*Is there such a thing as “good use of language”, and does it matter?

Good use of language was once regarded as one of the goals of education. Yet even teachers nowadays frequently do not use what some regard as “standard” language, and the current, trendy educational theories claim that what is most important is to allow creativity without the straitjacket of forms that are no longer universally used (and in many cases never were). As an Englishman learning Irish, the examples of English and Irish are most relevant to me, and I will draw on examples from both languages in this essay.

When the BBC was set up in England, it saw its role as the promotion of high culture, including what it saw as good English. Until relatively recently, most presenters on British television used the Received Pronunciation standard of spoken English, and traditionally correct grammar remained de rigueur. “Quality” newspapers, such as The Daily Telegraph and The Times were noted for their conservative use of the language. Even today, most, or at any rate, many parents hope that schools will teach their children good English and guide them through a programme of reading of famous works of English literature.

Yet, over what appears to have been a couple of short decades, a new approach has been adopted in the education system and the media. Pupils are no longer required to use good grammar in their school essays, and many leave school unable to spell correctly (or in many cases, unable to read well), having been subjected to the whole-word look-and-say approach to the teaching of reading rather than the tried and tested phonics-first system. In the British media, Received Pronunciation is almost totally absent. A range of regional pronunciations are now used by broadcasters. The emphasis in terms of provision of television programmes is on game shows and reality shows deemed to be “accessible” to the uneducated. The quality newspapers are now characterised by regular use of casual or politically-inspired language (such as “gay” for “homosexual”), incorrect use of vocabulary (“refute” for “deny”), frequent spelling errors and grammatical solecisms. Use of traditionally correct English is now an idiosyncrasy.

It is frequently asserted by people who claim to be “linguists” that “prescriptive” grammar and good English pronunciation are erroneous, because the point of language is communication, and as long as communication is achieved, language is functioning as it should. From this point of view, forms such as “’e ain’t brought nuffink” for “he didn’t buy anything” are just as valid as their standard English equivalents, or even “more authentic” and “more accessible”. Spelling has been referred to as a form of “fascism”, and good English literature held to lack the “relevance” to the lives of school pupils that is alleged to be found in pulp fiction.

One way of looking at the question is to see it as a cultural shift, a generational change in what English people (and indeed other English-speaking people) regard as important. The rise of a new generation to positions of importance in the BBC, the other broadcast media, the broadsheet newspapers, the universities and indeed local schools allows a generational change of view to be implemented as policy. The BBC is known to have a detailed “style guide” laying down what sort of language should be used by its presenters. I would challenge any reader of this blog to find an instance of the subjunctive (as in “if I were”), either on the BBC or in the supposedly quality newspapers. It seems strange that, while not everyone says “if I were”, not everyone says “if I was” either, and yet the media have reached unanimity on the subject. The country Iraq, pronounced with a long “a” in good English, /ɪ’rɑːk/, is now referred to as Irack, /ɪ’ræk/, even by those presenters without Northern English vowel sounds. Even worse, Britain is uniformly referred to as /brɪʔn̩/ in the place of /brɪtən/.

However, the notion that all non-standard forms in spoken and written English do not impede communication is demonstrably false. Employers frequently complain of poor communication skills among those leaving the school and even university systems today, and a glance at television programmes interviewing the poorly educated (eg The Jeremy Kyle show on British television) would give ample evidence that many young people today are extremely inarticulate in speech, and often very hard to understand. People who mix up their words in speech (is it “to all intents and purposes” or “to all intensive purposes”?) clearly do not understand the phrases they are using and hence lack the ability to think clearly.

More importantly, poor use of language deprives many English people of access to written material. People who are fobbed off with “accessible” colloquial language will struggle with government forms and official information—and will find the great works of English literature hard to understand. Language is most emphatically not purely for verbal communication. It provides access to a literary heritage that all English children ought to have more than a passing knowledge of. This heritage forms part of our culture and our national identity as Englishmen. It makes no difference that school pupils may not grow up to be lovers of English literature. They ought not to be deprived of access to it. Where language remains on a purely colloquial level, the schoolchildren are deprived of any opportunity to later take an interest in their heritage, in the historical culture of their country, and in the poetric, dramatic and Biblical writings that have contributed so much to their language.

