Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
The last native speaker of Manx, a Gaelic language of the Isle of Man, died in 1974. But many people have learned Manx as a second language. The 1991 Census recorded 643 adults claiming fluency, 479 able to read the language and 343 able to write it. The numbers rose significantly in the 2001 Census, with 1,689 people claiming to be able to speak, read or write the language, rising to 1,823 in the 2011 Census. The first new generation of native speakers, who are bilingual in Manx and English, have now appeared, the children of parents who learned Manx as a second language.
Manx, or Gaelg, is closely related to the Gaelic dialects of Ulster and Galloway (Scotland). It has elements of Norse from the Scottish connection.
By the middle of the twentieth century only a few elderly native speakers remained, but by then a scholarly revival had begun to spread to the populace and many had learned Manx as a second language. The first native speakers are now in school, bilingual Manx- and English-speaking children brought up by Manx-speaking parents. Primary immersion education in Manx is provided by the Manx government: since 2003, the former St John’s School building has been used by the Bunscoill Gaelgagh (Manx-language-medium school). Degrees in Manx are available from the Isle of Man College, the Centre for Manx Studies and the University of Edinburgh. Manx-language playgroups also exist, and Manx-language classes are available in island schools.
From early times the Gaelic-speaking Isle of Man was linguistically and culturally linked with Ireland and Scotland on account of settlers from those regions. It was used by the Vikings as a base for coastal raids, and its traditions and culture have been heavily influenced by its Norse history. The annual open-air assembly held by the Norse to resolve disputes and make announcements survives as the Tynwald, the Manx legislature, which announces new legislation every 5 July.
The Norse period came to an end in 1266 when a treaty between Norway and Scotland handed the island to the King of Scotland, but Scots rule was never consolidated. In 1346 the island came under English jurisdiction, and between 1405 and 1765 it was ruled by the Stanleys, English nobles, and largely cut off from the outside world. Manx Gaelic began to diverge from other Gaelic dialects and borrowed heavily from English.
Manx language and nationalism
The language first appeared in written form in 1610, when the Bishop of Sodor and Mann, John Phillips translated the Book of Common Prayer into Manx using Welsh orthography. But this translation was not published until 1894. Bishop Thomas Wilson used English orthography to translate his Principles and Duties of Christianity into Manx in the early eighteenth century. This orthography continues to be used, with some modifications.
The Manx people were already deeply impoverished and subjected to harsh laws when the 1765 Revesting Act, whereby the island was sold to the British Crown, worsened their situation. There was massive emigration to escape poverty and disease. Immigration from north-west England in the late eighteenth century and English tourism from 1830 further anglicized the island.
The reforms of 1866 established the island’s present status as a Crown dependency, separate from the UK. It was granted the power to set its own taxes and customs duties, and its lower income tax and higher personal allowances, and the absence of capital gains tax, has attracted thousands of wealthy immigrants to the island since 1958, causing housing problems for the indigenous population. In 1964 Mec Vannin, the Manx nationalist movement, was established, to revive and foster Manx culture and work for a fully autonomous and independent Manx state.
The Manx language continued to be the language of the majority of the people of Man until the 1765 Revesting Act; but by the 1840s William Kennish was writing an elegy for the language (‘Lament for the Mother Tongue of the Isle of Man’). As with other national languages, Manx suffered from lack of provision under the Education Act 1870. In 1874 there were 12,000 Manx-speakers, but in 1901 only 4,419. The 1949 Manx Education Act paid little attention to the Manx language; and although Manx has validity in courts of law and business, it had no role in government or administration.
Yn Cheshaght Ghailckagh, the Manx Gaelic Society, was founded in 1899 to maintain and revive the language, and has held night classes and published materials. In the 1950s a group had sought out the remaining native speakers and from them had learnt the language. Sound recordings were made and constitute a valuable archive. In 1979 a Manx-English dictionary was published with support from the government.
The Tynwald, the Manx Parliament, adopted Manx as an official language in 1985. It set up the Manx Heritage Foundation (Undinys Eiraght Vannin) and the Manx Gaelic Advisory Council (Coonceil ny Gaelgey). The latter is standardizing the language and provides authoritative translations into Manx of government documents and public signs. The government also established the Gaelic Broadcasting Committee to increase the amount of Manx broadcast by Manx Radio.
In 1992 the Manx Language Project introduced classes to teach Manx Gaelic as a subject in all the island’s primary and secondary schools. Around 40 per cent of primary school children enrolled to take Manx. In 1997 optional Manx-medium instruction was introduced at a primary school for a half day once a week, funded by the government. A General Certificate in Manx was available to secondary school students and adults from 1998. Manx was used as a teaching medium in playgroups. Sheshaght Ny Paarantyn/The Parents’ Society, which was formed in 1999, petitioned the Department of Education for Manx-medium education. In 2001 regular Manx-medium nursery classes were set up at Ballacottier primary school in Douglas. In 2003 the unit moved to its own nursery and primary school.
In recent years, there has been an increasing appetite for Manx language classes among the population of the Isle of Man, with Manx classes available for children and adults. The number of teachers has increased. Degrees in Manx are available from the Isle of Man College, the Centre for Manx Studies and the University of Edinburgh.
The cultural association Caarjyn ny Gaelgey (Friends of the Manx Language) organizes adult Manx classes and social events. The Manx Gaelic Society publishes Manx-language books, tapes and CD-ROMs, children’s books and literature. It also organizes the annual Cooish/Manx Language Week festival of music and culture held in November. Manx music and dance are also taught in schools as an extra-curricular subject.
Official documents of the Tynwald and government departments are available in Manx and English, but the deliberations of the Tynwald are only in English. Many signs are in both languages, and occasionally only in Manx. The government funds Manx-language courses and education, cultural events and publications. Manx Radio broadcasts segments in Manx.
Updated October 2020
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