Monday, 21 October 2013

The Fáinne War

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the verb impose as "to lay on, as something to be borne, endured, or submitted to; to inflict (something) on or upon; to levy or enforce authoritatively or arbitrarily".

The word was used at the UUP conference by former leader Tom Elliot in reference to the recent ruling of the Northern Ireland Assembly Commission that Ministers did not have the right to provide bilingual responses to Questions unless they were specifically requested by the MLA tabling them. The only Minister to whom this applied, as far as the Blether Region knows, was Caitríona Ruane (or, as a Unionist colleague once put it, the woman who "Ruane'd" our education system). Commissioning translations of questions is certainly a debatable use of resources, but at the same time it probably reflects the peculiar constraints that Northern Ireland puts on Irish — a slippery, organic language that, like a recalcitrant ball of clay or blob of jelly, is no sooner cornered at one seam than it leaks out at another. But does providing bilingual translations really constitute "imposing" anything on anyone? If one orders Chicken McNuggets at McDonald's, is a McFlurry simultaneously being imposed upon one because it is also on the menu? Indeed, that would certainly go a long way to explaining the current obesity epidemic, but the Blether Region haes its douts. Surely if people were being palmed off with something less than kosher, they would not be given the choice of whether to accept it, i.e. Ms Ruane's answers would have been Irish-only.

The ruling certainly provoked quite some debate — or quite some point-scoring, as is wont to be the case in Northern Ireland — as the comments appended to a recent Bel-Tel article on the subject by Liam Clarke confirm. The same was true of his Facebook feed, with one woman actually remarking that teaching Dublin's children Irish was a luxury, as so many of them grew up unable to pronounce "th".

Now, the prevalence of an interdental plosive /T/ in place of the expected /θ/ in Dublin English is directly attributable to language shift, whereby an originally Irish-speaking population substituted the closest approximation to the English fricative that they had in their existing Gaelic inventory of sounds.

As such, arguing that Irish should not be taught because working-class Dubs can't pronounce the fricative is like arguing that we can't revive Irish because we haven't finished killing it yet.

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