It is clear that access to literature and culture goes beyond basic communication and takes language into a realm that is not solely the realm of linguistic experts. Language is social and cultural as much as it is purely linguistic. Linguists may claim there is no such thing as beautiful language—as the achievement of communication is merely a practical question. I like to compare this to food. Food is not just nutrition; it has social, cultural, and even historical and geographical aspects too. A nutrionist who claimed there was no such thing as gourmet cuisine would be stepping beyond his realm of expertise just as much as a linguist who claimed that there was no such thing as linguistic beauty, or dialects pleasant to or harsh on the ear. Similarly, a colour chemist who claimed there was no such thing as fine art, as colours on a canvas are, in the end, just colours, would be making the same mistake. What criteria are used to decide what is right? What criteria are used to decide whose use of language is beautiful and whose harsh? I am quite sure different people would appreciate different things, just as with food and fine art, but one has to be able to read and understand classical works of English literature in order to debunk their claims to beauty. Alliteration, assonance, careful use of vocabulary, clever use of vocabulary, the making of fine differences between words and phrases—all these make for interest in language.

But it is not necessary to claim that any one thing is the ultimate arbiter of language quality. If, however, one has never read classical works or cannot read them, one cannot offer any opinion either way as to whether they contain anything worthwhile in terms of linguistic or literary heritage. More importantly, colloquial language corrals us all where we began: we are unable to reach beyond the language of our often humdrum daily lives and our often humdrum daily routines. The question “why take ye thought for raiment?” in the Authorised Version of the Bible certainly takes us beyond the language of the home. Literary language opens up a world of thought, imagination, culture and history that takes us beyond our daily lives. For these reasons, I do believe that good use of language is important, although I frequently fail to cast an adequate eye over what I write myself to check for spelling, grammatical or other solecisms.

Who decides, then, what is correct English? We are blessed as speakers of English in that there is no one country that monopolises the language—although we Englishmen may pride ourselves on belonging to the mother country of the global language, and may even attempt to convince ourselves we have a prior right to it—and there is therefore no one state that can set up regulatory institutions to “determine” the correct grammatical forms. Even in countries where such bodies exist, the edicts of such bodies are frequently ignored or controversial. With a large literary heritage, correct grammar is essentially kept within narrow bounds by the standardising role of that body of literature. It is true that many works of literature (for example, the works of Shakespeare) do not exemplify modern English today, as it varies from the English of every native speaker of English today. But the later works, in fact the vast majority of the classical works, demonstrate a highly standardised variety of English that is not far removed from the English still used to this day by many educated speakers of English.

I am not claiming that every single linguistic form found in English literature has to be indefinitely maintained, but merely that English literature exercises a conservative restraining hand on linguistic standards. Charles Dickens wrote in his American Notes, “when night comes, there stands the phantom in the corner. If he have the courage to stand in its place, and drive it out (he had once: being desperate), it broods upon his bed”. Yet the number of native speakers who use the present subjunctive after “if”, as in “if he have”, is probably zero. Forms such as “to whom” are found in modern speech, but not as commonly as “who to”, forming a dichotomy where an older, more traditional form sits alongside a more modern form, both being seen as correct English. However, it is in the nature of a standard language that it is acquired by education, and so the parameters of the standard language are determined by the forms that are accepted, not by an arithmetical majority of the population, including those who cannot read whole books, but by the usages still maintained in full vigour by the educated. “Should of” for “should have”, while frequently found in uneducated writing, is therefore not standard English, because it is not yet accepted by the educated. To have it otherwise would reduce our heritage and culture to the level of the least educated and the least well-read in a cultural “race to the bottom”. However that may be, it is not the role of an education system to prevent school pupils from assimilating their literary culture and the linguistic norms of the educated classes.

