Foundation for Endangered Languages

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1. Guest Editorial

In the last Iatiku, I included a piece by Ron Crow, entitled "How to teach Irish in a Hedge School". Its author's reply, when I asked for permission to reproduce it, was so powerful in its own right, that I have decided (with his permission) to use it in this issue, in fact as a guest editorial -- perhaps slightly to the chagrin of the writer, who has not yet given us his full endorsement!

31 Aug. 96
Mr. Ostler,

Thank you for your note to me about including my message in your Iatiku newsletter for minority languages. Please go ahead. I would like a copy, as well. But please note that though I read your material which you sent me, I don't think I know enough about the group to endorse it fully.

I will take this opportunity, however, to write at length about my own take on the problem of minority languages. As a rule, of course, I think all 'minority' languages and cultures should be preserved. Their loss is OUR loss; we are the poorer by their extinction.

On the other hand, the minority cultures are not the poorer by their own extinction: they are dead. The Celtic languages, seen from the inside, therefore, are not particularly interested in larger issues. Their own survival takes up all their time, one might say. But I have no doubt that, had Ireland never been invaded, its Irish-speaking missionary priests would once again be spreading across Europe, and they would be very interested in preserving the endangered cultural sheep against the ravening cultural wolves.

What are those wolves, exactly? To reflect on this question is be better able to deal with those wolves. I would say that the larger, mainstream Anglo-American-Western-European culture is not called the 'consumer culture' for nothing. It is a cultural-spiritual void. In no way a strong and confident powerhouse of the expressions of humanity, it is not even an imperialistic enemy bent on conquest.

Rather, it is a mighty void that sucks meaning out of the people in it and other cultures it comes into contact with. It is a sort of human black hole with which we much deal or which will suck the humanity out of us.

President Clinton, for instance, the MTV president, is well known to be willing to say anything, do anything, to stay president, (a common condition among politicians). Instead of repudiating such a pathetic impostor, the American people look to return this charlatan (and others) to office. Why? Because the news media and much of the people themselves are the vacuous products of a powerful PR industry that can only 'feel' or emotionally react moment to moment rather than think, consider or reflect. They are the children and grandchildren of the Rock n Roll age, a music genre itself created purely as a PR gimmick to take advantage of the disposable income in the pockets of western teenagers.

Culture is not a PR product, however; it is real. It is not a disjointed series of feelings manipulated by PR masters. Culture is a people's expression of themselves--the expression of their humanity, rooted in times past and existing in the present; it is a strong thing. It is as strong as the human spirit. And as scarred as the human spirit because it is earned. We earn our culture not by being 'sold' on it, but by participating in it. We add to it as it adds to us. Culture is like a marriage that produces ups and downs, triumphs and tragedies, not to mention healthy, vigorous children. It is for life.

(The mainstream consumer culture, on the other hand, is like living together: it is shallow, transitory, and contraceptive. Its members drift together and apart like so many sparkling ice cubes--until they melt away into nothing, leaving no trace.)

The Irish culture is Irish. The Irish people created and maintained it for centuries, indeed, since the 'dreamtime.' To speak Irish is to participate in it, as it participates in you. And it is an earned participation, not a feel-good PR product. It shapes your thoughts and feelings while you add yours to it. You sacrifice to learn it or to maintain it.



This culture survived centuries of monstrous brutality, conquest and efforts at extinction. Despite all that, it maintained a confidence, even a happiness, that a number of commentators remarked upon in the 18th century during what some took to be its nadir. It rebounded all the more incredibly in the early 19th century, especially under the one man upon who shoulders lay the doom of the entire culture, Daniel O'Connell.

O'Connell not only lifted the people's hopes high, he poisoned their roots by denigrating the Irish-Gaelic culture that nourished their very identity. Why did he do that? The first in so many things, O'Connell was one of the first great PR mavens. His speeches in English in a largely Irish-speaking Ireland were not for Irish ears, but English newspapers. O'Connell's achievements were really public relation victories for English public and political opinion. They were not really political victories for Ireland. That's why he was so successful. That's why he failed so miserably. To achieve important but ultimately limited gains, he was willing to lace the cultural stuffing of the Irish people with a slow-acting poison.

Their spirit broke after the years 1845 to 1850, which saw the truly cyclopean disaster of the Great Starvation murder so many of the people themselves. When self-consciousness returned, they blamed their language and their culture for their plight. In other words, they blamed that which made them uniquely themselves because O'Connell had disparaged their language and culture as unnecessary drags and hindrances to their 'progress.'

And what type of progress? Unaffected by the newly-developing romantic-nationalism of the early 1800s, O'Connell wanted his people to participate more fully in an English-speaking world empire. Why? To gain spiritually? Culturally? No. To gain economically. He it was who could have first coined the term, "It's the economy, stupid!" To speak Irish in that context was a hindrance. The people understood his attitude. When calamity engulfed them, (and him too, really) they thought they knew where to put the blame.

Irish still survives, of course, but today its enemy is not a particular government or economic policy. The enemy is a culture that has emptied itself of meaning after years and years of public relations manipulation. As Paul Fussell said in his book Wartime, "...The more verbally confident poetry of the Great War emerged from a proud verbal culture, where language was trusted to convey and retain profound, permanent meaning, while the later world (World War II) is one so doubtful of language that the responsible (writers/artists) feel that only the fewest words, debased as they have been by advertising, publicity, politics, and the rhetoric of nationalism, should be hazarded." P135 A culture that uses images of love to sell diamonds, vacations, cars and soap empties the images it uses of meaning.

An example of this from a few years ago will suffice. I was watching a TV series on the Holocaust. In one scene, an SS leader visits an extermination camp and vomits because of the stench of the burning bodies. (It actually happened in real life.) After this highly dramatic scene, the station broke for an advertisement. It was the 'snoopy sniffer,' a little old lady in a ridiculous hat who visited her neighbor's kitchen, sniffed around at an odor in the air, and recommend some deodorant spray as a cure all for those nasty kitchen odors.

Television, commercialism, PR, had managed to reduce one of the greatest human tragedies of all time to utter banality. A culture that can do that is a nearly unstoppable. That is why it consumes other cultures. But it is an evolutionary dead end. It leaves nothing behind but plastic. It is a disposable culture. To fight to preserve the smaller cultures and languages may turn out to be the struggle to preserve the most precious things that make us human before we end up in the land fill of history..

Go n-ČirĖ an obair leat.

Ron Crow