Thursday, 8 November 2012

The Weight of Symbolism

Ian James Parsley has an interesting blog post about Irish-language road signs.

"Most obviously, returning to traffic signs, entering the Republic of Ireland, we move to kilometres but we also add the Irish (Gaelic) language. Again, this is not for any practical purpose – almost the entire population now speaks English in preference to Irish Gaelic, and thus Irish Gaelic is generally omitted from roadworks signs or temporary notices (as well as private advertisements, even in the Irish-speaking Gaeltacht area). Irish Gaelic is not added for any real practical purpose; it is, rather, a display of identity – again, a connection with Ireland’s Gaelic past (hence my use of the term “Irish Gaelic”) which provides for a unique sense of history and identity. This is not just a matter for traffic signs of course – match programmes for GAA games, for example, generally contain the names of the two teams on the cover in Irish Gaelic, with everything else in English, making the same essential symbolic point of identity. To others, it all seems daft – but then, to others, so do royal pageants, strange titles and distances in miles."

Many people who, with considerable personal investment of time and effort, have learnt Irish, or who struggle for the human right to have their children educated through the medium of the language, might take issue with the use of the word "preference" here. Equally, one suspects that not a few who found they had no particular aptitude for Irish taught as a foreign language at secondary school, given the hypothetical possibility of clickling their fingers to become fluent in it, would jump at the chance. That they have not learnt Irish is in many cases attributable to their personal talents, enthusiasm and level of education, but above all to the way in which they encountered the language — shorn of vitality and drowned in an English sea.

A relevant issue in that regard is the notion of "practical purpose", another term for which might be "communicative relevance". One could argue that it is precisely the presence of Irish on street signs and elsewhere in the public domain that gives it one. Learning a secret language to talk to people in bar-room snugs — that really would exhibit a lack of practical purpose. Gaeilgeoirí do that too, but that doesn't mean they wouldn't prefer to have their democratic and human rights as Irish-speakers realised in the form of services from the state (whichever state) to which they pay their taxes.

As often occurs in such cases, the Blether Region has found that someone else has already made the argument much more eloquently:

"The presence of Gaelic in the corporate identity and signs of a public authority greatly enhances the visibility of the language, increases its status and makes an important statement about how Gaelic is valued and how it is given recognition. Developing the use of Gaelic through signage can also enrich the vocabulary of Gaelic users, raise public awareness of the language and contribute to its development."

Readers might wonder who said that. Perhaps Republican Sinn Féin? Éirígí? The Thirty-two County Sovereignty Committee?

Actually it was the Scottish Parliament Corporate Body, in a recent consultation on its draft Gaelic Plan.

It would be odd if a bilingual archipelago stretching from Cork to Caithness were to emerge while Northern Ireland alone was defined by battleship-grey utilitarianism, a place apart from Ireland, of course, but also, increasingly, from Britain.

Yet that is just where we're headed.

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