The Irish language is a special case, although many of the same considerations will apply to Irish. The Irish are not in fact a people without a literary heritage, having one of the longest literary cultures in Europe. Yet few works produced before the 1950s are in print, and I would argue that this is connected with the Irish government’s decision to produce an artificial standardisation of the Irish language and propagate it in the school system. The fact that the vast majority of people using the language today are enthusiasts in the Galltacht, that is, learners of Irish in the English-speaking parts of the country, means that they are broadly happy to use whatever form of Irish is promoted by the government, but I would still argue that the decision to create an artificial and low-quality standard for the Irish language has restricted access to Ireland’s literary heritage and has rendered the purpose of learning Irish largely nugatory.

It was around 1800, or at least some time before the Irish famine of the 1840s, when Irish was spoken by the majority of the Irish population. Today all Irish people are good speakers of English; arguably, even the “native speakers” of Irish have better command of English than Irish, in that there are many topics the vocabulary of which is better known in English, even in the Gaeltacht, or Irish-speaking areas. The situation where the native speakers have lacunae in their Irish and the majority of users of the language are learners creates a lopsided centre of gravity in the language. Unlike the situation that obtains in English, where the educated class among the native speakers determines the standard usages, partly influenced by their knowledge of classical works, which holds the standard together, in Irish it is the views and choices of the learners that create the “standard”, thereafter influencing the Irish taught in the schools of the Gaeltacht areas and used in the media, and thus ultimately changing the increasingly weak Irish of the “native speakers” who have become as divorced from Ireland’s literary culture as the learners of the Galltacht.

The Irish language had a centre of gravity in Munster in the late nineteenth century, when the Gaelic Revival began. Munster had the greatest absolute number of native speakers and had maintained a literary heritage all the way through. The counties of Cork and Kerry were prominent in terms of their endowment of poets in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and had never ceased to produce written Irish, in contradistinction to most of the rest of Ireland. In fact, the literary prowess of those counties compared with Galway and Donegal, the current centres of the Gaeltacht population, is such that there was little doubt during the first fifty years of the Gaelic Revival that a Cork/Kerry standard would establish itself. Outside Munster there was barely a trace of a continuous literary heritage; possibly Co. Mayo could be cited as the locus of a certain amount of literary output in Irish, although greatly inferior in quantity to Kerry and Cork.

It is not my intention to give a potted history of the Gaelic Revival here. Suffice it to say that two of the most prestigious figures in the Revival were Canon Peadar ua Laoghaire, a native speaker of Cork Irish, and Pádraig ua Duinnín, an native speaker of Kerry Irish, from a district in Kerry not far from the Cork border. Ua Laoghaire’s Séadna became the first novel in Irish when it was serialised in periodicals in 1898. His prose output was probably the most voluminous of any of the writers of the Revival, including a translation in manuscript of the entire Bible (most of which has never been published), and numerous other translations and original works. Ua Duinnín was the author of the first novel in Irish published as a single book, Cormac ua Conaill, published in 1901 (while Séadna was serialised earlier, it was not published as a single work until 1904). However Ua Duinnín’s most celebrated contribution to the Irish language was the two editions of his Irish-English dictionary, the latter edition of which was published in 1927.

Ua Duinnín’s dictionary adhered to a large extent to the traditional orthography of Irish, which in broad terms is more suitable for Munster Irish than the other dialects, the Munster dialects having retained many consonants rendered silent elsewhere. However, the traditional spellings were far from being “phonetic” for any of the dialects, and Ua Duinnín was happy to include variant morphological forms to represent all dialects. Nevertheless, the dictionary was grounded in Munster Irish, which was the largest spoken dialect at the time. An Educational Pronouncing Dictionary of the Irish Language was produced, based on Munster Irish, and the Christian Brothers’ Grammar taught a variety of Irish that was broadly Munster Irish too, albeit accepting some verb forms found elsewhere.

