Conference Contribution Details
Mandatory Fields
Aidan Doyle
Seminar, Dept of History, UCC
Language change in 19th century Ireland – a new interpretation
Invited Seminars/Guest Lectures
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Many traditional accounts of the decline of Irish present it in cataclysmic terms. Thus, in an influential and widely-used history of Irish literature we read: ‘There were four million speakers of Irish out of a population of five million at the beginning of the nineteenth century in Ireland. That is, Ireland was for the most part Irish in language and custom as late as that. ’ (Williams and Ford 1992: 255). Given that by 1851 only 23% of the population is reported as speaking Irish, the implication is that there was a radical change of language in the relatively short period of 50 years. The present paper begins by confronting such statements about the shift from Irish to English with recent work which presents a different version of events. This is followed by a sociolinguistic analysis of the group seen as leading the move to English, the Catholic middle-class. Drawing on contemporary linguistic theories of bilingualism and diglossia, it is argued that the whole notion of native vs non-native speaker needs to be revised, which in turn forces us to review our interpretation of statistics about language use. In conclusion, it is hoped that this paper will lead to a questioning of one of the most pervasive myths of modern Ireland, namely that our ancestors wilfully and wantonly rejected their linguistic heritage for material gain.My contention is that the truth is more prosaic, and that what happened in 19th century Ireland is simply one instance of a common pattern of language shift.