Main Sections
Blog Categories

Manx: Alive and Well?

Kathleen Peck
Prof. Benware
Linguistics 150
Term Paper

Manx: Alive and Well?

Language death is a worldwide phenomenon familiar to every language phyla on every continent. It is observed in areas where dominant forces have invaded, bringing their languages and religions with them. Throughout the last few centuries, this trend has become increasingly popular due to colonization, and thousands of languages are paying the price. One of which that has experienced particular defeat is the entire Celtic family of Northern Europe. Since the Germanic and Slavic invasions, there has been a relatively rapid decrease in Celtic languages, leaving only a few still widely spoken today. Among these are Irish, Scots Gaelic, Welsh, and Breton (Lyovin 47). However, one hundred years ago this group would have also included Manx and Cornish, but have since become "extinct" languages. Manx, nevertheless, is experiencing a revival effort in hopes that the Isle of Man may preserve some of its heritage through language. These efforts include a number of publications and education programs instilled in the community to bring Manx back to daily use. Through many surges of enthusiasm and success, and numerous failures, the Manx language revival has made significant gains in bringing child speakers into the language so that it might be carried on to further generations.

The Manx language began as a dialect of Irish Gaelic that first appeared as a written language in the 17th century, but is known to date back as a spoken language as early as the 5th century. Bishop Phillip first recorded it as a prayer book in 1610, as part of the church's effort to spread Christianity to the native islanders. For this reason, Manx is written phonetically in English characters, instead of using the traditional Gaelic alphabet. A description of the language makes the point that "if Manx, like Scottish Gaelic, had had the good fortune to preserve, in a suitably modified and modernized form, the traditional system of Gaelic orthography, the close kinship between [Manx and Scottish] would be obvious" (O'Rahilly 78),Manx originated from the Irish settlers of the island in the first few centuries of this millennium and was passed down through oral tradition until first recorded by the monks. In fact, early recorded Manx was entirely church affiliated until just over two centuries ago. This was due in part to the lack of literacy by the islanders, and also because most legalities were carried out in the governing languages of other states, such as in English or French. For this reason the only funding for printing was awarded by the church, because the offshore aristocracy did not find reason to donate money to a cause that would not benefit them. In addition to the foreign rule, and despite its use in the legal system, Manx has never enjoyed official status; while the proceedings were conducted in Manx, all records were kept in either English or rarely Latin. As a result, many legal proceedings changed from being conducted in Manx to English, making the process of translation simpler. Only a few legal terms still remain in the court system after the installment of English as the primary means of record keeping (Stalmaszczyk). In fact, in 1859 Reverend W. Gill stated, "the decline of the spoken Manx within the memory of the present generation has been marked. The Language is no longer heard in our courts of law...and is entirely discontinued in most of the Churches" (Corran). The tendency towards English in all legal matters paved the path for what would eventually become an entirely English-speaking island.

After the introduction of foreign English-speaking rule, a series of steps followed to the slow extinction of Manx. For instance, in 1872 England enforced the English Elementary Education Act of 1870, providing for compulsory education in English (Broderick 22). In addition to the English education of native Man children, immigrant children were also taught English in the home in view of the fact that Manx was no longer of any use on the island, and had little means for advancement in life. A writer for the Manx Advertiser even went as far as saying:

What better is the gibberish called Manx than an uncouth mouthful of coarse savage expressions, as distant from any degree of civilized sound as that of the Kamskatcadales is from the classic beauty of one of the orations which grace the first orators of the British senate? Such a jargon is Manx" (Broderick 28).

As a result of such negative positions surrounding the Manx language from the British government, English overthrew the country as the primary means of teaching.

Other than education, reasons for the adoption of English include socio-economic and trade problems as well. Being such a small island, Man relies on a number of imports to sustain its inhabitants. This entails doing business with the outside world, primarily Britain. Many of the citizens living in the more urban areas of Man were required to be bilingual in order to import and to trade with the locals. During the 19th century this created a language separation between the urban and rural areas, since rural farmers did not need to learn English to conduct their daily business. A letter to the editor of The Manx Sun states:

It is well known that in the principal shops in Douglas it is found absolutely necessary to employ a person conversant with the Manx language to transact business with country customers, and I have lately heard a Douglas tradesman declare that one half of the people resorting on Saturdays to the shop, in which he serves, were unable to ask for what they wanted in English (Broderick 30).

Therefore, it was not until city traders began to use primariiy English in commerce that a push for English was necessary for the entire island (Broderick 23). This shift towards English in the work place led to the establishment of the major cities on the island in areas where English had become predominant. Consequently, the legalities of the island and the trade commerce forced a language shift towards English, leaving the Manx language to suffer.