An important facet of the work of the Gaelic Revivalists was the editing of older, manuscript works into critical editions available in print, largely under the aegis of the Irish Texts Society. Ua Duinnín was heavily involved in this, producing editions of the works of Seathrún Céitinn (ca. 1569-ca. 1644), Piaras Feiritéar (ca. 1600-1653), Seafraidh ua Donnchadha (1620-ca. 1685), Aodhagán ua Rathaille (ca. 1670-ca. 1727), Seán Clárach Mac Dómhnaill (1691-1754), Seán ua Tuama (1706-1775), Aindrias Mac Craith (1708?-1795), Tadhg “Gaedhealach” ua Súilliobháin (1715-1795) and Eoghan Rua ua Súilleabháin (ca. 1748-1784), writers from the counties of Tipperary, Limerick, Kerry and Cork. The work of publishing manuscript material was required by the fact that, before the Gaelic Revival, there was almost nothing in print in Irish. Despite Ireland’s long literary history, nearly everything ever written in Irish had been produced in manuscript. Exceptions included the seventeenth-century Bible in Irish produced by the bishops of the Church of Ireland, the catechism, the Church of Ireland’s Book of Common Prayer in Irish, the eighteenth-century sermons of Séamus ua Gallchobhair and a number of dictionaries. Nearly everything else, including works from the Old Irish and Middle Irish periods, remained to be edited and published.

In addition to this, the newly founded Irish state determined to encourage native speakers of Irish to publish as much as possible in Irish, whether translations or original works. Thousands of works were produced in the first half of the twentieth century, almost exclusively in the old orthography and without exception in forms of Irish that would not be considered standard today. By the middle of the twentieth century a large corpus of published Irish was available, mostly in the traditional Irish of the Gaeltacht regions, but with contributions too from non-native speakers, whose Irish tended to reflect the dialects of the Gaeltacht regions they studied in.

Any work of codifying standard Irish in book form could only be valid if it represented a codification of the literary Irish that had been established in the first half-century of the Gaelic Revival. However, the Irish government sought to standardise Irish based on a host of other criteria, including simplicity for learners. Historical correctness was one of the considerations, but so was the need to choose the most common forms. Yet the standard that was devised violates the criteria it was supposed to meet in many ways. Numerous forms that were not historically accepted as correct were adopted as “standard”; forms found in County Galway were frequently accepted even where all the other dialects agreed on an alternative form; forms that were historically correct and found in most dialects (such as the relative form of the verb) were rejected owing to the need for simplicity for learners; forms that were historically incorrect, rare in the real Gaeltacht but thought to be simpler for learners were adopted (such as the lack of t-prefixation in the masculine dative in phrases such as “sa siopa”). The Munster Irish that was prominent in the Gaelic Revival, and close to the Irish found in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century poetry, was rejected for the standard, but then so was every other dialect. The standardisers ignored the obvious choice of choosing the dialect with the greatest number of speakers (Galway) as the standard and chose, instead, to make up the standard as they went along.

While it is true that all the features of the Caighdeán Oifigiúil, the “Official Standard”, as it became known, were chosen from the real dialects of Irish, this point is nugatory. Standard English is not the product of a bureaucratic attempt to “blend” Southern British English with Cockney, Scouse, Geordie, Lowland Scots and North American English, and a form of English devised in such a way would not be accepted as standard, because it would be contrary to the the literary standard found in the vast majority of English literature. Similarly, while it is accepted that the various experts appointed to the standardisation committee were expert in their dialects, the Standard produced speaks for itself: it was a standard contrary to that found in literature before the 1950s that the committee produced. In addition to a haphazard selection of morphological forms based on four contradictory principles, a little earlier the government had decided to abolish the traditional Gaelic script and reform the spelling of Irish. This masterstroke rendered many forms found in Munster Irish that had traditionally been accepted as correct “spelling mistakes” overnight.

However, the worse feature of the spelling and script form was to push nearly all works in Irish out of print over night. Almost none of the works in Irish produced before the 1950s (that is, produced during the period when large numbers of Irishmen spoke Irish and when monoglot Irish speakers survived) were edited into the modern script and spelling. The only one of the works of Peadar ua Laoghaire available today is Séadna; another 40 or 50 works have simply been deleted from Ireland’s literary culture. None of the works of Pádraig ua Duinnín is available today, other than his dictionary, which has, however, been replaced as the main dictionary of Irish by Niall Ó Dónaill’s dictionary. Thousands of works of literature are no longer available today as a result of the standardisation of the 1950s. The scholarly editions of the Irish Texts Society have not been updated into the new spelling and script. Quite simply the new standard (of morphology, vocabulary, spelling and script) represents a watershed in the Irish language, a dividing line between traditional Irish and Irish that is largely written by non-native speakers today.

