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The fight against the homogenisation of the British Isles

Douglas, on the Isle of Man - Credit: Getty Images

PETER TRUDGILL on the language of the Isle of Man, and its rearguard action against the linguistic homogenisation of the British Isles

If you have ever been to Ellan Vannin – the Isle of Man – you will know that from the shores of that beautiful island it is possible to see Ireland, Scotland, England and, on a clear day, the mountains of North Wales.

It is no surprise, then, that over the centuries Man has received linguistic influences from many different parts of the British Isles.

The earliest language we know about on the island was Brittonic Celtic, the language ancestral to Welsh and Cornish – which was also spoken all over the Isle of Man’s large eastern island neighbour, Britain.

This remained the native tongue of the island until the arrival of a group of settlers from the Isle of Man’s other major island neighbour to the west, Ireland.

During the 400s AD, Gaelic speakers from Ireland started migrating eastwards across the Irish Sea, founding Irish-speaking settlements in coastal areas of Scotland, Wales and England.

The settlements in Wales and Cornwall were relatively short-lived, but on the Isle of Man and in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, Gaelic eventually became the dominant and, after a while, only language.

Then, in about 800 AD, another language arrived on the Isle of Man – this time from the north. This was the Old Norse of the Vikings, who had made their way from Shetland and Orkney down through the Hebrides and along the west coast of Scotland to the Irish Sea.

The Isle of Man became a bilingual Norse-Gaelic-speaking area, as did the Outer Hebrides, the Kintyre Peninsula, Galloway, and the coasts of Ireland. The Isle of Man came under the control of the Scandinavian Lords of the Isles and then the Norwegian crown, but in 1266 the Norwegians sold control of the island to Scotland.

Old Norse eventually disappeared from Man, leaving Manx Gaelic as the sole language of the island, but traces of Old Norse remained in the form of toponyms – many place-names on Man are of Scandinavian origin.

Laxey, a village on the east coast, derives from the Norse for ‘salmon’, Modern Norwegian laks. Ramsey comes from Old Norse hrams-á, ‘wild garlic river’ – in Modern Norwegian it would be Ramså. The name of the highest mountain, Snaefell, comes from the Old Norse for ‘snow mountain’, Modern Norwegian Snøfjell. Ronaldsway, the site of the airport, is derived from the male given name Rognvaldr plus vágr (modern Norwegian våg) ‘bay, inlet, harbour’. 

Subsequently, military conflicts between Scotland and England led to the island coming under English control, from the 14th century. (Today the Isle of Man is not part of the UK but is a self-governing British Crown dependency.)

Although the Manx language is a variety of Gaelic which is in some ways more like Irish, in others closer to Scottish Gaelic, this domination by England led to a weakening of cultural ties to traditional Gaelic culture; and when Manx first started to be written down, the orthography owed more to English than to traditional Gaelic: Gaelic athair, ‘father’, and, màthair, ‘mother’ are spelt ayr and moir in Manx.

By 1700, Manx Gaelic was still the dominant language of the Isle of Man, with many of the inhabitants not being able to understand English, but the proportion of the population who could speak Manx declined rapidly during the 1800s, with the census of 1901 showing only 4,400 speakers of Manx, a mere 9% of the population. By 1921, that figure had dropped to about 1%.

The last Manx native speaker died in December 1974, but people who learnt the language from him directly or, more recently, indirectly, have maintained the use of the language, with some of them being fluent speakers. And happily, it is possible today to take GCSE and A-level courses in Manx.

It is good to know that the people of the Isle of Man are not succumbing to the linguistic homogenisation of the British Isles without putting up a fight.

Athair

The consonant p in the ancient Indo-European language changed to f in the language ancestral to the Germanic languages, which why Latin pater is father in English and far in Norwegian. But in the Proto-Celtic language this original p disappeared altogether, giving athair, ‘father’, in Gaelic and ayr in Manx.

What do you think? Have your say on this and more by emailing letters@theneweuropean.co.uk