Once Manx began to dwindle in the shadow of English, the transition was rapid. In 1875, 12,350 people spoke Manx in a population of 41,000, 190 of which spoke no English. Only twenty-five years later the numbers were a fraction the size, with only 4,598 Manx speakers, and to a mere 165 people in 1961 (Corran 83). With numbers so drastically decreasing in speakers, it seems obvious that there was a great disinterest in saving the language, specifically when citizens could be found saying, "Much as I regret to think of the day when the grand and sonorous lahguage of Ellan Vannin [Isle of Man) will be no more heard, feel that I must prefer the practical to the sentimental in its disappearance" (Broderick 174). However, this sort of apathy was not the only reaction towards the language loss. In 1899, in recognition of the problem at hand, the Manx Language Society was founded, sworn to uphold the patriotism, cultivation of Manx language and culture, and the publication of modem literature in Manx (Broderick 74). With the establishment of the language society, efforts toward the revival of the Manx language began to unfold.

The revival efforts spearheaded by the YCG (Manx Language Society) were modeled after a similar campaign being run in Ireland in order to save the culture and language there. The first phase of their labors was to make Manx widely available to the public. This included setting up classes, holding lectures and encouraging those who knew Manx to speak it regularly (8aI1654). It also consisted of running a weekly Manx column in the Manx Examiner, in order to make the language accessible in its written format because that was the most foreign source to the general public. The YCG also made an attempt to bring the language in to the schools. However, the decision to teach Manx was left to the individual schools' discretion, and after a short time of weekly half-hour lessons, it was again withdrawn from the schools (Ball 655). After the failure in the school system in 1913, the society lost momentum for a number of years up until 1930.

In 1930, the society was revived with a boost of enthusiasm as part of the second phase lasting up until the outbreak of the Second World War. Mona Douglas, a Manx folklorist, and J.J. Kneen, a Scholar of the Manx language, were both interested in preserving and recording as much of the Manx that was left, and led the revival. The society's efforts even received help from Nazi forces interested in gaining access to the area for political reasons (Ball 657). However, their efforts were abruptly halted at the end of the war, with little funding to maintain their exploration of Manx, and lead to the final phase of the Manx revival.

The third and final phase has had the most bearing and the greatest degree of influence on the current status of the language. However, this period, from about 1950 to present, has also suffered the greatest disadvantage, losing the last of the language's native speakers. In 1974, the last native speaker of Manx, Ned Maddrell, passed away. and with this the language of Manx was officially declared extinct. However, while extinct in a scholarly sense, the language had not died by any means, thanks to the efforts of the YCG. In the years preceding Maddrell's death, the language society had organized monthly meetings, changing pub venues, where people interested in practicing the language could come and speak Manx. On occasion Maddrell was even invited to lend his expertise on the matter. These meetings eventually were transformed to Saturday night folklore celebrations with music, dancing, and speaking all in Manx in the central bar of Peel. Around the same time, the government appointed Alun Davies as the new Director of education in charge of language revival. His duties included making Manx widely available through radio, books, newspapers and language classes. In the mid 1980s, the government even produced four Manx documentaries and one bilingual in English and Manx, offering all of these works for public viewing (Ball 658). The largest accomplishment towards the reinstatement of Manx was made in 1982 with the creation of the '0' level test, which required preparation through night classes at the College of Further Education in Man. Those who passed the test were awarded Manx teaching licenses, and were able to teach the language to grade school children. Although the program was not as successful as hoped, it did license three teachers, enough to teach one half-hour class at each of the elementary schools weekly. However, that program too had little support and was soon changed to optional weekly club meetings for students that were interested in the subject from ages 5 to 19 (Broderick 182). After two years, 147 children under the age of twenty declared a command of the language, illustrating a positive movement for the program in reviving Manx (Stalmaszczyk 192). In a 1991 state census, 643 people claimed an ability to speak the language. So although the success rate is slow, the school programs in Manx are showing a slow increase in enthusiasm and in number of speakers, demonstrating that Manx is far from extinct.

Through the trials of being a minority language in most of the countries recent history, Manx has not died completely. England's efforts during the 19th century to bring English into the island as its primary form of communication, among locals and international trade, were successful in nearly removing Manx it all of its forms. However, due to the nation's sense of pride and patriotism, efforts from the YCG stopped its annihilation through publication and education. As a result, Manx is living in a revival effort to keep the island's culture alive in the the youth. So the nation's wish for its language might be "Slaynt As Shee As Eash Dy Vea Erriu" or "health and peace and length of days to you" (Corran 126).