in many topics related to cultural heritage, policy and identity, and was attracted to Celtic languages in a class session devoted to language endangerment and the revitalization of insular regional minority languages in Europe (418). In this blog entry, he makes an inspiring plea for revitalizing the seriously endangered Celtic language of Manx. 

In 1974, Edward ("Ned") Maddrell, the last native speaker of Manx Gaelic, died. “So what?” you would be tempted to ask. Why should anyone be concerned with the loss of one language in a world that has approximately 6,500 or more? What significance does the loss of a man named Ned Maddrell and his mother tongue have for the rest of us?

In our globalized world, we are often hard-pressed to find answers to these questions. This is especially true for those of us who were blessed with being native speakers of the current global lingua franca: English. When talking of the extinction of a language, however, it is extremely important to refocus the issue. The loss of a language does not exclusively mean the loss of words and accents. No, when language is lost, so too is culture, tradition, identity, ideology, theology, and much, much more. When Ned Maddrell (seen right) died, so did the native understanding of the worldview of his people, the Manx people, on the Isle of Man (shown on the map below).

Allow me to make the argument in another way. Imagine a rare bird that sings a song unlike any other bird; a song that pierces the silence of the forest around it, and causes passersby to pause momentarily. To illustrate this point I would encourage you to listen to the recordings on this link. Now imagine that this bird, or any of the birds on this YouTube video, is about to go extinct. This unique song would be gone forever, and the forest would permanently lose the ambiance and harmony that the song created. But with languages, especially well documented ones such as Manx Gaelic, we are fortunate enough to be able to revive them, if we really want to.

Before I go on to make my case for the revival of Manx, let me provide you with a (very, very) brief history of the language and the island with which this Celtic language is associated. This will, hopefully, help illustrate what is at stake. Manx Gaelic, not to be confused with Anglo-Manx, a variety of English, is/was spoken exclusively on the Isle of Man. It is closely related to Irish and Scottish Gaelic and most likely appeared on this island around the 5th century A.D. Manx emerged as a distinct language sometime in the 13th or 14th century. It then went on to enjoy an almost unchallenged position in the community until the Isle was sold to the British at the end of the 18th century by the Duke of Atholl. The decline of Manx coincided with the increased British influence that took place in the aftermath of this sale. English became the dominant language of the Isle. However, I think the most accurate example of what’s at stake can be found in the common Manx expression “traa dy liooar,” which translated to English means “time enough.” This expression is often used as an example of the stereotypical Manx ideology of taking things slowly. This expression is just a small fraction of what would be lost if this language were simply allowed to go extinct.

In recent years, however, the language has slowly become associated with the identity of the people of the Isle. Fortunately for Manx, perhaps, the language has been well preserved in relics, writings, and songs. Several integral works were published in Manx following the reformation (i.e. The Book of Common Prayer, the Bible, and a translation of Paradise Lost). These texts are vital to the efforts that are being made to revitalize the language. These efforts have grown from a renewed interest on the part of the Manx people to preserve the culture and language of their heritage. This desire is most likely related to the loss of Ned Maddrell. Because of these efforts, what once seemed to be lost forever has now attained the status of “limited official recognition.” The standardization of Manx and the effort to educate a new generation of native speakers has given this “bird song” hope. Click on the video to hear the song in Manx: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2tOnI9m5cME



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