Neither is it a valid objection to say that Niall Ó Dónaill was a great native speaker of Irish. So he may have been, but the dictionary he produced was not in fact a dictionary of his native dialect, being a dictionary compiled according to the dictates of the Official Standard, with morphological forms and spellings conflicting with his own native Irish. Even more surprising was the decision to equip this Irish with a new pronunciation, the Lárchanúint, given in the Foclóir Póca. Devised by academics, this is once again a case where all the choices made can be found in some dialect or other, but the overall forms chosen are not the same as the Irish of anywhere or of any real individual native speaker. Think along the lines of Oxford English, crossed with Cockney pronunciation, Scottish pronunciation, Australian pronunciation, etc, and you will get a flavour of the approach. Laughably, the foreword to Foclóir Póca recommends that native speakers adopt this artificially created form of Irish for official occasions.

It is clear that Standard Irish is not a codification of spoken or written Irish as it existed prior to the work of the government-appointed committees of the 1950s. It was something new—and the script and spelling change that pushed nearly everything in Irish out of print facilitated the adoption of the new standard. Whereas English children reading “if he have” in nineteenth-century literature will know this form is not found anywhere today, and whereas forms like “to whom” that they might read in those same books will be known to them as forms still used by an educated minority, Irish children are, as a matter of government policy, never or seldom confronted with traditional Irish. Until recently, the Irish school curriculum required only eleven pages of Munster Irish to be read; this requirement has now been deleted. A tabula rasa, a clean break, has been achieved, and given that nearly all Irish children are native speakers of English only, this means that the standard can be anything the government says it is going to be. It is clear to me that this is not a case of codification of a literary standard already found in the works of the early twentieth century, but of an artificial Standardisation. This is Standardised Irish, not Standard Irish.

It is not necessary for the Irish standard to remain forever the same as the Irish of the early twentieth century, but it is essential for any child being educated through Irish to become as familiar with his literary heritage as an English child is with his. Indeed, if Irish children are to master their literary heritage, the vast majority of the literature they read will be from the period before the standardisation. However, this would conflict with government policy, which is to promote the Irish devised by a committee. The situation is just as if “’e ain’t brought nuffink” were declared by the British government to be standard English and all books saying “he hasn’t bought anything” were taken down from the bookshelves.

So we come back to the point about the relationship between the literary heritage and the linguistic standard. Even if older linguistic forms came to be obsolete in the Gaeltacht dialects, Irish children ought still to receive a grounding in their literature in school. Language is not purely for basic communication, but has social and cultural functions too. Arguably it is because these social and cultural functions are held in Irish society by English today that a made-up standard for Irish has been allowed to be created. It does not really matter what the standard is, because nearly all Irish people are more fluent in English than in Irish, and, after all, the literature they will spend most of their time studying at school is in the English language.

What this means, however, is that the Standard Irish being promoted by the government is a fraud, as English is the true standard of communication in all parts of Ireland. The fact that those who are most passionate about Irish are employed in government jobs translating laws and other documents into Standardised Irish that no one will ever read underlines the pointlessness of nearly everything done in Ireland to promote the Irish language. If Irish schoolchildren cannot read the works of Peadar ua Laoghaire, Pádraig ua Duinnín and the poets of the seventeenth century, then what are they learning it for? For all Irishmen can understand laws and official documents in English, and most native speakers can understand such documents better in English than in Irish. It seems the entire Irish-language revival has become a fraud. One wonders how much longer political support for such nonsense will survive.

