Dedicated to the Gaelic Language of the Isle of Man
Imraaghyn Features

Gaelg as mish: February, 2018

Learning Manx: Enriching not insular


It’s now more than 50 years since I took a serious interest in learning Manx, but well before that I remember becoming aware of its existence as a child, when every Christmas my father would write the words, ’Nollick Ghennal as Blein Vie Noa’.

However, my later exposure to languages was not a happy one. French and Latin remained a mystery, a cacophony of unintelligible sounds: clearly my ability to acquire a foreign language was nil.

Perhaps the operative word was foreign.

I was expected to learn a language, but no one bothered to ask me which one. The need for the acquisition of French and Latin was equally mysterious.

What purpose could they possibly have and when was I supposed to use them? These early doubts as to their efficacy proved to be correct. I have always only passed through France without ever stopping and, as far as I know, the legions never darkened these shores.

As a student I was exiled in England for three years but at that time I had an interest in genealogy which naturally led me to the meanings of personal names and place names, and where better to look for these than at home: the Isle of Man.

On returning and being unaware that there were still living speakers, I turned to the Manx Museum: yes they had recordings of speakers, but no I couldn’t listen to them as there was no facility to play them!

How different from today, nobody can be unaware that Manx is still spoken and the ability to listen to speakers from both the past and the present day has never been easier.

I had purchased lessons and dictionaries, but more importantly I eventually met with fluent speakers; Lewis Crellin, Leslie Quirk, Doug Fargher and others who had acquired their Manx from native speakers.

From then on my ability to learn a language changed. Motivation, a real purpose and an opportunity to speak, were the keys to learning.

With some basic knowledge of Manx a completely new world was opened up, the landscape took on a whole new significance.

Today I only have to walk outside the door to see: Slieau Doo, Balley Fageen, Slieau Curn, Barnagh, Balley Cooilley, Rheynn Cullyn, and Balley Rhennee all of which are given a different perspective when their ancient meanings are known. Place names like these are more than just whimsical labels, and a knowledge of Manx allows you delve into their history, their function or ownership and even their shape, size, and colour.

The telephone book was another wonderland, with house names, addresses and of course surnames, revealing occupations such as Gawne, or physical characteristics like Mylroie, but sadly this is becoming less so today, with some surnames even vanishing here in their country of origin.

Contrary to popular conceptions, learning Manx has been a mind broadening and enriching experience.

Often perceived as narrow, parochial and insular, the Manx language has enabled me to meet with people from every walk of life, old and young, from every Celtic country and worldwide, an opportunity which would never have arisen otherwise.

To those who are thinking of learning Manx, just look around you.

The environment provides a constant source of material, only now it’s up to you how you read and understand it.

by Phil Kelly