In 2014, two British languages, Cornish and Manx, were declared critically endangered. A further two, Guernésiais (Guernsey French) and Jèrriais (Jersey French), are considered severely endangered. Although revival efforts appear to be working to some degree (Cornish was removed from UNESCO’s list of extinct languages in 2010), funding for minority language promotion in Britain is primarily funded by the EU and the British government has not as of yet confirmed whether these programmes will continue.
Even those languages which are less threatened face huge challenges to their revitalisation. In Northern Ireland, Democratic Unionist leader Arlene Foster has fought any attempt to increase the status and teaching of the language in the province. In Wales meanwhile, efforts to teach Welsh in schools have resulted in a doubling of young speakers, but widespread discrimination and the reluctance of English people living in Wales to learn the language means it remains a language of the school and home in many regions. The very fact that these are considered ‘success stories’ reflects the dire situation of minority languages in Britain.
Indeed, aside from the aforementioned, it is unlikely many of you reading could name the nine non-English indigenous languages spoken throughout the British Isles today. Too often they are considered quaint relics of earlier times now facing their inevitable fate. Yet extinction is not the natural consequence of some twisted idea of progress; these languages were driven to the brink through historical oppression, stigmatisation and tyrannical English nationalism.
During the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries Welsh school children were routinely beaten for speaking their mother tongue, while in Scotland both Scottish Gaelic and Scots (indeed a language as opposed to a dialect) were not considered ‘a suitable medium of education or culture’ even after the Second World War. Today, children educated in the medium of Gaelic outperform their counterparts in English proficiency tests, and Auld Lang Syne has become a popular New Year’s song.
Irish Gaelic has been met with ferocious hostility since the first English conquest, with the 1616 Education Act declaring it ‘one of the chief, principal causes of barbarity and incivility’. Speakers have been mercilessly ridiculed since. Cornish however has faced perhaps the most aggressive attacks of any mainland language and was exterminated through successive English invasions and ‘education programmes’.
Yet how can centuries of discrimination and decline be countered. Looking slightly further afield an intriguing case study can be found in what may be an unlikely candidate: Hebrew. Widely regarded as the only language to have experienced a truly successful revival, going from having no native speakers to over five million.
In Biblical times, Jews spoke a more ancient form of Hebrew, which was the spoken language of Jews for around a millennium. Similarly to British minority languages, Hebrew fell out of common usage against a backdrop of oppression. After the destruction of the Second Jewish Temple in Jerusalem and subsequent expulsion and exile of Jews from the Middle East by Hadrian, the Jewish diaspora was forced to adopt local languages in order to survive in society.
At this point, Hebrew became confined to use as a scriptural language. Throughout Europe, the Middle East and North Africa Hebrew was still used for prayer and in religious scholarship, but Jews largely spoke the local language alongside some specific to the community such as Yiddish.
Come the 19th century, most Jewish religious leaders considered Hebrew dead, in the same way Cornish was declared extinct in 2010. It was respected as a religious language by many in the Orthodox community, but little more. It had become as Latin was for other Europeans, an extinct tongue used only by fringe academics and for religious ceremony.
Despite these enormous obstacles and resistance even from high profile Jewish leaders, Eliezer Ben Yehuda took it upon himself to revive the Hebrew language seeing it as vital to creating a common identity for international Jewry to coalesce around, and essential in the formation of a nation.
During his school years he had discovered that Biblical Hebrew was occasionally used as an auxiliary language by Jews without a common language between them. This encouraged his belief that Hebrew could become a viable modern spoken language.
In a case of somewhat experimental child rearing, Ben Yehuda decided to raise his son, Ben Zion, in a Hebrew-only household. Perhaps bizarre, given the context of Hebrew as a language only ever learned in Rabbinic schools, but given Ben Yehuda’s ideological conviction, it was a logical progression of his revival attempts. Indeed, today some people raise their children speaking Esperanto, and another man once attempted the same feat with Klingon, though he did fail.
Ben Yehuda’s efforts however were not in vain. Although he went so far as to ban his wife from speaking Russian to their son and aggressively reprimanded her for singing a Russian lullaby to sooth him, Ben Zion’s first word was Abba – daddy. After his son spoke his first words in Hebrew, Ben Yehuda founded a school using Hebrew as a medium of education and created the Hebrew Language Council. He later set up a Hebrew newspaper, and successive generations created new words as the language became a true vernacular for Jews in Palestine.
Yet, the true explosion in its popularity came after the formation of Israel as a state. Jewish immigrants flocked to Israel after the Second World War and lacking a common language rapidly adopted Hebrew as a means of communication. Within a generation, it had become the first language of almost all Jews in the region, only growing in prestige with successive government initiatives.
As the case of Hebrew demonstrates, we lack not the capability to reverse the trend of minority language decline in Britain, but the political and social will. Perhaps we could start by affording all of these languages, not merely Welsh and Scottish Gaelic, official status as has been done in Norway for Sami. Such a small step would afford speakers wide ranging legal rights protections which are currently non-existent, and allow them to demand bilingual education for their children.
The government could also guarantee continued funding for minority languages in a post-Brexit Britain. This is counter to centuries of political attempts to enforce English as the national language of Britain, yet perhaps now is the time to rejoice in the linguistic pluralism of the nation and prove its openness and tolerance.
Tied up in a language is culture and history and any reduction in linguistic diversity is a great loss to us all. Unity will never arise out of division and centuries of linguistic oppression have only served to further divide people, by deeming one language and therefore national identity superior. In the face of great adversity, in the aftermath of the greatest atrocity of European history, Hebrew achieved renewed status. With a government which cultivates a culture of linguistic pluralism, there is no reason these minority languages cannot be brought back from the brink.
MICHAEL HENDLE (LINGUISTICS EDITOR)