Douglas Head Lighthouse, on Ellan Vannin. Photo credit: Jim Linwood.
There’s no better time to learn Manx than now. I briefly spoke with the Adrian Cain, the Manx Language Development Officer of the Manx Heritage Foundation and I was interested to see the changes in the use of the language. He was giving a talk on the current developments of the language of Manx Gaelic. Once considered to be a dead Gaelic language, Manx is now doing relatively well for itself.
The Isle of Man
Ellan Vannin or The Isle of Man (read more on Wikipedia) sits in equi-distance between the west coast of England and Scotland, and the east coast of Northern Ireland. While this island of approximately 80,000 residents is arguably closely linked in mindset with England, it is not part of the United Kingdom, or indeed of the European Union. The island has its own parliament, its own currency (linked 1:1 with British Sterling), and indeed has its own language.
The Manx language
Ned Maddrell is reported to have been the last native speaker of Manx Gaelic. He died in 1974. He had been upset that seeing that his language was nearly dead (others, while not native speakers, were able to carry on with the language). At the time, the island was populated by fishermen and similar traditional ways of life. The island suffered from emigration, particularly in the 1940s and 1950s. It became a tourist destination for a period, attracting visitors from Ireland and Britain, before cheap sun holidays became available.
Manx Gaelic is a Celtic language, and is very close to Irish (“Irish Gaelic”). It is not the only language of the island. The Norse were on the island once upon a time. English is the dominant language of the community nowadays.
Changes on the Isle of Man
The island has changed significantly since Ned’s death in 1974. Once a poor island, it is now relatively wealthy, with a thriving financial services sector thanks to its attractive tax régime. The Isle of Man is a member of the Commonwealth, has constitutional ties with the U.K., but retains a large degree of independence.
Positive factors for the language
This independence in governance, thankfully, leaves the fate of the Manx language in the hands of the Manx people. There have been positive initiatives that have invested considerable time and money into Manx Gaelic:
- Bunscoill Ghaelgagh is a Manx primary school which teaches young children through the medium of Manx. In 2009, it had 65 students, and demand outstrips supply.
- Manx is an option in all of the island’s primary schools, and is available in two of the island’s five secondary schools (for old children and teenagers).
- The island’s Department of Education sees the language as a good-news story for the island, and therefore is helpful in adapting the school curriculum.
A new reason to learn Manx
Given the island’s attraction to business people, the population is now only perhaps 45% “native”, with other people having roots in places such as England, Scotland, Ireland, and further afield. This (positive) trend has also ‘woken up’ the people of the island to emphasise what it means to be Manx. Because of this realisation, the language has increased in visibility and it’s a great time to learn the language:
- The language can be heard in the parliament.
- Shop and road signs now display the language prominently.
- Children from the Bunscoill (school) are the new generation of Manx speakers.
- They are developing adult education resources, and have lots of resources on LearnManx.com.
There remain real tensions within the Manx population of what it is to be ‘Manx’. For example, given their strong relations with the U.K., and given the fact that the island is a member of the English Football (soccer) Association, many islanders support the English soccer team while certainly distinguishing themselves from being English. The island is in many ways a sign of globalised commerce, yet is looking for ways to promote itself as a unique identity. The language, it seems, will play part in that future.