Meet 2 Ottawans working to keep ancient Irish language alive

Ottawans working to preserve and promote the Irish language say it is possible to learn the ancient dialect, but that it poses some unique challenges.

'I think the world is sensitive to minority languages on the brink,' says University of Ottawa professor

Sheila Scott and Danny Doyle are both Gaelic speakers who are working to keep their language alive. (Ryan Tumilty / CBC )

Ottawans working to preserve and promote the Irish language say it is possible to learn the ancient dialect, but that it poses some unique challenges.

"What people find difficult about the language is ... we do a lot of things through idioms, which can be very difficult for people outside the culture to come into," explained Danny Doyle, who teaches Irish — also known as Gaeilge or Gaelic — for the Ottawa Catholic School Board.

"We don't have simple verbs in Irish for to have, to own, to want, to love, to need. We don't have verbs for any these kind of things. So I can't say 'I want a book.' ... We don't have that verb. Instead we construct all these things through idioms. So if I want to say 'I have a book,' I'd say 'a book is at me.'" 

Despite that challenge, Doyle said learning the language helped connect him to his past and see things the way Irish people did generations ago. 

"It's a language I'm quite passionate about because it connects me to ancestors in Ireland that my family have going all the way back to pre-recorded iron age or neolithic history," he said.  "I can confidently look out … at the world and kind of understand it and see it the way that my family has for millennia."

'A fascinating puzzle'

Sheila Scott's parents came to Canada from Ireland in the late 1950s. Her father went to elementary school in Gaelic and her mother learned it in immersion, Scott said.

Scott was smitten with the language in university and ended up doing a PhD in Gaelic relative clauses. She now teaches at the University of Ottawa, helping students parse out the ancient language. 

"Puzzle is a really good word [for Irish] because they do have to fit together. You know, the pieces have to fit together to build a sentence," Scott said.

"There's a certain amount of decoding. It's not a language that people can pick up for a two-week or two-month immersion before they go to Ireland. That's not going to happen. If you can stick with it and not get discouraged, it really is a fascinating puzzle."

Doyle and Scott couldn't provide data on how many people can speak Gaelic, but said the tally can't be very high. 

Doyle noted it's taught in Irish schools the way French is in Ontario, and that the Irish government considers students to be fluent when they graduate. But as with French in Canada, he said, that isn't always the case. 

"In terms of people in Ireland, it's still severely in the minority there."

Gaelic revitalization

Doyle said there have been many attempts over the years to reinvigorate the language in Ireland after British colonization and efforts to "blot out minority cultures."

Recently, there's been a strong push for the government to make Irish as important as English, so that if someone wants to live their life speaking only Irish, they can. Government services would have to be provided in both languages. 

"That's a huge thing," Doyle said. "From my knowledge that's something that's never happened before."

Social media has helped too, he said. People are tweeting in Gaelic and there are some Facebook groups for Irish speakers only, no English allowed. 

Scott believes there's a revitalization happening outside of Ireland as well. 

"There is a lot of interest here in North America. The first generation and second ones want to go and capture that part of themselves," Scott said. 

"I think the world is sensitive to minority languages on the brink," she added. "People have kind of realized that if we are losing these languages, they will be lost forever and there is a need to keep them alive."

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