Last week I had a Twitter discussion with writer and translator Seanán Ó Coistín, who in an opinion piece in The News Letter, a major newspaper in Northern Ireland, claimed that ‘the Irish language is almost a millennium older than English’. It irritated me and I responded, in the less than gentlemanly tone that Twitter from time to time brings out in me: ‘Can we PLEASE stop claiming that language X is older than language Y? Hardly ever makes sense.’
And it doesn’t. Languages, except the artificial ones such as Esperanto and Klingon, simply don’t have an age. The best we can do is distinguish stages and identify some historic and prehistoric milestones.
Old Irish words have been written since the sixth century; Archaic Irish was carved into stone even earlier. Its speakers came to Britain and Ireland some five or more centuries BCE, and Proto-Celtic must have been spoken on the continent even longer ago. And so it goes on, all the way back to Proto-Indo-European, dating to several thousand years BCE.
A similar story can be told about English: first written in the seventh century, after arriving from the continent in the fifth, as an offspring of Proto-Germanic, which is just another descendant of Indo-European. In a word, English and Irish arguably share a common cradle and a common birthday – though we could also argue that they’re both as old as human speech, for Proto-Indo-European wasn’t the first word in language either.
During their long separation, Irish and English have changed beyond all recognition. The earliest writings are incomprehensible to modern speakers. And while it’s true that the Celts arrived in the islands well before the Anglo-Saxons, does that make their language older? It’s not as if either people upon pulling their ships ashore decided to start speaking something new.
All this is a story often told and I’m sorry to be boring you if you’ve heard it before, as I’m sure Seanán has. But then why does he claim Irish is older? He was provoked. The agent provocateur was a Unionist (I always have to remind myself that Unionists are those opposed to the union of the island), one Davy Wight. Two days before, he had claimed in the same newspaper that ‘the very concept of an Irish language is a wholly political construct’ launched in 1943. Now that’s a shrewd debating trick of Davy, because he’s right in a way – but in an irrelevant way. He’s right because the standard language as taught in Irish schools today is indeed a modern artefact, hand-crafted out of the dialects; not quite as recently as 1943, but certainly not longer ago than the late 19th century. At the same time, the statement is also irrelevant: all national languages of Europe have grown out of regional dialects as a result of political developments, some with little state intervention (such as English, German and Italian), most of them with a good deal of it. Irish is a bog-normal language in this respect.
There, that is, to my mind, the correct rebuttal to Davy, and he surely deserves as much rebuttal as his butt can take. To Seanán, on the other hand, whatever he thinks of the above, I’d like to say ‘thank you’ for responding with more civility than I invited.
Update: Seanán has also followed up with a blogpost, The age of the Irish language. We still disagree, but at least we understand why. And he no longer thinks that I’m a conservative Unionist.