Diarmuid O'Neill, editor,
Rebuilding the Celtic Languages
(Y Lolfa, 2005)

In Rebuilding the Celtic Languages, Canadian writer and editor Diarmuid O'Neill explores the perilous situation of the six remaining Celtic languages, both in Europe and in the Americas, and asks what can be done to restore these languages to everyday use.

Following the method of Joshua Fishman, O'Neill and other contributors explore in depth the current situation and use of Welsh, Breton and Cornish, Irish, Scots Gaelic and Manx Gaelic, in their homelands; Welsh in Patagonia; and Scots Gaelic in Nova Scotia.

Noteworthy is that most of these languages are in peril for two reasons: past perception of lower social and economic status, and government interference through the use of state-language schools. In Wales, for instance, many students were once punished in school for speaking Welsh even in the playgrounds.

Nowadays we accept that the more languages we know, the better. We know that knowledge of one language does not ever detract from ability in another. The profound ignorance on these two matters in past years has condemned our six Celtic languages -- and many other world tongues -- to near oblivion.

To turn the situation around, it is necessary to provide economic opportunities for speakers of these languages -- and to build communities where these languages are truly fully functional in every sphere: work, home, school and leisure.

These languages are to various degrees threatened with extinction or reduced use, some more than others. Healthiest is the situation of Welsh, which in North and West Wales is still a community language used by more than half of the population, including many young people, and growing in the rest of the country. The Welsh colony in Argentina has also succeeded in avoiding being smothered by Spanish.

At the other hand of the spectrum is Cornish, the close cousin of Welsh, which officially "died" 300 years ago, but lives on and is being learned in most communities in Cornwall today, albeit by a small group.

Breton has been smothered by France since the 1960s with the result that most of the speakers are now past childbearing age; an ominous sign. In Ireland the Republic is at least neutral to Irish but the language has continued to tread water since the 1840s, when it almost perished in a generation. Manx survives -- a tiny group on a tiny island; Scots Gaelic barely holds on in the Western Isles and in Nova Scotia, despite high status, only 500 speakers remain.

Can the situation be reversed? Certainly. Hebrew has been revived in Israel and it was once in the state Cornish is in now. Basque and Catalan are moving forward within Spain. Why not the six Celtic tongues?

This somewhat academic account is full of interesting facts, stats, maps and lessons for language activists. It's a great reference for Celts of all nations and others interested in restoring their language to full community use. Contributors include prominent Celtic sociolinguists such as Colin Williams, Pawl Birt, Kenneth MacKinnon, Brian Stowell and Marcel Texier.

by David Cox
21 January 2006