Manx: Not Dead Yet

The BBC reports that UNESCO has changed the classification of Manx, the Goidelic Gaelic dialect spoken on the Isle of Man, from “extinct” to “critically endangered.” Several hundred people on the island speak it as a second language.

Ethnologue reports that there have been no native speakers of Manx since 1974, and all those who do speak it have learned it in school or as adults. It is still used for some ceremonial occasions.

The lack of native speakers, however, means that the language, if not dead, is on life support, and its life is being artificially prolonged. A language that has no native speakers loses its idiom and slang, grammar becomes simplified, and vocabulary is calcified. It becomes a shell of what it once was. So while this is better than having no speakers at all; it’s not actually good news for Manx.

The problem may be UNESCO’s classifications. “Extinct” and “endangered” can be interpreted differently--as is the case here when proud residents of Man protested the labeling of their historic language as dead. (And since when does a letter-writing campaign change a scientific conclusion?) There are several thousand people around the world that can read and write Old English, and even speak it after a fashion; does that mean it’s not a dead language? I think not. Old English is dead; as is Manx. The only difference is that there is some (very) faint hope that Manx might be revived, ala Hebrew.

Perhaps instead of such labels, numeric quantifiers for first and second language speakers could be applied. Manx would then be, perhaps, “0/600” (no native speakers, approximately 600 second-language speakers). As a comparison, Irish Gaelic, a language which is in trouble but has achieved some stability and is not in any immediate danger of disappearing, would be ranked something like 60,000/400,000; and English something like 375,000,000/800,000,000. Quantification can drive home the scale of the problem better than a label.

[Hat tip to Languagehat]

UPDATE AS OF 29 AUGUST:

The UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger is here. If you’re interested in language death, the link is worth bookmarking. It looks to be a sound assessment by linguists and based on data evaluated through a well-defined framework of criteria. The BBC article did a poor job of conveying how the decision was made.

What set my teeth on edge was the implication in the BBC article that it was protests by the Manx government and by the people of Man, based on patriotic fervor not facts, that prompted UNESCO to change its rating. The idea that any political protest could influence what should be a scientific conclusion is just plain wrong. (Governmental and popular support for endangered languages are part of the data UNESCO uses, as it should be, but that’s different than political influence affecting the evaluation of the data itself.)

The upgrading of Manx to “critically endangered” does seem to be justified by UNESCO’s criteria and in comparison with other critically endangered languages listed in the Atlas.

Powered by ExpressionEngine
Copyright 1997-2014, by David Wilton