Finally, with English the main language of communication in most of the supposed Gaeltacht areas, the pronunciation, vocabulary and syntax of even native-level Irish today is heavily under the influence both of artificial standardisation and the English language. Consequently, the Irish of today cannot be compared with that of earlier decades when large areas containing large numbers of people lived mainly through Irish. The Irish of the early twentieth century forms the last gasp of traditional Irish, and it would be more appropriate for that to form a long-term model for learners in Ireland, even after the Gaeltacht is gone, than the weakened forms of Irish found in the Gaeltacht today, which seem likely to disappear entirely within a generation or two. As currently envisaged by the government, the Irish of the future will find themselves learning a form of Irish that is not traditional and was devised by committee and heavily influenced by the usages of learners in the Galltacht. Why should they kid themselves that this is their traditional culture? For this reason, I am basing my learning of Irish on the Irish of Peadar ua Laoghaire, a man who remembered the days when the Irish language was natural to vast parts of Munster.

Finally, it is not my intention to claim that every feature of Cork Irish is conservative or correct from the point of view of traditional prescriptive grammars. There is no Irish dialect that has not innovated, just as Standard English does not retain all of the features of Early Modern English (such as the word “thou”, which is still found in some Northern English dialects). However, it was a form of Irish seen as prestigious when Irish was spoken by half the Irish population and is continuous with the literary Irish of previous centuries. That for me is Late Standard Irish. What came after it is something entirely different.

9 thoughts on “*Is there such a thing as “good use of language”, and does it matter?

  1. I thoroughly enjoyed your commentary on the present state of English grammar, and also on the orthographical barriers that exist for modern Irish speakers in the appreciation of their national corpus. I am an American of Irish descent, I study Spanish in my University and I have taken an interest in my ancestral language. Please continue to write these interesting articles and know that you have at least one fan, albeit a Yank. Mise do chara go buan!

  2. Is iongnadh liom an méid oibre atá curtha isteach sa suíomh seo agat. Molaim thú as smaointe úra a chur im’ threo. Ceist agam ort. Na scéalta as Aesop, an é PUL a dhein an t-aistriúchán orthu siúd?

  3. Tá an ceart agat, a Phádraig – PUL a chuir an Ghaedhilg ar na Fabhaill atáim ag sgríobh amach ar an suidheamh so.

  4. I recently came across an old introduction to linguistics that defined standard language as that variant of a language which a people uses to express itself culturally. Which makes sense when one considers how many languages base their standard variants off the language used in classic or important works of literature, for instance, translations of the Bible, works by notable poets, etc. This is also why a standard language is usually the variety spoken by educated speakers and used for communication between speakers of different variants. Although dialects might differ, all speakers of the language could be counted on to be familiar with those works. As you said, the problem is that the majority of the important works in modern Irish are in written in Munster Irish, which would normally form the basis for the standard language then, however Munster Irish has been relegated to the status of a “mere dialect”. So in the absence of literary models, what are learners and speakers of Irish supposed to model their language use on?

    • Yes, you’re right. And the Caighdeán Oifigiúil – used by learners in the English-speaking parts of Ireland – does not meet that definition of “standard”. Even worse was how all the works of Peadar Ua Laoghaire were deliberately pushed out of print by the CO – including Séadna until Mac Mathúna’s version came out in the 1980s. Now I see Nua-Chorpas na hÉireann is largely based on the usages of non-native speakers in the Galltacht – a new low for Irish educational standards.

  5. That just really is ridiculous. A few months ago I was in the bookshop in Dingle and out of all the Irish-language books there, there was one copy of Séadna and that was it. Everything else was school books and text books.

    “As a small elite comes to control a new variety of the traditional language equipped with modern terminology suitable for use in new public domains, the original defining group of speakers meanwhile becomes increasingly removed from its language, while committees of experts coin new terms needed for specialized subject areas. Many of the modern textbooks are not understood by native speakers of the language….When the few remaining native speakers deviate from the immersion variety, they are said to be either wrong or influenced by the dominant language.”

    “That the educated middle-classes in long-anglicized Dublin moved to revive and modernize Irish made the remaining native speakers along the rural west coast resent the expropriation of their language by wealthy townspeople, who were not native speakers. They were seen as well-off townspeople who had done well out of the language. The idea that Dubliners should determine what is correct Irish aroused utmost disdain.”

    Both quotes are from Suzanne Romaine “Revitalized Languages as Invented Languages” in “From Elvish to Klingon: Exploring Invented Languages” Oxford, 2011

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