There is no language like the Irish for soothing and quieting. —John Millington Synge, The Aran Islands
An Irish Hearth. Part of a painting by Philip Gray. Used with permission of the artist.When I think of my father during my growing-up years, I usually picture him relaxing after work in a kitchen chair with a newspaper, next to the radiator. Did he sit there because its warmth took him back to the hearth that was the heart of the cottage he grew up in, in the rural west of Ireland?
Another memory is of him teaching me how to greet someone and a typical response, in Irish Gaelic. In the decades since I've often shared that brief bit of dialogue to show that Irish is not American English spoken with an Irish accent — which is sometimes called a brogue — but rather a completely different language. I later learned from the 1901 census that both of his parents were bilingual Irish Gaelic and English speakers. When I hear a song sung in Irish, or even one with an occasional word in the language, somehow it bridges a gap of hundreds of years for me, and I feel a connection with the lives of those forebears I never met.
Perhaps your grandparents also spoke a language that you do not know — and it may be one that is endangered, as is Irish. In Ireland, English largely supplanted the Irish language as a result of colonialism. There are various reasons languages become endangered and, in many cases, extinct. Globalization, cultural imperialism, and urbanization are a few I've seen cited. Some say language loss is inevitable and the number of languages has ebbed and flowed since the dawn of history.
But others feel keenly the loss of a language, seeing it as the loss of a culture. These are often the linguists of the world — those who traffic freely in terms such as patois, creole, dialect and cant. Many of them join forces with people who speak and cherish minority languages in order to revitalize them through efforts like the Alliance for Linguistic Diversity's Endangered Language Project, the Endangered Language Alliance, and National Geographic's Enduring Voices Project.
Cultural and political leaders may also spearhead efforts to bring back languages in danger; such was the case with Irish, I am happy to report! Children now learn Irish in schools in Ireland, and it is the first official language of the Republic of Ireland, while English is the second. And one local initiative available internationally (thanks to streaming audio) is Fordham University's weekly program for learning Irish, Míle Fáilte.
On Saturday, September 29, 2012, NYPL hosts an Endangered Language Fair, which will feature linguists involved in language revitalization as well as passionate lovers of languages such as Garifuna and Circassian, as well as Irish Gaelic and two of its fellow Celtic languages — Welsh and Breton.
Attendees will learn about local and international efforts to preserve languages, and find out how they themselves can start to learn these languages.