Everyone has heard of Irish and Scots Gaelic. Not many people have heard of a third Gaelic language, Manx. Some of those who have, think it’s extinct. But those on the Isle of Man would disagree with you. So what is this language known as Gaeilge Mhanann in Irish (the Irish language of the Isle of Man)??!
Let’s start off with an overview.
Manx is a Goidelic Celtic Language (my second favourite language group), closely related to Irish and Scottish Gaelic. Manx or Gaelg as it is known in Manx, descends from the old form of Irish that was brought to the Isle of Man by Irish colonisers in around 700 AD. There is evidence of the Irish colonisers via the various Ogham stones around the island. Not only that but also the shared mythology and identity Irish and the Manx seem to have. For example Oisin i dTír na nÓg, a famous Irish legend is also a Manx legend. And indeed the Isle of Man gets its name from an Irish sea deity, Manannán MacLir.
The language spoken at the time was Old Irish, a language which during the Dark Ages following the fall of the Roman Empire, was one of the most widely written and well attested in the world, certainly in Western Europe. Old Irish developed into Middle Irish and as time went on, Manx began to differentiate itself from Irish as did Scots Gaelic.
Whereas Scottish Gaelic (SG) and Irish (IR) continued to write with the Classical Gaelic spelling, Manx, due to the weakening of ties with Scotland and Ireland, the Manx language diverged from the other two Gaelic languages and began to be written in English Orthography which explains how the language looks so different on paper. In reality, it is to an extent, mutually intelligible as the great man Manchan on the TG4 programme No Béarla found out here. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uA7hlurc9EQ
Manx is listed as “Extinct as a First Language” on Wikipedia and Ethnologue says that Manx has no L1 speakers left. What has happened here?
Manx slowly began to lose ground to English in the 16th and 17th centuries. It was not used in education. By the 19th century, Manx was no longer the main language on the Isle of Man. The language had lost its prestige and was no longer being passed on to the next generation. Sadly Ned Maddrell (there is recordings of him on YouTube), the last native speaker died in 1974. That could have been the end of the story, but fortunately it wasn’t.
A man everyone in Ireland has heard of, was responsible for the survival of the Manx Language. Eamon De Valera. It’s fascinating how the story goes actually. De Valera, a proud and prominent Irishman, 3 times president and 3 times Taoiseach (Irish for Prime Minister) was a major advocate of Irish language revival and was instrumental in Ireland leaving United Kingdom and becoming a republic. But in a BBC article (link at the end), we see how ‘Dev’ managed to reach out to our distant Manx cousins and help save the language.
“It was summer 1947 and Irish Taoiseach, Eamon de Valera was visiting the Isle of Man as part of a tour around the Irish Sea. During his sojourn on the island, De Valera, a fervent advocate of Irish Gaelic, met and spoke with Ned Maddrell, a native Manx speaker. De Valera spoke Irish; Maddrell Manx but the languages were close enough for communication. What De Valera learnt alarmed him: the Manx language was dying out and the Manx museum had no technical means to record the last speakers. On returning to Ireland, De Valera demanded that the Irish Folklore Commission immediately send a mobile recording unit to the island and in 1948.”
So there you have it, ‘Dev’ helped preserve Manx for future generations. Other Manx people have taken his lead. Brian Stowell is a scholar who, arguably has been even more important is saving and preserving Manx is the man who talks to Manchan at the end of the aforementioned YouTube video. Good things are happening, there is a Manx medium primary school on the Isle of Man the Bunscoill Ghaelgagh so now children are learning the language. There are Manx programmes on the radio station Manx Radio and students can take Manx as a subject in secondary school.
So what does this language look like? How different can it be? Well here we go
Manx is undergoing a revival and is now spoken by 2% of the Isle of Man’s 88,000 . It needs as many speakers as possible and it is a beautiful language. Learning it would make Scots Gaelic and/or Irish very easy to learn indeed. Or if you already know Irish or Scots Gaelic, Manx should be no difficulty to learn whatsoever. From my learning of Irish in primary and secondary school, I found Manx easy and very fun to learn. It gives you a window into the culture of the Isle of Man you would not get simply with English. It also offers the opportunity of a rapid language acquisition should you know another Gaelic language and could perhaps be your third language. Each language learnt makes the next one easier! Manx’s future hangs in the balance, it is undergoing a revival yes but it is still critically endangered. Could you make a difference?
It’s getting bright outside so this is where I sign off. Have a nice day.
- There is an app for learning Manx on the iStore that I cannot recommend enough. https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/learn-manx/id579288608?mt=8