Rebuilding the Celtic Languages

Peter Berresford Ellis reviews Rebuilding the Celtic Languages - reversing language shift in the Celtic countries by Diarmuid Ó Néill, Lolfa, £19.95

BACK IN 1970, the late Seamus Mac a' Ghobhainn, the Scottish author and journalist, and I, were tired of the constant refrain that 'dying' languages could not be resuscitated and that the Irish government's policy to the Irish language demonstrated this fact.

Seamus and I wrote a series of articles on all the languages that we revivalists had saved from death. These appeared in the bilingual Scottish Gaelic/English fortnightly newspaper Sruth.The articles caused such an interest that in 1971 they were issued as a book by Club Leabhar Ltd as The Problem of Language Revival. Our work was a pioneering effort. It was not written for academics; it was unashamed journalism, written for the education of the general public. The purpose was to make people understand that language revival can and does work.

For the first time, it seemed, people in the Celtic countries began to realise that there had been language success stories and that language revival could work given the will and correct policies. In fact, it was seen that the Irish government and its language policy stood out as the unique example of failure in pursuing language revival.

Twenty years later, when Professor Joshua A Fishman wrote his ground-breaking Reversing Language Shift: theoretical and empirical foundations of assistance to threatened languages (1991), he claimed that our book was 'the most immediate predecessor'of his own and felt it 'deserves to be better known but to be reprinted as well'. Kind words but, as I say, our book was meant as a catalyst to get people thinking. It succeeded.

The latest development in that thought process comes with the current volume. Diarmuid Ó Néill admits its origin in Professor Fishman's work and has a preface by him.

Ó Néill, from Toronto, first contacted me back in 1994 when he became interested in the mechanics of language revival. In this volume he has gathered some sound academics in the field, such as Kenneth McKinnon, Marcel Texier, Colin Williams, Paul Birt, Brian Stowell and Philip Gawne.

They have all contributed to this 460-page survey which proposes a detailed, practical programme for the revival of each language. It's a book that is essential reading for anyone who cares about the future of the Celtic languages.

We have come a long way since the uninformed opinions of the 1960s that prompted the series of articles Seamus and I wrote about the 20 nationalities who had successfully revived and saved their languages as modern vehicles of expression. With knowledge and will, the Celtic languages may one day be added to that number.

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