Ag dul chun troda ar son na Gaeilge (Going to battle for Irish)
Unique among studies of language in Ukraine, HURI’s Battle for Ukrainian introduces a comparative perspective on the Ukrainian situation by consideration of language policy, sociolinguistic issues, and politics in multilingual societies from Eastern and Western Europe, the Middle East, South Asia, and North America. Not only do these case studies provide fruit for thought when considering Ukraine’s case, they also broaden the book’s scope, creating an interdisciplinary study on colonialism, state and nation building, and the dynamics between language and politics in the post-imperial world.
Ahead of our upcoming Book Talk on Battle for Ukrainian (Tuesday, November 7), we wanted to explore the book's comparative perspective. Tony Crowley, who wrote “Language, Politics and the State(s): Reflections from Ireland” for the volume, answered a few questions about the state of the Irish language and the value of a comparative collection for scholars studying various regions of the world. Crowley is Professor of English Language at the University of Leeds, where he studies the politics of language, specifically the way in which language constructs, and is constructed by, forms of social power; as well as the interrelations between language and history in Britain and Ireland.
HURI: For people who might not be familiar with Ireland's language situation, could you give us a short summary of the relevant history and developments? What does your article focus on or argue?
Crowley: Ireland's language situation is the result of a long and complex colonial history, the gaining of independence from colonial rule, and post-colonial development. Irish is now one of the official languages of the Irish State, alongside English, and it is taught to all schoolchildren as part of their education.
Essentially my argument is that the history of the language can only be understood in the context of political history - ranging from the earliest colonial language legislation in the 14th and 16th centuries, to the revival of Irish as an everyday living language in contemporary Belfast.
HURI: What was valuable about participating in the States, People, Language conference and being a part of this volume? Did the interdisciplinary and international approach give you any additional insights?
Crowley: Participation at the conference was a wonderful experience; as an outsider to the Ukrainian debates it was fascinating to see both how different disciplines saw the issues from their own perspective and how they crossed and informed each other. I was surprised by the various ways in which the Ukrainian and Irish experiences were similar.
HURI: Why should a book focused on Ukrainian language include a study on Ireland? How can this book be useful to people who study other languages, such as Irish?
Crowley: I think the use of comparative examples can allow us to draw out both common strands and unique specificities from the different struggles that languages have faced, and face, historically. There is much to be learned, I think, from the ways that different regimes have attempted to order, control, or even suppress distinct languages, and the means by which different groups - often but not only nationalist groups - have struggled to revive or maintain their own language.
HURI: What are the main similarities and differences between the two countries and their language circumstances?
Crowley: I think the main points of similarity are the use of economics and cultural hegemony as ways of controlling the use of language. The main differences lie in the nature of the relations between the dominant power and the groups struggling against it. It is important not to conflate distinct struggles, despite their commonalities.
HURI: Is there anything Ukraine and Ukrainian scholars should take away from the Ireland case study when considering the role of languages in Ukraine?
Crowley: There are many heartening examples that the struggle around language in Ireland can offer (the language issue was after all central to the movement to liberate Ireland from British rule). But there are two aspect that I would highlight. First, the relatively settled relations between the official languages of Ireland (by which I mean the acceptance of English as a dominant language alongside efforts to preserve and spread the use of the Irish language - it doesn't have to be a zero sum game). Second, the fact that even small but well-organised groups can have an enormous impact in terms of language revival and the political repercussions that follow from it.
HURI: Why does language matter in politics? Should states have a primary language, do you think? Does modern technology make any difference?
Crowley: Language matters in politics and politics matters in language! This has been the crux of my work from its inception and I have argued it in relation to a variety of different contexts. I don't think that it is necessary for states to have a primary language, but languages can gain enormously if they are given official status. Modern technology has transformed language use; Irish speakers are able to communicate globally, Irish medium broadcasts are now easily available in a variety of formats, and both learning and translating the language have been made significantly easier.
HURI: What do we lose when a language disappears altogether? Is this (ever) a natural, unavoidable thing, or is it something to resist and prevent?
Crowley: We lose a crucial element of cultural diversity when we lose a language, a unique way of engaging with the world. Languages die for economic and political reasons; they survive by dint of economics and politics too. Given my point about cultural diversity, I would argue that it is important to resist language death. It is hard to preserve and maintain a language that is under threat; it is almost impossible to revive once it has gone.
HURI: Is there anything else we should know? Any interesting facts or insights from your article that would be of interest to general linguists and scholars of language or politics in Ireland and England?
Crowley: One point that I would emphasise: economics plays a crucial role in the life and death of languages, but the part played by cultural hegemony is often underestimated and needs further research. One of the curious lessons of Irish history is the way in which Irish became stigmatised not simply by the colonial power, but by Irish speakers too - often because they associated it with cultural backwardness and the historical past. Such sentiments were produced by what Gramsci called cultural hegemony [Antonio Francesco Gramsci was an Italian Marxist theorist and politician], and I think it would help if this concept was introduced into debates concerning the processes of language survival, maintenance, revival or death.