Dedicated to the Gaelic Language of the Isle of Man

Keep the Faith!

Keep the faith!

The following is from a newspaper article of the 1950s. I thought it was worth reprinting in full and I’ve posted my own thoughts towards the end which I hope will be of use

``I can say `How do you do?’ and I know the Lord’s Prayer and I can count up to ten. Nane, jees, tree, kiare, queig, shey.” Eight-year-old Kirree stopped and looked at her feet. “I can’t count up to ten after all,” she said, but in spite of this failure Kirree has more Manx than most of her countrymen.

Out of a population of fifty thousand, perhaps sixty have  a good working knowledge of the island tongue. All except two have studied it as a foreign language. The exceptions are Mrs Sage Kinvig of Ronague, who is 89, and Mr Ned Maddrell, of Glenchass, who is 82. They are the last native speakers of Manx, and when they die the language will cease to exist as a living speech.

Two hundred years ago the situation was different. “The population of the island is twenty thousand, of whom the greater number are ignorant of English,” reported the Society for the promotion of Christian Knowledge in 1764. As late as 1875, more than thirteen thousand people spoke Manx, and in 1900 nearly five thousand, though by this time the majority of them were bilingual. The last census in 1951 showed 355 Manxmen as speaking both languages, but a foot- note explained that the extent of their knowledge of Manx was not asked for. A third of them were over 65, and Manx is to-day at the stage that Cornish was towards the end of the eighteenth century.

Value of Comparison
The comparison with Cornish is of some value. Linguistically, as well as geographically, both countries lie between two other Celtic tongues, one cultivated and literary, the other neglected but flourishing (in the case of Cornish, the two other Celtic tongues are Welsh and Breton: in the case of Manx, the two others are Irish and Scottish Gaelic). Ned Maddrell, who went to sea at 13, found he was able to keep his Manx “alive” by talking to Gaelic-speaking sailors on British ships. He was brought up in the remote village of Cregneash, where unless you had the Manx you were a deaf and dumb man and no good to anybody.”

This was not the case in the towns.“Nobody there wanted to talk Manx, even those who had it well. They were ashamed, like. It will never earn a penny for you,” they said. Ned is a sprightly old man, a trifle deaf but very proud of his role as one of the last native speakers. “They have tape recordings of me telling legends and stories in Manx,” he said “in Ireland and in America and in places you never heard of.” Mrs Kinvig, who reads the Manx Bible daily, is also on tape. Her parents were Manx-speaking, but made no effort to teach their children the language. “Whenever they wanted to say something that was not for our ears they said it in Manx. I wanted to know what they were talking about so I picked it up.” she chuckled at the memory. These recordings were made by Yn Cheshaght Ghailckagh, a society for the promotion of Manx, which endeavours to foster the study of the language by conducting classes and publishing texts.

Little Enthusiasm
According to Walter Clarke of the Manx Museum, a member of the society, there is very little enthusiasm for the language in Man to-day. “People think they can pick up Manx in six easy lessons,” he said. “when they find they can’t they lose interest.” Evening classes in the main towns were abandoned recently, and so was the society’s Manx journal “Coraa Ghailckagh.” An effort to get Manx taught in schools also failed. There is, however, a sign outside Peel saying “Welcome to Peel” in Manx and English.

The only official use of the language is on Tynwald Day, July 5, when the laws that have been passed during the preceding year are proclaimed in Manx and English. As might be expected, the translation of modern terms often presents snags. Some years ago “fraudulent mediums” was Manxed as “soothsayers” and at the moment “betting pools” is posing a similar problem. The Manx Bible provided a precedent for these eventualities when it translated “fox” by “shynnagh,” which actually means “kite” (there are no foxes on Man) and “satyr” by“phynnodderee” or leprechaun.

Manxmen are naturally saddened by the decay of their ancient tongue, although it survives in place-names, personal names, and isolated Manx-English words (scallops are called “tan rogans” in Douglas shops and ruined houses are referred to as “tholtans” in government acts). There is, too, very little original literature in Manx, apart from the “carvals” or devotional songs of the eighteenth century. One of them puts the present state of the language rather curiously but not without force:

“. . . jeh bioys skee myr yn pelican syn aasagh.”
In English this reads:
“. . . weary of life like a pelican in the desert.”

Some comments from the Greinneyder 

We’ve definitely come a long way from the depressing state of things in the 1950’s; indeed, Walter Clarke once recalled to me that the museum preferred to use their recording equipment on birds and wildlife than on Manx Speakers!

There are also some contemporary resonances in the article about learning Manx; that people give up easily and find it too much of a challenge to continue with. I’ve just finished reading an excellent piece about indigenous languages in Alaska and much of their experiences rang true with me.

Language activists there are faced with the problem that learning their indigenous language is a tough call and doesn’t have the appeal that other cultural activities might have. Moreover, there is often the assumption that ‘saving the language’ is something other people are doing; that it’s a great idea but not ‘our’ responsibility. The reality is that there is no quick fix in learning Manx, nor should it be seen solely as the responsibility of the school system or some other institution. If you think Manx is of value, learn it.

The reality is that there are many badges of Manx identity, of which Manx Gaelic is but one. Most people articulate their Manxness in a variety of ways; supporting the races, walking the hills, making bonnag, going to lectures, learning some dances, saying ‘yessir’ and ‘long tail’ all the time, wearing a Kilt (don’t get me going on that!), joining Friends of MNH to name but a few. All of these are valuable and laudable exercises which add to the cultural mix in the Island; moreover, all of them take less time and commitment than learning Manx!

I’m acutely aware of the need to ‘up our game’ on the adult language front and much of my time is aimed at doing just this. We need to focus on the three ‘m’s; method, materials and motivation. The method we’ve been working on is based on our experience of Wlpan in Wales, whilst we’ve been developing materials to accompany this. I’m hoping that our Cowag books and  the material on our blog and Youtube will all add to the quality and quantity of material to accompany the course: be warned that I’ll be asking for some feedback on all this in the very near future.

However, we also need to address our third M, motivation. I would hope to attract more and more teachers who are willing to teach through our methodology; however, ultimately to get more Manx speakers we need motivated students. Nevertheless, I have to be honest with students; learning Manx takes time and effort and can be very frustrating and annoying, whilst we are always faced with the question of ‘why bother learning Manx?’.

At least if you learn to play Manx music and learn some dances you can perform at festivals in exotic locations (and Wales); the TT is exciting and romantic, bonnag tasty, walking the hills keeps you fit and being a friend of MNH gets you discounts; learning Manx however, just brings frustration and annoyance.

So is Manx worth learning and is it worth the effort? After all we can’t offer you fame or fortune just years of hard work and commitment. (I’m not selling this very well am I?). Well to my mind you should learn Manx for no other reason than because it’s b***** yindyssagh; because it’s a great feeling to speak and understand the language; because it’s intellectually stimulating and possibly emotionally comforting; you should learn Manx because it is hard work and because you can be proud of your efforts in learning the language; because you can say at the end of your journey (does it ever end?)that you are a Manx speaker: Learn it and be proud of your efforts.



Published: Thu, 01 Jan 1970