Tuesday, February 22, 2005

"Josve novem svete, tak prohoba speak American!"

Ann Althouse, in a discussion of Greg Easterbrook's nth partial-ingestion of his footwear, on the subject of lingua francas and whether minority languages ought to be neglected or celebrated, linked to this impassioned Irish defense of minority and artificial-nationality languages. [I really ought to re-subscribe to the New Republic. I let my subscription lapse last year, but maybe it's time to go on back, yes?]

First of all, I don't think that Easterbrook would actually argue in favor of enforced monolingualism. He doesn't strike me as that sort of guy - but I will have to find a copy of the full, unexcerpted piece to double-check my assumptions. The excerpts seem to suggest that he's arguing for benign neglect - an absence of celebration of microculture. Musgrave, the irate Irishman, talks as if he's infuriated by this suggestion, but then proceeds to give an account of the Gaelic League, and Irish nationalism's obnoxious use of Gaelic, which does everything but march across a Pyongyang stadium waving flags in synchronized-uniformed-proletarian-crowd fashion to convince me that the politics associated with minority language and nationalities based on minority languages are noxious, fruitless, and scary.

There are two examples of modern nation-states which have used an artificially-resurrected language, reclaimed from the bin of history, as mortar for their new nationalities - Ireland and Israel. Israel's self-invention through the reintroduction of Hebrew makes perfect sense to me, really. The various Jews, Christians, and Muslims who transformed the bulk of the British mandate of Palestine into the nation-state Israel didn't share a common lingua franca. The local Jews, Christians, and Muslims spoke Arabic, as did the Sephardic Jews who fled the Arabic pogroms of the late 1940s. The European Jewish settlers, and later refugees from the Shoah and American Jewish settlers after the founding, however, spoke no such thing. They spoke Yiddish, or English, or French, or Russian, or whatever. The reintroduction of Hebrew, a liturgical language not used in daily life, anywhere, prior to the Zionist foundations of the late Nineteenth Century, provided a common difficulty - the learning of a new language which didn't politically advantage any of the linguistic factions involved in the founding. It was a common linguistic gathering-point for a polyglot collective defined not by language, but religion, ethnicity, and accident.

The Irish-Gaelic counterexample, however, is a completely different story. Here, we are presented by the example of a colonial population, mostly absorbed into the dominant culture, in which the original language is a rural remnant on the decline, even in the countryside. Everybody either speaks the lingua franca, or aspires to do so, for social and economic reasons. The political re-introduction of the remnant-minority was used as part of a non-rational program of cultural idolatry - ancestor-worship through a dying language. There was no need to cement together populations divided by language, because they were already speaking the same, dominant, imperial language - there was just a minority who spoke something else while at home. Note in Musgrave's account, that it wasn't the rural speakers of Gaelic who typically pushed the nationalist-adoption of the language, but rather, academics and middle-class revolutionaries and radicals who saw that adaptation as a form of exclusion, of definition.

The Irish use of Gaelic was not inclusive, but rather analytical - not centripetal, but centrifugal. The Israeli usage of Hebrew was to make Jews (and local natives) Israeli - to weld together a polity. The Irish usage of Gaelic was to make individuals not-English - to renounce membership in the Imperial project.

In many ways, the Gaelic project was compulsive - which rather explains why modern Gaelic is not a living, breathing language, but is rather more of a liturgical language in the Irish civic religion, and seems to be used primarily for official purposes and high-cultural demonstrations of linguistic virtue.

Really, if I had to deal with the Irish political culture on a day-to-day basis, I might find myself searching for a new Empire, a new Imperium, to sweep away the petty cultural fascisms. I might find myself jumping at the chance to drown the Irish state in the post-national universality of the European Union, no matter how idiotic or obnoxious d'Estang's phonebook of a constitutional draft might be.

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